It’s difficult to appreciate the scale of the transformation of Birmingham city centre unless you lived there before some time in the late 1990s, before that transformation started. That’s when I went to Aston University, and every time I go back to Birmingham I suffer from fits and starts of complete disorientation as I come across some new piece of the city, utterly transformed. Birmingham’s main railway station, New Street, has been transformed too.
In fact, under giant ETFE skylights, passengers at New Street station haven’t had it so good since 1967.
Rebuilt during British Railways’ 1950-60s modernisation of the London-Glasgow West Coast Main Line, I remember New Street station from my university days as a vast, lumpen impediment to movement in the middle of Birmingham, forever getting in the way of walks anywhere to the west of New Street (the street; the one the station is named for). It was a replacement for the old New Street station. Having grown up as two stations side by side, the older London and North Western station had an attractive glass and iron trainshed roof above (damaged beyond repair in the Second World War).
The new New Street station of the 1960s was, in contrast, buried under a shopping centre called the Pallasades. New Street station’s position in a cutting meant that the platforms were below ground level. British Rail sold off the air rights above the platforms, allowing the creation of a shopping centre which, although above the platforms, was only just above ground level on the New Street side (less so at the other side; the ground slopses). It was dreadful; station, shopping centre, all of it.
I’m not one of those people who deride all the 1960s architecture along the West Coast Main Line. I don’t mind the rebuilt Euston, though it’s been ruined since and can’t really handle the numbers of passengers now trying to use it on a daily basis. Coventry station is splendid, but again hasn’t been looked after terribly well. The Brutalist signal box at New Street station (The Beauty of Transport 28 October 2015) is quite simply an amazing piece of architecture even if it isn’t exactly loveable (though I doubt that was ever the intention).
But New Street station I never liked. The platforms were places of Stygian darkness with a ceiling height too low to allow diesel train fumes to dissipate easily, and which gave rise to a claustrophobic atmosphere. Only the very ends of the platforms poked out into the daylight, with views of concrete walls high above.
Above the platforms the concourse/ticket hall was small, cramped and chaotic. It was hard to see how to get down onto the platforms if you were starting your journey there, though you’d soon regret it if you did work it out. The station area was clearly squeezed into the smallest area possible under the Pallasades shopping centre, transport quite subservient to retail. And it wasn’t even a very nice shopping centre, at least not by the time I was a regular visitor. There was a narrow, awkward bridge which connected into the Bull Ring shopping centre, which was if anything even worse than the Pallasades.
By the end of the 20th Century it was clear that Something Had To Be Done. The subsequent revitalisation of Birmingham city centre is an urban regeneration story rather outside the scope of this website, except to note that it was partly responsible for the demolition of the building at Aston University where the transport students had all their lectures, as I discovered to my shock on a visit there a few years ago. But the rebuilding of Birmingham New Street station, and the shopping centre above it, certainly isn’t.
When I visit Birmingham these days, I find that where some piece of 1960s concrete previously stood, there’s now a shiny glass and steel out-of-town retail mall suddenly arrived in the middle of town. And then, round the next corner, everything is just the same as it was. It’s like being in China Mieville’s The City & The City in which old Birmingham and new Birmingham coexist simultaneously, yet it’s impossible to perceive the old city when you’re in the new bits, and vice versa.
Bang in the middle of this cognitive dissonance is the redeveloped Birmingham New Street station. It’s not an entirely successful piece of work, but it still has much of interest.
Plans were announced in 2005 for studies into what was then predicted to be a £350m redevelopment of the station. By the time work was completed in 2015, it had become a £750m project. Birmingham City Council in particular was keen for a New Street station that acted as a more fitting gateway to the city, while the rail industry had its eye on something that would cope better with the increasing passenger numbers which were putting New Street station’s existing facilities under ever greater pressure.
It was 2010 before full planning permission for the station redevelopment was finally secured, and work began on the five year programme to rebuild New Street station. A design competition was won by Foreign Office Architects, earlier concept designs by Will Alsop and McAslan + Partners having been dropped for being too mad and not mad enough, respectively. Foreign Office Architects first found fame with the Yokohama International Port Terminal (The Beauty of Transport 12 November 2014) but New Street station would turn out to be the practice’s last project. The two partners in the practice had effectively split up already, and the New Street station project moved across to partner Alejandro Zaera-Polo’s new venture AZPML.
The project would see the complete reconstruction of the station concourse and the Pallasades, and along the way the project dropped its Birmingham Gateway title, with a new shopping centre at the upper level of the station being named Grand Central. It was a brave move to name it after what is arguably the world’s most famous and impressive station. So what has Birmingham got for its money? And does it bear comparison with its New York namesake Grand Central Terminal (The Beauty of Transport 13 August 2014)? Well, it’s certainly a vast improvement on the 1967 version of the station both in terms of usability and appearance. And it has more in common with New York’s Grand Central Terminal than you might think.
Approaching it from the surrounding area, the new station makes a bold statement about itself that fits in perfectly with the new Birmingham. Wrapping around the outside of the station is an undulating mirror-finish façade of polished stainless steel. Façade it truly is, having no structural function. As AZPML admits, the cladding “could not be related to the building for practical reasons”. But it’s quite the sight, reflecting its surroundings and as a result somehow blending in and standing out simultaneously. It’s made the new station (and, yes, its shopping centre) a landmark in the way that the Pallasades and the previous main entrance to the station never were.
