The Knowledge Hub was launched by Birmingham City Council at the international property conference MIPIM in March 2016. At the same time it was mentioned in the government’s March budget, early elements of the masterplan have already granted funding.
The project has the potential to have a huge impact on the area itself, together with the wider city. It includes Curzon Street Station which will be the new arrival point for HS2, the UK’s largest infrastructure project. Designers and stakeholders hope the Knowledge Hub will set Birmingham apart from other cities and provide the city centre with beautifully connected public spaces and streets, with leisure and cultural facilities that promote a better life for those working, living and visiting the area.
The area in question includes land occupied by Birmingham City University, Birmingham Science Park, Innovation Birmingham, Aston University and Aston Engineering Academy, Millennium Point, Eastside Park, Birmingham Ormiston Academy, Birmingham Metropolitan College, HS2 College and land extending to Eastside Locks.
Working through its enterprise vehicle Co-Lab Consult (an extension of its curriculum live project modules) led by Head of School professor Kevin Singh and enterprise co-ordinator Alessandro Columbano, Node were commissioned to work alongside the School of Architecture and Design. Node has a strong relationship with the school with a number of staff being alumni of the landscape architecture and urban design courses, as well as working as visiting tutors.
Node says on its website: “By practice and academia (including students) working together in a collaborative relationship, a number of new methodologies and techniques have emerged which can be re-deployed in future projects as a new paradigm.
“We created a coherent campus masterplan for the Knowledge Hub which is a test bed for new ideas and is influenced by cross cutting themes including learning, innovation, health and well being, culture and enterprise. Seven projects have been identified as ‘key moves’ to help transform the area that involve new development proposals, new high quality public spaces and the opportunity to encourage social and economic exchange.
“The creation of a Knowledge Hub shows ambition, collaboration and recognition of the great work undertaken in this part of the city. The masterplan aims to build on the work already proposed in the Big City Plan. We want to create a quarter Birmingham can be proud of.”
The project was originally proposed by Professor Cliff Allan, Vice Chancellor of Birmingham City University who approached the University’s School of Architecture and Design to produce a masterplan for the Knowledge Hub, Birmingham. The project has attracted interest from Birmingham City Council, the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership and the Treasury.
Node’s plans plans for the Knowledge Hub were revealed on 3rd MArch 2016 to a flurry of media attention, including in the Birmingham Post.
INTERVIEW WITH NIGEL WAKEFIELD
Please explain the scope of the project and Node’s involvement, from scratch?
We were commissioned by BCU to look at creating a Knowledge Hub masterplan for a large area of Birmingham city centre, the same area that will be served by HS2. It’s an area where a lot of educational establishments and a business hub are already in situ, and there was a feeling that the council and various other stakeholders in the area should work together to come up with a masterplan for the whole area – currently it feels disjointed and does not really have much of an identity as a place. One of the central things we were commissioned to do was have a look at the wider area, and see if we could connect it back to the city centre, but also create some sort of overall identity for the area.
It was going to be called the Learning Hub masterplan, but the idea expanded to include business, enterprise, and the creative industries on the south side of the Knowledge Hub. The idea was to encourage students to not only study there, but to set up businesses and start their careers in Birmingham – it’s about retaining talent for the city after they graduate.
So we engaged with a number of stakeholders, working with academic staff and students. Instead of just being a consultant being parachuted with a commission, we involved PhD students to help with an analysis of the local architecture and how we might integrate with it sympathetically. We were keen to identify a number of a significant key moods, and to raise the profile of the area in such a way as to attract some funding from the Local Economic Partnership, but also from central government, to take the potential to the next level. Our plan was to make it an exemplar of collaboration between institutions to transform an area.
From a technical standpoint, what were the significant challenges of this work?
A major challenge was the fact that there are multiple land owners in the affected area, and there were a number of masterplans that had already been initiated by different institutions for their own projects, so the key obstacle was working to bring them together in a shared vision. There was some significant infrastructure which had been put in in the 1970s, which amounted to significant severs between different parts of the city centre, so a question was how do we break them down and reconnect the pedestrian and cycle connectivity to the area.
Other challenges included how to relate the project to HS2 coming into the area when the proposals have not been fully formed in terms of their planned buildings and architectural elements. We had to explore the impact of the number of people that HS2 will bring into the area, and the disruption as major construction work is being undertaken.
Finally, the question of to connect it out to the wider area – there were issues around student housing where some developers had a different vision for the work they wanted to do too, and also making sure the necessary funding to complete the work was in place, to keep the momentum up.
Can you describe the conceptual features of the design itself?
We had an overall vision with a series of themes that key through the project. One was about learning, one about innovation, one about health and wellbeing in an urban environment. We also wanted to use the space in a way that lends itself to pop up markets, and also include some pavilions that would encourage businesses of all kinds to emerge, or even just become spaces that people can collaborate on design projects in the instances where people want to get a business off the ground but cannot necessarily afford rent.
When did you get the commission, and how far along is it?
Were were commissioned about 18 months ago. There will be a series of projects going forward, and a series of research work. It has got traction in that Birmingham City Council are supporting it, the institutions are supporting it. We are keen to work with HS2 to work out how their buildings are going to integrate with the landscape work. Something like £79m has been earmarked to kickstart the series of the projects that comprise the overall masterplan.
It must be quite rewarding to work on a project that hopefully influences how society in the area is shaped over the next 20 years?
Yes it is very exciting – off the back of this project we won the National Urban Design Award based on this project, because of the scale of it, and because of our innovative approach of working with the local institutions. We do work on residential masterplans on smaller sites, but we wanted to target this work because it is going to have a significant impact on people’s lives.
What about the firm itself?
I set up the company six years ago – my background is as a planner, an urban designer and landscape architect. We are currently 10 people with premises in London, Leicester, and the main office is Birmingham. We are trying to grow to 24 people in the next three years, and we need these types of projects to sustain the kind of growth we want. Our focus has been on not only looking at projects related to housing, but also work like Bicester town centre. We’ve just worked on a large a large residential mixed used development in Burton-upon-Trent. The other work we like is local authorities, and university educational establishments.
Is this particular project a turning point?
It is our biggest to date. I think it has shown that we have credibility and it demonstrates we can take on this scale of development even though we are a small practice.