Wraps come off at Birmingham's giant new Primark – just in time for Christmas

It’s the enormous shopping centre that should have been fully unwrapped in December.

The world’s biggest Primark – a giant Christmas gift to the city of Birmingham from one of the few retailers to have outperformed the market in the past decade.

But in early October the company announced the brutal news that it was going to miss its festive target and not open in time for Christmas.

The new plan was to be ready in the spring instead… in time for the company’s 50th anniversary next June.

So how is the new Primark looking for the Christmas it cannot celebrate?

The Moor Street Queensway view of the new Primark on November 24, 2018

While the existing store continues on New Street – and will transfer staff over next year – we’ve been out and about in recent days to try to imagine how it will appear once finished.

Will it be doing the city of Birmingham any architectural favours…

Or should we have stuck with how the former Pavilions shopping centre looked before?

Work to be done - looking up at the new frontage showing insulation foam and other materials between the girders
Work in progress: the new Primark frontage on High Street on November 15, 2018

Is Brutalism back with Primark?

There is a danger with judging any building before it is finished.

it can be very easy to jump to the wrong conclusions.

CGI of world’s largest Primark opening in Birmingham

Not least when you remember it can take decades for some buildings to find favour.

The scaffolding covers have recently come down on both sides of the new Primark, though.

And we also have the added bonus of having CGI images to imagine how it will look once finished.

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So it’s as if we’re now at the stage of unwrapping a Christmas present and being able to see the box, if not the toy inside.

The shape of the building is visible, just not how it will look once fully illuminated.

CGI of world’s largest Primark opening in Birmingham – view from Moor Street with Selfridges out of shot to the left

At first glance, the future Primark looks harsh.

So much so, in fact, you could say it looks Brutal…

A reworking of the 1960s in different, cheaper clothes?

What is the design?

View from the M&S end of Primark on November 15, 2018
View from the M&S end of Primark on November 15, 2018

The front of the building on High Street is comprised of a series of giant, stepped back, interlocking panels of perforated, dull metal.

The scale and size of them have not been seen in Birmingham city centre before.

Just on giant sheds on retail parks like the amazing new Wholesale Market in Witton.

Other large buildings with metallic features in the city centre – Grand Central, The Library of Birmingham and Selfridges – are all more subtle in their own distinctive way.

Primark during construction - March 17, 2018
Primark during construction – March 17, 2018

At this time of the year – when November to February’s short days are invariably cold, wet and dull – the High Street frontage looks like the Great Wall of Primark.

Each major panel is made up of 20 smaller sheets at the top, and eight below.

To try to soften their overall impact further, the eight sheets in the smaller, lower main sections at the bottom look like they have been folded from the bottom left corner to the top right corner.

Perspective

View from the foot of the Rotunda looking across New Street and up High Street on November 15, 2018
View from the foot of the Rotunda looking across New Street and up High Street on November 15, 2018

The main High Street entrance to the building is not in the middle.

So there are three stepped major panels to the left and five to the right of the central glass frontage.

Just like the ‘rule of thirds in photography’, perhaps this lopsided look will improve the general perspective of High Street when viewed from the foot of the Rotunda.

View from Moor Street Queensway includes the Rotunda and a worker abseiling down the front
View from Moor Street Queensway includes the Rotunda and a worker abseiling down the front

By having the feature section further away, it will make the area look bigger than it really is.

On the Moor Street Queensway side, the central feature is also not in the middle of the building.

This time it is towards the left, not the right, which means the scale of the building in context with its position between the Bullring (left) and Marks & Spencer (right) will be different depending on which way you are walking or travelling along Moor Street Queensway.

A 2015 image of how Primark will look
A 2015 image of how Primark will look

The softening process

CGI images from planning documents show how the panels will look when lit by uplighters.

They will help to define the subtle shift in shades depending on whether any particular panel is facing towards you or away from you.

The overall effect will be dramatically different to the famous aluminium discs – inspired by a 1960s’ dress – which cover Selfridges nearby.

How the back of the Pavilions looked on February 27, 2014
How the back of the Pavilions looked on February 27, 2014

On Moor Street, the big unanswered question is whether the two styles will compliment each other (like St Martin the Bull Ring church and Selfridges) or clash (like the rough concrete of the BT building on Hill Street next to the classy bricks of the rear of the former Futurist Cinema).

On High Street, we will have to see whether the sheer dullness and size of the panels will be overbearingly dominant whenever the sun is not shinging and particularly during the short dark days of winter.

On Moor Street, whether we would have preferred to have retained the original brickwork which was so striking it could be seen in Steven Spielberg’s recent film, Ready Player One, in a scene shot from a Digbeth rooftop.

