A new era for Birmingham New Street

The wait is almost over for thousands of Birmingham commuters. The grand reopening of the rebuilt New Street station is just hours away following a six-year construction project costing £600 million.

But has it been worth the wait? Downtown Birmingham in Business chairman Stacey Barnfield joined Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin MP and Mark Carne, chief executive of Network Rail, among others, for a sneak preview of the striking new building before it opens to the public on Sunday.

Birmingham’s new-look New Street station is one of the most significant regeneration projects in the city’s recent history and one that will boost the local economy, create jobs and help change our image nationwide.

Along with the rebuilt transport hub comes the stunning Grand Central shopping centre, which sits above the station, and is anchored by the 250,000 sq ft John Lewis store equivalent in size to three and a half football pitches.

Grand Central’s vast bubble-like atrium roof and the natural light it lets through is a world away from the claustrophobic atmosphere of the old shopping centre.

Grand Central will be home to 60 retailers and restaurants and managers expect to welcome more than 50 million shoppers every year.

Network Rail estimates that for every £1 of the £600 million invested in the scheme there will be a £4 economic return for the city through jobs and growth.

“The old station, designed for 60,000 passengers, was struggling to cope with the near 170,000 passengers using it every day,” said Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne.

“So this new station has the capacity for 300,000 people, future-proofing Birmingham for the foreseeable future.

“But stations are more than just travel destinations, they can be catalysts for economic regeneration, attracting business and economic growth.

“This time next week there will be 1,000 people in new jobs in this building alone and I’m sure that will be just the beginning as other development inevitably follows.”

Impressive stats indeed but as a Birmingham resident with an interest in the built environment it’s the architectural merit of the building that interests me as much as anything.

And it doesn’t disappoint.

Sure, it’s big, bulky and borderline brutalist but the mirror-like exterior helps soften the blow with ever-changing distorted shapes and patterns reflecting off the sweeping, curving aluminium exterior; even more stunning under a clear blue sky.

The station has three giant eye shaped digital advertising screens at each entrance spanning almost 100 ft.

Developed by Birmingham-based specialist Concept Sign and Display they’re believed to be the first of this shape and scale in the UK and are a headline-grabbing feature of the new building.

And I love the bold and contemporary Grand Central branding that shouts from the roof of the building at each entrance point.

The simple sans typeface has an air of authority about it.

As can be expected for such a complex construction project, problems arose throughout the build process.

Original architect Alejandro Zaera-Polo walked out on the design work over what he described as “complete disagreement” with Network Rail.

The war of words took place more than 18 months ago and seems a lifetime away as the awesome building nears completion.

And Network Rail provoked fury and was accused of cutting back on the station’s bold design when it unveiled plans to leave the unsightly passenger bridge over the platforms visible from Hill Street.

The bridge will now be clad with light grey powder-coated aluminium and it remains to be seen whether this fits Zaera-Polo’s dramatic architectural statement or compromises his artistic vision.

As a feat of engineering the New Street scheme deserves praise when you consider this mammoth task took place while trains continued to arrive and depart under workers’ feet.

As a dramatic design statement on the city centre skyline there’s much to admire at the new look building.

It’s such a unique structure – much like Selfridges just down the road – and people will love it or hate it.

But that’s fine. I’d much rather see bold, talking-point architecture that stops you in your tracks than bland and beige that goes unnoticed.

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