Birmingham :
rewriting the city

Passerelle de l’emblématique Selfridges Building. Footbridge at the iconic

Selfridges Building.

Façade victorienne de Custard Factory, transformée en complexe créatif et digital.

Victorian facade of the Custard Factory, converted into a creative and digital business hub.

La photographe, plasticienne et essayiste Ally Standing.

Photographer, visual artist and writer Ally Standing.

Piscine de Moseley Road, redécouverte par le projet Hidden Spaces (à droite).

The Moseley Road swimming pool, rediscovered as part of the Hidden Spaces project (right).

Dans l’atelier d’Ally Standing, au Jubilee Centre.

In Ally Standing’s studio at the Jubilee Centre.

Jack Tasker, l’un des fondateurs de Hidden Spaces.

Jack Tasker, one of the founders of Hidden Spaces.

Quartier résidentiel du sud de Birmingham.

Residential neighborhood in south Birmingham.

L’architecture lumineuse de la bibliothèque municipale. Le centre commercial Grand Central, inauguré en 2015.

The luminous architecture of the public library. The Grand Central shopping center, opened in 2015.

La jeune peintre Emily Sparkes.La bibliothèque de la ville et ses coursives.

Young painter Emily Sparkes. The city’s library with its walkways.

Brindleyplace, le quartier des canaux.

Brindleyplace, in the canals district.

Adam Regan, propriétaire du club Hare & Hounds, dans la salle et son bureau (à gauche et ci-dessus).Adam Regan, owner of the Hare & Hounds, in the pub, and his office (opposite page and above).
Perrott’s Folly, tour au faux air gothique ayant inspiré J. R. R. Tolkien pour le Seigneur des anneaux.Perrott’s Folly, a tower with Gothic touches that inspired J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

SeeTwo, photographie d’Evie Williams, au Hare & Hounds.

SeeTwo, photo by Evie Williams, at the Hare & Hounds.

The metropolis that was once the “workshop of the world” is beginning an exciting new chapter in its urban history.

Step out of New Street Station and look around: it will make your head spin. The imposing Grand Central shopping center, opened less than two years ago, seems to hover over the city like a space station. The sun creates fascinating watercolors on its glass walls. Reflections of the surrounding red-brick walls morph into eye-catching, distorted shapes. Nearby, the Bull Ring, the former historic center redesigned at the start of the millennium, conjures up the same thrill. The bold design of the Selfridges Building, said to have been inspired by Paco Rabanne’s chainmail dresses, is mesmerizing. Its rounded shape and aluminum sheath prompt a guessing game: how to describe it? A futurist vessel (with the parking lot sky bridge for boarding), a metallic cloud, a giant sofa? The gargoyles on the adjoining 19th-century church seem struck dumb before this mystery, one of the many in intriguing Birmingham, England’s second-largest city as well as the country’s best-kept secret.

A space-time mosaic

The most obvious surprise in this Midlands city comes from its unexpected mix of architectural styles and periods. Victorian-era structures and postmodern constructions come together in a fascinating urban symphony that’s punctuated with counterpoints, but never dissonant. A few concrete buildings, survivors from the 1960s and 1970s, represent the Brutalist style. Influenced by Le Corbusier, imported by architects Herbert Manzoni and John Madin, this massive rugged style has nearly dropped out of sight after once being considered the Holy Grail of architecture. In The Closed Circle (2004), novelist Jonathan Coe had foreseen this when he had one of his characters describe the effervescence of “this newly vibrant city which is so busy rebuilding itself, reinventing itself.” After growing up here, he can confirm this revivalwith a touch of melancholy: “Of course I’m nostalgic for the Birmingham of the 1970s, when New Street was just a shabby old railway station, but it would be delusional to deny that the new version is better. Twenty years ago, a similar transformation took place in the canal basin.”

Reading the future

This is how Birmingham drops new­comers into a parallel world, where geometry provides the center of gravity. The public library, a symbol of this separate universe, is a playful compilation of rectangles that seems to shift constantly in the gleaming rays of the sun. Even though Coe sees the earlier library, which was torn down, as “a masterpiece of Brutalism,” he loves the new one: “It’s an amazing building, a beautiful addition to the Birmingham landscape.” Described by its designer, Dutch architect Francine Houben, as “a people’s palace,” the establishment is like a huge box of surprises. Inside, escalators prepare visitors for a journey through an immense rotunda; arranged in circular stacks, the books are displayed in an innovative way.

Despite the sci-fi approach and its slogan (“rewriting the book”), the library is still steeped in history. On the top floor, just above the user-friendly terraces, is a memorial to Shakes­peare, born a few dozen kilometers away. “The building’s exterior is a representation of Birmingham’s industrial past,” says Ian Ward, Deputy Leader of the city council. “There are also references to the still active Jewellery Quarter.”

A treasure map

Three years ago, a group of friends centered around Associated Architects started poking around behind the facades to unearth the forgotten history of the city’s buildings. “It’s fun to see those that coexist with extremely modern structures,” says Jack Tasker of Hidden Spaces. “This mix adds character to the city. Birmingham is not afraid to be different.” One of the first spots showcased by the Hidden Spaces project was in Edgbaston: the Gothic-style Perrott’s Folly, a tower built by John Perrott in the 18th century for no reason other than his own personal pleasure. With its counterpart a bit farther down Waterworks Road, Perrott’s Folly apparently caught the imagination of the future author J.R.R. Tolkien; he lived on the city’s south side as a child. These two monuments are said to have been the inspiration for the Isengard and Mordor towers, while the Moseley Bog nature reserve was the model for the Old Forestall fabled locations in Lord of the Rings. Yet none of these iconic spots is marked. No, Birmingham is not easy to crack. “To get to know it, you have to peel it back and discover its different layers one by one,” sums up James Hall of Associated Architects. Coe confirms: “The city has its treasures, for sure, but it never shouts about them. It prefers people to come and make the discovery for themselves.”

