Today’s guest columnist is internationally recognized photographer Michel Arnaud.
This may come as a surprise but, Birmingham was an obvious choice when I selected it as one of the coolest cities in America for my latest title, Cool Is Everywhere (Abrams, 2020) especially since my last book was Detroit: The Dream Is Now (Abrams, 2016).
Like Detroit’s association with the automobile industry, Birmingham has a strong industrial past in iron and steel production and is known as a railroad transportation hub. At one time, Birmingham was thought of as the “Pittsburgh of the South” before its decline in the 1970s.
Today, the city is a center for new businesses in the banking, medical and insurance fields. It has an influx of young people who come to attend the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The art and food scenes are great. The inventory of available real estate is still affordable.
In his introduction to Cool Is Everywhere, architectural historian and author, Donald Albrecht focused on three themes of renewal that each of the 14 cities had in common: reclaimed landscapes, maker culture, and architecture. Here is my take on how each one relates to Birmingham.
I visited the city in July and even though it was hot, I spent a lot of time outside, walking around Birmingham taking pictures. One of my
favorite spots was the beautifully designed Railroad Park located downtown. The site was once part of the Railroad Reservation that stored old train carriages. The new park opened in 2010. With its walking paths, shelters, and lake, the park offers a respite to everyone who lives, works or visits in the area. The Railroad Park is connected to other parts of town via the Rotary Trail that is part of the overall plan to promote a walkable city.
As I enjoyed strolling along the alleys of Pepper Place Farmers’ Market, I thought of the food markets of Cannes France, where I grew up. The variety and quality of the local produce felt very much the same. Pepper Place was once the home of the Dr. Pepper Syrup Plant and Bottling Company. It is a vast complex that includes not only the Farmers’ Market but also a design center, restaurants, shops, galleries and a new theater. It offers a place to gather and to relax.
The Maker Culture
In the course of my visit, I was lucky to meet Bruce Lanier, a charming and passionate architect who is also a wood worker. While searching for a location for his next woodshop, he realized that Birmingham needed a place where creatives of all kinds could share space. He found a 22,000-square-foot warehouse in the Birmingham neighborhood of Avondale that fit the bill. The building could accommodate studios for artists and artisans and workspaces for small companies and professionals.
When planning the design, he studied the types of facilities that would draw tenants, and as a result the space has a woodshop (of course!) and a ceramic kiln available for communal use. Lanier also considered how the project would fit into the neighborhood, which has become a food destination with a plethora of restaurants. He decided to bring an ice cream shop, Big Spoon Creamery, to the front retail space. MAKEbhm is a perfect example of the new generation of entrepreneurs that make Birmingham a crossroads of creativity.
Much of the noted architecture of downtown Birmingham dates back to its heyday and includes an early skyscraper, the Woodward Building, built in 1902. However, there are also industrial buildings that recently have been transformed into innovative projects. Three endeavors come to mind and demonstrate the diversity and potential of reusing existing buildings, bringing new life and new purposes to them.
I really loved the space and design of the Woodlawn Cycle Café in the emerging Birmingham neighborhood Woodlawn. Initially, the café, which opened in 2016 and closed in 2020, was a resting stop for cyclists. A bike rack was incorporated into the dark-versus-light color decor scheme and mainly cycling races were shown on a giant television. The building had many former tenants and functions including as a bike repair shop. But later, the one-room 700-squarefoot café, with its simple modern furniture made by the owner Armand Margjeka, who is also a musician, became a gathering place for area residents and a destination for those seeking a European coffeehouse experience. I will attest that their lattes were perfect.
Another inventive and just plain fun project is Carrigan’s Beer Garden (formerly Brät Brot Gartenbar). How does one transform a garden nursery into a beer garden? That was the program that owner David Carrigan gave architect Bruce Lanier. Lanier took a cheeky approach to the design of the casual restaurant Through the stone façade front entrance, a taxidermy wild boar sets the scene in a large glass vitrine display case. Just inside the greenhouse, under a glass roof, is the main barroom with a circular bar, communal tables, and pebble gravel floors. In the back, there is a plant-filled garden under shady trees, where patrons enjoy outdoor games. When I visited in 2018, the atmosphere was friendly and easy going. The German-style food and beer were outstanding. I am looking forward to returning Post-Covid-19 to try the new menu.
I wish I could show you photographs of this very inspiring repurposed building that is the home of Cheryl Morgan, an architect and now-retired professor and director of Auburn University’s Center for Architecture and Urban Studies (Urban Studio) program. She bought a 1910 warehouse with quite a past as a site for manufacturing—everything from flour to aluminum doors and windows. The front of the building has two floors, and in the back, the living room has a mezzanine in the double height space.
Morgan kept many of the original elements, including the heart pine floors, the steel beams, and the wooden columns. However, the most defining element of the home is the private outdoor space created by removing a section of the damaged roof and inserting a deck, a green wall of plants, and a second back entry. Cheryl’s home showed me that every building has a potential new use. Perhaps, when looking for ways to provide affordable housing that is desperately needed in our nation’s cities, we will consider reusing and renewing buildings of all kinds.
The smart thinking that has gone into the revitalization of Birmingham has been in the making for years. I have found that when entrepreneurs, creatives, business and civic leaders come together to transform their city, magical things happen. And that is pretty cool.
Michel Arnaud is an internationally recognized photographer whose work has appeared in publications such as Vogue, House & Garden, Architectural Digest, and Harper’s Bazaar. He is the principal photographer of more than twenty design and lifestyle books including Cool is Everywhere as well as the author of Detroit: The Dream Is Now.
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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. firstname.lastname@example.org.