Muddled or misguided?

Alan Clawley comments on a recent planning decision.

Judging by their recent pronouncements in the Post, the councillors who represent us on the city’s planning committee are at best muddled and at worst lacking in architectural awareness. Presented with the latest of three designs from the offices of design firm MADE to replace what Councillor Gareth Moore (Erdington) describes as a “very beautiful” block of Victorian shops in Erdington, they resort to personal prejudice in order to throw it out.

Councillor Steve Booton (Labour, Weoley) thought it looked like “the KGB Headquarters”, but if he meant that it looked like a concrete bunker he couldn’t have chosen a worse example; the KGB Headquarters was built in 1897 and could be described as Victorian. Its style is neo-classical. It has a central portico, triangular pediments, cornices and a clock. It was built of brick and granite for its pre-revolution owners, the All-Russia Insurance Company.

Councillor Linnecor (Labour, Oscott) wades in with the opinion that the proposed building “looked like something from pre-Berlin Wall Eastern Europe”. If he had studied Frederic Chaubin’s massive architectural study of that era entitled CCCP, or Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographe’, published in 2010, or picked up Christopher Beanland’s Concrete Concept, published only this year and reviewed recently by me he would at least know what he was talking about.

Cllr Alden (Conservative, Erdington) chips in with a plea for the existing building to be retained, restored and renovated, but he must know that the planning committee is powerless to insist on that unless the building is Listed or is in a Conservation Area. However, even if it were, the council’s record doesn’t give grounds for optimism.

The Ideal Village Conservation Area was abandoned by the Council because it cost too much to enforce. Owners can easily persuade the planners and even the Minister for Culture that it simply isn’t feasible to keep a building anyway. The planning committee’s decision to allow a new skyscraper office block to be built in the Colmore Conservation Area hardly shows respect for the historic buildings in that street.

Councillor Moore (Erdington) admitted that the Erdington buildings were “a bit tatty” and wondered if they had been deliberately neglected by their owner, a thought that often occurred to supporters of the now demolished Central Library.

So what could Councillor Booton mean when he called for the proposed design to be rejected because it “did not respect the history and character of the area”? What is that character? Councillor Moore wanted something “more elegant” but an architect can hardly admit that his design is not ‘elegant’.

Would councillors like the existing facades to be retained and a new building constructed behind it as they have been in parts of the city centre, a policy known as facadism? Would they like the proposed new building to be repro Victorian in style? The new office block in Paradise will show no more respect than did the carefully designed and thoughtfully sited Central Library. If ‘having respect’ means ‘designed in the same style as its neighbours’ it would have had to incorporate the neo-Gothic of the Chamberlain Memorial, The Romano-classicism of the Town Hall and the restrained neo-classicism of the Council House. The result – architecture designed by a committee.

If that isn’t what our councillors mean by respect what do they mean? The architects are left guessing and can only submit a series of options until they hit the right note. Perhaps the councillors hope they will make architects resign in disgust and hand the job over to someone else who is more willing to compromise.

In the absence of clear and explicit design guidance for developers they are almost being accused of trying to resurrect the architectural style of communist Russia – an era which Labour councillors look back on with horror – and by others of simply failing to hit the architectural fashion that appeals to their uneducated tastes. Its fine for councillors to have their personal likes and dislikes but they aren’t entitled use their position to impose them on the rest of us.