Architecture is the most public, the most unavoidable, of the arts.
If you chose, you could live without reading books or listening to music, and without visiting galleries, theatre or cinema.
But buildings, both internally and externally, are the physical setting for our lives, and for better or worse, their design directly affects all of us.
So it is paradoxical that architecture is probably also the least understood of the arts. Few people understand what architects do and how they make design decisions.
I would guess that many readers of this newspaper will have some knowledge of the products and the working methods of Mike Leigh, or David Hockney, or Hilary Mantel.
But how many know anything about Simon Allford, Alison Brooks or Peter Clegg, to mention a few leading British architects? (Incidentally, I don’t absolve us architects from responsibility for this state of affairs, but that’s another story).
So it is welcome when a proposed new building excites comments in the press and social media, even before a decision has been made on planning permission.
That demonstrates a recognition that architecture impacts on the quality of our lives, even if only as urban scenery, the external appearance of buildings.
But the exterior is important because, with few exceptions, that is how the majority of people will experience the building.
The proposed new Conservatoire for Birmingham City University, to be built in Eastside, is a current case which has attracted criticism.
This will be a large, prominent building on Jennens Road, at the back of Millennium Point. A decision on it is likely to be made by the planning committee next month. It has been designed by the leading architectural practice of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCBS), in which the aforementioned Peter Clegg is a partner.
FCBS is a highly respected and successful practice, rated 14th biggest in the UK by the Architects’ Journal and winner of many awards.
Its Manchester School of Art was shortlisted for last year’s Stirling Prize, and it has completed two buildings in Birmingham for the University of Aston. The negative comments about the proposed Conservatoire, made by city councillors and others, have been mostly of the kind that begins “It looks like a ...”.
Its appearance has been variously likened to a nuclear power station, a Boeing assembly hangar, a cheese grater, grain elevators, an Inland Revenue office block and an Oxo cube.
These rather shallow comparisons represent a low level of architectural criticism. The cheese grater comparison in particular reveals an unfamiliarity with architectural discourse, as that name is already popularly given to a much-admired 2014 office building in London, 122 Leadenhall Street, designed by Richard Rogers’ practice. Its tall wedge shape actually does resemble a cheese grater – unlike the Conservatoire.
The Conservatoire doesn’t look anything like an Oxo cube either. But even if it did, why would that be a legitimate reason to object to it?
We need to get beyond these trivial comparisons, and elevate the way that we discuss architecture on to a rather more intelligent level.
The Conservatoire is a brick building. It makes a virtue of its monolithic heaviness and impression of permanence, in contrast to many contemporary buildings which present themselves as a light skin, such as the new Library of Birmingham or The Cube.
This quality of solidity is not anti-modern, it is a school of modernism which has always been part of the modern attitude, but which is quite prominent currently.
This quality is exemplified by another large brick university building shortlisted for last year’s Stirling Prize, the London School of Economics Student Centre by the Irish architects O’Donnell + Tuomey.
It too has great cliffs of brickwork, the surfaces enlivened by perforation in places. The solidity makes sense in the Conservatoire, as the external walls have to exclude noise from the outside and heavy mass does this.
But we have to ask this question of the Conservatoire: what is its architect trying to express with these brick volumes?
The answer is not clear and here I think is the problem.
When we ask what information a building’s external appearance is conveying, there are typically three different types of answer.
It can express the function of the building or the internal arrangement of rooms and spaces and circulation: or the structural pattern of the building (or all three).
It is disappointing that FCBS’s building does not express any of these three very well.
The internal planning is logical, with practice and teaching rooms on the noisier northern side forming an acoustic buffer to performance spaces on the quieter southern side.
There are three performance rooms: the large Adrian Boult Hall, and two smaller rooms below it. Yet these cannot be clearly read from the outside, unlike, for example, the Imax cinema next door at Millennium Point.
The architecture is not telling us what it does.
The cliffs of brickwork are attached to a structural frame although this is not expressed externally.
The brick surfaces are slightly articulated by vertical stripes of projecting bricks, which the architect calls “zips”. These do not represent the structural frame: they are just decoration.
So we have neither a powerful structural articulation in brick, nor a comprehensively patterned brick surface. The result is indecisive and unconvincing.
I conclude that, although the dismissive criticisms of “it looks like a …..” are trivial, they are generated by an uncertainty in the architecture as to what it should be expressing.
It is remarkable that, in his letter to this newspaper (December 25) rebutting the criticisms, BCU’s Professor David Roberts gives eight defences of the Conservatoire’s design, none of which refer to its external appearance.
He is wrong when he writes: “It is what happens on the inside that counts.”
External appearance is part of the public realm. It matters too.
* Joe Holyoak is a Birmingham-based architect and urban designer