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Exploring Bristol’s difference, listed Victorian urinals and all

Emily Booth
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This month the AJ focuses on a city with a sense of its own difference, a place where the quirky is celebrated, writes Emily Booth

Beauty is a ‘thing’ again, not least because of the release of the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission report.

The gist of the response to this report is: 1) it’s great that the powers that be might be thinking beyond quantity of homes delivered to quality and outcomes; but 2) how on earth could we measure beauty, and what role has government got in that?

Against the backdrop of President Trump’s draft (daft?) order to make federal buildings beautiful once more (Neoclassical is his preferred and default style), the beauty debate has taken on an international dimension.

In our Bristol focus, beauty is seen in the incidentals. It’s funny how cities get a shorthand reputation – what do you think when you think of Bristol? Hip, green, forward-thinking. Flip side: a cruel history; still a place of huge inequality.

Beautiful? Not in a standardised, identikit way. It’s too varied for that. But it’s handsome, and certainly a lot of people want to live there – it’s growing at a faster rate than many other British cities. And it will be the first city in the UK to ban diesel cars from parts of the city – the scheme is due to start in 2021. It’s doing a lot right.

There is a sense that being different is OK in Bristol, and this filters through to its architecture. Self-build projects are plentiful. Infill and quirky is celebrated.

But its rich built heritage does need to be prioritised. Connolly Wellingham Architects, which is one of the five Bristol-based practices we interviewed as part of our special coverage, sums it up: ‘[Bristol’s] historic fabric represents an underused resource. Several historic sites within the Old City remain vacant or sparsely populated, and developers are increasingly understanding the “unique selling proposition” of what repaired and respected heritage can add.’

Barefoot Architects’ delightful courtyard house has charmed its neighbours

One of our building studies shows a Bristolian attitude to beauty that can’t help but make you smile. Barefoot Architects’ delightful courtyard house has charmed its neighbours, and a large part of that is down to the effort taken to retain a graffiti-strewn boundary wall. It was leaning severely and was borderline unstable. Read about the engineering efforts to keep the wall – complete with its incline. 

Then there’s the ‘lone sentry’ of the listed cylindrical urinal ‘in ornate cast iron’ at the edge of the park which the house looks onto, alongside a towering plane tree. This project shows how retrofit and reuse can make a difference at the smallest scale, and how old structures – or at least not-so-new structures – have a role to play in our shared social memory.

Retrofit is by its nature a more sustainable option, but it’s more than that. Together, the plane tree, the colourful painted wall and that rather preposterous urinal are beautiful. I can’t image it’s a composition that would feature under any government definition of beauty. How much easier it would have been to knock down that wall. And how ugly.

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