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):
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.