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Cross-section of a century

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When Nikolaus Pevsner turned his attention to Bristol for The Buildings of England, his verdict on its twentieth-century architecture was that ‘very little need be said’. That was in 1958. Confident either that things have looked up since or that Pevsner was uncharitable, the curators of a new show at the Bristol Architecture Centre - writer Tony Aldous and photographer John Trelawny-Ross - take the city’s twentieth-century buildings as their theme.


In his introductory text, Aldous remarks on ‘a wayward eclecticism, producing many bad or boring buildings but also some very good and interesting ones’. Of the latter, the exhibition offers ‘a subjectively chosen cross-section’. Forty panels, each with a recent photograph by Trelawny-Ross and a brief commentary by Aldous, take us on a chronological tour.


Among the early inclusions, a building which Pevsner did mention, Charles Holden’s Bristol Central Library (1906), stands out - its rear elevation (‘uncompromising, unadorned, almost fortress-like’, says Aldous) so reminiscent of Mackintosh’s contemporaneous Glasgow School of Art. There’s no sense, however, that the city really welcomed innovation: in 1929, as the uk first flirted with Modernism, the Bristol skyline was newly dominated by Sir George Oatley’s University Tower in scrupulous Neo-Gothic.


Later, the Modern Movement made some headway on the outskirts, primarily with Connell and Ward’s Concrete House at Westbury-on-Trym (1934). But, back in the city centre, conservatism held sway in the dull, monumental Neo-Georgian of E Vincent Harris’ Council House (1938). Harris, the then riba president, judged a competition for the building, found the entries wanting, and offered to do the job himself. (‘These days both the riba and Bristol do things more correctly,’ says Aldous.)


In the post-war years, Aldous is critical of the city’s chief planning officers (engineers fixated on roads) and of commercial development in the 1960s and 70s ‘which tore much of the heart out of Bristol’; but, generally benign, he finds merit in such buildings as drg Architects’ (supposedly) Miesian tower at One Redcliff Street (1964) and Percy Thomas Partnership’s mega-complex for the MoD at Abbey Wood (1996).


Overall the show seems thinner than it might have been. We don’t see inside the buildings (whether by plan, section or photograph), nor do we get a sense of their context, either now or as the city evolved through the century. Archive images could have counterpointed those by Trelawany- Ross to suggest the impact of these buildings in their time as well as today, and remind visitors of larger transformations (war damage, etc) in Bristol as a whole. Acknowledging the architecture centre’s mission to educate, Aldous’ captions could have been more substantial - touching on topics as disparate as structural cast-iron and recent ‘green’ priorities, they call out for amplification.


In the last decade or so MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, Arup Associates and Nicholas Grimshaw have all built in Bristol, and Michael Hopkins and Chris Wilkinson are doing so now, but the city still lacks something to really put it on the map. That might have been Behnisch’s Harbourside Centre; the best twentieth-century building in Bristol is probably the one that got away.

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