Top 5 iconic Birmingham buildings


England’s second city has transformed itself over the past 20 years from being an ugly urban jungle famed for its dodgy ’60s buildings to a modern metropolis with some of the finest new structures in Europe. Read on to find out about the pick of Brum’s architecture.

1. Library of Birmingham

The newest building on Birmingham’s skyline, in Centenary Square, is either the ugliest building in the world or a fine piece of envelope-pushing modern architecture, depending on your taste. It’s also the biggest public library in Europe with over 800,000 books and 200 computers.

From a distance it looks like a giant wasp-coloured Liquorice Allsort wrapped in barbed wire. Up close you can see the metalwork on the library’s exterior which the architects, Mecanoo, say pays homeage to the city’s industrial heritage.

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There are ten floors of joy for book-lovers, and unusually for a library it has rooms for gigs and talks. There’s an in-house cafe, and outdoor terraces (called “secret gardens“) on the 3rd and 7th floors. The 9th floor has an indoor “Skyline Viewpoint” with sofa seats from which to take in Brum’s best view. It’s often booked up for private events, so check before waiting for the lift (or tackling the stairs like I did).

After costing £188m, it was opened to a great fanfare in September 2013 by Malala Yousafzai – the Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban and now an honorary Brummie.

The Council has set a target of 3 million visitors in the library’s first year, and must be well on the way to meeting this already. Definitely worth a look (inside and out) if you’re in town.

Anyone can join, regardless of where you live. Click here to join online.

2. Rotunda

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This cylindrical tower, a grade II listed building, was constructed in the 1960s but was given a makeover in 2008. Once used primarily as an office block, it now consists of the ubiquitous ‘serviced apartments’, but rooms and penthouse suites on the top floors can be rented out by the night through Staying Cool. I’ve never stayed there, but the panoramic views must be pretty amazing.

There used to be a pub on the ground floor of the Rotunda. The Mulberry Bush was one of the two boozers targetted by the IRA in the infamous 1974 Birmingham Pub Bombings. The other, The Tavern in the Town, is now an all-you-can-eat-for-a-fiver buffet restaurant on New Street.

3. Victoria Square

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It’s not just the new that Birmingham can be proud of. Linking the shops of New Street and the Bullring to the bars and restaurants of Brindley Place, the pedestrianised Victoria Square has to be one of the finest squares in the country (although it’s not in the same league as some of the great Piazzas, Plazas and Places of mainland Europe).

It’s flanked by the Council House, Birmingham Museum and Gallery (BMAG) and the Town Hall, and has statues of Queen Victoria, “Iron Man” by Anthony Gormley (of Angel of the North fame) and a water feature. What it’s crying out for are bars with outdoor seating on the square.

I’m not sure if it’s because of the UK’s crazy licensing laws, or if no-one else agrees with me, but until it happens you could always do what I do on sunny lunchtimes – get a sandwich from Greggs just down the road, sit on the steps by the fountain and people-watch.

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The square is the epicentre of the annual German Christmas market – the biggest German Christmas market outside Germany and Austria, they say – so grabbing a Bratwurst and a stein of German beer here is a must.

4. Bullring

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September 2013 marked the 10th anniversary of Birmingham’s premier indoor shopping centre. It’s pretty unremarkable on the inside, with all the usual high street names and very few independent stores. But from the outside it’s a bit of a stunner – the exterior of Selfridges is covered with 15,000 silver discs, making the building look like a dragon, with a covered footbridge to the car park being its tail.

5. 10 Holloway Circus

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This 130m tall hotel and residential building is the tallest in the city. It’s not as tall as the BT Tower, but that is classed as a tower rather than a building.

The lower floors are taken up by a branch of the posh Radisson Blu hotel and its restaurant, with the upper floors being more serviced apartments.

Brum's tallest building, taken from the 3rd floor terrace of the library.

You can see the blue mirrored glass windows from miles away, especially on take-off from Birmingham Airport, which isn’t always a good thing. My office is in the building next to it, so I’m reminded of work whenever I see 10 Holloway Circus.

Birmingham is such a dynamic city, there are loads of cranes on the skyline at the moment – a good indicator that the economy can’t be doing too badly, and a sign that more iconic buildings are on the way.

