Monthly Archives: May 2016

Concrete Concept

Brutalist buildings around the world
Christopher Beanland

Packing case lettering, thick stiff card cover, no frills like a dust jacket and an A to Z of Brutalist Architecture from Jonathan Meades. What more could you want?

Christopher Beanland introduces his subject with the usual questions.

“Why brutalism?….why do you like these ugly buildings? Where the bloody hell did they come from? The answer to the first is easy as pie; the second -well how long have you got….”

Unfortunately the answer to the first is so personal that it only confirms my suspician that “brutalist buildings” are more about style than substance.

Brutalism was all the rage when I started studying Architecture. A first year project included an assessment of the South Bank complex, which rightly appears in this book (Hayward Gallery, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room). We didn’t think of it as “architecture”. We ignored or at least we’re not conscious of the discipline of creating the concrete materiality, the interiors and their functional requirements. We concentrated on the external spaces, terraces, the movement and the drama of the forms. We enjoyed photographing it and printing our own photos in black and white. Our project turned into a graphic production.

Only later did I realise that in Concrete buildings there is often no façade. Concrete is a rigorous task master. If I had done my year out working for Lasdun I would have learnt more about the discipline of the material, maybe my appreciation of its qualities would be deeper. Concrete became a means to an end not an end in itself. A malleable, invariably structural material with lots of great qualities but usually hidden because to expose it was too tricky, expensive and prone to all sorts of failures.

Meades and Beanland are not architects. This is no disqualification but as enthusiasts who love the material for its imagery, drama and robustness, they risk becoming advocates for something far more complex and challenging than they perhaps appreciate.

The 50 selected buildings are an example of the dangers of these thematic and luxuriously illustrated books. They seduce and avoid the pitfalls, the failed details, the cold bridges. There are many more that could equally deserve to be included. One of the great pities is that some are no longer with us or are actually being demolished, as I write.

If this can add to the record before it is too late, it is all to the good. Whether Brutalism and concrete can catch hold of the imagination of more than just the cognoscenti is another matter.

The Bristol Arena

Making a place – master planning and architecture.
Design Team
Populus: Architects and lead consultant
Fielden Clegg Bradley Studios: Architects
Buro Happold: Engineers

The Arena provides a flexible internal entertainment space for a wide variety of events with a maximum capacity of 12,000. Outside the Arena itself the site will initially include surface parking which in a second phase be developed providing up to 19,000 sqm floor area of mixed uses. Outdoor spaces for events and accessible parking will also be provided. The design teams’ aims to create a cutting edge multi-event destination- ‘a ‘Colosseum’ for Bristol. The Bristol Arena has recently been granted planning permission.
The Arena concept developed most often in the USA has most often been developed on sites outside the City Centre. As such these large internalized entertainment spaces are a challenge to the urbanist, (even in Rome). Locating the Bristol Arena on the Diesel Depot site next door to Bristol’s Grade 1 Listed Temple Meads Station, has also been a long journey, with the trials of recession and the virtual freezing of development outside London. Now that it has received planning permission it can move on to prove that all the effort was worth it.
The constrained “island” site faced many challenges, both practical and qualitative. How can the site accommodate competing demands of access for visitors, the audience as well as service vehicles and a river to cross? Can the topographical challenges of a flat site with a virtually shear wall to the south and steeply sloping and busy road along the south west? Will activities attract during the day as well as the evening? Will the site offer more than just a one stop shop based around entertainment. In answering all these questions, the client, operators and design team has done an excellent job
Site access is difficult, the choice of options is limited. The Avon has to be crossed and it is unfortunate that the first bridge for vehicle access to the site has been less than inspired. It is not a dramatic gesture, which would be the wrong move, but is not restrained and simple. It falls between the two, a missed opportunity. The pedestrian and cycling bridge which will follow soon is remote from the main action, requiring a long ramp for cyclists. Pedestrian and cycle routes join to become a shared pedestrian and cycle bridge. This is not the optimum option as it could lead to pedestrian and cycle conflicts. Given the green credentials and importance of cycling in Bristol this is an unfortunate decision.
One of the main challenges for Arenas is the servicing and access for large trucks required for get in and broadcasting. With the access restrictions to the site all types of vehicles including large trucks for shows as well as cars to the car park use the same bridge access. This will call for very careful management to avoid conflicts. Could the surface car park provided in the first stage have provided for more creative meanwhile uses before the second phase comes forward? Were other locations for vehicle parking considered? Could disabled access be provided by a shuttle service rather than an on site car park? It seems to me that all these questions could have been answered by more radical solutions but I guess the business plan and economics ruled the day.
The client and consultant team have high ambitions…
“the extraordinary setting of Arena Island be brought to life through dynamic landscapes and a series of terraces that flow from river to park, and through village to a new public square, providing
 the platform for a whole range of outdoor events and community activities.”
The success of the Arena as a destination will depend on the range of other activities at all times of day and in the evening. This will help determine the character of the place and the challenges relate to the island nature of the site. This site has special qualities. I would have expected more have been made of the public spaces around the building. Hard landscaping predominates but the historic references are lost. Quieter spaces and more soft landscaping and tree planting would be welcome. The old Diesel Depot site had distinctive dramatic qualities. It is to be hoped that the art interventions will draw from the history and add to the sense of place.
Many of these challenges will only be fully answered as later phases of development come forward. But in the first stage, the creation of the Arena as a new venue will begin to answer these questions. Ultimately, will the Arena and its surroundings become part of the City? Given its location and the fast evolving Bristol Temple Quarter, the future looks very promising. Bristol is benefitting from the vision of Mayor George Ferguson and the Government and other Agencies promoting the South West of England over many years. Without their commitment and vision the Arena development would not have reached this stage.
The visuals of the building are dramatic and promise much, a beacon at night. As the winner of a well worked design competition, the Arena deserves to be a great success and with a team that combines Populus, FCB Studios and Buro Happold, it has the credentials and track record to deliver it.