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Bristol slams Arts Council over Behnisch scheme veto

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Backers of plans to build Stefan Behnisch's Bristol Harbourside Centre have reacted furiously to the effective scrapping of the sceme by the Arts Council. Its longstanding lottery application was turned down last week, despite a promise earlier this year that funding was earmarked. Councillor Paul Smith, chair of leisure at Bristol City Council, which was putting £7.5 million into the scheme, said: 'We are bitterly disappointed and very angry. I think the criticisms are a smokescreen for its inability to fund the project.'

Harbourside was seeking £58 million, but the Arts Council claimed it was not the cost that got it rejected, despite cautioning that large awards such as last week's £15 million hand-out to an rhwl scheme for the Brighton Dome would only be made in 'very exceptional circumstances'. The council said that the Harbourside application was flawed and failed to meet three of its basic criteria, citing an incomplete design brief and cost information, and 'a lack of integration between artistic plans and building design'. It added that 'contrary to Arts Council advice the Harbourside project has not applied adequate dedicated senior level executive expertise to ensure the necessary leadership and direction for a project of this magnitude.'

Many involved on Harbourside had also worked on the successful Bristol 2000 bid, including high-profile business people. Louis Sherwood, chairman of the Harbourside Centre, is also chairman of htv. Smith said: 'The idea that these people couldn't run this is an insult to the intelligence.'

Kevin Wilson, marketing director of Harbourside, said that as well as giving the project £5 million of development money last year, the Arts Council assured it in March that the £58 million had been set aside in its budget. 'Our view is that the business plan and other information were acceptable,' he said. Harbourside is sending the Arts Council a detailed rebuttal of its criticisms, but the project appears dead. All staff have been put on three months' notice, and the architect has been suspended. The Arts Council says it has confirmed its commitment to Bristol with an award of £317,371 to the Arnolfini Gallery.

Behnisch's is the latest in a list of 'deconstructivist' buildings to fail to receive lottery funding, after Zaha Hadid's Cardiff opera house and Libeskind's Imperial War Museum in Trafford. Libeskind's Boilerhouse project for the Victoria & Albert Museum was rejected by the Millennium Commission (the museum is planning an application to the Arts Council).

The other major project to be rejected last week was the redevelopment of the Hackney Empire, to a design by Tim Ronalds and Homa Farjadi. Theatre director Roland Muldoon also dismisses the Arts Council's criticism of his project and says it was penalised for insisting that it was a project of national importance rather than agreeing to come under the aegis of the London Arts Board - where its request for £28 million would have been unachievable. 'It was an economically viable, brilliant building,' he said.

The Arts Council postponed a decision on the regeneration of Stratford's Royal Shakespeare Theatre, to designs by Erick van Egeraat. A theatre spokesman said it was still confident it would receive £50 million.

The Arts Council has said that the current round of awards is the last under its existing system. It made 13 awards and considered a total of 136 in three hours. With reduced funds available because of the introduction of a sixth good cause, it is drawing up a new plan for dealing with capital applications, which it will agree at its next meeting in September.

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