As the University of Birmingham invests £175 million to transform its campus, Enda Mullen looks at how the ethos of its founding father remains at its heart
More than a century after founder Joseph Chamberlain’s original blueprint for the University of Birmingham, the legendary statesman’s plans still loom large.
With developers set to create a 21st century facility – a world away from the vision of its founding fathers – the original ethos remains at the heart of proposals.
Chamberlain’s original scheme was based around a simple semi-circular layout, which now forms the heart of the Edgbaston campus and features familiar landmarks like the Great Hall and Clock Tower.
While numerous masterplans have unfolded over the ensuing century and the university has spread beyond those original confines, that relatively small semi-circular blueprint has never been fully completed.
The closest it got was with the opening of the Bramall Music Building last year – the £16 million facility almost squaring the semi-circle so to speak – though not quite.
Since that original 1900 blueprint many different visions have emerged but one is set to come to fruition as part of the next phase of development.
Birmingham architect William Haywood’s early 20th century vision of a “green heart” will finally be achieved when the existing library is demolished and the area landscaped to create a green space at the university’s centre.
The idea of north to south access is one of the benefits of an ambitious project that will see the creation of a host of new facilities, including the library, a sports centre with a 50-metre swimming pool, a student hub, and a new car park.
Behind the plans, part of a five-year project, is a desire to ensure the university is among the very best, not just nationally but internationally.
Director of estates Ian Barker: “This is recognised as a leading global university and it is important for ourselves, but also for the city and the wider business community, to have what it needs in terms of delivering research and education,” said.
“To have the facilities that will attract and retain the best students and staff.”
As well as levelling the current library, the existing Munrow Sports Centre will be demolished, as will neighbouring pub the Gun Barrels, creating the site for a new £53 million sports centre.
Mr Barker believes the programme is indicative of the university’s philosophy.
While the completion of the Bramall Music Building last year closed one chapter it also marked the opening of a new one.
“It fills part of the gap,” said Mr Barker. “It was finished last year and at that point we thought about the next stage and all of the buildings that are very outdated and functioning quite poorly and you fit into an evolving masterplan.
“Previous masterplans have never been completed in the form they were intended.
“They take such a long time, things change and they end up being changed and adapted in different ways and becoming something different.”
As well as aiming to be the best academically, the university is also striving for “a higher degree of engagement with the local community and the wider city”, said Mr Barker, adding that the new sports centre will face outwards on the Bristol Road to emphasise the fact that it will also be a community facility.
Director of projects Kevin Dickinson said the existing sports centre was old and tired and no longer met the demands of students, staff and the community.
Mr Dickinson said one of the aims was to get as many students back into the heart of the campus and “using as well as just seeing some of the 19th century buildings”.
For the library a number of options were considered, including refurbishing and expanding the existing one, but in the end it was decided to create a new facility, which will be designed by Birmingham-based Associated Architects.
“We had lots of discussions about refurbishment but decided to go with what we called option three.
“It does mean we are opening up the heart, which harks back to the original idea. You will be able to stand in the middle of the campus and point to all the buildings and there will be a visibility within the campus.”
But the modern design, which has been approved by Birmingham’s planning committee, did come in for some criticism, one councillor likening it to a Lego structure.
But Mr Dickinson defended a more modern design: “We wanted to do it in a modern way and there was a conscious decision to do it with modern architecture in keeping with the tradition of following architecture throughout the campus.
“I can plot the history of architecture through the buildings we have on campus here.
“I think it is important we continue to do that, yet retain the quality in design that all of the buildings on the campus exhibit. We have an interest in quality of design and taking good quality design forward.”
Even one of the campus’s more unappealing edifices, the Muirhead Tower and something Mr Dickinson described as “a Marmite building” has been retained.
An example of the Brutalist architecture of the sixties and seventies, it has had its detractors, though Mr Wilkinson added it had won some new friends since being refurbished three years ago.
He also said it was important the university moved forward, citing the fact the courses it offers change over time.
“We used to do a brewing course here,” he said. “We don’t do that any more, we now do computing and IT courses. Courses move on and you need to move on and develop buildings fit for the current need.
“You have to provide the facilities that will enable you to adapt. You also have to think where are we going to be 100 years from now, what sort of courses and what sort of population are we going to be serving.”
The new library will also include a 450 square metre “Cultural Gateway”, which among other things will showcase some of the university’s many collections.
Clare Mullett, deputy university curator said: “As well as the Barber Institute we have some amazing collections and this exhibition space in the library is to bring things together, so they are much more accessible and visible to staff, students and community for the first time.”
Ms Mullett said it would be about helping people to better understand the university’s cultural offer – but that it would be more than a gallery.
“It won’t just be a gallery where we host exhibitions and events but will make everything more available and show new things and tell new stories.
“A place that can show off all the cultural assets that don’t get shown off as much as we would like them to but also showcase research and what we do as an institution and invite people to be involved.
“It will be a very active space where people can come after work or weekends and really see what the university does and what is going on. The idea is you could go to an exhibition, have something to eat and see a concert here so our cultural offer would be expanded.”
Funding for the estates development scheme is coming from a variety of sources, some internal, some from a bank loan and some philanthropic.
As the public purse has tightened pressure has increased on higher education institutions to find their own additional funding streams.
Nick Blinco, director of development, alumni and business engagement, said philanthropy has always been vital.
“None of this would have existed if it wasn’t for generosity,” he said. “The university was set up by the generous people of Birmingham for the people of Birmingham. The wealthy people within the city were extraordinarily generous.”
He said an additional fundraising element is often needed to transform a project from something ordinary to something special.
“What we are asked to do is to find some extra money that really makes a project outstanding, such as the Bramall Music Building. The university was initially only able to commit £11 million and we found £6 million. We could have done it for £11 million but it wouldn’t have been nearly as spectacular as it is.
“We talk about philanthropy as adding value to the organisation, about doing something spectacular that adds additional value, not just to the university but to the city itself.”
Sometimes fundraising can be easy, according to Mr Blinco – with generosity being exceptional in connection with the cutting edge medical work it does – yet there is little awareness of the fact it is a charity.
“We get quite a lot of philanthropy to the Medical School – 50 per cent of its funding is by individuals – and we also have a generous alumni. Our challenge though is to get people in the city to engage with us. For a fundraiser this is an amazing place to work, with an intelligent bunch of people doing extraordinary things. There is nothing this university doesn’t do. Anything anyone is interested in, this university happens to do.
“What philanthropy does is allow us to make our own choices about things. In a world of declining government support it liberates us..
“Someone said to me recently ‘I give to universities because they solve problems, not because they have them’.”