Digging into the city

Bristol Architecture Centre celebrated 20 years of investigating the past, nurturing, and planning for the city’s future

Most cities have a local museum: one or two international artists, some stuffed specimens, exhibits from local industry and how it was in the war. But there are few places you can go to find out about your area, your city and its future. Or even its recent past.

Architects are privileged to study this as they investigate local plans and match the past and the future. But even if you can afford the time to dig out planning documents, it still takes a leap of the imagination to understand what they mean. In 2014 the Farrell Review proposed urban rooms that give glimpses into the future, to make it more comprehensible and more available. Perhaps even exciting rather than threatening.

Bristol Architecture Centre has been doing this for 20 years. It was formed just as Bristol’s waterside started to be accessible, giving the city an unconventional new heart, and where Wilkinson Eyre had brought an old train shed to life as Explore@Bristol. The timing was not accidental, as founding chair David Mellor explained recently at a celebratory conference for its 20th anniversary, Place Time and Architecture. The centre was also founded as a riposte to the closing of the city’s architecture school, a way of keeping debate alive.

The centre’s first director, Sasha Lubetkin, secured a long lease on the building by persuading its owner, the city council, that the venue was a tourist attraction. This, and income generated by renting out inside spaces, has kept the centre afloat through uncertain and shrinking public funding. At the conference, a series of directors and managers quickly took to the stage pecha kucha style and gave an idea of the advocacy, debate, community planning, artistic collaborations and education as well exhibitions that the centre has achieved over the years. Mark Pearson, the hands-on director between 1994 and 2004, made clear his priorities at the time: ‘Placemaking has the most profound effects when applied to ordinary places. Extraordinary ones tend to look after themselves.’

  • Arup’s provocations for Bristol’s Castle Park: Linked zones with spaces for different user groups
    Arup’s provocations for Bristol’s Castle Park: Linked zones with spaces for different user groups
  • And a reminder of the tough questions an architecture centre can help a city face. Arup’s provocations for Castle Park propose new buildings to help frame and animate the park, they could also help pay for improvements
    And a reminder of the tough questions an architecture centre can help a city face. Arup’s provocations for Castle Park propose new buildings to help frame and animate the park, they could also help pay for improvements

Though the meeting was gee’ed up by the success of New London Architecture, presented by dynamo director Peter Murray who had kicked off the day, there was still a sense that influence is hard to wield.  The moment to do so might have been when Behnisch Architekten drew up designs for a Bristol arts centre, or when architect George Ferguson [ribaj.com/culture/political animal] was mayor.  The possibilities were there and at the time programme manager Rob Gregory made a good job of capitalising on them with displays of big ideas for Bristol 2020, running debates alongside. Recent exhibitions have also drawn on the best of the recent past to give that sense of positive change and momentum, often at a modest scale, that makes up the myth and culture of a city.

Gregory has now moved on to Purcell where he will be influencing the future of Bristol in a more concrete way since the practice won the £15million St Mary Redcliffe regeneration project.  Mellor has also handed over the reins – Nick Childs of Childs Sulzmann has taken over as chair. But new directions for the centre were not on the agenda.

Instead the conference looked outwards towards the city, focusing on an area of ‘potential’ – Castle Park.  Speaking at the event, historian Timothy Mowl described it as ‘the broken heart of Bristol’. The city council has been working up a development framework for the central area around it and took its turn presenting some early thoughts. Again quick fire presentations pulled up many issues, starting with the history of the site’s ancient castle and moving on to its narrow medieval streets which, after bombing in World War II, were turned into rubble mounds in a new open space in the centre of the city. Arup’s work on the space as a ‘provocation’ threw up interesting ideas that are also detailed in an accompanying exhibition. Building on this, the day turned up ideas of enclosure, links, a winter garden in the roofless church of St Peter’s and a cloak of green over Broadmead’s multi-storey car park. There were no known developers in the room and with funding tight and 1,000 council workers under threat of redundancy, the chances of these big ideas being converted into watertight proposals – never mind physical reality – in the near future seems slim. But that is the risky role of such a centre, to bring people together, to start the debate.

And if RSHP’s Ivan Harbour took the conference off in different geographical directions with his dissection of the practice’s strategies on public space around the world then it was a worthwhile reminder of the ambition and architectural beauty that is achievable.