#03. ALPHA TOWER

 

A departure

One of my favourite things to do in Birmingham is drive along the A38 through the City, along the old inner ring road, through the Queensway tunnels. The diversity and complexity of the city’s forms with the continually changing views along this route are a treat for the eyes. It always makes me feel as if I’ve made it to a future Sci-fi world – A hardened landscape of utopian and dystopian battles, and I somehow feel proud that this is where I live.

As the main route joining the M6 to the city centre I travel in both directions often and the sight lines and views are distinctive either way. I anticipate the buildings I will see, trying to get the longest possible view of my favourites without crashing the car. Some are visible in both directions and my favourites are generally visible only whilst travelling in one of the two directions. But something has changed recently. I seem to have lost one of my favourite buildings in the city.

Driving north-bound along the Queensway route I remember seeing a tower. I’m not sure how a tower could have disappeared, but there used to be a tall white tower, sculpted with angles and subtle detailing. Just after the first ring road dip underneath Holloway Circus and re-emerging to the city skyline, on the left-hand-side I remember this beauty. Definitely a favourite of mine that now seems to be missing. I saw this photo recently shared by Brumpic on Instagram of this area in the 1970’s and it shows the tower clearly to the left-hand side.

Sci-fi vision of Utopia?

Sci-fi vision of Utopia?

But recently something has changed, I just can’t see it anymore.

Dystopian nightmare?

Dystopian nightmare?

This building was Grade II listed in 2014, apparently because it is “one of the most aesthetically successful office buildings in Birmingham with a shaped outline and careful detailing giving it a dynamic forcefulness. Its design successfully combined several ideas into a powerful and elegant building which soon became, and has continued to be, one of the most popular landmarks of the rebuilding of Birmingham city centre in the mid C20”, says Historic England in the details of listing status. So where has is gone?

Pre Arena Central development

Pre Arena Central development

I appreciate that the sight-lines along the ring road are perhaps not the most important thing relating to the contemporary development of Birmingham. But seeing the emergence of Alpha Tower as I passed under the Holloway Circus was one of the most exciting places in the City. Like a child experiencing the city for the first time it always felt new and inspiring. And as much as I do like the new Dandara building in the Arena Central masterplan, since it first broke ground I’ve been watching fearfully at how close it is to Alpha Tower, and how much it seemed to keep growing. From the southern areas of the city centre Alpha Tower’s presence in the skyline has been hugely impacted. Surely it deserves a little more respect.

Alpha Tower is a twenty-eight storey office building in Birmingham, situated on the site of a former canal basin. The building was designed by George Marsh of Richard Seifert Partners, and was one part of the proposed Associated Television development built between 1970-72.

 The original scheme was a lot grander than that eventually built.  Known as 'The Paradise Centre' it was to include a conference hall, shops, an air terminal, a hotel and offices.  The thirty-five storey version of Alpha Tower- to be the center of the scheme- was designed to taper from a splayed base and to have thin, flat top.  After a few years of delays due to objection from the General Post Office and the city council regarding the scale of the development, the amended twenty-eight storey Alpha Tower as we know it today was constructed- the cranked plan form remaining, but the tapering form altered.

The building remained the Associated Television headquarters up until 1982, when ownership was then handed over to Birmingham City Council who remained tenants until 2010.  In 2014 it was bought by the Anglo Scandinavian Estates Group- who have refurbished the building as offices to let.

Alpha Tower was a departure both for Birmingham-born architect George Marsh of Richard Seifert & Partners, and also for the city of Birmingham.

Famous for Space House (now known as One Kemble Street) and Centre Point-both in London, George Marsh’s design for Alpha Tower contrasts both with the bold shapes of pre-cast concrete panels that give his former works their distinct identity, and also with the more 'Brutal' architecture synonymous with Birmingham at that time. Whilst still utilising a reinforced concrete structure, the light finishes to the concrete panels as well as the modular fenestration and the subtle sophisticated lines give Alpha Tower a more lightweight appearance and character- like a piece of origami.

The mullions are vertical on the inner edge, but tapered either side of the window opening- giving the reveal a curve to accommodate the change. The repetition of this tapered edge along with grid of the windows is such a joy to stand and appreciate – like retro geometry distinct in form and proportion. On the very occasional day Birmingham is overcast with grey skies, this detail now gets lost as you look upwards- the windows uniting to create a screen reflecting the skies. The bronze finish instead was an underscore, a highlighter or form of punctuation not so subtly allowing you to read and enjoy this masterful geometry.

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Sited in the Listed Building documentation, the fenestration forms a distinct aspect of Alpha Tower- certainly one that is regularly commented on. This is largely due to the frames - originally being bronzed aluminium- giving a very distinct and striking look. In recent years however, this has been replaced with a grey colour. This seems a shame, whilst it may look more sleek and subtle, I feel not only is it less fun and intriguing, but it becomes easier to overlook the masterful design of the windows as a whole.

Laser cut artwork showing ground floor columns

Laser cut artwork showing ground floor columns

The tower is supported at ground floor by a series of beautiful pillars tapering down on the outside and tapering up on the inside. It touches the ground lightly allowing people to freely walk underneath. The concrete lintels above the pillars are also angled and the staircore wedges on both ends are finished differently - the north end drops down to landscape whilst the southern end (shown in this piece) is cut away at an angle exposing some of the staircore.



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