Bristol’s colourful historic terraces, and their 21st century reinterpretations


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Apparently I shot everything for this one myself? Either that or forgot to record credits in my original notes.

Errata, clarifications and additions

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These colourful terraces of houses strung along the hillsides have become a firm part of Bristol’s visual identity. I don’t want to say ‘iconic’, because that’s such an overused/diluted word, but look at tourist collateral for example, or local murals or signs, and you’ll see that these colourful terraces are widely emblematic of today’s Bristol cityscape.

It helps that they’re located fairly everywhere, visible from almost everywhere, not confined to one particular ‘colourful neighbourhood’ as in some other cities. These ones in Cliftonwood conspicuously overlook the harbour, of course, but these ones overlook you when you step off a train at Temple Meads, these ones extend far into the un-touristy suburbs, and there are countless similar examples across the city.

Somehow I found myself pondering these terraces deeper than strictly necessary. When, where and why did this start? Is there anything either forcing or preventing particular homeowners from doing it, or is it a total free for all?

I did some digging and frankly the answers I found to these questions were rather fuzzy. But, I went ahead and made a video about it anyway.

The history may be a bit vague, but it’s not an entirely historic story - architecturally, this is very much an ongoing, present day trend, with this grassroots / vernacular visual aesthetic increasingly being consciously integrated into the very fabric of the city by 21st century architects and developers.

But let’s start with the historic stuff.

The first thing to point out is that we’re dealing with colourful historic terraces, not historic colourful terraces. That is to say, as far as I could determine there’s no particular evidence that these paint jobs date back to the construction of the houses, or anywhere near it, while there’s a moderate amount of evidence that the colour schemes didn’t turn up until later. And by later I mean, like, 150, maybe even 200 years later - because some of these houses are pretty old.

The archetypal Bristol terrace is Georgian. Not that kind of Georgian, but the built-under-the-reigns-of-the-first-four-king-Georges kind; in other words, strictly speaking, between 1714 and 1830, but since nobody wants to mess around inventing a William the Fourthian era for only seven years, we can we usually chuck most 1830s buildings in with the Georgian era too.

Bristol does have early Georgian stuff, but the colourful terraces we’re focussing on here tend to be from the later end of this era. These prominent ones on Redcliffe Parade are relatively old, being from 1768-71. These ones on Queen’s Parade are from c1794. More often we find early 19th century construction - for example, these ones from circa 1820, these ones are from about 1825,these ones began as early as 1791 but soon went on hold, and were not completed til 1827.

A few features are worth drawing attention to. Firstly, we can see they are usually 4 stories high. It’s the 1700s and four stories is the default. This is why I feel justified in rolling my eyes at the numerous and inevitable NIMBY complaints on planning applications that anything bigger than a 2 storey semi-detached is “out of scale” or not in keeping with traditional British urbanism.

We can see that although these terraces extend for considerable distances, unbroken, with a clean, unvarying line along the street, they are saved from being oppressively wall-like horizontal slab-blocks by two things: firstly, that they are draped in elegant curves across undulating terrain, and secondly, by their narrow vertical grain.

That is to say, although the terraces are very wide, each individual property is tall and narrow.

By this era, a block like this built in, say, Paris might well have been divided up like this, so each household occupies a floor. For whatever reason, England stuck resolutely to dividing them like this. Of course, many of them today are subdivided into separate flats like this, and some of them would have been sublet like that from the earliest days; and.even those notionally occupied by a single household would likely have accommodated servants in the basement.

Still, regardless of how the interiors came to be portioned out, the street frontage still presents as a series of narrow individual houses. It’s hopefully pretty obvious how this would later feed into our rainbow effect.

In terms of material, some are built of stone; in this particular part of the world that’s usually Bath stone or another, similar type of local limestone. These ones are perhaps rather unlikely to be painted since the stone itself is a highly esteemed finish.

The majority, though, were built from cheaper brick or rubble, and given a smooth exterior finish with a layer of stucco, which likewise serves as a sort of prerequisite for the sort of painting which would follow.

I think it’s also worth pointing out that ornamentation is at an absolute minimum on these buildings. There’s no polychromatic brickwork or sculpture which would be obscured by a layer of paint. Most of these houses lack even any semi-decorative, semi-structural features such as bay windows, or even lintels on the windows.

Pediments and theatrical cornices are right out - in fact, even the one non-rectangular feature a British house is pretty much guaranteed to have, a slanting roof, is often deliberately obscured by a continuous horizontal parapet. The result is that each house presents as a sparse, flat, minimalist rectangle.

