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Housing scheme sails into stormy waters in Bristol

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'East Germany or Bristol?' asks a notice on Bristol's Wapping Wharf. 'Do you want seven-storey tower blocks built on your harbour?' Across the water at Narrow Quay the city's Architecture Centre has models and drawings of the proposed development which has attracted such odious comparisons: houses and flats by a respected local practice, Bruges Tozer, for Berkeley Homes.

They are accompanied by powerful messages of support: from David Lunts of the Urban Villages Forum ('I believe that the scale of this project is right for this magnificent location'); Ian Thompson of English Partnerships ('Berkeley Homes is creating something of real merit here. This project could influence and embolden new homes developers planning projects on brownfield sites throughout the country'); architect Peter Ware ('What I like about this scheme is the civic space, and the way roofs swoop down towards it'); and the chairman of Bristol's own Harbourside Design Forum, Robert Huddlestone (' . . . a refreshingly good piece of modern architecture which will enhance the varied character of the docks').

Despite these testimonials, displayed on the centre's walls by a studiously neutral Sasha Lubetkin, there is a serious danger that Bristol's councillors will heed the Save Our Harbour objectors and refuse Bruges Tozer's striking, graceful and not in the least Stalinist design. They should not, for Wapping Wharf - the last major waterside site on the south side of the Floating Harbour - cries out for architectural celebration. The low-rise traditional housing which has increasingly brought life to the redundant City Docks was welcome; but for this site - just across the water from Arup Associates' Lloyds and Behnisch's Centre for Performing Arts - more wholemeal vernacular will not do. A building with presence and excitement is urgently required.

The decision affects more than just Bristol. As Thompson's comment suggests, here at last is a major housebuilder offering not Noddy boxes but a landmark building. The city council should be encouraging Berkeley Homes and other developers to employ architects with imagination.

Residents in Georgian houses immediately to the south at Cumberland Road are still very unhappy about the scheme, believing it will not only spoil their outlook but overshadow and diminish a popular piece of waterside. They challenge Bruges Tozer's calculations that its amended scheme will minimise overshadowing of the waterside. But Bristol Civic Society, which wanted to see blocks of no more than six storeys at right angles to the waterside, considers that the amended scheme meets many of its criticisms. 'We're not going to get what we wanted,' concedes architect Alan Elkan, 'but this is an improvement.'

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