Christmas on High Street

Opressive? Birmingham German Christmas Market revellers at the end of New Street, with the new Primark rising behind
Opressive? Birmingham German Christmas Market revellers at the end of New Street, with the new Primark rising behind on November 24, 2018

The sheer scale of the building works means that there will be no festive lights on the High Street this year between Waterstones and Marks & Spencer.

The city council has long run out of money to fund Christmas lights in Birmingham.

But the Retail BID has been unable to step in here because of the construction – and other streets in the city are also in the dark this year, too.

The legacy of Brutalism

View from Moor Street Queensway includes a worker abseiling down the new Primark on November 15, 2018
View from Moor Street Queensway includes a worker abseiling down the new Primark on November 15, 2018

When Birmingham was last being remodelled on the scale of today’s citywide redevelopments, architect John Madin’s work was to the fore in the 1960s.

But many of his buildings have recently been demolished this century.

They include Pebble Mill, the Birmingham Post & Mail, the NatWest Tower on Colmore Row, Powergen in Shirley and the Central Library at the heart of Paradise.

Not one of these buildings was able to survive long enough to find favour beyond a generation which grew to hate them.

A concrete muncher two days before it began chewing the Central Library on December 14, 2015
A concrete muncher two days before it began chewing the Central Library on December 14, 2015

The Central Library was the most distinctive and controversial.

An upside down ziggurat which would have cost far less to refurbish than the £188 million spent on the Library of Birmingham, a replacement building so expensive the city council cannot afford to open it before 11am.

Had the rest of Paradise been cleared around it and the exterior been given some brilliant, modern lighting effects, the Central Library would have looked amazing, daring, distinctive and relentlessly futuristic.

Something, surely, for the new Primark to look up to.

The Pavilions frontage in July, 2016
The Pavilions frontage in July, 2016 two months after it had closed

Flashback to The Pavilions

The old shopping centre closed on May 20 2016 after 29 years and one major remodelling period.

Mother of three Jodie Dowd, from Five Ways, said on the last day of trading for the handful of shops left: “I walk through here every day after taking my six-year-old daughter Chloe to school.

“I am sad Pavilions is closing, it was such a happy place to come shopping.

Mum Jodie Dowd loved The Pavilions
Mum Jodie Dowd loved The Pavilions

“I remember it when they had the lifts in the middle.”

Jodie was pushing a double pram with Lillie (two) and Riley, seven months.

She added: “I will really miss this place, but I guess we have to move on in to the 21st century!”

The future for Primark

The new Spring opening date should come just in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the company’s origins in Dublin where the first Penneys store was opened in June, 1969.

While the existing New Street store in Birmingham will close, the number of people employed by the company in the heart of the city is forecast to rise from about 460 to 800.

The first store in England opened in Derby in 1973 under the Primark name because an American retailer called JC Penney already had the rights to use its own name.

A November 16, 2017 aerial view showing the inside of the vast new Primark development
A November 16, 2017 aerial view showing the inside of the vast new Primark development

The company’s rapid expansion in the past 15 years was fuelled by the acquisition of Littlewoods retail stores in 2005.

When Primark opened its newest Birmingham store at The Fort Shopping Park in Erdington in 2016, one senior staff member said he couldn’t give his name if he was to reveal the secret of Primark’s success inside the 45,000 sq ft shop.

Revealing all, he then said: “(The secret is that) there is no secret.

“Just the value that we offer and the standards that we like to follow.”

The verdict so far on the new Primark

A workman inside the last open space of a wall of protective sheeting when work began to dismantle the old Pavilions shopping centre - April 13, 2017
A workman inside the last open space of a wall of protective sheeting when work began to dismantle the old Pavilions shopping centre – April 13, 2017

Birmingham has an unfair reputation for being a concrete jungle when you study some of the extraordinary Victorian frontages on Corporation Street and New Street.

A nod back to an era when nobody had a computer to create design concepts that would leave so many ‘modern’ buildings covered in anonymous cladding.

The Victorians knew how to combine skill, craftsmanship and traditional materials with breathtaking effect.

A New Street view of a scissor lift outside of the new Primark Birmingham Pavilions on September 27, 2018
Bring me sunshine! A New Street view of a scissor lift outside of the new Primark Birmingham Pavilions on September 27, 2018

Times move on and production processes become ever more automated at the expense of flair.

But while some of the city’s new flagship buildings are still endearingly experimental, far too many anodyne apartment blocks are springing up all around us to reduce Birmingham’s architectural sense of identity.

Looking at the new Primark so far, the jury has to be out on the impact its brave new vision will have on the local built environment.

If they get it wrong, the next generation will no doubt want live up to Birmingham’s 1838 motto of ‘Forward’.

And move it on again.


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