Art nouveau meets modern

John Lewis at New Street Station - artists impression

John Lewis at New Street Station - artists impression

By Alan Clawley.

Soon after I wrote about the plan to build a John Lewis department store on top of New Street Gateway I learnt that Network Rail, who own the site, had submitted a planning application to the City Council [ref 2011/02869/PA]. So, if you have an hour or two to spare, you can now download all the plans and elevations from the Council website and see for yourself how the architects have overcome the problems that I posed.

The facts are these; the floor area of the John Lewis store will be 25,074 square metres spread over 6 floors. That makes the average floor plate just over 4,000 square metres. This makes it about the same size as the Central Library. It will sit on top of the south side of the New Street Gateway on the site of the council tower block that will have to be demolished. Its main façade will look over Station Street and Hill Street.

You may be surprised that the new entrance to the station is not on New Street but on what most of us think of as the ‘backside’ of the station, the junction between Hill Street and Station Street. However, it’s too late to object to that as planning permission has already been given but it seems perverse of the planners not to have put the gateway to a station called ‘New Street’ in New Street. Perhaps Brummies will rename it ‘Hill Street Station’.

You can at least comment now on the proposal to locate a major department store there. I’m not convinced that the classy John Lewis people will want their flagship store to face away from the main shopping streets and be stuck on the backside of a railway station. The picture of the South elevation (on the cover of the document entitled ‘Renewable Energy Study) shows the store dominating the station entrance. The name ‘John Lewis’ is bigger and higher up than the name ‘New Street Station’ suggesting that the store is the main thing and the station a mere footnote. We are left to wonder if this is what Network Rail, anxious to derive the maximum commercial income from their property, actually intended.

The architects have not managed to create a unity between the new store and the low-level wavy stainless steel fascia of the station concourse. This is where Art Nouveau meets the Modern, where the free flowing meets the orthodox rectangular of the sales floors.

There may be nothing inherently wrong with a building that looks like a soldier’s helmet, a white Darth Vader or a ballet dancer with a short frilly skirt, but that’s how it looks. The top-heavy store dilutes the playful, ephemeral design of the Gateway. This is especially unfortunate because the Gateway needs all the help it can get to be the main attraction where it is.

The bulk of the store also forces the station entrance forward to the back of pavement leaving no European-style piazza in front that one would expect of a major railway station.  Pedestrians are shown in a picture crossing a strangely traffic-free Hill Street with children in tow. Although the big central skylight remains the same size as before the John Lewis building is bound to take some daylight away and leave less open sky visible from the concourse, thus watering down the original much marketed concept that makes it different from what we have now.

I can’t help feeling that Network Rail are more interested in getting the maximum income from their property than in enhancing the station for train users. Profit is of course essential to property-developers but the large contribution being made by the City Council should give the public a right to insist that they respect the main purpose of the plan, which is the upgrading of New Street Station.

On the other hand it is not too much to expect a progressive company like the John Lewis Partnership to consider other possibilities, such as adapting an existing building that is the right size, architecturally striking and free-standing, and which will not be confused with the rear entrance to a major railway station. You only have to look at the Mailbox to see how that can be successfully done.