Three Gardens and a Circus

Joe Holyoak

I do enjoy making a counter-scheme. I admit to being a bit equivocal about my competitive instinct, to which the idea of the counter-scheme appeals. It’s not all good but I think a context in which counterschemes can be made, enabling a comparison of attitudes and values, and generating a productive debate, is healthy. I have done a few schemes, and I think that the overall net result has been positive.

The first one I undertook was back in the 1970s. The Victorian Society was campaigning against a damaging redevelopment on Victoria Square in Birmingham, proposed by the Midlands Postal Board and designed by the big commercial developers’ favourite architect, the notorious Richard Seifert. Despite the campaign, planning permission had been given for the demolition of the Grade II listed 1892 Head Post Office (HPO), the more utilitarian red brick letter sorting office behind, and the parcels sorting office on the adjacent corner. They were to be replaced by a linked series of commercial office buildings up to 14 storeys high, all to be built in precast concrete units, like Seifert’s Centre Point and 1 Kemble Street in London. Those were in fact designed by Seifert’s partner George Marsh, educated at Birmingham School of Architecture, and I expect he probably designed the Victoria Square scheme as well.

My colleague Jenny Thomas suggested that, instead of just complaining about Seifert’s insensitive proposal, the Society should respond with a counter-scheme showing how it should be done, and I was asked to design it. We proposed retaining the listed HPO, and replacing the other buildings with new perimeter blocks no higher than the HPO’s cornice. They provided about two-thirds of the floorspace in Seifert’s scheme. We submitted the scheme for planning approval (no fee was required in those pre-Heseltine days) and obtained it. We sent a copy of the approval to the Midlands Postal Board. They invited us to lunch, and announced that they were dropping the Seifert scheme and were going to build our scheme instead. It had worked: delight and amazement all around!

More than forty years later, it’s depressing to see how similar the circumstances are in which I am making another counterscheme in Birmingham. The misplaced enthusiasm for tall buildings in unsuitable locations still flourishes. The same arguments have to be rehearsed and won again. This time the opposition is to a residential development opposite Zellig, where I work, next to the Custard Factory in Digbeth: 72,000m2 gross floor area, in seven separate buildings. The highest is 30 storeys high and would loom over and cast into shadow the listed buildings on the opposite side of High Street, and the conservation area of which they are a part. The counter-scheme is for my landlord in Zellig, Bennie Gray, as part of his campaign against the developer’s scheme. Bennie has a history in urban redevelopment campaigns, going back to Tolmers Square in Euston in 1973, in which he and Christopher Booker were key players.

Instead of seven separate buildings, our counter-scheme is two perimeter blocks with continuous street frontages, on either side of a new pedestrian street cutting through the site, and a circular nodal space at its centre. Bennie wants a snappy name for the scheme, and I have suggested we call it Three Gardens and a Circus, which is a description of its plan form. The building heights are generally uniform, mostly seven storeys. I like to think it is the sort of central European model that Robert Krier would build here, if commissioned: dense coverage, medium-rise, built up to the varying street lines, apartments enclosing shared private gardens, and complex pitched roofs. Like the Victoria Square scheme, there is less floorspace than the developer’s scheme proposes, but it could be built more economically. I am writing this column three months before the plan’s publication, and we have not yet made the counter-scheme public. We can guess what the developer’s response will be, but we don’t know what the responses of our neighbours in Digbeth, the planning officers and the planning committee might be. We hope to persuade them that a scheme based on sound urban design values of placemaking and the shaping of streets, is superior to a random assembly of tall rectangular buildings. We shall see; there might be another Endpiece on the subject to be written.

URBAN DESIGN 154 Spring 2020 Publication Urban Design Group

As featured in URBAN DESIGN 154 Spring 2020

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An aerial view of the Three Gardens and a Circus counter-scheme


The ‘Digbeth Deserves Better’ poster for the campaign


Collecting signatures for a petition against the proposed development


Joe Holyoak is an architect and urban designer, working in masterplanning, site planning, area regeneration, historic conservation, and community participation .

He is also on the Editorial Board of the URBAN DESIGN journal.