The Exchange: Breathing a new civic life into Birmingham’s Municipal Bank

The Centenary Square local landmark, previously dormant for 16 years and restored for the University of Birmingham, has reopened to be a fitting backdrop to this year’s Commonwealth Games. 

Birmingham’s Municipal Bank is a prominent 1930s neo-classical building newly remodelled into The Exchange, a civic hub and an important city centre presence for the University of Birmingham. The Exchange offers a café, gallery, collaborative workspaces, places for research and events, and quiet meeting areas. The former bank has been reconfigured and restored by Make Architects in collaboration with conservation specialists, Donald Insall Associates, and delivered by local architect, Glancy Nicholls. 

The building sits prominently in the city’s Centenary Square, recently the focus of a wider regeneration masterplan for Birmingham. The importance of the public realm has been a driving factor for the project, with Birmingham City Council wanting the area’s urban character to possess an internationally recognised cultural standing. Centenary Square will be the backdrop to the 2022 Commonwealth Games with The Exchange as the most recent addition to the site. 

The Grade II-listed bank was designed by T. Cecil Howitt. Its clarity of plan and strength of character have made its transition into a 21st-century university building a particularly attractive proposition, something that Make Architects took to as they converted the former banking hall and back of house clerical rooms into spaces for the Vice Chancellor of the University, as well as staff, students and the people of Birmingham.  


Instrumental to the approach to spatial planning was an early assessment of the historic significance of each room conducted by Donald Insall Associates, developing a scheme which brought into public use the most grand spaces, with back of house functions located in already adapted areas. 

The lofty 320m² banking hall now functions as a café and common room that’s open to the public. With beautiful natural light from the new coffered rooflights, the hybrid space is already widely in use for informal meetings or a quiet coffee. Importantly, The Exchange offers the University dedicated offices and a place to improve its connections to industry and culture. The project represents the University’s commitment to the advancement of the city by helping to facilitate partnerships across a range of different audiences and stakeholders. 


Greg Willis, project lead from Make, summarises the studio’s approach: “Our design animates one of Birmingham’s primary public squares and provides a civic laboratory that fosters ideas, informs research and inspires action to benefit the community. We are heartened that the building has a genuine public use and that it enables the University of Birmingham to be firmly rooted in the city.” 


The powder-coated, bronze-coloured metal portico spanning three storeys at the back of The Exchange creates a new public facade for the building that is both of its time and in keeping with the scale and gravitas of the original architecture. It is an example of how thoughtful and distinct contemporary interventions work hand-in-hand with a deep appreciation for the history of the building and its strengths in terms of its circulation and key historic features. 

The southern elevation of the existing building was never meant to be seen and, therefore, was composed of simple brick with small utilitarian strip windows providing little light into the back of house staff areas. As this is now a new entrance, opening onto the new Bank Court public square, there was an opportunity to complete the composition with a new Portland stone facade.  

In contrast, the original northern elevation is intentionally imposing, with limited windows, to convey a sense of security and trust, within which to place one’s valuables. Therefore, the detailing of the new stone elevation is similarly clean, although with a modern aesthetic. The new portico southern entrance, a modern twist on the northern historic facade, is also designed on a classical grid, although large modern glazed panels and super slender columns have been added to offer a more welcoming vestibule and increase views out. 


The original vaults containing the security deposit boxes lie directly below the central banking hall. This is a wonderful historic space which originally would have only been the preserve of those lucky enough to require the services of such security. It was the intention from the outset to make this into a public gallery, to show off the best of what the University has and does. However, the room was never designed to accommodate more than a handful of people; therefore, a sophisticated ventilation strategy had to be conceived, designed and incorporated into the delicate metal detailing, which forms part of the historic illuminated ‘clerestory’ panel running around the perimeter bulkhead. The space can now be enjoyed by many more people than was originally intended. 

Around the perimeter of the central Banking Hall lies a series of beautiful colonnaded corridors behind stone arches. Originally, this was separated with a series of secure bronze gates and many of the original bronze friezes have survived. Rather than fill in these arched entrances with new gates and doors either side of the Banking Hall, the intention was to allow free movement into and out of the conference and meeting rooms flanking the central space. This involved working through a fire strategy which utilised the four corner stairs and lobbies, while retaining and refurbishing as much of the original bronze detailing as possible. 


Matthew Vaughan from Donald Insall said: “As a resident of Birmingham it was a delight to work with such an iconic building, and fascinating to study the rich decoration which is so rarely a possibility in contemporary public buildings. It was a pleasure working with Make on the scheme, whose concept for a contemporary extension to the rear successfully reconciled the changing urban conditions around the building, and sensitively integrated new design into the historic building with great sympathy. 

“The Exchange is an exemplar of reusing historic building stock – something that both Make Architects and Donald Insall Associates have explored jointly on projects over the years. The design team worked with great care to conserve the rich materials and detailing of the historic fabric, with a condition survey by Donald Insall as the basis for repairs, while introducing highly efficient M&E, and fabric improvements. As the benefits of adaptive reuse are better understood in terms of carbon reduction, it is all the more encouraging to have this project as a key player during the Commonwealth Games this summer.” 


Make’s redesign of The Exchange is part of a broader sweep of local regeneration involving significant changes to Centenary Square. These include a new metro tram link to New Street and Snow Hill stations. The site is adjacent to Arena Central, home to several recent Make designs. The Exchange also features a south-facing extension opening onto the newly landscaped Bank Court. The building is set among a host of prominent neighbours including the Stirling Prize-nominated Library of Birmingham and the landmark Hall of Memory. 

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