You might not recognize architect Glenn Howells, but you’ll definitely know his work. His practice has been responsible for an extraordinary amount of Birmingham’s renaissance, beginning with his big break in 1991/2 with The Custard Factory, right up to the master plan for Paradise Circus.
In the intervening years his list of Birmingham buildings conceived and brought to fruition has covered most aspects of life, covering housing, retail, office, education and public realm. A few notable highlights include the City Centre’s Rotunda; the Brammal Music Building at University of Birmingham; Eleven Brindleyplace; and Edgbaston Priory Club. That is quite a varied litany from a single architectural practice in one city.
Born in the Black Country – “not even as posh as Brum” – Glenn studied at Plymouth and, in 1990, set up his practice in London. After getting the gig on The Custard Factory in 1991 he decided to open a second, bigger studio in Birmingham. Today he splits his time between the two – “Having more than one facet to life is important. It keeps you awake.” – giving him a useful perspective on the merits and successes of each.
Londoners often insist that no other UK city is worth living in, because there’s so much more to do in the capital. But with Glenn you get the impression that life shouldn’t only about how long the list of distractions is. “Birmingham is pushing towards a really liveable city. It’s not 12miilion people – it’s a little over 1million – so it’s easier to access people and has more opportunities for business to grow and for the city to expand. There’s lots more elbow room, and you can be in the wilderness in 20 minutes.”
It’s this “elbow room” that Glenn thinks will help Birmingham escape the unaffordability that has engulfed the capital, and that will help smaller businesses to flourish in Brum. “The Custard Factory is very keen to keep affordable space in the city centre for startup creative and retail enterprises. We tried to do that in London but it’s much harder to supply that sort of space and people are now paying £60 per ft2 there. Birmingham is easier.”
He also hopes that affordability will be retained in whatever form Birmingham Markets takes. “It’s the most culturally rich market in the UK and we should keep that as a counterpart to the brands of the Bull Ring. But when you’re trying to make a city less about cars and traffic, and where there are juggernauts arriving from Holland and Belgium on a 30-acre site within 3 minutes of New Street, you have to make a hard choice. There will be a shift when the wholesale element moves further out, but the city centre needs the extra dimension of small-scale food and an alternative retail quarter”.
What a very refreshing and comforting view from someone who, despite a series of high profile and highfalutin showcase projects, clearly has his feet firmly on the ground.