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Retrofit as creative catalyst

Bristol: Retrofit City celebrates transformational projects and is a sign of the Architecture Centre’s willingness to galvanise the profession and engage the public, writes Isabel Allen

As the first exhibition curated by Bristol Architecture Centre’s new programme director, Rob Gregory, Bristol: Retrofit City is something of a manifesto. Gregory describes it as ‘a celebration of what Bristol does well’ and a ‘taster menu’ of the Architecture Centre’s agenda and concerns.

The ‘celebratory’ aspect takes the form of case studies of projects that have successfully transformed Bristol’s streets and buildings to meet contemporary aspirations and needs. These range in scale from street parties (classified as retrofit projects on the basis that they transform the way the space is perceived and used), to the £255 million Finzels Reach development that will give Bristol a new pedestrian and cycle bridge, public spaces and river walk and turn the former Courage Brewery into 27,871 square metres of offices, 8,081 square metres of cafés, leisure facilities and shops and 399 flats.

Case studies are contextualised with what is essentially a Bluffer’s Guide to Bristol’s attitude to planning and urban design. There is a mercifully pithy précis of key policy documents, an intriguing overview of jettisoned urban regeneration proposals from years gone by and a summary of ideas from the private sector initiative, Bristol 2050, including plans to build a barrage in the Avon Gorge, hence creating a linear water park and protecting the city from flood.

There is an over-arching upbeat message – that Bristol is pretty good at working with its existing assets and coming up with bright ideas. But the good news is delivered with a more controversial caveat, that its new buildings are lagging behind its refurbishment projects in both quality and flair.

It does seem curious that a city known for its creative energy, and with a respectable slew of talented architects, has a noticeable shortage of world-class modern buildings. Perhaps it’s a reflection of collective conservatism: a preference for projects that work with, rather than transform, the city’s historic character. Or perhaps it’s a sign of confidence: a city so comfortable in its own skin that the Bilbao syndrome has entirely passed it by.

These are questions that the exhibition chooses to postpone, with the breezy pronouncement that, while this is an interesting question for the future ‘we remain in a celebratory mood’ concentrating on the stuff that the city does well. The exhibition is broad in its subject matter, emphasising the quantity and range of projects and ideas, rather than dwelling on thorny theoretical discussion.

For Gregory, the key message is that the centre is concerned not simply with buildings, but with the city
as a whole. ‘We’re a charity and I’m interested in what that actually means. It’s often understood simply as a formal designation with tax implications, but I see the centre as a charity in the traditional sense – an institution with a clear commitment to a specific area of care and good work – a Society for the Protection of the Health of the City.’

This attitude suggests a clear-cut remit, an active commitment to deploy effort and resources in the interests of Bristol’s built environment. If Retrofit City is a taster menu for the centre’s concerns it suggests that the centre sees itself less a high-minded talking shop, more a melting pot for ideas and springboard for action.

It’s an agenda that is very much in tune with the current Bristol zeitgeist. George Ferguson – architect, RIBA past president and the man who has done more than anybody to convince Bristolians that the architectural is the political – is the bookies’ favourite to become Bristol’s first elected mayor.

Standing as an independent candidate, Ferguson has officially renounced party politics in favour of a can-do attitude backed up by boundless, Tigger-like enthusiasm and a gung-ho approach to planning legislation. He is on record as stating that the most successful places are those that break the rules, a populist commitment to community engagement and pure entrepreneurial nous. His reputation as ‘Mr Bristol’ was built on projects such as the Southville Tobacco Factory, which he saved from demolition and redeveloped as a thriving cultural, commercial, residential and leisure centre. He cites ‘making things happen’ as his most important skill.

Whether or not the Architecture Centre is officially backing Ferguson as mayor is a moot point. But there is little doubt that having an architect in the top job can only up the profile of architecture in the city, and hence, by default, the centre’s power and prestige.

Certainly, the exhibition seems very much in the tradition of the public engagement exercises carried out by Ken Livingstone and Design for London that set out to persuade Londoners to engage with proposals for the transformation of London’s green infrastructure and public realm.

If it isn’t a manifesto for Ferguson himself, it’s certainly a testament to the power of architecture and visionary thinking to transform the city and encourage the belief that urban regeneration is the key to sustainable prosperity and success.

As Livingstone knew all too well, architecture has a unique ability to capture the public imagination and engender civic pride. Whoever becomes mayor of Bristol in November’s election would be a fool to ignore the message that the city’s Architecture Centre is ready and willing to lead the charge both to galvanise the profession and engage with the general public.

Gregory, and the rest of the team including centre manager Christine Davis, education manager Amy Harrison, programme co-ordinator Jodie Marks and a board of trustees chaired by local architect David Mellor, have positioned themselves firmly in the mainstream. It isn’t generally the most stimulating location for a cultural institution. But at this particular point in Bristol’s history, it’s probably the most exciting place to be.

Former AJ editor Isabel Allen is a director of HAB

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