Birmingham's £6bn makeover

Britain's new architectural hot spot is Birmingham and it's handing £6bn to a thundering horde of architects to prove it. First up, in a £193m scheme, Europe's biggest library, care of the acclaimed Dutch designers Mecanoo. And even the sky isn't the limit for Birmingham's architectural ambitions. The mere ether above the Bullring is not good enough for Brum's director of planning, Clive Dutton: "We're going to illuminate Spaghetti Junction – you'll be able to see it from space!"

Suborbitally, 25 floors up in the Alpha Tower overlooking the modern urban landscape of the 19th century's "workshop of the world", Dutton is riffing on the huge architect-led schemes that will set Britain's self-proclaimed Second World City apart – and particularly from London, whose inhabitants traduce Birmingham as a metropolis that hasn't got over being described as a village called Bremeingaham valued at 20 shillings in the Domesday Book.

Dutton is, charmingly and irrefutably, a can-do beatbox with extraordinary figures and visions of the future: a £2.4bn makeover of all 89 secondary schools in Birmingham, by a multi-practice team led by British architecture's latest spotlight kid, Deborah Saunt; New Street Station's £620m refurbishment by bendy-thingers Foreign Office Architects; a new £81m magistrates' court by the hip Australian practice Denton Corker Marshall; the V Building tower by Eric Kuhne Civic Arts, those wonderful folks who gave us Bluewater; the Cube mixed-use building by Ken "The Pen" Shuttleworth's practice, Make; and the £400m Arena Central development, designed by HOK. Schemes such as these are expected to create a wildfire of private investment, boosting the city's £6bn regeneration stake with a further £11bn.

And these are only the headline projects: more than 20 others are either on site, or in design phases. Dutton declares: "We want 10 of the world's best architects to work in Birmingham. We're talked about as Britain's second city. We don't like that. We're a world city. A lot of cities have their shtick – Liverpool, City of Culture, Manchester's got the brand of its football club. In Birmingham, it's regeneration.

"Birmingham's the equivalent of a FTSE-100 company, with a £3.5bn annual budget. We think we know what's best for Birmingham. Our Big City Plan isn't a planner's plan. It's a never-ending plan, spawning ideas and themes through public consultation, the like of which has never been seen before." And the beat goes on: "The Big City Plan is economic cycle-proofed... Bonded development... We're going to give Birmingham a river... We'll create three new towns in the inner city... It's long overdue, it's profound."

Dutton says long-term regeneration depends on Birmingham being "re-imaged" with world-class architecture. It's telling that the city council's list of "notable developments" mentions only five projects: the Rotunda, a cylindrical 1960s high-rise shazammed into apartments by Urban Splash; the £35m refurbishment of the Town Hall; the Millennium Point science and education centre; the Mailbox mixed-use development; and the supersized sequinned girdle known as Selfridges. Of these, only the rough, radiant marble of the Romanesque 1834 Town Hall can be safely described as an architectural delight.

Dutton insists that Mecanoo's library and Rep theatre complex "will be the most important public building in Birmingham for a century". Just as Richard Rogers' earlier library scheme was supposed to be, before it was dropped.

A day after meeting Dutton, I'm in Mecanoo's Delft office, running my fingers over a model of the new library. Am I touching something that will "re-image" Birmingham? Mecanoo were key players in the mid-1990s SuperDutch architectural movement, whose mixture of pragmatism, spatial clarity, and graphic and formal asymmetry has informed projects all over the world.

"We want the library to surprise and excite," says Mecanoo's founder and principal, Francine Houben. "When I looked in a tourist guide for Birmingham, there were only two pages, and the only image is Selfridges. I told them they needed coherence. I felt instinctively what we needed to do – not to fly in and say, here's a big architectural icon by Francine or Mecanoo. I wanted it to be a philosophy of the city and and a philosophy of adventure inside the building."

The library's design is essentially about circles and tubes, reflecting two conceptual thrusts: the library as a 21st-century palazzo forming part of a new pedestrian scenography along a key city-centre axis; and the imagery of gasometers, rotundas, and Brum as "the cast-iron city". The library will, in effect, be five massive concrete cylinders stacked asymmetrically, boxed in glass, then sheathed with screens of steel circles which refer to 19th-century craftsmanship in a universal pattern that creates "beautiful shadows".

Externally, the architecture will seem massive and ornate. Inside, Houben's quest for "a dynamic journey of discovery" will probably be fulfilled – the rising asymmetries of the core spaces will see to that. There will be two gardens set into the upper edges of the building, overlooking the city, and she has rightly identified the need to activate the uncannily dreary Centennial Square in front of the library. Here, a big circular hole will be punched down through its surface to a sunken patio with a pond and single tree that will be part of the library's subsurface level. At the top of the building, the city's magnificent Shakespeare archive will float over Prospero's island in the West Midlands. But will it draw as many visitors as Hopkins Architects' Forum, otherwise known as Britain's most visited library?

And is Birmingham over-existing, architecturally? This is a city that contains more than a million people, with a greater metropolitan area of 2.3 million citizens. But its physical coherence has been fractured by the post-war city planning of Sir Herbert Manzoni, and by infrastructure that has produced a collage of urban briquettes. Will big bangs such as the library work for, or against, urban complexity and change?

The library is a hugely important cultural scheme – "a people's palace in a city of many incidents and identities," as Francine Houben puts it. Yet there is surely greater strategic importance in what Dutton says about the more general development of the inner city "with Birmingham neighbourhoods, Birmingham streets, Birmingham buildings". By that, he means very different kinds of buildings, cheek by jowl, a new kind of mixed commercial and domestic milieu featuring fresh approaches to high-density architecture; and at Longbridge, a £750m development will create 1,450 new homes.

These schemes will require design skills of a very different order to those which produce "headline" buildings. Mecanoo will again be involved, no doubt. But if the admirable Clive Dutton is going to be really ambitious about creating a Birmingham that re-energises its "many identities", he will also turn to acutely talented new-wave architects such as Patrick Lynch, Stephen Taylor, Dow Jones, Grafton Architects, and De Metz Forbes Knight – all of whom are capable of lucidly creative, rigorously critical takes on context, history and daily life that don't have to impress astronauts, orbiting Birmingham from outer space.

Arts and Entertainment
The Rolling Stones at the Roundhouse in London in 1971: from the left, Keys, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Mick Jagger

Music ...featuring Eric Clapton no less
Arts and Entertainment
In the dock: Dot Branning (June Brown); Union boss claims EastEnders writers are paid less than minimum wage

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Roger Christian wrote and directed the 1980 Black Angel original, which was lost until 2011

film
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Green (Hand out press photograph provided by Camilla Gould)

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific