The true story about how Birmingham's leaders cheated their way to a world-class concert venue can now be revealed. A new book by former Birmingham Post arts editor Terry Grimley has lifted the lid on how the wool was pulled over the eyes of the European Commission as part of the £200 million International Convention Centre construction to create Symphony Hall.

The Queen officially opened Birmingham's International Convention Centre 23 years ago and was probably blissfully unaware that on the inside was a red Trojan Horse.

To know that little gem of a fact, she would have needed a new book, Symphony Hall - A Dream Realised.

The term is used to explain how an anonymous building like the ICC could have ended up housing one of the world's greatest concert halls.

"The planning application said that Hall 2, as Symphony Hall was known, could be used for music and other events," says Terry Grimley, the Birmingham Post's former arts editor who has written the book.

"And it has - from party conferences to degree ceremonies."

As a project, Symphony Hall succeeded because party politics did not get in the way of a Labour administration continuing the work of its Conservative predecessors.

Remarkably, it was also conceived during financially inclement times for the nation and on the back of the West Midlands' manufacturing industry collapsing during the 1980s.

Which is where the Trojan Horse comes in - the result of a Whitehall official tipping off the city's finest brains about how to pull off the coup of a lifetime.

 

Mrs Thatcher's then Tory government had limits on capital spending so the scheme's protagonists knew it would have to go ahead without any central government funding.

Meanwhile, the then European Commission - now the European Union - was adamant that Regional Development Fund money could not be used for things like concert halls, having never given money for a convention centre before.

Because Symphony Hall was going to be part of the ICC, a bid for RDF money was submitted with the venue disguised as "Hall 2... which could be used for concerts".

The entire scheme was presented to the government as a private sector initiative, promoted by the NEC.

In an interview for the book, Tim Caulcott, the city council's chief executive from 1982-88, reveals what happened next.

"We were at the height of Thatcherism in the early 1980s and she wasn't going to give us a penny," says the classical music enthusiast.

"It is one of the most fascinating and important features about the convention centre and Symphony Hall that there is not a penny of central government money in it.

"Hall 2 is, in fact, Symphony Hall, and we never let on exactly how much effort we were putting into it.

"I did a deal with the Treasury whereby, for purposes of Treasury control, it appeared to be run by a local authority company which is what the NEC is.

"For the purposes of going to Brussels, it was being built by the City of Birmingham which was a public sector project. This was the single most important deal in my life."

Author Terry Grimley with his book Symphony Hall - A Dream Realised
Author Terry Grimley with his book Symphony Hall - A Dream Realised
 

After more than 7,500 concerts and events, the sparkling venue still looks and sounds as good as the day it was opened even though 10 million people have sat on the hall's 2,262 seats.

Attention to detail meant Symphony Hall was engineered to offer total silence.

The 40,000 ton building sits on top of hundreds of rubber blocks which eliminates the possibility of noise from a railway line below.

Each seat is on top of an innovative single column, but - to the builders' annoyance at the time - can vary in width by two inches to improve sight lines.

The Symphony Hall story has links with the development of The Meyerson Symphony Center, an equally revered hall in Dallas as they were both designed by a company of acousticians called Artec.

The Dallas venue opened in 1989 and was designed before the computer age with string and push pins used to predict the sound paths on a physical model.

Artec was led by Pennsylvania-born acoustician Russell Johnson, who died in 2007. Along with University of Nottingham graduate Nicholas Edwards (who later worked on the RSC's new thrust stage in Stratford-upon-Avon), Artec was able to use advancing computer technology to more accurately fine-tune Symphony Hall's expected sound patterns.

Uniquely, the acousticians were appointed before the architects in Birmingham to try to ensure the sound would be as good as it could possibly be.

But Artec was still taking ground-breaking risks with Symphony Hall's design because Meyerson had not yet opened to validate their earlier predictions.

Towards the end of the book, there is a photograph of Tony Bennett on stage.

He sings the praises of both venues every time he comes. By the time of his next show here on September 11 he'll be 88 but fans will expect him to do his party piece by laying down his mic ready to reach the back row of the upper tier without it.

