Bristol might be light years ahead of the competition when it comes to street art, brunch and patchwork harem pants, but look at the iconic structures of Bristol – the ones regularly adorning Bristol branded key-rings, egg cups, mouse mats and the like (that bridge, that tower, the train station) – they were all completed over 100 years ago.
Bristol has become unadventurous when it comes to architecture. The bulk of Bristol’s larger buildings have a distinctly drab, utilitarian feel. Take a stroll around the harbour; there is a shed you can watch arthouse films in, there are numerous sheds to drink artisan beers in. If you want to watch a retired finance manager dressed in dungarees and a flat cap lift empty crates into the air using an antique crane, there’s a shed for that too.
On the residential side of things, if you’ve got a spare half-mil or so you can buy an apartment in an old cheese warehouse. The developers have even taken the time and effort to paint ‘Cheese Warehouse‘ in big letters over its new brilliant white exterior. Despite the fact that people don’t store cheese there anymore (not on such a large scale anyway).
Even the new builds want to look like old builds. When restoring the soon-to-be-trendy disused warehouses and factories, developers offset the expense by building alongside them apartments that look like ultra low-resolution copies of their prestigious neighbour. Of course the price tag remains sky high for some reason (provenance by osmosis?) and little to no ‘affordable’ housing is provided.
So once the brickwork is sandblasted and repointed, the interior is gutted, the glass penthouse level erected, the security cameras installed, and the handsome concierge has been schooled in the art of mindfulness and eliminating ruffians, precious little authentic history is left, and for only a select few to enjoy.
At the other end of the bland spectrum, you’ll find the latest developments thrusting skywards around Redcliffe and Temple Meads. Yes they are modern, but there’s not much remarkable about these buildings apart from the fact that they all have names beginning with the letter ‘a’: Aurora (rhomboid-shaped office building with lots of glass in it), Anvil (cube with a corner cut off and glass frontage), Assembly (glassy squares with a green steel trim) and Aspire (massive glass box).
These soulless cubes of ice make Superman’s Fortress of Solitude look like a Centre Parcs Woodland Lodge.
In a city that prides itself on tolerance and free thinking, it’s odd that the architecture doesn’t dare to deviate from the established norm. Bristol’s evolution is hamstrung by the presiding school of thought that, when it comes to buildings, old is good, bland is good and more of the same is a safe bet.
This might seem like a natural reaction to certain eyesores puncturing the skyline (Castlemead, the old Royal Mail sorting office, the Holiday Inn Express building; the list goes on), but the real reason these buildings are so unloved is not because they are the ugly consequence of unrestrained, unchecked progress, it is because they are unlovable, they say nothing, they give nothing back, they have no personality, no humanity.
It doesn’t have to be so; modern architecture and art can combine to be both functional and playful (see Chicago Millennium Park). Modern architecture can be characterful and awe inspiring (see Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie concert hall). Modern architecture can bring people together and breathe life into a polluted metropolis (see Singapore’s Supertree Grove, below).
But it seems a lack of ambition and imagination are the main obstacles holding Bristol back at the moment, for example in these recent – purely speculative – designs for a new harbourside hotel a box on legs is the best that Bristol’s finest minds can muster.
The kind of unlovable hollow box destined to end up as the derelict old sorting office of tomorrow.
With a whole swathe of land up for redevelopment around Temple Meads (for many the gateway to Bristol) now is the time to dare to dream big.
Tim Cox lives in Bedminster, works as a patent administrator and believes watching snooker is the key to spiritual enlightenment.