Editor Alun Thorne caught up with a Birmingham firm of architects which is putting the art into architecture
Like it or loathe it, the buzz word of the last 12 months has been localism.
A word that has driven the agenda of our new political masters, struck fear into the heart of developers around the country and sounded the death knell for any publicly-funded organisation that dared to look beyond its own doorstep.
Some have embraced the concept and its mantra of re-empowering the man in the street, others claim it is little more than a sleight of hand in an increasingly centralised society while for a firm like Bryant Priest Newman, it is just business as usual.
Tucked away down Mary Street in the Jewellery Quarter, BPN would appear to be the embodiment of localism – local people with local knowledge and a passion for the community they serve. “For us localism is like so what? We’ve been doing localism for ages,” said Richard Newman, one of the founders of the firm alongside Larry Priest and Mark Bryant
And a look at the firm’s history bears out its localist credentials. The practice launched in 1996 and grew out of a number of ad hoc collaborations and relationships – Larry knew Richard, Richard had been to college with Mark and the eventual result was Bryant Priest Newman.
The catalyst to formalise their relationship was the opportunity to do The Drum, the music and cultural centre in Newtown.
The project was managed out of their first office in the front room of Mark’s father’s terraced house in Bearwood. The office eventually stretched back through the house until “it was about the length of a football pitch but only two foot wide”.
Associate Dean Shaw joined in 1998 and then office manager Lorna Parsons joined from Glenn Howells who Larry described as “a breath of fresh air” amidst the organised chaos of the early years.
Indeed, it is collaboration that has equally defined the work of BPN over the past 15 years.
“Collaboration is very much what we are about,” said Richard. “Our very first job on The Drum was a collaboration – Associated Architects did the initial plan and we had to work it up and then work hand in hand with the builders. It was a really great partnership.”
The practice then won the contract for the new indoor cricket centre at Edgbaston which was another joint project, this time with David Morley, who previously had worked with Norman Foster. “The committee at Warwickshire couldn’t decide so they employed us both,” said Richard.
The team admit they learned a lot working with Morley and the finished building ended up being longlisted for a number of awards, and with confidence building during this early period in the practice’s history, they also had a go at trying to win the contract to redesign the Midlands Arts Centre in Cannon Hill Park.
Larry said: “Glenn Howells had done a feasibility study and they wanted an international architect so in our naive way we thought we’ll go for that.”
Nothing if not ambitious, they contacted Ralph Erskine – described on his death as one of the greatest British architects of the 20th century – who one of them had bumped into recently and he agreed to join forces with them for their pitch.
Larry said: “We got down to the long list of 20 and we had to got to an open day at the MAC and all the big guys were there.
“We’d got Phil Singleton on board because we needed somebody who could talk - he was still working from his bedroom in Moseley at the time. Eventually we came runners up.”
But probably the most important collaboration undertaken by the practice has been with artist David Patten.
David trained as a painter at the Royal College of Art and went off to Paris before coming back to the Midlands which in his words had been something of a “wasteland for the arts”.
He steadily got more involved in public art during the early renaissance of the city in the late 1980s and with projects like the Icon. “In 1989 I stopped making standalone art and started working with design teams and then about 10 years ago I got a phone call from Larry who asked me to come and talk to him about Electric Wharf and I remember the first day we went to see it because it happened to be 9/11.”
Larry added: “We had a brief from our client Ian Harrabin who told us to go and have a look at this old power station in Coventry from 1836 and work up some ideas – the brief was very loose. What we were searching for was an artful dimension. David looks at things differently to an architect when looking to make a place.”
One of the ideas was to incorporate old railway sleepers into the design to represent the old power station and he also discovered a sequence of numbers which identified how many people the power station supplied. “We ended up using these numbers, not on some kind of plaque, but put the numbers around the building – it gave us another layer. It is a simple process – as you find it let it lead the design process.”
Richard said: “The aim is to avoid an identikit. The project references itself again and again and becomes distillation of what that site’s about, each step informed by what’s on the site which ensures that you have something new.”
A couple of BPN’s current projects include the new Bloc Hotel on Caroline Street, a stone’s throw from their offices in Mary Street, and the Golden Square project, also in the Jewellery Quarter. And David’s work sits right at the heart of that project.
Richard said: “David’s research on the Jewellery Quarter looked at how the area grew up on the new resources from the New World. These new materials discovered en masse came into Jewellery Quarter where industrious people were making metal objects but not jewellery. However, the area is based on bunter sandstone that allowed for high quality smelting so the concept for the Golden Square is based on the golden bands aligned to geographical places.”
Larry added: “They were also the gold threads that were used for surgery, the Jewellery Quarter being an old actress on the world stage in need of a facelift. We just thought it was a great narrative.”
Another high profile project for Bryant Priest Newman is transforming an old Royal Mail site in Sutton Coldfield which was the main staging post during World War II for all the post heading to the US troops in the European theatre – a project not without some controversy as the team freely admit. Richard said: “The building was successfully listed but because of its social history not its architecture – the listing itself says it has little merit. There are also issues like asbestos in the roof that have meant it has been very difficult for a solution to be found with the current building.” BPN’s plans for the site include building a new delivery centre but most importantly a heritage centre that will remember the key role of the old site and while there has been some opposition from a couple of historians from outside the area – who have also been involved in the process - those living in the vicinity appear to be much more positive about the plans.
Richard said: “There has been lots of consultation and we did three days in the town hall in Sutton and I was even hugged by a granny. She had asked first, but was perfectly lucid. We talked her through the proposals and she was very right-minded about it and at the end she just asked if she could have a hug.”
While this may be on the more extreme end of the kind of reaction they are looking for from their work, the team from BPN and David Patten are committed to delivering interesting, thoughtful and unique schemes in an urban landscape that they believe should be cherished and enhanced by their work.
“At the end of the day we are local guys and we think it is very important that the community has a bigger say in things,” said Larry. “Ultimately the biggest attribute we have is trust – instead of a credit check, we get a reputation check.”
A test they appear to be passing with flying colours.