The walkways and towers of Lewins Mead provide the city’s most rewarding promenade architecturale.Source: Laura Oldfield Ford
Two centuries on from its heyday, Bristol presents an apathetic, scarred, yet striking face to the world
Bristol is perhaps the one southern city which really feels independent of London. For whatever reason – its diversity, its distance, or the internal emigration patterns of wealthy Londoners in the 1970s, some might suggest darkly – it largely lacks the lamentable parochial mentality and substandard architecture so common in the Lutons, Portsmouths, Readings, Southamptons, Guildfords and Swindons.
It is clearly a very long time (200 years to be precise) since it was the UK’s second city, and the port is now six miles away from the centre, but it doesn’t feel all that bothered by either fact. Bristol doesn’t feel all that bothered by anything, which is its virtue but also its curse – it takes itself both too seriously (as centre of alternative culture, street art and suchlike) and not seriously enough (as modern, industrial city and sponsor of architecture).
The place is seriously lackadaisical, and it succeeds and fails on this. Often, architecturally, this big, dynamic and multi-racial city feels as though it’s been asleep since 1910; the awakenings, when they happen, can be like nightmares.
There is little better example of the wastes Bristol’s general air of torpor can create than the area around Temple Meads station, one of the worst introductions to any city in the UK (and here, happily, a deceptive one).
Inside, a Brunel shed; immediately outside, cutely silly Jacobethan – but then, in front of that, a wasteland, made up of some startlingly grim 1960s buildings (to paraphrase Ian Nairn, if you want to like modern architecture, don’t come to Bristol), and wide and pedestrian-hostile arterial roads. In the middle of it all, looking forlorn, the moderne Grosvenor Hotel, as featured in Chris Petit’s classic film Radio On. In that film, the hotel was passed by a spindly steel flyover. That went in the 1990s, but though less modern and hence apparently less “alienating”, the road is surely even more obnoxious and impassable without it.
Then, opposite that, we have one of the finest, most original gothic buildings in the UK, in the craggy, lurid form of St Mary Redcliffe – all monsters, tendons and grottos. It has no foil, is not placed into a viable public space. It just sits there, surrounded by traffic.
Bristol’s post-war rebuilding was more Sotonian fudge than Coventrian triumph
Go past this towards the river and the centre, and things pick up very quickly: past the tiresome radical chic (Che’s Bar) is the frankly staggering 1869 Granary, a monumental example of the misnamed “Bristol Byzantine” style, resplendent in Venetian detail and hulkingly robust. This is real port architecture, worthy of a Glasgow or a Hamburg, and you can smell the sea. Bristol architecture could have developed from this style, or from its unique gothic heritage, into some form of Amsterdam School expressionism.
Yet the Georgian tradition is equally present here, so in the 20th century neo-Georgian was a safer bet, like the bloodless Council House that insults the cathedral. Topograpically, the Granary gives way to the huge showpiece of Queen Square, where elegance, pastiche and muddle are made coherent by the simple 18th century plan. Amazingly, in the 1930s, a road was built bisecting the square. The 1990s removal of that was probably mourned by few.
Anyone just looking for good buildings can easily find an enormous amount to admire in Bristol. Late medieval, Regency and early industrial architecture is especially rich here, though there’s little Victorian or modern work of comparable note. As townscape goes, the city is all over the place.
The dramatic topography and tight, winding streets seem to encourage this, so the city’s most interesting places are all a matter of hills, snickets and unexpected, panoramic vistas. Often, however, you’ll step out of the bustle into a void. Conventional wisdom may bunch them together, but Bristol’s post-war rebuilding was more Sotonian fudge than Coventrian triumph.
There are exceptions. Near Bristol University there is a tiny, clipped Barclays Bank that is quite exquisite, but the stumps of several clearly uncompleted schemes lie scattered all over the place – from the Stafford Cripps Beaux Arts of Broadmead to the roundabout expanse of St James Barton. The former’s architecture as bland as the latter’s planning is inept.
Perhaps the most successful of these measures is, aptly enough, a shopping mall – Chapman Taylor’s partly open-air Cabot Circus, which, tastelessness aside, is a spatially imaginative thing, all flying walkways and quasi-parametric roofs. Like Liverpool One, the clone-town tenants somewhat defeat the object of designing a mall as a real piece of city. While there, I’m told that Cabot Circus is in effect a long-delayed element of the 1940s City Plan. In a city where the gothic revival lasted until the 1920s (in the form of the enjoyable pastiche of the Wills building), it somehow makes sense. But it’s not all slumber; Charles Holden’s earliest buildings are here, a library and (mutilated) hospital of striking civic confidence and originality, albeit with few successors here.
