a space_play series paying homage to some of Birmingham's finest brutalist icons


103 Colmore Row - John Madin Design Group, 1974

103 Colmore Row (aka NatWest Tower & formerly National Westminster House) is located on the corner of Newhall Street and Colmore Row, Birmingham. The building is the former central branch of NatWest bank; designed in 1964 by John Madin, and constructed in two phases between 1969 and 1974. Soaring 80m high and with 23 floors, the building became a prominent feature of Birmingham’s skyline – becoming the tallest structure within the Colmore Row Conservation Area. Moreover, the brutalist design provided a stark contrast to the surrounding Victorian-style buildings.

The entire site was formerly owned by NatWest Bank, but the building was designed to allow for shared occupation - maximising profitability of the plot. A two-storey banking hall forms the podium and creates the street frontage whilst an L-shaped tower set back from the main street sits above. This is all clad in coarse pre-cast concrete panels. A separate access to the tower is located on Newhall Street. The tower is split with three varied heights that wrap around the northern corner; the lower 16-storey section pushing forward over the banking hall and stepping up to the 21 storey section on the north side. The service shafts (including stair cores and lifts) are clad in plum-coloured brickwork giving contrast to the pre-cast concrete and definition to the tower’s form.

Attempts have been made to get the building listed, but have been unsuccessful and insufficient use of the building has led to a new proposal for the plot. The site is now owned by Sterling Property Ventures who began demolition of the building in late 2015 with plans to construct the new proposal beginning later this year. 103 Colmore Row has been described as "the most important Brutalist commercial building in the city, disastrous in context but with its own tremendous integrity." This is a sad loss for the heritage of Birmingham with one of the most prominent brutalist buildings disappearing.

Initial designs for NatWest House were first released in 1964; designed by John Madin Design Group. The brutalist style of the commercial high-rise proposal followed trends in office block designs and formed part of Madin’s overall vision of a futuristic streamlined Birmingham. The design is said to have taken some influence from Louis Kahn’s designs for the University of Pennsylvania (1957-1965), namely in the clear distinction and sculptural form of service towers.

The building was designed to respond to and protect the Colmore Row street frontage by creating a 2 storey podium (banking hall) with the high-rise towers set back away from the street line. The scheme also included a 5 storey office block to the west of the banking hall which had ground floor colonnades and formed an L-shaped courtyard space in between the two blocks. This entire scheme was called Colmore Centre, and construction began in 1969, completed after two phases in 1975. The 5 storey western block was renovated in 1996; it was increased to 8 storeys and re-clad so that it now appears as a completely separate building.

The building was constructed at the end of the 1960’s development boom, and so significant cost reductions were used to cater for the increasing oil prices and hostile economic climate. For this reason the interior elements were reduced in quality and alternatives found to expensive features. It may be argued that this also affected the overall construction quality of the building which has later led to the decision not to grant listed status.

The city council gave permission to demolish the existing building in 2008, but after the financial crisis, plans by then owners British Land failed to materialise and so the existing building continued to be vacant, as it had been since 2003. Attempts were made to get the brutalist building listed status. But this was rejected by English Heritage due to the lack of a “high degree of architectural quality and sophisticated detailing which would be expected of a building of this date”. The alterations to the western part of the block in the 1990’s and a general lack of preserved interiors were also used to support this decision. In November 2014, Sterling Property Ventures acquired the site for around £15m, and the developers were given permission to demolish NatWest House and build a new 26-storey steel, aluminium and glass tower.

A central service core enables an open plan arrangement for adaptation by tenants. Access to the office tower is via a stainless steel surround doorway on Newhall Street. Basement levels provide 100 parking spaces below. The service cores rise above the office towers and are distinguished by plum-coloured brickwork and large angled grills which act as smoke vents. Four plant floors cap the tallest of the towers. A kitchen on the twentieth floor with green internal panelling – one of the last remaining original features – serves the entire office block.

The lack of quality in constructed detailing due to a restricted construction budget, as well as the stark contrast to surrounding buildings have been used to prevent the building from gaining listed status. Poor management over time has led to poor conditions, but buildings like this deserve better treatment and a better understanding of their true beauty.

Reinforced concrete columns support concrete ‘waffle’ floor slabs and are externally clad with coarse and textured pre-cast concrete panels. The banking hall has faceted junctions at its two corners facing Colmore Row - each housing aluminium double doors with an abstract pattern designed by artist Henry Haig. The doors are painted to resemble bronze as part of the reduction in costs. Windows at the ground level are stretched over two storeys, emphasising the double height banking hall and the rounded corners are distinctive against the upper levels. The sharp square form of the windows above are deep-set with chamfered sills leading to the extruded surrounds, giving the façade a three-dimensional form particularly in the harsh sunlight. 

In the banking hall, a long row of service desks face Colmore Row with aluminium and glass screens rising and connecting to the mezzanine balcony. Above, the ceiling uses plasterboard to mimic a coffered concrete slab, finished in gold leaf. Plaster walls are decorated with abstract patterns in relief and the lift shafts and staircase decorated with abstract brown tiling.

“Although this building has good qualities of massing, it lacks the high degree of architectural quality and sophisticated detailing which would be expected of a building of this date. * The overall scheme has been considerably compromised by later alterations to one block in the 1990s. * The interior of the banking hall retains a high number of original fixtures and fittings, but this is not matched by the interiors elsewhere, which lack coherence and aesthetic quality.” – English Heritage

Demolition began in July 2015 with 19 miles of scaffolding and a 100m crane being constructed to take the towers down floor by floor.

The Colmore Row banking hall façade still stands – acting as a protective buffer for the working zone on site. Here the demolished materials will be stored before being removed from the site. Almost all materials from the building including timber, metal and concrete are to be recycled. The banking hall doors designed by Henry Haig will also be salvaged, with plans to either incorporate them into the new building or donate them to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

The new proposal has led to criticism for its overbearing mass, ignoring Madin’s precedent of setting back the large tower and providing a sympathetic approach to the low-rise buildings on Colmore Row through the use of a podium. The enormous fully-glazed facade climbs to 18-storeys at its lowest point, towering over Colmore Row and rising to a full 26-storeys. Furthermore, the large swathe of glazing with ‘silver vertical blades’ is in keeping with much of Birmingham’s uninspiring and non-descript schemes of late. 

You can view plans of the new Colmore Row building using the link: http://www.doonesilver.com/project/103-colmore-row-birmingham/