The Grand Designs of Birmingham

Kevin McCloud has found himself in hot water over comments about Brum in the past. Sensing an amusing controversy, Jon Card asks him to discuss the city’s major buildings

 “Every time I come to Birmingham I get into trouble. I’ll have to be careful about what I say,” says Kevin McCloud. The TV presenter from Channel 4′s popular home improvement programme, Grand Designs, is not a man known for holding his tongue, particularly when it comes to his favourite subject, architecture. And Birmingham is always a contentious area for those passionate about design. Many a bad word has been said about the city, primarily due to the disastrous changes which it underwent during the 1960s. However, the city has undergone an architectural overhaul in the past decade, so we put McCloud on the spot and ask him to consider the Grand Designs of Birmingham, once again.


 Subjecting a city to enormous redevelopment is risky, says McCloud, as you risk losing part of the story. He stops short of saying that Birmingham Central Library should remain, but says he thinks Brum should preserve more of its ‘brutalist’ architecture. “The old library is unloved and I am not saying it should be saved, but we should be careful about what we do with our architecture. If you keep tearing down buildings, that’s when cities die. It’s about taste and perspective. People have done this before – we bulldozed Victorian streets to make way for new buildings. Tudor buildings were torn down in the past and replaced with new architecture. There’s nothing to say that in 20 years’ time people won’t say: ‘what about that great generation of brutalist buildings from the 1970s?’

 For McCloud, a modern city is always a patchwork of different buildings and contrasting styles. He says planners always want to make everything homogenous, but that this is a mistake which denies the true story of a city. “The analogy I give is that cities are like books, the buildings give a narrative, and looking at them is like time travel. You can use the buildings to make sense of it all, but when you start taking out the chapters, the story stops making sense.”

 So, what of the new library, which will be complete towards the end of 2013? It has its critics, particularly from those who feel its £170m price tag could be better spent elsewhere. Initially, McCloud slammed it, but he says he coming around. “I was less than keen when I first saw it; I thought there was something superficial about its skin, and that it was sort of like a giant square lampshade. But now I think it’s going to be a quite exciting place. The patterns on the exterior now are far more erudite and they rewind back to Islamic pattern making.


 The demolition of the old library and surrounding buildings will make way for a whole new development, the plans for which have recently been revealed. The existing Paradise Circus is far from appealing, and the new development could herald a bright new chapter for the centre of the city. “The new work is an attempt to correct the problems of the past. If it works, it will be fantastic,” says McCloud.


 At the top of Birmingham’s current list for redevelopment is New Street Station, and McCloud recalls an experience to which all too many of us can relate. “I was marooned there once, years ago, and it was the waiting room from hell. It was real purgatory – there was nowhere nice to sit or to wait, it’s all dark and underground and really was one of the worst stations in the world.” But will the new development deliver? The answer is it can, if there is some originality and forethought brought to its interior spaces. “I am looking forward to the new place, although I hope it is more than just 500 coffee shops. I would like there to be more varied places.”


 McCloud loves The Cube, citing it as a real architectural achievement, but why has the place failed to capture the imaginations of Brummies? “It was designed before the recession as a mixed-use building with retail, offices and workshops. The problem is that there isn’t much retail in it, and what makes great architecture is the people who use it,” he says. “I like the way it is all square on the outside and all wriggly and nestlike on the inside. I think it is an exciting building and its time will come. It provides a great view of the city and there aren’t many places where you can get that.”


 Our chat ends at the start of the regeneration journey: the space-age Selfridges building which landed in Digbeth at the start of the 21st century, spelling the shape of things to come. “It did its job magnificently,” admits McCloud. “It’s an ‘I am here’ building. It got everyone talking and sent out a big, single statement to the world that Birmingham is doing something amazing.”

Kevin McCloud will be appearing at Grand Designs Live at Birmingham's NEC on October 12-14