The Bristol that never was

22Jul12

ImageSomewhere out there, in parallel universes numberless to man, there are other Bristols.

In some, for instance, the traveller gets off the train at the city’s main station in what used to be Queen Square and takes a taxi along a road system that partly runs through what used to be the Floating Harbour. Much of the old harbour got filled in and covered over for roads and offices once it had ceased to be of any commercial use in the 1960s. S/he then checks in at the Avon Gorge Hotel. The Avon Gorge is popular with visitors because of its spectacular views of the Gorge and the Suspension Bridge. And also because if you’re staying there you don’t have to see the way it blights everyone else’s view of the Gorge.

In other worlds, the Grade I listed 18th century bridge over the Gorge (pictured) contains houses, shops and even a museum and library, and is one of Britain’s leading visitor attractions. In this city the street lights are still partly run on electricity generated by the rise and fall of the tidal Avon using a remarkable system installed in the 1890s. And here, too, is one of Europe’s most spectacular performance venues, the Centre for the Performing Arts built down on the Harbourside in the 1990s.

All of this is a roundabout way of announcing that I’ve just started work researching and writing a book, provisional working title Unbuilt Bristol, all about buildings and developments proposed at various times in the past but which, for one reason or another, never got built.

Like every other city everywhere, Bristol has its share of aborted schemes, some of them insane, such as the 1970s road system, the concrete hotel in the Gorge and many, many more. A local architect was telling me the other day about another 1970s proposal to build council flats in Clifton Wood, complete with escalators from Hotwells Road up to Clifton.

In the same category you’d also have to file most of the plans, some of them drawn up while the War was still on, to re-build Blitzed Bristol with a series of massive Stalinist blocks.

Other plans were idealistic and visionary. One of my own favourite parts of Bristol is the bit around Lewins Meads where there are all those walkways in the sky that go nowhere. These were built as part of a 1950s-70s plan to get pedestrians moving around these upper decks, leaving the roads to traffic.

The failure of some other plans is sometimes to be regretted. If you mention unbuilt things to Bristolians, the one that gets mentioned with most wistfulness is the Centre for the Performing Arts, an astonishing thing designed by the Behnisch practice in Stuttgart and which was memorably described by someone or other as looking like an exploding greenhouse. Look here to see what we’re missing.

I’m getting well stuck into this now, and keep uncovering some brilliant stuff all the time. One suspects that we’ll also have a bit of modest revisionism going on as well. For instance, there’s a kind of folk memory among the local civic class that it was protests against brutal in inappropriate schemes in the 70s that made the Council more responsive to local public opinion on building developments. This is true up to a point, though once you start looking into it you find that economic downturn and the OPEC oil crisis was an equally important factor in getting things cancelled.

One other thing you come across from that period is the astonishing degree of consensus, not to say outright collusion, between Labour and Conservative groups on the city council. And these guys were not in the habit of consulting the public on anything; the excuse was that if they announced they were considering building something somewhere it would drive up the price of the land.

I’m wondering (and this is just a theory, mind – more work’s needed) if the rise of the Liberals on the Council from nothing to the ruling Lib Dem group of today, didn’t have a lot to do with revolt against the cosy Lab-Con duopoly of the mid 20th century.

Provisional Title Unbuilt Bristol is due to be published by Redcliffe Press sometime next year. I’ve already got a massive canonical list of Things Good, Bad And Indifferent That Were Never Built but all suggestions welcome in case I’ve missed something.

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One Response to “The Bristol that never was”

  1. 1 Harry Mac

    I’m going to buy this book!


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