Once again, you can hopefully see for yourself how this creates an ideal canvas for our later trend, in a way that more intricate or ornate architecture would not.

Compare these, for example - you just can’t imagine the rainbow thing catching on in the same way if Bristol was dominated with residential stock like this.. Sometimes, streets of these houses do attempt to join in the colourfully-painted bandwagon, and fair play to them, it’s still bright and likeable, but... as you can probably see, it just doesn’t really work the same way.

Georgian era terraces may be the archetype, but numerically speaking most of these terraces are actually Victorian. Since Victorian houses are so commonplace as to not be individually listed, it proved difficult for me to pin down exact dates. Conservation Area documentation tends to only offer more general classification: these for example are “mid Victorian”, while these are “late Victorian”.

It seems to me that there’s a remarkable degree of continuity in design across all these eras, which is a pretentious way of saying they all look pretty much the same to me.

In London I thought I had developed a reasonably good eye for roughly guessing the age of residential buildings. Georgian Georgian looks like this - all red brick and sash windows. Regency Georgian looks like this, with stucco and white paint. Victorian - Late Victorian especially - could never be confused with either, since it totally abandons the minimalist (lack of) ornamentation, the clean unbroken roof and street lines, and so on, in favour of twiddly stuff like this, covered in bay windows and pediments and little turrets and pointy bits everywhere…

With Bristol’s terraces though, these stereotypes of mine prove rather useless. If I didn’t have sources to tell me that these two were from the Georgian and Victorian, I would readily guesstimate them to be of the same vintage.

This certainly isn’t because the more overtly Victorian styles passed Bristol by. There are plentiful examples of Victorians doing their twiddly, gothicky stuff here… I did a whole video about some of them in fact. So it is seems to me, although this is admittedly complete speculation, there must have been a somewhat conscious decision on the part of Bristolian planners and/or house-builders to continue to emulate the Georgian terraces; some recognition that despite the changing fashions of the 19th century, this was still a worthy template to copy-paste across the city.

What about these pastel rainbow paint jobs then?

We’ve seen how the local architecture has some properties ideally suited to enabling this trend, but that doesn’t explain when or why it actually did start.

A quick poke around online reveals a few theories.

The first points to the fact that Bristol is a port city, and many other famously-colourful towns like Cinque Terre in Italy are also coastal. Apparently, fishermen and sailors liked to paint their houses bright colours so they could see their homes from a distance when returning from sea.

And I’m afraid to say my natural reaction to this theory is to consider it complete drivel. Well, I mean, I don’t know about everywhere around the world, it may be true somewhere. But in Bristol at least however it seems like folksy nonsense to me.

For starters, even though economically speaking Bristol was very much a port city, it’s not like a majority of the population were fishermen or sailors of any kind even in the 1800s, let alone now.

And let’s be blunt, the type of humble illiterate fisherman who needs to paint his house bright yellow to be able to find it, was certainly not likely to be the owner of a luxury south-facing Georgian townhouse in the upmarket and fashionable new suburb of Clifton.

Also, the tortuous topography of Bristol means even if you could say “hey, there’s my house!” as you sailed in, you’d certainly lose sight of it by the time you moored up and started walking home anyway.

Similarly, I encountered some suggestions that this all stems from Bristol’s artsy, bohemian vibe, with the inevitable reference to Banksy.

While it’s rather self-evidently true that colourful houses will arise in a town where the population are open-minded to the prospect of colourful houses, the idea that Banksy has anything to do with this, I can only imagine is rooted in the apparent journalistic law whereby any piece about Bristol must name-drop him. By the same token I’m actually rather surprised nobody has tried to credit this trend to Brunel.

I also encountered a rumour that it all began because a Totterdown decorator found himself with a job lot of colourful paint, and offered a discount house-painting as a way to get rid of it and drum up some business. This one is somehow both entirely plausible and reeking of urban myth, and I don’t really see much way of me investigating it, short of appealing for people to pipe up in the comments if they know anything.

A more interesting theory that popped up was that this trend was initiated by a chap called George Ferguson in the 1960s, although my instinctive reaction was equally sceptical.

Firstly because it seems a bit too good to be true to be able to tie this sort of phenomenon to a single individual; and secondly, because that individual also just happens to be a former mayor of Bristol, and without wishing to be too cynical, if anybody has an incentive to encourage a mythos of themselves as innovators and single-handed drivers of city-wide change, it’s politicians.

