Reflections on New Street Gateway

As more images are revealed of the design of the new New Street Station, Gateway flythrough whets New Street appetite, No spaces for holdups as New Street Station works start , it's perhaps pertinent to look back to the article written in the Birmingham Post by Sir Bernard Zissman who chaired the judging panel to choose the winning design.

Sir Bernard, who chaired the council economic development committee during the planning stages of the ICC, suggests that like those who questioned the ICC and Joseph Chamberlain's Corporation Street plans Brummies will debate and argue over the developments but that 'doing nothing is never an answer', New Street judge hits back at Gateway 'whingers'.

The following article was published by the Birmingham Post in Agenda on September 22nd 2008.

Birmingham critics will be impressed by New Street's new look

Sep 22 2008 Agenda

Sir Bernard Zissman, who chaired the judging panel to choose the winning design for the refurbishment of New Street Station, says the winning scheme will glorify Birmingham city centre.

Amongst the turmoil of the financial markets which saw the demise of Lehman Brothers, the near collapse of banking legends Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley as well as the gobbling up of the Bank of Scotland and Halifax empire by the black horse of Lloyds Bank, there emerged a bright light in the future development of Birmingham.

For years there has been argument, debate, battles and even the swapping of insults between political egos about what New Street station would look like and how it would benefit passengers and visitors alike.

Last week, The Birmingham Post revealed the result of an architectural competition which started with 48 applicants and ended with six international architects presenting their ideas and experience to a panel here in Birmingham.

That panel met back in April and studied, questioned and debated with all six of the practices the merits of their schemes and how and if they would fit the demanding brief which had been set. The panel of dedicated and experienced representatives of the funding partners all had a common objective but in reaching that objective were seeking no less than 117 requirements, features and outcomes.

Advantage West Midlands was looking for a wider economic benefit for their £100 million contribution, Birmingham City Council wanted a building which will sit in the middle of the city centre and demonstrate the excitement and vitality of an international city whilst Network Rail and Centro were seeking a hub to their transport ambitions which would provide their passengers with an improved and satisfying travel experience. All were looking for value for money.

Our panel received the benefit of professional experience from Christophe Egret, appointed as the architect adviser by the RIBA and whose task was to challenge the competing architects regarding design and material practicalities and to offer a view as to professional competence.I suppose my job as chairman was simple. It was to listen, to contribute and to steer the panel – hopefully – to a unanimous decision.

What I was anxious to avoid was a member who voted against and forever and a day proclaim we’d made the wrong choice ! At the end of the day it is the passengers, the visitors and the people of Birmingham who will decide if we got it right. The panel approached the challenge constructively and with common purpose and by the time our discussions had ended we did indeed achieve a common recommendation, that Foreign Office Architects would design the new New Street Station.

We had been presented with a world tour of an amazing array of schemes from the finalists. As we looked and inspected the Berlin main train station, the International Airport at Carrasco in Uruguay, the civic Atrium and Foundation Square development in Melbourne, the Yokohama International Terminal in Japan and the high speed complex in Florence, our breath was taken away by the sheer talent and innovative ideas we were being asked to judge.
There was no easy outright winner. These outstanding and globally recognised architects had come to Birmingham to present their ideas as to how best to build a new station and how best to glorify the centre of our city.

We had adopted a scoring matrix which addressed the principal objectives of all the partners involved. We considered the response to the brief they had been given, the innovation of the design, the affordability and ongoing maintenance, the contribution to sustainability and the ability of the winning practice to work with the rest of the project team.

I set myself four questions which I wanted answered in straight language I could understand – no professional jargon – One, did it make the impact on the Birmingham skyline which I believed our citizens were seeking ? Two, would it benefit passengers and visitors alike? Three, could it be afforded and four would it work? At the end of the day it is this last objective which is the key to any major development because if it fails to meet its principal objective, however good it looks, it simply is the wrong answer.

We liked Foreign Office Architect’s approach to developing pedestrian flows across the centre of the city, from north to south and from east to west. We liked their design which will result in a reflection of Birmingham’s sky – with the clouds, the reflection of the trains and the reflection of the people, by day as well as by night.

We thought they shared our vision and understanding about what New Street station was all about. Stations need today to be more than an interchange for trains – essential as that is – they need to be at the hub of the city life, a place to meet and greet, to eat and drink, to enjoy and experience.

Just look at Union Station in Washington and Grand Central Station in New York, they are on every visitor’s ‘must do’ list. So it will be with New Street. It’s OK for the panel and judges, even the politicians to have a vision and an exciting ambition, at the end of the day it is for the people of Birmingham to judge that decision.

I suppose very few of us are granted the privilege of being involved with
such an exciting and forward looking project which hopefully can really make a difference to the city in which we live and the people who use the facility. I have been lucky enough to be involved in two former major projects for Birmingham, having led the teams to develop the International Convention Centre and Symphony Hall and more recently Millennium Point.

I am therefore not at all surprised to have heard the whingeing and
criticism of the future New Street Station because Birmingham loves robust debate, they enjoy an argument and a row, and it seems to me that we really do that rather well ! It’s always been like that, even Joseph Chamberlain had a huge row about the development of Corporation Street. There is no harm in sensible and reasoned discussion, we can just as well be wrong as right but doing nothing is never an answer.

In the case of the ICC they said it would be a white elephant and who on
earth would come to Birmingham for events and meetings – well they do come and Symphony Hall is the envy of the world. In the case of Millennium Point they said no-one would go there and now one million people visit and use the facility.

It has been a huge privilege to chair this panel and I thank each of them
for their time, their commitment and their desire to make the right decision for the railway, the environment and our city.

I hope our decision will in time bring to an end the tired and outdated
image of New Street station and the continuing, and justifiable, complaints about its disappointing welcome to visitors to our city and will be greeted as a an exciting and dramatic development of which all of us, those who design it, those who build it, those who pay for it can be proud and most of all a station pride in which the people of Birmingham can be proud.


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