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VERTIPLEX: AN UNIMPRESSIVE ERECTION?

02-10-2007

The Stirrer's gushing enthusiasm for the new Vertiplex concept in Birmingham is shared by many in the media - but not by Steve Beauchampé who injects a dose of timely scepticism into the debate.

Breathtaking! Stunning!! Awesome!!! Oh these modern computer generated architect's presentations can be sooooooo mindblowing, full of happy shiny people (no scrots, skate kids or veil-wearing muslim women) and happy shiny structures.

Ladies and gentlemen... pray applause and adoration for VerTiPlex (no doubt from the same grammatical stable that brought us The Bullring, Summerow and Travel West Midlands).

At £95m (budget size matters here) the world's first (naturally) vertical theme park (gasp!), dwarfing many rival attractions across the world (up yours world!) providing Las Vegas-style glitz (clearly the only sort of glitz worth the name) in the heart of Birmingham.

John Lamb, of Birmingham Chamber and Commerce was "delighted", MP Khalid Mahmood called it "fantastic", while Derek Inman of the Birmingham Foundation cooed how it was "great" before pronouncing that "it would put the whole area (of Eastside) on the map."

Now, having been to the recent public exhibition of Curzon Park Gate, a decidely lacklustre looking housing development slated for the plot of land where once the city envisaged Richard Rogers' Library of Birmingham sitting, I find VerTiPlex an interesting concept by comparison, an attempt to bring something original to Birmingham (at least, until the idea is rolled out across other wannabee world cities), rather than a clone of an existing entertainment and leisure facility.

Better surely than another multi-screen cinema or a complex consisting entirely of chain bars, restaurants, shops and the obligatory hotel.

Except that we can expect all of these at VerTiPlex, as however much hyperbole the developers and their spin doctors may generate, it is these staples of 21st century metropolitan living that will help underpin the project should the claimed 1m annual visitors fail to materialise.

And here is the crux of the matter.

Amid all of the praise lavished on developers, Pettifer Estates, no one appears to have asked those awkward questions that people charged (self appointed or otherwise) with projecting and protecting Birmingham's international reputation should do, so wowed were they by the idea of a 200m tower, replete with 'Sky Jump', 'Giant Drop', 'Seesaw' and 'Walk of Fear', and the "tallest observation tower in the UK" or the quality of the canapes at the launch event.

Questions like: who exactly are Pettifer Estates and what is their experience of building and delivering something this ambitious?

According to their website, Pettifer Estates is part of the Pettifer Group, specialists in the development of retail warehousing and edge of town schemes (a bit vague this last bit I'd say) - not exactly the most convincing CV entry for a firm aiming to deliver a "a totally unique", "world class attraction".

Where do Pettifer envisage these 1m visitors a year, every year, coming from and what happens if they don't come? And how much must each one spend on average to make the facility viable? Will sufficient people really want to plummet over the edge of the tower from a height of 125m or walk around the top of the building wearing just a harness (but with no railings)?

They might, but are the city council being asked to take an even bigger risk with Birmingham's reputation by approving this scheme than their electorate are in throwing themselves off the building in what appear to be a host of devilishly cavalier and frightening ways.

Meanwhile, what will be visible from atop Britain's fifth tallest tower to make people climb it's 1,175 steps (or, more realistically, take the lift)?

The London Eye boasts the Thames and a hundred other famous landmarks, the Eiffel Tower looks out over one of the world's most romantic cities, Portsmouth's Spinnaker Tower has the English Channel and a harbour.

VerTiPlex...well, there's Digbeth, Nechells, Saltley and Bordesley Green...if you're lucky and Blues are at home, you might get to see a bit of free footie should someone hoof a defensive clearance high enough, but as the tower is projected to be placed at the lowest part of the city centre, even some of the office and apartment blocks of central Birmingham may be too tall to see over the tops of.

Eastside, as the city council and marketing agencies have branded it, has a poor track record regarding visitor attractions.

Thinktank conspicuously failed to win the hearts and minds of Brummies, upset at the loss of the much-loved Science Museum, which it replaced, while the neighbouring IMAX cinema struggles on, impacting minimally on Birmingham's cultural life.

In fact, VerTiPlex is the fifth proposal in seven years to build a 'landmark' tower in the area.

Early Eastside promotional documents circa 2001/2 referred to The Needle, stating: "The importance of The Needle would match the acclaim given to the Eiffel Tower at the Paris World Fair in 1889".

By October 2002, The Needle was no more. Clearly inadequate, it was replaced by a Ferris Wheel described as: "the highest tourist attraction of it's kind in the world." Dubbed "the Birmingham Wheel", at 145m tall, it was to be bigger than the London Eye.

Consigned to dust a year later, it's successor, The Birmingham Gate, promised us a Ferris Wheel consisting of rotating pods attached to a circular shell, travelling partly underground.

Bizarrely, the proposal was withdrawn after the developers claimed that "the Centenary Square Ferris Wheel had taken the magic away from the idea"...or perhaps had convinced them that there was insufficient demand for such a product.

Thus, in March 2006, came (and soon went) the Birmingham Pinnacle, at 574ft, "Birmingham's first vertical therme park."

And so onwards, ever upwards. At 200m and with "countless attractions", VerTiPlex ticks every box in Birmingham's love affair with the biggest and the boldest.

Sad thing is, on the few occasions when anything does actually come out of the ground, the finished product rarely matches the spectacular claims initially made for it, and repeated parrot fashion, by the developers, the city's media and it's 'movers and shakers'.

So a little more circumspection please, and more interrogation of those who seemingly use Birmingham as a canvass on which to paint their architectural dreams.

To see The Stirrer's review of Vertiplex, click here

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