When we talk about cities (as we so often do, you and I), what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Bustling streets, filled with a steady flow of pedestrians wearily side-stepping students trying to get you to give £2 a month to the PDSA? Motorists trying desperately to beat the next set of traffic lights? An atmosphere alive with the blasting sirens of emergency services, laughter and the mouth-watering aromas of a variety of foods?
For me, it’s the skylines: the jagged, rounded, bumpy, lumpen, geometric beauty that you can only really appreciate – like the parts of any great machine – when you’re observing it from a distance.
Skylines are statements of urban intent, beacons that call out to companies, advertising opportunities for symbiosis: we’ll give you a great place to work and live, you feed our economy.
A city can be – and often is – defined by its skyline, acting as a visual shorthand for a destination, anchored through one or two instantly recognizable silhouettes. The logo for the sitcom Frasier (ask your parents, kids) was a doodle of the Seattle skyline, complete with Spaceneedle; Paris has the Eiffel Tower; London is boxy Big Ben and the supple spike of the Shard; while San Francisco has the Transamerica Pyramid.
Skylines can feel organic, shaped by centuries of trends, technological innovations and visionary architects, creating a mishmash of styles and shapes living together cheek-by-jowl. Some of the best vistas in Birmingham come from the juxtaposition of historic brick and gleaming glass, sitting alongside one another: just look at the bulging mercurial edifice of the Selfridges building at the Bullring, facing-off against the serene medieval stone spire of St Martin’s church.
So you can probably imagine how pleased I was to hear that Birmingham City Council is considering relaxing its existing policy framework on tall buildings. ‘Tall’ by the definition of the city council, incidentally, is classed as any building over 15 storeys, or that is ‘significantly higher than the other buildings in its context’.
The Council thankfully isn’t looking to initiate a development free-for-all – cities, after all, need guidelines such as these, particularly when operating within an historic and well developed environment.
But they have taken the view on two recent applications in particular that, despite not falling within the preordained zones acceptable for the delivery of tall buildings in Birmingham – essentially the elevated sandstone ridge that runs from Five Ways to Lancaster Circus – they justify those times when the guidance offered by policy should be put to one side in favour of a bigger picture.
Widely publicized, the proposed 26 storey, 270 ft tall Bloc Hotel on Hill Street, adjacent to the main entrance to John Lewis, and the similarly-scaled residential tower as part of the redevelopment of Smallbrook Queensway demonstrate the need to operate within a framework without always applying the letter of the law.
As well as the aesthetic, there needs to be consideration given to what these buildings will bring to the table on economic and social levels.
Both of these buildings will form significant contributions to Birmingham’s ongoing growth and development, providing some much needed investment into previously underutilised parts of the city. They could well play the role of catalyst, kickstarting new development and investment and beginning the process of connecting the city’s existing pockets of development to create a more fluid synergistic environment.
The “high places” guidelines provide a sensible and necessary outline on the placement, context, impact and appearance of tall buildings in Birmingham, but a number of recent examples of planning applications have been sensibly considered and allowed, even though they sit contrary to its advice.
However, a lot has changed in the 13 years since this policy was established and while it provides a considerable relaxation over 1991’s Birmingham Urban Design Study, the sheer volume of interest in developing high density residential and commercial developments in Birmingham has left it somewhat behind.
A city’s skyward growth can be instigated by ambition, vision or necessity as the cost of land and demand for space in urban centres continue to rise and, with an increasing interest in Birmingham as a commercial destination, we need to ensure that we have the flexibility to think in three dimensions and be prepared to consider the bigger picture, considering the city as a whole and not just of one small allocation of land.
And let’s be honest: we could probably do with adding a few more tall buildings to the Birmingham skyline.