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Birmingham’s Cultural Revolution

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West Midlands Growth Company, Baskerville House, 2 Centenary Square, Birmingham, B1 2ND


Tariq Shaikh,
Leader of UK Regional Markets, Gensler

Expanding Gensler into Birmingham was an important, strategic move for us. It is slowly but surely becoming apparent that true global cities of the 21st century will be places with strong and vibrant creative clusters. Birmingham has the energy, people and organically growing clusters capable of building Britain’s new cultural economy. For civic leaders, developers and architects, now is a critical time to nurture quality places that will attract and retain the creative class.

Role of creative clusters

As part of a global practice, we see some of our landmark projects underway in New York, Dubai and Hong Kong as the culmination of flourishing economies driven by developer confidence and the contagious cultural legacy associated with such mega cities.

Unlike other industries, the success of the creative sector is dictated less by external costs such as labour and energy and more by the human talent that drives it and that, in turn, means the social and cultural environment in which they are located.

Creative talent

Birmingham is the most culturally mixed city in the UK and the youngest large city in Europe. The 190 nationalities that make up the wider West Midlands region are a catalyst for new cultural forms of expression. Its creative industries and arts scenes are thriving. Its population is being boosted by waves of migration out of London – with more Londoners moving to Birmingham than Brummies moving to the capital.

The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, part of Birmingham City University, is a £57 million facility opened by Julian Lloyd-Webber; he believes it is the ‘last of its kind’. This is a hothouse of talent, the infectious vibrancy and energy of which overspills throughout the city; it is hard to supress the feeling that this is the breeding ground for the future of the arts in the UK.

Birmingham’s cultural revolution

In making our move to Birmingham, the cultural revolution taking placing alongside the physical rebuilding of the city was a significant factor.

For four consecutive years, Birmingham has been named the UK’s top location for entrepreneurship. The city’s diverse, irrepressible population underpins the increasing number of innovation hubs and creative clusters that are thriving here. Historic warehouses and factories are being re-used by creatives looking to build new artistic environments in the places where a very different type of craft used to take place.

This is perfectly exemplified by the location of our regional headquarters at the old Bird’s Custard Factory – now simply called ‘The Custard Factory’ and home to a buzzing hive of young creative companies, galleries and fine artists. Also part of the city’s Creative Quarter is Eastside Projects: an artist-run multiverse that facilitates the commissioning, production and presentation of experimental art practices. This is proving not just a form of artistic expression but a means of driving innovation, new ideas and products.

More well-known cultural institutions complement this ecosystem. The internationally recognised City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, is where music director and all-round tour-de-force Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla recently became one of the world’s few female conductors of a major orchestra. The Birmingham Royal Ballet is in demand from audiences across the world, whilst Birmingham Hippodrome remains the UK’s most popular single auditorium theatre welcoming more than 500,000 visitors every year.

The explosion of Birmingham’s gastronomic offering has delighted foodies across the city and drawn culinary tourists from across the country. Today, you will find more Michelin-starred restaurants here than in any other English city outside the capital. Since its launch in 2012, weekly event ‘Digbeth Dining Club’ has transformed the street food scene in Birmingham (several street food vendors that debuted at DDC have gone on to become award-winners, such as Flying Cows, Baked in Brick and Buddha Belly).

The link between Birmingham’s entrepreneurial status, its cultural institutions and its culinary scene, may not be an obvious one. But theatres, business incubators and civic centres can all use their buildings and access to audiences to act as ‘anchors’ for the development of culture and creative industries. As demonstrated by research from the Creative Industries Council, these organisations have the capacity, knowledge and expertise to demonstrate leadership, take on projects and secure a wide range of support and funding in a way that the individual can’t. These anchors can draw in the crucial talentpool needed to sustain the city’s creative clusters, and the coffee shops, supporting infrastructure and other amenities needed to sustain the city’s talentpool.


Through our UK regional headquarters, we aim to deliver unparalleled architecture with placemaking at the heart of our practice. Architecture is not only the reflection of the current state but a carefully planned way of communicating the economic, social and cultural potential of a space. It’s an integrating and holding-together factor in local communities that enhances the identity of both places and people. This has been unchanged throughout history and ranges from the Parthenon in Athens representing the birthplace of democracy to California’s Silicon Valley today, representing high technology.

For Gensler, transforming the human experience is our core purpose and the future of design. We focus intensely on creating places and spaces that improve people’s lives through the power of design.

The time is now for Britain’s new cultural economy

Birmingham is at the cusp of a major period of transformation. The city is preparing to host the Commonwealth Games, HSBC is building its new UK headquarters here as it prepares to relocate from London, whilst Paradise, Smithfield and two high speed rail terminals are some of the most significant urban redevelopment schemes in the UK, and indeed Europe today.

As the city plans and builds for the future, civic leaders, developers and architects need to consider the difference their interventions can make to the region’s culture. A location’s cultural offer can create a route to sustainable and inclusive growth, whilst the formation of clusters can make best use of underutilised assets and stimulate entrepreneurship. Birmingham’s tech ecosystem is an example of the potential that can be created. The city is paving way for unique, co-working spaces. It is home to the largest number of start-up accelerator and incubator hubs outside London, and nurtured by tech support network Silicon Canal. Its Innovation Birmingham Campus is the largest and fasting growing dedicated tech campus in the country. The culmination of these initiatives is clear when you realise Birmingham is the UK’s start-up capital and is also fostering the largest regional tech and digital cluster in the country.

Devolved powers to the West Midlands gives the mayor of the Combined Authority and leaders of other local authorities a new opportunity to renew and invest, based on the energy and assets of their own communities. Now is a critical time to nurture the unique, distinctive strengths of our places, communities and our people. Only through this place-based approach can we create a true global city that inspires the next generation to succeed.