New Street station is undergoing a massive regeneration which will see a new shopping centre, ‘Grand Central Birmingham‘, with a John Lewis as its showpiece. So far it’s looking good – be sure to check back here in autumn 2014 when it’s finally completed.

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36 comments

  1. That is certainly not how I remember Birmingham Richard. After reading your post if Ryanair flew there then I would visit!

  2. Wow! I love this post, Richard. “Wasp-coloured licourice allsort” is a superb description.
    Can you believe I’ve never been to Birmingham? Call myself restlessjo? Rubbish! It’s worth a trip for that library alone. And I could wave to you in your office! That is a LOT of blue building next door.
    I’m thinking of a Christmas market this year. Is the Brummy one worth a trip? (I don’t shop much but I look a lot) I put a link in on my 6WS this week. Hope it brings you some friends.

    • Cheers for the plug Jo and lett me know if you make it down here so I can take you on a tour. I can’t comment on the quality of the market as I’ve never been to any others. It is big though, and gets heaving with shoppers and mulled wine fans. It’s proper title is Frankfurt Christmas Market and the stallholders come over from Germany for a month.

  3. Glad there are some good things to see in Birmingham after soulless experience at Birmingham New Street station!

  4. Great buildings and interesting stuff that I never knew. Super photos! Like Jo, I also love the Wasp-coloured licourice allsort description. It is a really striking building. Alas, Birmingham New Street has been my only experience of the city- changing trains. I really should try to get there one of these days and see it for real. Victoria Square looks a fab location for Christmas markets

  5. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Birmingham for work and was last there in June. I really like the new library – it wasn’t open then but we have great views of it from the Hyatt which I Instagrammed! Love the look of the Bullring but didn’t actually get to see it 😦

  6. Worth sending to Bham Post

  7. This post is probably the best thing I’ve ever read about Birmingham! I can’t wait to go to this library, and the fact that its got an area called the ‘secret garden’ after one of my favourite films makes me feel like it was purpose built for me (I wish!!). There must have been a real buzz in the city when it opened a few weeks ago, and choosing Malala Yousafzai to open it adds to the emotion. Don’t you think whilst so many libraries are closing up and down the country, it makes Birmingham’s library even more triumphant than it already looks?!

    Victoria Square looks like the perfect place to sit down with a gregg’s pasty. But I have to disagree about having bars next to it, I think it would drive the wrong kind of crowds. The same thing happened in Bradford’s main square which has some architecturally stunning buildings (albeit they put in bars like Yates etc) and soon enough it began filling with a mass of pissheads and ruined what used to be a lovely place to sit.

    • Cheers! It’s quite controversial that it could cost so much – apparently it was given the £188m green light the year before the recession kicked in. Still, it went ahead and is pretty good inside and out (and on those secret gardens!)

      I can see what you mean about the bars – England’s drinking culture means we’ll never have a relaxed outdoor café culture like in Italian cities.

  8. Good to see some interesting and well-designed buildings in Birmingham after my depressing experience at New St Station!

  9. The new library in Birmingham reminds me of the national library in Pristina, Kosovo http://www.worldarchitecturemap.org/buildings/kosovo-national-library

  10. Coming down to Birmingham twice this week – a city i’ve not been to before. Thanks for the blogs; gives a good flavour of some of the interesting buildings to experience. First visit this week is with work so can scout out fave spots before returning at the weekend with wifey…

  11. Great pictures, nice to read about my home city now that I live abroad!

  12. Hahaha, Greggs on the fountain steps – not just me then?
    I’m with you on the bars, it would be amazing to have outside seating: hell, I live in Dundee now and there is even a wee coffee shop with seats outside in City Square!

  13. Brum has a lot to off the ‘tourist’. It’s certainly a city of contrasts – great things and, well, not so great things. I thought the Alpha Tower might have been on your building list. Symphony Hall is worth a peek into when empty. BMAG and the Jewellery Quarter Museum at Smith & Pepper’s old works is worth a peek to. Victoria Law Courts is a public building – you don’t have to be summonsed to go in – as decorative on the inside as the out. Photography normally banned though. Buildings of interest in the suburbs too – pubs and public baths for instance. The only thing that stays the same in Brum is the constant change !

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