How English is English?

Tudor redux

Tudor redux

The small commercial center of English Village, in the Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook, has seen a good deal of change in the last couple decades. Above is a new retail/office building on the east side of Cahaba Road (architect: Henry Sprott Long & Associates). A bit further down the street a new office structure is replacing a former pharmacy and later wine shop; this is thankful, not because we don’t miss the former businesses, but because the architecture is such an improvement over the last building which wasn’t much more than a blank brick box facing a parking pad. This new building is designed by Dungan Nequette and has familiar Arts-and-Crafts styling the firm specializes in (below):

More pleasing to the eye

More pleasing to the eye

English Village has a compact scale which goes some way to recalling actual English villages: the main spine, Cahaba Road, and a little more along a few cross streets, is most all there is. After the original buildings arrived in the 1920’s and 30’s, there was a general lack of interest in continuing the original “English” theme in a serious way until the mid-1990’s brought us the Townes (also Henry Sprott Long) which introduced a controversial scale and density to the place.

Mixed-use created an outcry

Mixed-use created an outcry

That project, joined later by a more abstract interpretation of English style in the National Bank of Commerce building built in the foreground (above, Giattina Aycock Architecture Studio, with Townes beyond), opened up the possibility of mid-rise, mixed-use condo living in the Village. It was a good move, although many would disagree due to the scale of the condo building.

Much better

Much better

Going back up Cahaba Road, Dungan Nequette took a bland, newer structure and transformed it into their own office with historically detailed elements–as well as better street presence with a new bay window and more welcoming entrance (above). As you can imagine, any architect is going to be challenged when faced with a project in English Village: how “English” does it need to be to fit in? Is a Flemish-inspired stepped gable OK? And what about aspects other than the actual style of the facade, like ground floor transparencies, proportions, massing, street edge? The City of Mountain Brook has done a better job of late guiding such principles, due to comprehensive planning guidelines produced for its Villages.

Charm without glitz

Charm without glitz

In actual English villages (Battle, East Sussex, above) we are often charmed less by the individual style of the buildings, which may be somewhat plain, and more by the scale of the street, the weathered materials, and the coziness of the tea shops and pubs. The entirety of the public street is enhanced by the deference of the structures.

Humbler

Humbler

The original English Village (storefronts on the west side of Cahaba Road, above) was modest in design, using good materials, large storefronts, and little in the way of eye-grabbing tricks. The collection of buildings along the street was more impressive than any individual gesture. America being America, we tend to value individual style over modest “background” designs, so it’s no surprise that developers today generally want their own structures to stand out, rather than blend in (witness the newer building at the corner, above right, from the mid-1990’s).

Disney goes English

Disney goes English

The danger of too much individualistic detail on every building is evident in the above shot, where the street is less an appealing public space, and more a disparate collection of “fancy” English-styles. Of course this is an “English” street at Disney’s Epcot Center in Florida. It’s an extreme example, but proves the point.

It works too

It works too

Overall, the construction in English Village over the last 15 years has improved the urbanity of the place. It is more mixed-use, and public space and public art have been enhanced. As far as we’re concerned, one of the best things that happened to the Village was the renovation last decade of a former service station into a mid-century-modern structure (above, architect: Bill Ingram), currently housing a restaurant and art gallery. Its scale and relation to the landscape feels totally appropriate: it shows that sometimes you don’t have to be “English” at all to fit into a village.

[thanks to Dungan Nequette for their office pic; electroguise for the Battle pic; and sfPhotocraft for the Epcot pic]

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13 responses to “How English is English?

  1. Thoughtful points about urbanism and architecture. On the former, English Village shows you can generate urbanity in a short 1 1/2 blocks. The modern setback with Vino and the gallery works as an exception. Wouldn’t want another. This is ‘perfection’ modern — those grass panels need to be perfect, too.

    • A very good point–the modernist setback works only because it’s exceptional. Have a whole row of them, and suddenly it’s Avenue of the Americas in midtown. On a smaller scale, that is. Thanks.

  2. Great commentary on one of my favorite neighborhoods – or should it be “favourite neighbourhoods” :-)

  3. Really nice comments and observations about English Village, which is much loved and greatly improved by recent developments. I do feel that The Townes is too big, but it’s done now and we’ll get used to it. I suppose that its presence will act as a brake on anything similar happening in the future. I especially appreciate your remarks about streetscape being more critical than “eye-catching” individual buildings.

    • The best thing about Townes is that it sits back and allows the low street frontage to do its thing. Another building its height may not be good, but we could afford something of 3 or 4 stories for sure, if done in the right way. Thanks.

  4. The English Tudor architecture of The Townes helps it fit in, along with the placement mentioned. Substitute a modern, minimalist design and it would be a huge intrusion.

  5. One of the great things that I noticed driving through the village everyday to take my daughter to daycare at the JCC was the picket fence constructed around the future building that Dungan Nequette designed and is in the process of being built. Through a quick Facebook exchange DN mentioned that this was the contractor’s idea but I thought it would be a great addition to the city ordinance/guidelines. I don’t imagine the pickets were that much more expensive and it certainly looks better than a basic chain link fence.

    • Quality urban projects in larger cities often–either by demand of the developer, or ordinance of the municipality–have good looking fencing that upgrades the look of a construction site. Of course that type fencing can also draw attention/build anticipation for the final product. It’s a great idea and certainly appropriate for a place like English Village. Thanks!

  6. I sort of like the high rise (the Townes). It brings in another contrasting English element that nobody has mentioned, the cathedral. Although not of course a cathedral or anything of spiritual purpose, it does evoke the contrasting scale one finds in medieval English towns, where the huge structure of a cathedral (or castle tower, or town hall) is often literally abutted to (and protectively hovers over) the rows of small shops which constitute the main venues of everyday hustle and bustle. I also like the contrast in English Village provided by the modern gallery/cafe, which is just a GREAT space, so well designed (we have in our city so few artistic examples of that modernism proper, with its flow between indoor and outdoor space!). I attended a recent art showing there and thoroughly enjoyed myself. The sight of summer wine sippers in the open outdoor patio space is great too! People relaxing and mingling in public, away from their back yards! What a thought! Too bad the old wine shop in going for office space, though. It will look nice, but will be a waste in terms of public activity…

    • Again, great points. No reason that English villages can’t have tall buildings: plenty of historic precedent for that as you say. I hesitate to comment on the new office building at the wine shop, because I’m not positive there won’t be some retail or public space component. If not, you are right that losing such will be a loss, similar to when Park Lane grocery closed and it became a restaurant, and then just an event space open occasionally…thanks.

  7. Motto of the past: Birmingham, all business, all the time!

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