Levitt Bernstein’s thorough refurbishment of Bristol’s Victorian concert hall plays to all audiences with flexible spaces and material warmth
It seems a little unfair to the architect of the £132 million Bristol Beacon to start with the concert hall seats. But the blue, black, pink and red textile of triangles, designed by artist Rana Begum, that grace the empty flip seats are reminiscent of one of the classic London Underground fabrics and bring the Beacon Hall to life. These 1880 seats will mostly be inhabited, hidden under coats. But for the audience filtering in, for rehearsing musicians and artists and those left behind looking for a lost glove, the fabric imbues the hall with warmth against the dark brick of the walls and repeating triangular motif of the baffles. It is a sign of the changes involved in the reworking of the hall from external walls inwards, with a complete reconfiguration of the auditorium. It is very different from the pale hall I remember being disappointed in years earlier.
That drab 1950s interior sat inside a shell that had seen two major fires and three attempts to rebuild. It is part of a conglomerate building once known as Colston Hall (remember Colston, the slave owner whose statue was toppled into Bristol Harbour in 2020). Beneath the hall were bonded warehouses to securely store products for shipping in and out – and to raise extra money for the original theatre. Built in 1867 on a steeply sloping site, it was given a new face in the 1890s with a stone colonnade entrance and extra performance space. Then in 2001 Levitt Bernstein – which was bringing St Lukes, near Old Street in London, back to life for the London Symphony Orchestra – won the job of masterplanning the council-owned theatre. A council office block was demolished and replaced with a metal-clad foyer, referred to as the Bridgehouse, to give the Bristol concert halls spill out space, vertical circulation, a bar and café and all-important loos.
A second phase was always planned. There were two halls which couldn’t perform at their best and the old circulation, starting with the colonnade, to be put to use. In the meantime the Bristol Music Trust had been formed and took under its wing music education in schools as well as programming the concert halls. It leases the building from the council and bid for money for Bristol Beacon’s upgrade from the Arts Council among others, although the council footed much of the capital costs. This was due to rising expenditure: the building shell proved less robust than thought, Elizabethan wells were discovered and the cost of steel went up and up, turning the refurbishment from a two to a five year build with costs to match. It, and director Louise Mitchell, had ambitions for it to be ‘the best sound for all types of performance’, but also for audiences to feel comfortable. It should be ‘proper but not posh’, she says.
So the grade II-listed Beacon Hall, with its single deep balcony, was taken apart from the inside out. The patchwork of walls remade after the various fires were rebuilt; flimsy finishes which messed with the resonance were ditched along with the convex ceiling. Instead, Levitt Bernstein and project architect and associate director Mark Lewis looked at its fundamental dimensions, using Boston Symphony Hall and Vienna Musikverein as models. Dark brick walls give a backdrop; the brick is built with pilasters and arches hinting at the external structure and window openings long gone. Characterful yellow columns rest on the invisible arches below and split wide open at articulated nodes, bracing the lighting rig which in turn is hung from the trusses of the new roof. With the solid brick and oak, and by running shallow tiers of seating around three sides, Levitt Bernstein has created a better-performing acoustic space, which has the intensity of focus and the buzz that is the hallmark of a good performance venue. ‘We wanted to get the audience as close as possible to the music,’ says Lewis. The warmth and relationship with the stage have improved dramatically compared to the previous hall.
The triangular walnut ply baffles that front the tiers are twisted and angled to spread the sound. They seem unremarkable close up but catch the light to give a sense of dynamic tiers and, with the lively seats, bestow human scale on the large hall. There is a story that they were inspired by the geometries of the Bristol Byzantine style.
Beacon Hall is intended to work for both live music – the opening weekend included a concert by the Paraorchestra – and for amplified work. I visited the night after Annie Mac had played a set to a very different crowd with the audience standing, and dancing where the orchestra had been seated. Tuning the hall for this or its huge original organ (which is being restored, all 5372 pipes), or choral singers in the choir seats around the back of the stage, is done with inflatable bags above the canopy.
Alongside Beacon Hall, in the 1870s extension, is the Lantern Hall. This is far smaller – think grand civic room – and has been radically simplified with the stage end switched around and 80% of the water damaged plaster ceiling remade. Layers of glass insulate the hall from road noise outside. Here too Rana Begum’s work lifts the whole room; huge colourful hangings, made in Bristol, moderate the hard surfaces. Bleacher seats are rolled out for folk music and film while the stage of nine platform lifts can be lowered out of sight into a void for conferences.
The spaces between the halls suffer more from compromise. The 1870s grand stair had already been removed and gaudy colours applied to the stone. Now the stripped back limestone and circular lights give a sense of grace and openness that flows into the new restaurant. But a lumpen staircase and an extrovert ceramic art installation paired with a terrazzo style skirting board undercut this simple character and feel out of place and scale. And the sound lobbies for the Lantern Hall have a similarly uncomfortable way of pushing into the space, their curved timber forms feeling unresolved in this potentially elegant space. These may seem minor gripes but they hint at the painful gestation of this project. The early structural issues put the rest of it on the back foot. The urgent issues being uncovered on site with the immediate inspections, re-measuring and redrawing needed led Levitt Bernstein to bring in Bristol-based Alec French Architects. The pressures are demonstrated by a contract variation three years in moving to contractor design with Alec French, with Levitt Bernstein commenting.
As with Manchester’s Aviva Studios, this culture building has come at great cost to its home city, both financially and politically. The question now, on both, is whether that will affect the goodwill of local audiences and whether they can bring in the revenue to keep them afloat in an increasingly difficult funding environment. This has a better space, a new club-style venue and recording studios in the cellar stores, but fewer seats in Beacon Hall. It should attract more artists and promoters, with better acoustics and a back stage where they can get in sets and performers can move more freely. And it is embedded in the city’s culture: Bristol Beacon actively programmed its Bridgehouse and other spaces while the halls were being remade, its activities reach out to all Bristol’s communities and the trust has its role teaching music to the children of the city. The turnout of 20,000 at its opening weekend and bumper ticket sales in December offer some hope that the capital expenditure by the council and others can be justified in the long term.
Total project cost £132m
Construction cost £91m
Gross internal floor area 7,500m²
Cost per m² £12,133
Form of contract NEC III
BREEAM target Very Good
Client Bristol City Council for Bristol Music Trust
Architect Levitt Bernstein
Interior designer Levitt Bernstein
Project manager Mace / Arcadis
Main contractor Willmott Dixon
Acoustician Sound Space Vision
Theatre consultant Charcoalblue
Structural and M&E engineer Arup
Aluminium Roofing Kingspan
Flat roofing Iko Ltd
Copper cladding KME
Precast concrete features Vobster Architectural
Colonnade Glazing AB Glass
Lantern glazing Roofglaze
Lantern Hall windows Schueco
External steel doors Design and Supply
Internal glazed doors and screens Schueco / Planet
WC cubicles TSB Amwell
Sanitaryware Dolphin Solutions D-Line
Vanity units Dolphin Solutions
Tiles Solus / Domus
Decorative plasterwork BPB Formula
Polished plaster Armourcoat
Beacon Hall bricks Nelissen Steenfabrieken
Brick support system Vista Enginneering
Internal metalwork Taunton Fabrications
Carpets Ege Carpets UK