Birmingham has always struggled with its image – its brutalist architecture gazing down on a network of ring roads, underpasses and flyovers criss-crossing the city centre, seldom endearing itself to locals or visitors. Indeed fierce criticism flowed freely and frequently and often from the highest echelons. Something had to be done.
The first signs of the city’s rebirth came with the regeneration of Broad Street, Brindleyplace and the canal area in the 1990s, which gave rise to the International Convention Centre and Symphony Hall. And now a new building boom in Birmingham looks set to propel the city forward to an exciting new era which began with the award-winning blobitecture of the Selfridges Building, the redevelopment of New Street Station and the new Library of Birmingham.
One of Birmingham’s biggest cheerleaders is Midlands-born architect Marcus Claridge, who runs Claridge Architects with his wife Pam in north London. Claridge strongly believes that to tap into the city’s rich pool of young talent, you need to encourage them to come into the city centre to live.
His company has a number of projects in a city he calls a sleeping giant. These include Soho Loop – a new neighbourhood in Birmingham, and the luxury, mixed-use, 400-unit Timber Yard development with residential units, and ground-floor commercial space. “One of the things I have seen about Birmingham, more than anything, is that it got left behind,” says Claridge. “It is the second city and a prosperous city. Things kind of stopped and no-one spoke about or looked at Birmingham.”
Big companies are now seeing the value of relocating to the city, which has the youngest population in Europe. HSBC has its new head office here, Deutsche Bank has already expanded its operation in the city, Channel 4 is seriously considering a move and on top of that, the city will host the Commonwealth Games in 2022. Not to mention HS2 – the high-speed railway that will connect the city with London in 49 minutes.
During the period of stagnation, rival cities such as Manchester and Bristol began to steal a march on Birmingham economically and culturally but Claridge believes Birmingham is strongly placed to reclaim its second city tag: “The city has grown so much recently that I think it is going to outstrip Manchester by a long way in terms of what it is offering, in terms of living accommodation, work and transport links.”
Brum is buzzing again and planners are getting excited. As Claridge explains: “Birmingham is the one city in the UK above London where planners are saying to us ‘it’s incredible what is going on there – we can’t believe the change’. Others are now saying ‘we want the momentum that Birmingham has got’, whereas six months ago they were saying ‘we want the momentum that London has got’.”
But there is still more work to be done. According to Claridge, just a tiny proportion of people live in central Birmingham at around 15% – compared to the million-plus people in the greater Birmingham area.
“That is the big change we are going to see,” he says. “City vibrancy is a really interesting concept in terms of the 24-hour process, from people waking up in the morning, doing some exercise, having a coffee, going into work, going out for lunch, going back to work, going for drinks, going for supper and then ending up back in their apartment – that is a key element of what Birmingham doesn’t have.”
Central to Claridge Architects’ success has always been its ability to create a supportive, family-like culture at the practice, which has had a hugely positive impact on morale and staff retention. “There are architectural practices that flog their guys to death,” he says, “but that is not what we do. We’ve got a young family ourselves so we feel you’ve got to be flexible, you’ve got to give time, energy and support to staff in the same position.”
An absolute cornerstone of striking that work-life balance that enables parents to continue being responsible and supportive is having access to good quality, low-cost childcare. The Radical Childcare Initiative in Birmingham is calling for a major overhaul of the system and a brand new approach to how childcare is perceived.
Amy Martin, who leads the project and is creative director of community space Impact Hub, where it is based, explains: “We are looking at childcare from the lens of the system. Childcare is a very gendered work force. Around 98% of childcare workers are women, many of them earn less than the national minimum wage and are tasked with looking after our children. We want to explore getting childcare workers a living wage and making it a less gendered work force.”
The other facet the initiative is challenging is the transactional nature of childcare. In other words, putting less emphasis on coming to a setting and depositing children and then leaving, and instead encouraging how childcare can be “relational” – involving parents more in childcare where they can perhaps club together to organise their provision.
“We are also in favour of moving childcare away from being a for-profit organisation,” Martin concludes. “We don’t think care should be for profit. We would have to have more subsidy from the government, just as other Western European governments put money into childcare. It’s strange that our education system starts at four or five, when children start learning as soon as they come out of the womb.”
With the Radical Childcare ethos in mind, Martin has already set up a creche at the Birmingham Impact Hub, with a view of rolling it out citywide and beyond. It is indicative of a city teeming with entrepreneurial spirit and people with big ideas to help bridge the gap between work and family life.
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Somewhere after its 1990s regeneration, Birmingham got left behind. But now, with the coming of HS2 and a surge of buildings, it is reclaiming its role as England’s second city