Birmingham’s modern architecture has disappointed many. Ross Reyburn meets a city architect unafraid of the avant-garde.
Could a computer replace an architect? Maybe not but in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter a young architectural practice is programming a computer to influence the design of buildings.
Founded in 2003 by Bob Ghosh, Kinetic is masterminding its two-year Kineti-Kit project part-funded by Birmingham City University and central government.
In the firm’s attractive first floor open plan office above St Paul's Gallery in Northwood Street, Dr Yan Xing, a computer systems modelling expert, is working full-time translating the concept into a reality.
‘‘It is developing a computer programme to shape a building rather than using a conventional design approach,” says 42-year-old Ghosh. “We are generating design forms which relate to a particular site. There might be environmental conditions, physical constraints or certain materials you have to use.
‘‘The programme will take these factors into account suggesting the optimum form for the building. It could be used universally. If the site is situated in Bath, the constraints could be the building has to be Bath stone, a criteria for the windows and a certain visual rhythm for the façade.
‘‘It could create some pretty amazing forms. The fact it is a computer programme is incidental – it is more a framework or toolkit to design buildings.“
This futuristic concept is an extension of the IT architectural design experiments of Kinetic co-founder John Shakeshaft, who like Ghosh took his post-graduate degree at the Birmingham School of Architecture.
Returning as a visiting tutor, Ghosh became aware of his talents and they got to know each other playing park football in Lightwoods Park, Bearwood.
“John at university was really the authority on computer simulation – crazy and brilliant at the same time,” says Ghosh. “He has created a programme to have this shape that constantly changes. We are looking to utilize this.”
The firm’s name was coined as a reflection of the ever-changing visual face of cities. Whether Kinetic will ever produce Shakeshaft’s ultimate off-the wall design – a building with its various parts physically moving is another matter. We are talking about something more complex than a revolving restaurant.
Whatever the future brings, Kinetic is out to avoid a safety-first existence as one of the plodding constables of the architectural world.
“Our philosophy is to reconcile commercial realities with a strong commitment to the avant-garde.” says Ghosh.
A quietly spoken, polite man, he talks with measured authority about his profession and architectural values. And his career has seen him associated with an impressive track record of award-winning designs.
The son of an Indian barrister who came to Britain to study at Birmingham University in 1956, he was brought up in Leicester. At 18, he chose architecture rather than medicine or the law and this decision can be backtracked to 1977 when he went on holiday to the US.
“We went to New York and Chicago,” he recalls. “It really opened my eyes to the possibilities of architecture whereas over here I had probably never really looked at buildings.
“It was just the collective effect of clusters of tall buildings – the dramatic effect on the skyline. You rarely get that sense of excitement crossing Brooklyn Bridge into New York going into a lot of other cities.”
His favourite architectural period is the Bauhaus Era in the 1930s and the school’s pioneering master of modernism, the late Ludwig Mies van de Rohe (1886-1969), is the architect he most admires.
Driven out of Germany by the Third Reich, van de Rohe moved to America in 1937 and in 1951 built Farnsworth House, a small house on the Illinois Plains, that Bob Ghosh ranks as his favourite building after seeing it while visiting Chicago a decade ago.
‘‘It is a very simple glass and steel pavilion on stilts,” he says. “When you inside it, you don’t feel exposed. It feels very warm and inviting and engages well with the landscape.”
Ghosh studied as an architect at Leicester Polytechnic’s School of Architecture before taking his post-graduate course at the Birmingham School of Architecture (“I thought it was exceptional”) when it was in a dreary Perry Barr location before its move to the Birmingham City University campus in Gosta Green.
From 1990-93 he worked for the Seymour Harris Partnership in Edgbaston followed by three years with Level Seven at Brierley Hill before joining the successful Birmingham practice Glenn Howells Architects.
The Howells years from 1996-2003 proved an exciting period for Ghosh becoming a director and working on award-winning projects including The Dream Factory performing arts venue in Warwick, The Courtyard arts centre in Hereford and the much-acclaimed Timber Wharf canalside building in Manchester with its mix of 180 apartments and office units.
“I was the project architect for The Courtyard delivering the Howells design and it was difficult to achieve the quality because we were under severe cost restraints in the £4 million project,” he recalls. “We had to redesign elements but we ended up making very few compromises. It was quite cleverly designed – rather than using chiller plants Howells used concrete in the structure to cool the air.”