Anyone just looking for good buildings can easily find an enormous amount to admire in Bristol
The other redeveloped area is the city docks, which closed to industry as late as 1991. Mostly, Bristol can be criticised for not hiring architects of any talent or significance. Here that doesn’t apply, and yet the results are unimpressive: Feilden Clegg Bradley’s housing is identikit city-centre-living well below its usual standard; Hopkins’ @Bristol entertainment centre is muddled and drab; and Cullinan’s housing scheme in particular is distressingly poor, with no trace of the firm’s usual originality and drama, and is indistinguishable from the work of the usual regen grunts.
And that – eighties neoclassicism and the obligatory “iconic” bridge aside – is basically that for new architecture. If you must, then further back into the centre there’s the tacky, post-war reclad of the Radisson Hotel, and sundry Cabe-ist blocks scattered around at random. Most are furnished with the usual phoenix-from-the-ruins public art.
That might not be the essence of Bristol’s urban identity anyway – who needs architecture when you’ve got street art? Here I should declare my prejudice in advance – I don’t find Banksy funny, nor particularly “subversive”. Yet his redecorations of Bristol facades at least have a point to make of some description, however obvious. Mostly, areas like Stokes Croft are daubed in day-glo inanities of various sorts, as relentlessly bright and jolly as a bumptious barcode facade, though with more countercultural pretensions.
Meanwhile, above Stokes Croft are the impressive interlinked towers of Dove Street Flats – regardless of the planning hashes, Bristol’s City Architects evidently had at least some talent. As a resident walks in, we mutter of these hilltop beauties “the views must be amazing”. “They are”, he replies. “But they’re so bloody cold that I’m actually warmer out here than in there. I’d die to get out of ’em”.
Bristol makes better use of its topography than any English town outside Yorkshire. Identical towers were proposed for another hilltop site near the university; they were replaced with High Kingsdown, a low-rise scheme which shuns the site’s loftiness – but, happily, here the reaction against monolithic planning led to an imaginative, complex arrangement of houses rather than mere pastiche. Its Swedish politesse fits the sleepy city very well, as does its labyrinthine arrangement.
Plenty of mock-Victoriana followed, of course, in the subsequent reaction against even this tamed modernism. One Thatcher-era villa nearby features a Victorian-style roundel showing its builders as bewhiskered 19th century notables.
From the university’s elevated point, the beauty of Bristol is inescapable – the details at ground level may often be poor, but up above it doesn’t seem to matter. There is one last moment here, though, a piece of half-dirigiste, half-accidental “planning” so exquisite that it could be a whole model for how to stitch together the contemporary city.
Bristolians may be alarmed to find that I am referring to Lewins Mead, a 1960s-1970s redevelopment of a medieval area with walkways and towers. It is, the two estates above excepted, the most interesting part of modern Bristol. That’s not for the elevations – most of these office blocks are of little note. It’s because, if you have a good enough guide, it is the city’s most rewarding promenade architecturale.
this perpetually unfinished city makes a virtue out of its heterogeneity
Start on the walkways, pass through the towers, survey the views of the city’s innards, then proceed along the alleyways, past fragments of the old city walls, slip through the doorways, and spot on the way art nouveau printworks, expressionist adornments on contemporary nightclubs. Here, just for once, this perpetually unfinished city makes a virtue out of its heterogeneity, with the walkways and alleys providing surprising and thrilling pieces of townscape. Somehow it has all bled together into one, a delicious melange of faïence, concrete and Bath stone.
It is a great improvisation, and it exists outside of all our familiar divides – masterplanning vs localism, Ville Radieuse vs Rue Corridor, it doesn’t matter. Given how much of the UK is this diverse, this messy, there’s a lesson here or several. For Bristol to take advantage of these lines of chaotic dynamism, it might have to take its architecture seriously.
About the drawings: Read artist Laura Oldfield Ford’s blog for insight into her drawings that reveal a unique view of our urban landscapes. http://lauraoldfieldford.blogspot.com/
25 August 2011
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7 December 2010
23 July 2010