#07. NEW STREET SIGNALBOX
The Brute of Brum
The New Street signal box is located to the east of Birmingham’s New Street station; on the corner of Navigation St and Brunel St. It was designed by Bicknell and Hamilton Architects, and built in 1964 as part of the electrification of the Euston train line.
At five stories high above track level, the signal box has a tall, narrow design as a response to the awkward and constricted site into which it was squeezed. The height is often unnoticed however, due to the adjacent street levels; providing access at the first floor. The varying floor heights and asymmetrical form give an almost abstract and imposing composition.
The signalbox typifies 1960’s brutalism and is now listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. The signal box is acknowledged as “a 'one off' constructed on a very difficult and congested site. A dramatic building of exceptional architectural quality with a strongly sculptural form”.
The signalbox was built in the mid-point of the Brutalist architectural movement that flourished from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. This Brutalist design movement was a response by architects to both the ostentatious expressions of earlier decades as well as the need for quick restoration in a post-war society. The style places emphasis on materials, textures and construction, producing highly expressive forms and promoting appreciation of the 'honesty' and sculptural qualities that uncompromisingly took an anti-bourgeois stance towards architecture.
Buildings don’t come much more brutal that this signal box and it remains exceptional in its combination of function, aesthetic, and location. Designed to accommodate the upgrading and electrification of the Euston line, the signal box was part of the renovation of new Street station in 1967 and centralised all train traffic control across Birmingham.
Architects Bicknell and Hamilton collaborated with R. L. Moorcraft the Regional Architect for the London Midland Region to produce a building that was cutting-edge for its time; both in terms of the architectural style and the revolutionary technology used to run the signalling. That technology, based on electromechanical relay switches is still being used for signalling to New Street station, with programming that calculates legal routes for the trains.
The signal box continues to exert a presence despite the hi-rise developments towering over the site due to its unique character, form and materiality. Open tracks of New Street have enabled the immediate context to remain clear of development and maintained unrestricted views particularly from Navigation Street and Upper Hill Street.
The signal box is bunker-like, solid and static externally, but is internally “one of the city’s most vital and intense infrastructure systems, serving the busiest rail interchange in the UK”.
The building has a reinforced concrete structural frame, clad with triangular profiled concrete cladding panels. This creates a corrugated pattern across all four facades with the building’s verticality broken by the strong horizontal lines of the cladding. The varying floor heights are also accentuated through cuts made into the cladding by continuous metal window frames wrapping around the building; giving indication of the floor level, but not of any internal workings.
Information on the functions and equipment on each floor is limited, likely due to security concerns. There are however simple clues within the design of the building which may indicate functions of particular levels.
The limited fenestration on levels 3 and 4 indicate these levels may be used for storage of electrical equipment and plant areas for the signalling systems. A large beam protruding from the 4th floor façade with steel doors just below, indicate the possibility of a hoist system used for moving heavy or large equipment into/out of the building.
On the top floor sits the operations room which is set back from the façade boundaries and sheltered by a massive cantilevered roof with a deep fascia. This provides sufficient protection from glare and clear view of the tracks.
A large chimney-like structure continues past the top floor in the centre of the building, and carrying the horizontal cladding another two stories higher.