The rebuild has made it possible to walk right around New Street station at street level much more easily than with the previous station. It is an easy walk, mostly hugging a sheltered route under the projecting reflective façade which acts as a giant wayfinding tool. It makes the area around New Street station much more permeable to walkers and cyclists and although the more flamboyant aspects of the new New Street station’s design have attracted the most attention, I wonder if it’s not the improved walking and cycling opportunities in the area that aren’t one of the best bits of the new design.
At each of the main entrances to Grand Central are giant “media eyes”. You’ll see these on photographs of the new New Street station, and Network Rail got very excited about them when they were installed. They’re basically giant LED display screens of the sort you see at many large stations, but ellipsoid rather than rectangular, oddly reminiscent of the Martian war machines in the earlier film version of The War of the Worlds (dir Byron Haskin 1953). Frankly, I find them a bit terrifying, especially when they display pictures of actual eyes.
Inside, the change compared to the old New Street station is at its greatest. No longer are the shops of the Pallasades on the top with the station concourse tucked underneath. Now, both shops and concourse are co-located at the same level, with an additional gallery level of shops ringing a large central atrium. Letting in the daylight to New Street station’s concourse for the first time in decades are the huge ETFE skylight windows above.
The wide passageways leading from the station’s main entrances into the atrium use wave-shaped slats across the ceiling to give unusual texture. Such features represent the geometries of motion, AZPML explains. Lights positioned between the slats provide illumination without interrupting the design.
The design highlight, however, is the atrium itself and its ETFE windows. The curving, branching structure of the roof is reminiscent of some of Santiago Calatrava’s work, but while Calatrava draws on organic inspirations, in this case AZPML’s design is intended to reference railway trackwork, with its pointwork and splitting tracks. It’s certainly extremely photogenic, which is more than can be said for the 1967 station. Waiting areas for railway passengers are cleverly located in two separate gated sections (serving platforms 1-5 and 6-12 respectively) with a space between them allowing shoppers to pass through.
The atrium’s roof structure was the most difficult part of the design to complete. Zaera-Polo wanted the curving struts of the roof to be plasterboarded to match the rest of the station. Network Rail found that to be too complicated to deliver. The contractors wanted to leave the roof’s unadorned steelwork on display. The compromise was to clad the struts with PVC fabric. It just about works, but loses some of the sharpness you might expect with either plasterboard or sculpted steel. Zaera-Polo was apparently furious about the whole thing and is reputed never to have been to the rebuilt New Street station.
Escalators in the atrium lead up to the gallery and surrounding shops, Grand Central itself, where a new link to the rebuilt Bullring shopping centre can also be found.
This, however, is the basis of one of the criticisms heard most often about the new New Street station, which is that in its design it is a shopping centre first, and a railway station second. It’s undeniably true. Network Rail likes to talk about the station being a “destination station”, fulfilling the old role of a railway station as a hub of the community, today re-imagined as a place you can go even if you don’t want to catch a train. But let’s be honest. This is about generating additional revenues for Network Rail (and, by extension, HM Treasury). But if it gets you a station where you can distract and amuse yourself while waiting for a train, rather than sitting on a bench out in the cold, is that a bad thing? The railway moves with the times, or it dies, surely. It’s far from the only big new station to take this approach. The Oculus at the World Trade Center Transportation Hub is much the same (The Beauty of Transport 13 June 2018) and even Grand Central Terminal is as much as shopping centre today as it is a railway station.
The arrival and waiting experience at New Street station has been revolutionised. It’s when you descend to the platforms that it all goes a bit wrong. Thanks to the new atrium, daylight might now reach to New Street station’s concourse and passenger waiting areas. But that’s as far as it gets. The platforms underneath are still as far from daylight as they ever were, with the raft of the shopping centre above still looming, too low, just above the platforms. And the platforms are still as narrow as they were, feeling as cramped as ever when large crowds build up to board a long distance inter-city train. The finishes of the platforms have been refurbished in an attempt to make everything look brighter, and it does, but the improvement is very limited.
The only way to have significantly improved the platform level would have been to demolish the shopping centre above in its entirety, allowing light back down to the platforms, in the manner of the pre-1960s station. There have also been plans mooted from time to time to build additional platforms in tunnels underneath the existing ones, to handle suburban train services. Some combination of those might be the best chance for New Street station’s platforms to see a significant improvement, but it’s hard to image monies being available for such a comprehensive rebuild in the near term, nor one in which the railway would happily forego the income from the shops above.
The rebuilding of New Street station isn’t perfect; it’s really only half a job. It’s massively improved the station at ground level upwards, but the platforms remain very disappointing and a dispiriting first sight for passengers arriving in Birmingham by train. Despite that, there is evidence that passengers feel better about the new New Street station than they did about the old one. Within the first six months of opening, passenger satisfaction with the station rose from 66% to 81%.
Yet there is another station which has a hugely impressive concourse but grim and dark platforms; Grand Central shopping centre’s namesake in New York, Grand Central Terminal. That station often tops lists of the world’s best despite this, so maybe the new New Street station can take comfort from that, even if passengers on its platforms might not be so charitably minded.
How to find New Street station
Bibliography and Further Reading
AZPML’s project page for the New Street station rebuild, here
Network Rail’s history of New Street station, here
Article about the architecture of the new New Street station from The Guardian, here
…and anything else linked to in the text above