Meanwhile, Terry's words tell a story that will hopefully be read for as long as the hall itself lasts.

The next appointment of a new principal conductor for the CBSO from 2015 will go a long way to deciding whether the hall can rekindle the energy generated by Simon Rattle who was just 24 when originally appointed to a post he took up in 1980.

Sakari Oramo followed in 1998, later succeeded in 2008 by the now soon to depart Andris Nelsons.

For those interested in the science, Symphony Hall's success reflects the acoustic significance of having an old-fashioned shoebox-shaped room instead of following the post-war trend for steel-frame construction techniques to facilitate ever wider halls.

The architects - the Convention Centre Partnership - was an alliance of Birmingham-based Percy Thomas Partnership (PTP) and London-based Renton Howard Wood Levin (RHWL) which were appointed in March 1984.

Some of what Terry knows about the development of the hall is still "off the record" in terms of who exactly did what but the book's main aim is to celebrate the fact Symphony Hall is there at all rather than to pander to egos.

He smiles at the thought that some buildings were identified with one person when, clearly, shared expertise across a team effort must be the only way to achieve results.

It's to his own credit that Terry is honest enough to admit the wider project's failings.

Primarily, he wishes the council members would have had the confidence to have had the ICC designed by the now 80-year-old Richard Rogers, famous for the Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Lloyd's building and Millennium Dome both in London, the Senedd in Cardiff and the European Court of Human Rights building in Strasbourg.

Birmingham Symphony Hall
Birmingham Symphony Hall
 

"The ICC is not a great architectural gem," says Terry.

"Rogers did come and give a presentation, but (after Norman Foster had pulled out) he didn't have a lot of time to prepare it.

"Councillors were scared by Rogers who was so avant-garde they didn't have the nerve to go with him.

"If they had, the ICC would now be an internationally famous building. It is anonymous in Birmingham and has no profile outside of the city.

"The ICC has fundamental problems. If you are a visitor, how do you know you can walk through it to get to the canals?

"Watching the football fans here in 1996 for the European Championships was the urban design equivalent of a barium meal - everyone was walking down Broad Street in their colours.

"It's a shame the ICC is so nondescript - it's the biggest missed opportunity in the last number of years.

"David Hockney said that, because art has such a low priority in British education, the results are all around for us all to see.

"So, with key people who commission stuff, it's not that they say 'We're going to have a nasty building', it's that they can't tell the difference.

"In contrast, I like the way the new Library of Birmingham keeps opening up on the inside and, for the first time, it's a public building which offers you views of the city.

"I've grown to like the outside, too, especially when the sun is shining on it."

Terry also reveals that Symphony Hall is a building within a building – primarily because of the need to get the sound right inside.

"I liken it to stepping off a quay into a boat," he says. "And I wonder if one day they will knock down the rest of the ICC.

"Because it was part of a bigger project, it was kind of protected. Any cuts needed could be made elsewhere.

"Even after the building had been open for 10 years there was still no Lottery money for the organ, which I always thought was a bit mean, so that money also had to be raised too.

"My dad was a big Birmingham cynic because the city would come out with big projects which would be whittled away.

"With Symphony Hall, they were not going to compromise and we have reaped the benefits in the long term.

"In contrast, I think the (defunct) Public building in West Bromwich lost touch with reality at some point.

"It might have worked in Birmingham (with the benefit of critical mass) but the whole point was that it was supposed to be in West Bromwich with an organisation that had lasted for 20 years."

Finally, I wonder, if there was a concert Terry was really looking forward to seeing, whether he'd rather watch it in the Symphony Hall created during the prime of his career or The Town Hall he grew up with.

"There are types of music where the Town Hall certainly gives Symphony Hall a run for its money," he admits.

"Smaller concerts look better at the Town Hall rather than having empty seats. But with the great concert halls, classical music is the way of measuring them."

• Symphony Hall – A Dream Realised (£45 hardback, £29.50, available from the Symphony Hall shop)

 
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