When the original Birmingham Institute of Art and Design was founded in 1843 the city was at the centre of the industrial world.
Now a new institute in Eastside is due to open in September – and it could be our best chance to help put the city back where it belongs.
The new campus has been designed to encourage the likes of designers, architects, film-makers and jewellers to come together and innovate, in what executive dean Professor Chris O’Neil calls “exquisite collisions”.
He said design-led production was the impetus behind the Industrial Revolution, and was still the key to creating renewed growth in the West Midlands following years of decline.
The £61 million institute – part of Birmingham City University – boasts state-of-the-art editing and animation suites, the country’s largest permanent green screen backdrop, a theatre, fashion workshops, a textiles area with computerised looms and printers and metal workshops.
Prof O’Neil said: “People like me are far too old to understand what young people are thinking. We have no idea about it.
“And we don’t know what the world is going to be like in 100 years time.
“The legacy and design of this building is to be a place where creativity just happens. That is the future for Birmingham.”
“We like to call them exquisite collisions,” he added.
“This is the concept that sits behind this building. We want to be a space where different departments come together and communicate, so we have created an environment where, for example, engineering and architecture collide.”
Prof O’Neil said the campus had been designed to stimulate innovation between different sectors, and between the students and the private sector. And he has the examples to prove it – Birmingham City University students have worked with the likes of Triumph Motorcycles, Cartier and Ferrari in the past.
A further example of this work has been exhibited by BCU graduate Jack Row, who designed one of the world’s most expensive pens.
The hand-crafted, white gold and diamond detailed fountain pen, currently on sale for £27,500 at Harrods in London, went through rapid prototyping at the university, and blended engineering know-how with the fine art of jewellery design.
Prof O’Neil said such innovation will be key to growth in the city through exports in future.
He said: “If you look at the context of cultural industries and the value that design-led exports bring to the country – the Work Foundation is talking about 35 per cent of UK exports being design-led – then you can see how important this is.
“We go from engine management systems to green technology, and from film, to art, to jewellery.”
While creativity runs throughout the building, it is the broadcasting and production facilities that are perhaps the most welcome.
BCU has a strong pedigree – it created the dragons for a Harry Potter movie using its computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM) facilities.
But the Midlands remains largely barren when it comes to film and television production – Pebble Mill is long gone and the BBC and ITV no longer operate any network television studios in the region so the facilities make the institute the largest broadcasting centre in the Midlands.
Studio A, which at more than 2,000 sq ft is one of the largest studios in the country, is essentially a concrete box sitting on rubber, which means it is entirely soundproof.
Studio B is the largest permanent green screen studio in the country, allowing filming to take place before a computer generated backdrop is added. It also boasts a ‘milo’ motion control camera – used to create special effects by the likes of Wallace and Gromit-maker Aardman – and is the only one of its kind in the Midlands.
“This is the biggest green screen and milo facilities that there is,” Prof O’Neil said. “I bought the milo when there were only four in the country – we have the best green screen outside London.
“This is the answer to the question about what the Midlands can do to serve not only the media but others, for example game-makers, and animators.”
The building, next to the university’s facilities at Millennium Point, also contains six radio studios, which can work independently or together.
The design of the institute was influenced by the ideals of the Bauhaus – a German school founded by Walter Gropius that combined crafts and the fine arts, operating from 1919 to 1933 when it was forced to close down by the Nazi regime.
The Bauhaus model offered its students to a general grounding in different areas of art and design before moving them on to specialise in areas that interested them. Part of this old concept is delivered in the new institute through the design of the building itself, with a core of workshops in the centre of with studio space around and “collision spaces” – where people from different courses come together.
Journalism lecturer Ross Hawkes said this approach would deliver employers more than mere job candidates, but innovators.
He said: “Our students will become more valuable to employers because of all the additional skills they have got. For example, in print journalism they will also have talent in photography and things like podcasts and video.
“The idea of going in at the bottom isn’t the case any more – it is about going in and educating your employers.”
The university is also keen to build on the manufacturing expertise in the region through cutting-edge research and development, through to assisting with processes.
One such example is sintering – where high power lasers are used to fuse small particles of a material – often metal or glass – into a three-dimensional shape.
Already the university has worked with jewellery firm Cooksons to develop products using this process, and with the likes of Triumph, Jaguar Land Rover and Ferrari, it will be hoping to grow that.
The university has also worked with Cartier, and helped to develop a green eco-cooker with Aga Rangemaster.
Students on the MA Product Design course at the institute also work on accessory concepts for cycle giant Pashley.
Elsewhere, BCU fashion design student Becky Short has designed a dress worn by global pop star Lady Gaga.
Prof O’Neil said this connection with the private sector was key.
He added: “This is a university that is part of the community – from social to industrial.
“The more successful the community is the more successful the university will be.
“And the alumni know that when they leave the university their relationship doesn’t end. If you are setting up an SME in China and you need prototyping equipment I would expect them to come back and work with us.”
While the facilities are designed to stimulate the business of the future, there are some that would have been at home at the institute when it opened 170 years ago.
There is some 150-year-old machinery in the woodwork and metalwork areas, as well as areas for wet photography, ceramics and woodwork.
There is also a four-axis writer – the machine Apple uses to make its iPad.
“I bought it because if that is the machine that Apple is using then that is the machine my students need to understand,” Prof O’Neil said.
“I don’t know of any other organisation that has that machine – it is all about giving the students, and consequently industry, an advantage.”
He added: “We don’t draw a distinction between digital and analogue – it’s just immersive learning.”
Students currently studying elsewhere in the city also said how excited they were at the prospect of learning in the modern institute.
Student Sophie Drake, who will soon begin her second year as a media and communications student and will move from the Perry Barr campus, said she was excited to make the move in September.
She said: “The course is great but you are going to get a much better opportunity for a creative flow here.
“Rather than encouraging people to become a specialist in one area it teaches you to have fingers in may pies.”
Visual communication student Kirsty Redmond added: “There is more to explore and that is what this building has given – an opportunity to use better equipment.”