Working with the University of Birmingham, UK Landscape Architects Churchman Thornhill Finch have promoted serendipitous encounter as the driver to re-envision the heart of the historic campus as a social hub and outdoor classroom – all enabled by the latest high tech.
This Red Brick University, one of the UK’s leading higher education establishments, was originally established in the early 1900s. The campus continued to expand throughout the latter half of the C20th both in terms of student numbers and size of the campus.
One of our greatest challenges was to fully re-connect the campus – physically and socially as it had lost its original spatial clarity and sense of place, the 1950s library building severing the original 1900’s historic axis established by Joseph Chamberlain’s classic clocktower, and the byzantine influenced the semicircular range of academic buildings by Aston Webb, also designers of Buckingham Palace.
In 2000 The University took the radical step of removing the library building which had outlived its useful life, in so doing re-defining the academic heart by creating a new spatial setting for a significant collection of educational buildings. In so doing five hectares of open space was released for use raising the status of the Public Realm to that befitting such a distinguished collection of buildings.
A series of external ‘rooms’ extend off the main axis, here staff and students are encouraged to meet and mingle, to study or teach, or come up with the next big idea, in short the Green Heart is now the talking point of campus . Smart outdoor furniture allows students to plug in and switch on, while innovative paving converts the kinetic energy of footfall into the electrical charge needed to power mobile devices. Beautifully designed bridges and ramps overcome challenging changes of level, ensuring that each part of the campus is accessible to all.
Of course, a future-facing design isn’t just about clever tech. Our campus carefully shepherds’ natural resources, filtering and retaining water during heavy rains, while putting it to work irrigating softly planted rain gardens. Ecological richness plays a key role with crevices and niches in walls and screens celebrated as the new homes for bats, birds and hedgehogs.
Through our work an exciting collaboration sprang up between our designers and the University’s academics, who were independently studying the ability of green infrastructure to address issues of air quality in urban environments. Our research with the Birmingham Institute for Forestry Research allowed us to develop planting strategies that, amongst a range of environmental benefits, actively combat air pollution. It’s an inspiring model for the future – a landscape that doubles as a seedbed of the imagination and a model for humane living.
The next chapter, that of occupation and adoption is just beginning, Proms, iftars and funfairs have already taken place but the future success of the Green Heart will inevitably come from the traditions, customs and narratives that the students population generates for itself. The Green Heart is already the setting for Graduate ceremony photos, cementing its place in the future cultural, emotional and social fabric of the campus.
In the summer of 2020’s socially distanced collegiate environment the Green Heart has become a vital asset to the University in offering ongoing face to face teaching. While the benefits were not imagined when the concept took shape the reality is that outdoor learning spaces have become a prized asset in a campus setting, their value outperforming that of traditional classroom based facilities.
Client | University of Birmingham
Landscape Architect | Churchman Thornhill Finch
Engineer – Arup
Construction – Willmott Dixon
Architect – Associated Architects
Lighting Design – Speirs & Major
M+E – Couch Perry Wilkes