Gosh co-designed Timber Wharf with Howells. After it was completed in 2002, it won 11 design and regeneration awards.
It was no normal concrete and glass structure. “We used wet stone concrete,” he recalls. “It doesn’t absorb so much dirt as normal concrete and has similar characteristics to natural stonework.”
After creating Kinetic, the practice achieved early acclaim with its award-winning £12 million Lumiere Building providing 138 apartments on an awkwardly-shaped 0.3-acre brownfield site.
“In the inner courtyard, we designed a very unexpected landscaped area with a water garden that features suspended illuminated raindrop sculptures matching people’s perceptions of Manchester’s weather,” recalls Ghosh.
The firm’s current projects include the ambitious £100 million Warwick Bar scheme regenerating a 4.5-acre waterside site in Eastside.
“Warwick Bar, this to me is one of the most magical sites in Birmingham – it is a hidden gem,” says Ghosh. “It is sited by the interception of two canals and the River Rea with an aqueduct that is a very interesting piece of engineering. At the moment it just a sea of dereliction and under-utilized space. There are some low grade industrial users.
“Historically it was a bustling wharf. There are seven front doors on the site – our concept is to create 50 new front doors for business and residential premises and a network of streets and square to link Fazeley Street to the canal.”
Kinetic’s other Birmingham area commissions include remodeling the centre of Mere Green near the Four Oaks Estate and Sutton Park.
“This is a major intervention in a suburban location,” says Ghosh. “We are removing a surface car park and replacing it with a public square and narrow pedestrian shopping lane with new shops and restaurants around the square and residential and retirement apartments above the retail outlets.”
Ghosh’s admiration of the modernist designs of van de Rohe can be seen in the eye-catchingly simplistic Discovery Centre in Lichfield, intended to merge seamlessly into the existing landscape in one of the most attractive historic locations in the West Midlands.
‘‘The pavilion is in the backwater between Cathedral Close and the Minster Pool” he says. “It is a light cast stone and glass pavilion that overhangs the pool.
“We wanted to make the intervention read as part of the landscape so it doesn’t fight with the Close or the cathedral itself.”
His designs also include renovating existing listed buildings by the cathedral as part of the Lichfield InSpires project that awaits full Heritage Lottery funding approval.
Ghosh’s non-executive roles include acting as RIBA Awards jury member for two years and he has interesting views on Birmingham’s renaissance.
Selfridges stands alone as the only building to attract widespread international interest in recent times while the city council abandoned the visionary Richard Rogers Partnership design unveiled in 2002 for the new Library of Birmingham in Eastside.
Ghosh admires Birmingham’s architectural escape into the future – the Selfridges building – but is critical of its disappointingly dead appearance on the street frontage side leading to Moor Street Station.
He cites the International Convention Centre and Millennium Point as two disappointing major buildings.
“If the ICC had been an international competition, I think you would have had a much better outcome,” he says. “Although it is a very important part of Birmingham’s renaissance, architecturally I think it is pretty appalling.
“Millennium Point is a classic wasted opportunity. It suffered from a very convoluted procurement process and is a confusing and slightly dreary building.”
But while it is not difficult to find critics who regard Birmingham City Council leader Coun Mike Whitby with some disdain as a man of little vision overseeing the city’s future, Ghosh believes Birmingham’s shortcomings on the architectural front are now in the past.
His optimism stems from the fact Clive Dutton, the city’s director of planning and regeneration, and architect Philip Singleton, head of the city design team, are now masterminding the city’s architectural future looking for world class urban designers supported by the city’s private sector partners.
“You won’t get buildings like Millennium Point now,” he says. “With Clive Dutton and Philip Singleton in charge any public building will be of much higher quality.”
Projects he rates highly are the Snow Hill towers designed by Glenn Howells and The Cube, the final stage of The Mailbox development, destined to rank as one of the country’s most unusual buildings.
He is also excited by plans for the new city library between Baskerville House and the ICC and rates this as the right location.
“It is one of the most significant commissions in the UK – the process will generate a world-class building – they have selected some amazing architects on the short list.
“I always used to worry about the Eastside site and not having the library in the civic heart of the city. This is the right location.”