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Bristol building that whets the appetite

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The Harbourside Centre At The Architecture Centre, Narrow Quay, Bristol until 14 August

In 1996 Behnisch, Behnisch and Partner won an invited competition to design a performing arts centre on Bristol's harbourside, opposite the Arnolfini. It was an inspired and courageous decision on the part of the Bristol client group. The architect had designed few buildings outside Germany and the submitted concept was unlike any other building in Bristol - or, indeed, anywhere else in the country.

Progress on the development of The Harbourside Centre, as it is now called, is the subject of the current exhibition at the Bristol Architecture Centre. Designed by Frank Ockert from the Behnisch office, the exhibition strikes a happy balance between models, some specially made for the occasion, and text.

The splendid 1:200 presentation model shows the centre sitting like a rough-cut diamond between the semi-circle of Arup Associates' Lloyds Amphitheatre and the quayside Watershed building with its serrated roofline, acting as a synthesising force and heightening the qualities of its neighbours. Other models, like that of the concert hall which will have 'world class acoustics for classical music', are more detailed and indicate the sophistication to be expected from the interior spaces.

The inclusion in the exhibition of the original 1996 competition model bears out the architect's belief that the initial concept for a building of this complexity must be sufficiently strong to withstand subsequent pressures of bureaucracy and budget constraints. A wedge-shaped fly tower over the dance theatre was quickly scrapped, but otherwise the form of the building, generated by its three elements of concourse, concert hall and dance theatre, has retained its idiosyncratic character.

As a public relations exercise, the exhibition is a fine achievement; it cannot fail to reawaken enthusiasm and whet appetites. But of course, in keeping with the Architecture Centre's mission of enlightenment, it is much more than this. Gunter Behnisch and his son Stefan, who now run two offices in Stuttgart, have built over 120 buildings and entered some 400 competitions. Gunter Behnisch's first major commission was for the Olympic Stadium at Munich in 1972; prominent recent projects include the new Parliament building in Bonn and the enchanting Frankfurt Postal Museum. The practice's method of working relies heavily on working models. Made up from scrap materials, these are fragile and incomplete, but the design teams find them an ideal tool for generatingdiscussion and ensuring continuous three-dimensional development. On a project like this, the design team will make countless models, presenting Ockert with the problem of what to bring to Bristol.

He has selected a series of small early massing models, and three models of the roof. These are hung on the wall as vertical panels, showing how this element- which will be visible from the hills above Bristol - has been treated as if it were an elevation and progressed from its initial complexity towards greater simplicity and strength. The emphasis placed by the practice on working models accounts for the lack of drawings in the exhibition, a lack which the embryonic cad programme provided by Buro Happold, structural engineer on the project, can only partly supplement at this stage.

The text, written by project partners Stefan Behnisch and David Cook, is clear and full of common sense ('Colours should not be decided in the office, they must be selected on site'). Much of it relates to the practice, its philosophy and its working methods. It is particularly illuminating about the benefits of the competitive system and that elusive phenomenon, the creative process. This, we read, often involves violating accepted aesthetic norms 'to explorepreviously unrecognised or inexpressible ideas through architectural form. This freedom in architecture can be exhilarating. With this freedom, we attempt to remain 'open' to ideas and discussion for as long as possible.' That word 'exhilarating' sums up The Harbourside Centre.

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