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AGENDA: Our buildings need the respect they deserve; Some of the world's most successful modern architects have been shortlisted to help create two key city landmarks. Here Aidan Ridyard, of Broadway Malyan architects, explains why it is important the projects get the respect they deserve.

Byline: Aidan Ridyard

These are exciting times for Birmingham. Take a stroll around the city centre and there are cranes towering around every corner as its transformation continues apace. But this is just the entree; the main course is yet to come.

Over the next five or so years, two of Birmingham's most important buildings are set to be reborn.

New Street Station will get the facelift it has been crying out for and the Central Library is almost certainly going to move from its current site at Paradise Circus to a new building elsewhere in the city.

This is an almost unprecedented opportunity for Birmingham.

There is almost pounds 800 million committed to these two projects alone and the scope of what can be achieved is enough to make the hairs of any architect stand on end.

There are few other buildings so symbolically important to a city with the aspirations of Birmingham.

In New Street Station we have the city's biggest billboard while the Central Library sits at the heart of Birmingham's status as a centre of learning.

So while there has been a frustrating amount of prevarication to get to the position the city now finds itself, those in charge of these projects are to be congratulated for the seriousness with which they are now taking forward the design stage.

Making a clear statement of intent, the lead partners in these projects have shortlisted some of the world's best known architect practices to come up with the designs that are going stop us in our tracks.

Make no bones about it; this is a world-class line up.

Having recently been to see a project by one of the shortlisted teams, the Mercedes Benz Museum in Stuttgart, I can testify that they can create phenomenally good buildings.

All we ask is that this project is taken with the seriousness it deserves.

Now I'm not suggesting for a minute that these practices would not give these two projects due consideration but Birmingham may not be the centre of their universes.

We don't want a trophy building that will go out of date very quickly, a building of no substance.

It has to have a solid foundation to cling on to which is more than just what the building looks like.

The buildings need to mean something to Birmingham.

The trouble with trophy buildings is that it will go anywhere and have no link to their location.

Like a designer kettle, it will look better in a designer kitchen but will essentially go anywhere.

Selfridges in many people's mind is the ultimate trophy building but is actually anything but. The disks which are used to create the unique skin of the building actually originate from automotive technology, one of the very industries on which Birmingham's manufacturing heritage is built - they were made by a couple of retired guys in West Bromwich who used to make hub caps for Rover.

What Birmingham has always had is an enthusiasm to reinvent itself, from the Victorian grandeur to the concrete bunker, from Spaghetti Junction to the NEC - there is a willingness to take on and embrace the new. The weakness is that previously the city has not been designed by the best whereas the difference we have here is that these practices are the best in the world.

Some of these practices have recently completed new stations in Germany that show up much of what the UK can offer.

There is a certain expertise available that could revolutionise this crucial gateway into Birmingham. But to make this connection to the city takes time.

A weekend sojourn to Birmingham and then disappearing back to Madrid or New York or Sydney is not going to be good enough.

It can't have escaped notice that there is an international flavour to the practices on these two shortlists.

It's not that there is a lack of architectural talent in the UK, far from it - but British architecture in the UK is in danger of plateauing.

I say in the UK as British architects are still doing great things, but often abroad as the recent Sterling Prize testified. On the continent there is a different kind of patronage.

In the UK we are part of the "PFI generation" where price has become the driving factor and designers have felt like they can't stray from the conventional.

Design has become all about function without any aspiration.

Look at the wrangling that marred the design and construction of the new national stadium, the discussions were all about cost and then the contractor messed it up.

And the new Wembley is still not a patch on its Paris equivalent which was done at a fraction of the cost.

Now is our chance to have a city that inspires and enthuses.

In the past we have always been a city of pioneers.

The industrial revolution that made Birmingham into a global powerhouse was a triumph of innovation and design. The brutalist concrete architecture of John Madin, of which Birmingham Central Library is one of the city's last remaining examples, may no longer be in vogue but was cutting edge in its time.

This is Birmingham's chance to set a new example to the rest of the UK, to change what we are prepared to accept in terms of building design. Birmingham could be the pioneer in creating a design culture like cities such as Stuttgart, the home of companies like Mercedes and Porsche and some of Europe's finest modern buildings.

As a city, Stuttgart is like Birmingham in so many ways, in terms of where it came from but in terms of design the two cities are almost polar opposites. There is a culture of design first, not, be afraid first.

We've got it wrong so many times and now is our big chance to get it right. And there is hope. I walked into a bookshop in Stuttgart and the first book I saw was about the Best Buildings in Europe - and on the front cover was a picture of our own Selfridges.

CAPTION(S):

Aidan Ridyard director of Broadway Malyan architects; Mercedes Benz Museum in Stuttgart, designed by Broadway Malyan; Birmingham's 1970s Central Library
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 11, 2008
Words:1034
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