Creative every which way

Digbeth, a neighborhood east of the Bull Ring, illustrates perfectly the balance between heritage and a forward-looking perspective. “It used to be the industrial heart of the city,” explains artist Ally Standing, who has just joined the incubator for artists in the Jubilee Centre. “The spaces in the former factories make ideal artist’s studios.” The Custard Factory, built by the son of Alfred Bird, who invented an egg-free custard, houses studios, start-ups and shops. Each first Friday of the month, Digbeth fills up with people, alternative galleries like Eastside Projects stay open late and the Digbeth Dining Club serves street food. Centrala, a symbol of this interdisciplinary vibe, is a canalside gallery, café, bookshop and concert venue. Birmingham’s young crowd in Digbeth has plenty of new ideas. Emily Sparkes, 23, who sold a painting (a self-portrait) to the Birmingham Museum, explains the local creative scene: “We are always apologizing for being England’s number two city. But that actually takes the pressure off; it means that we can take more risks.” Singer Mikey, who has just released an impressive bunch of Brit-pop songs, Valkyrie EP, shares this view. “We are a bit trapped in between Manchester, London and Liverpool. It pushes us to work like crazy.”

On the English equator

One day, perhaps, Mikey will perform at the Hare & Hounds, a historic concert venue and pub in the suburb of Kings Heath. During recent renovation work, owner Adam Regan discovered original wallpaper and paneling from 1907. But the friendly spot, featuring great acoustics, is best known for hosting the first ever gig by reggae and pop group UB40, in 1979. Legends like Kevin Rowland of Dexys Midnight Runners (with hit song “Come on Eileen”) and Mike Skinner of The Streets are regulars. “Our program is eclectic,” says Regan. “Sometimes we have a concert where everyone’s over 60 and then another one, where no one’s over 20.” Coe offers the last word: “Standing midway between the self-confident South and the proud, defiant North, it is looked down upon from both directions. This is what gives Brummies their distinctive self-mocking sense of humor, which I love.”

© Library of Birmingham by Mecanoo architecten, Francine Houben

© Benoy/www.benoy.com

© Library of Birmingham by Mecanoo architecten, Francine Houben - Concept architect: AZPML

© Evie Williams

Alcohol abuse is harmful to your health. Drink in moderation

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The sky’s the limit

Carnet d’adresses

À faire

Ikon Gallery

A must-see for lovers of contemporary art. Cutting-edge but approachable, the gallery showcases local artists like Roger Hiorns in its beautiful spaces. Thanks to a startling installation by Martin Creed, your visit starts as soon as the elevator starts moving.

1 Oozells Square, Brindleyplace. Tél. +44 (0)121 248 0708.

Bars & restaurants

Purecraft

This excellent pub, with an elegant but welcoming atmosphere, is not far from Victoria Square, in the middle of the business district. It has an open kitchen and an artsy but discreet decor. The beer is good, and the food includes fish and chips with tartare sauce and a magnificent risotto. Perfect for a gourmet lunch.

30 Waterloo St.Tél. +44 (0)121 237 5666.

www.purecraftbars.com

Pushkar

This Indian restaurant that doubles as a cocktail bar, down a street that gets very lively at weekends, is an oasis of calm and elegance. Placed in an immaculate white box, the menu alone beckons you on a journey. After the obligatory popadums (beware: some are very spicy), the feast can begin. Indian cuisine that is refined, tasty and filling.

245 Broad St.Tél. +44 (0)121 643 7978.

www.pushkardining.com

Pitcher & Piano

A perfect place for a drink or meal overlooking the canal. The menu sticks to the straight and narrow, focusing on classics such as Caesar salad and burgers. But the dishes here are good, the service friendly and the bill reasonable. What more could you ask?

The Water’s Edge, Brindleyplace.Tél. +44 (0)121 643 0214.

www.pitcherandpiano.com

Shopping

Great Western Arcade

The magnificent late 19th-century Victorian arcade is worth a visit in itself. But above all, this handsome retail space is a great place to find good, rather chic British souvenirs, from traditional gourmet sweet treats to whiskey for connoisseurs, as well as streetwear from the Projekt21 store.

Colmore Row / Temple Row.

www.greatwesternarcade.co.uk
Address Book

Going There

www.airfrance.com

Flight frequency

Air France has 3 daily flights to Birmingham from Paris-CDG.

KLM has 4 daily flights to Birmingham from Amsterdam.

ARRIVAL AIRPORT

Aéroport de Birmingham.
À 10 km.
Tél. +44 (0)871 222 0072.

AIR FRANCE KLM OFFICES

À l’aéroport.

BOOKINGS

— Depuis la France : Tél. 3654.
— Depuis l’étranger :
Tél. +33 (0)892 70 26 54.

CAR RENTAL

HERTZ à l'aéroport
Tél. +44 (0)871 309 3005.
www.airfrance.com/cars

FURTHER READING

Angleterre Pays de Galles Michelin,
coll. Guides verts.

Angleterre Pays de Galles hachette,
coll. le guide du routard.

Angleterre Pays de Galles Le Petit Futé

Le goût de la Grand-Bretagne Mercure de France,
coll. le petit mercure.

 

© Parko Polo / Central Illustration Agency. Map for illustration purposes only