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Rob Gregory: 'It is make or break time for Bristol's architecture centre'

In response to the AJ’s feature on Bristol, Architecture Centre programme manager Rob Gregory explains how the centre is working to become an essential part of the city’s ambitious growth plans not just a ‘nice to have’ add-on

What are your aspirations for the Architecture Centre, Bristol?

The centre has the potential to become an increasingly important and effective cultural organisation in the region. Set up in 1996 by a motivated group of local architects after the closure of the city’s original school of architecture, the centre has been governed by a group of committed trustees led by chair David Mellor and three excellent directors. Sasha Lubetkin, Mark Pearson and most recently Gillian Fearnyough.

As a graduate on Sasha’s first exhibition committee in the late 1990s and later as a trustee during Gill’s appointment, I have been involved throughout. I can say with personal conviction that never before has the centre faced a more critical moment of ‘make or break’.

As one of three part-time managers, the challenge for me is to make the centre ‘essential’ rather than ‘nice to have’, seeking out and filling key roles that the local authority, industry and community are unable to do.

The centre has never faced a more critical moment of ‘make or break’

There’s a responsibility, not only to those who established the centre’s founding principles, but perhaps more significantly to today’s new audiences that extend beyond the profession. These include the many non-architect experts in the city who understand and actively campaign to improve the quality of the environment in their community, and beyond this, the emerging audiences that we hope to inspire and empower through our public programme and learning and participation activities – that benefit from the experience of former teacher Amy Harrison – who has worked at the centre since 2004.

We also continue to share advice and support through the recently reformed Architecture and Built Environment Centre Network (ABECN), and benefit from new relationships with others in the industry, such as founder and Director of New London Architecture, Peter Murray who recently said of the Architecture Centre: ‘It should be the focus for debate and discussion about issues relating to design and planning in the city, bringing together the wide range of professionals involved in creating a better city, and acting as an interface between the public and professions.’

He added that if the Architecture Centre was unable to have a major impact on Bristol while it had an architect mayor, perhaps it never will.

With architecture centres across the country suffering financially, how are you going to keep afloat? 

Funding streams change course and we need to become even better at raising finance. We have made some progress in identifying new income streams through a new corporate and business membership scheme, grant applications to organisations such as the HLF, Garfield Weston and Ove Arup foundations, project sponsorship from consultancies and developers, and an exciting new partnership with the University of the West of England (UWE).

We also need to be more strategic, and are looking at business models established by organisations like New London Architecture, the Architecture Foundation and fellow ABECN member Kent Architecture Centre, all of which have successfully engaged public and private sector partners to support their work.

We’ve had the security of owning our premises throughout

We are building too on the legacy of our founders and predecessors, which not only gives us the security of having owned our own premises throughout but perhaps more importantly a confidence in the belief that if we are doing a good and necessary job, money can be found, somewhere.

Why in the past has the architecture centre been unsuccessful, and how are you addressing these failures?

It goes without saying that Architecture Centre is an organisation that my colleagues and I are extremely proud to be associated with, with many more success stories than missed opportunities to discuss.  That said, in response to this question, there is a sense that there have been times when the organisation has tried to do too much and cover too many associated subjects, with some critics rightly observing that along the way, the exhibitions and activities that related to the core subject of architecture were obscured from the public by the centre’s popular but non-essential harbourside shop.

With this in mind, when restructured in 2011, the key objective was to clarify and focus the centre’s primary purpose as a ‘champion of better buildings and places for people’ by opening a new gallery and event space on the ground floor, and by developing a clear and confident external narrative that firstly describes our impact and value to the city region, and secondly how architecture matters – culturally, socially and economically to everyone.

To address this, centre manager Christine Davis is using expertise in audience development and experience of working in similar organisations: to clarify where we can genuinely add value; what is our USP,;and critically how we don’t repeat what others are doing but build stronger and more effective partnerships.

Bristol's Architecture Centre - involving the public - the BRI facade competition with Tom Dyckhoff (left), BRI chief executive Robert Woolley (centre) and Rob Gregory (pictured right)

Bristol’s Architecture Centre - involving the public - the BRI facade competition with Tom Dyckhoff (left), BRI chief executive Robert Woolley (centre) and Rob Gregory (pictured right)

Why does a city need an architecture centre, what role do you want to play in the city, and how can you contribute to improving city’s built environment?

In Bristol there is no single organisation or place where people can go to discuss issues that affect the quality of our buildings and places. Regrettably, the city council closed its planning reception a couple of years ago, which was previously the place to see models, drawings and documents relating to new development proposals. To an extent, the Architecture Centre is already this type of place, but there is much more that we could offer and do, either on- or off-site.

Our recent exhibition Bristol: Ambitious City was devised as a seed exhibition for a permanent public development/marketing suite, and we are currently in discussion with partners and the Mayor, George Ferguson, to find a permanent home for this initiative. Many external observers have said that in a city with an architect Mayor, there must be a role for the Architecture Centre to demonstrate how a better understanding of the issues involved in city development, can help all players make better decisions; be they developers, planners, architects, community groups or individuals. The Architecture Centre is perfectly poised to fulfil this role, but only if the city prioritises the need.

In my mind therefore, our most pressing challenge is to convince more people in the city, that this role is urgently needed and that our organisation has the expertise and capacity to make an even greater contribution than we already do; leading the debate, assisting city planning departments with design review and longer term consultancy, and acting as a focus for inward investment, assisting investors to make the right decisions about development and growth. 

What is the architecture centre doing for architects in the city?

As the centre was established by the city’s architectural community, we should never ignore our responsibility to today’s practitioners. That said, there is often a level of inertia to overcome when trying to get people to leave the office and come to events, regardless of the calibre of recent speakers that have included Richard Leplastrier, Sean Godsell and Bijoy Jain, presumably due to the pressure that many offices are experiencing.

Therefore, one of the ways we can best serve the profession is to raise the status of architecture in the broadest sense, by creating an appetite for excellent design among a wide range of communities, which in turn will generate interest and opportunities for the professionals to respond to.

At a recent RIBA regional meeting attended by RIBA chief executive Harry Rich and President elect Stephen Hodder, I asked both the audience and the panel, ‘Do any of you actually want an Architecture Centre?’ And while it was not the time or place to expect insightful responses to such an open and leading question, over the next few months it is my intention to meet as many practitioners as possible to address this question in more detail, especially those who have emerged in a recent surge of newly formed practices.

And through these conversations we hope to be better placed to offer a genuinely valuable support; providing resources, inspiration and opportunities for networking and debate.

The bottom line is we want as many people as possible from all walks of life to get inspired, get informed and get involved in the architecture of their city and the architecture of their community.

Rob Gregory co-manages Bristol’s Architecture Centre with centre manager Christine Davis and Learning & Participation manager Amy Harrison

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