On closer inspection however, it seems maybe I was being too cynical, because before he was a politician, he was an architect with particular interest in regeneration, so the idea of him being at the forefront of a movement to brighten up the built environment starts sounding like the absolute opposite of far-fetched. Also, to be blunt, he is still alive, so we can just ask him whether or not it’s true, and a woman called Angie Parker who wrote a blog post on this same subject, interviewed him to do exactly that, confirming at least part of the story.

His house was here, on Ambrose Road in Cliftonwood, and he painted it red in 1966; he recalls his friend down the street painting another house blue at the same time. So, with two houses on the same street - and a very prominently visible street overlooking the harbour, at that - being painted at the same time, we do have a believable nucleus from which this phenomenon could have snowballed.

Still, I couldn’t help but to remain slightly sceptical. This may have been one of the first, but THE first, really? It’s the sort of thing that’s impossible to prove, so instead I tried hitting the archives to see if I could DIS-prove it by finding any photos or artwork of Bristol from the 1950s or before with these rainbow-colourful terraces already clearly present.

The short version is that I couldn’t find any such picture - but of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I did find some black and white shots like this one from the 1920s, which do indicate the colour of houses videos vary within a terrace, although this could be a not-exactly-colourful variation - a range of different whites and off-whites mixed with unpainted stone or pebbledash finishes - as seen here in the present day.

So my best guess is that while these terraces would probably have had slightly varying shades as individual homeowners’ maintenance and repainting schedules diverged - and the occasional eccentric may have opted for blue or pink a century before it was cool - the trend probably didn’t become a seriously ubiquitous, city-wide thing until the latter part of the 20th century.

As history goes I confess this is a tad unsatisfying. However, I don’t want this channel to be all about history, and this particular story extends to the present day in a rather interesting way.

Whatever the precise genesis, most people do seem to agree that the historic growth of these rainbow houses was a grassroots, ‘bottom-up’ citizen-led process, and not the result of some organised scheme led by an artist or imposed by local authorities and planners. In the twenty-first century, however, authorities, planners and architects are consciously stoking these fires. And it’s not just limited to consciously cultivating more of these paint jobs on existing housing stock.

It goes further than that, with contemporary architects taking aspects of these colourful terraces and building it into the very fabric of their infill developments.

In 2017 architects Stride Treglown and local photographer Jess Siggers held a ‘Bristol Colour Capital’ seminar, with talks from housing developers on their choice of colour scheme, from city council marketing officers on their use of these houses in promotional literature, and so on. The fact this ‘Colour Capital’ seminar was held at Paintworks, where a bunch of Stride Treglown-designed colourful houses and apartments had recently come onto the market, might prompt a cynic to suggest that it was an exercise in property marketing as much or more than it was an academic inquiry into a vernacular aesthetic.

Still, I don’t think this trend can be dismissed as entirely a marketing gimmick. Reading through planning documents for this section of the video, I did get the impression that a lot of the architects, many of whom are local firms, have a genuine interest in reflecting the historic housing stock.

Anyway, we’ll visit Paintworks shortly, but the obvious place to start is with these ones which have been staring us in the face for much of the preceding footage.

Perhaps surprisingly for such a clearly local-site-specific design, these ones were not designed by a local operation. They were designed by HLN Architects who seem to be based in Cardiff, although Bristol Council’s City Design Group does also claim some credit for ‘urban design advice’.

Researching 21st century buildings is surprisingly hard, as architects routinely cull projects from their websites and google returns nothing but an overwhelming tidal wave of property sales and rental websites and adverts. My only concrete source of facts was local planning documentation, so unless otherwise stated, the years I cite are the years of the planning application. It was simply too difficult to get concrete info on the year an architect actually did the design, or the year a scheme was actually completed. On that basis, I’ll label this scheme as from 2001.

There’s a lot I really like about these. It’s not just that the colour palette is absolutely spot on. It’s also that this horizontal slab of housing has been so clearly articulated into the sort of narrow vertical grain we discussed earlier.

Personally, I also love the way they are simultaneously very modern, unapologetically so. They respond to the Georgian and Victorian terraces without entirely aping them, the bold ‘cut out’ shape is composed of stark 2d rectangles even though the overall house is no longer a single 2d rectangle.

One thing I’m less keen on is the way they sort of ‘cheat’. And by that I don’t mean that the back of this terrace doesn’t look at all similar, nor colourful. Because that often applies to the historic ones too. No, what irks me slightly is that even the front fails to fully commit. From most angles you can’t really tell, but from a few it’s more apparent - these nicely crisp, pastel facades are not 2 storey houses, but actually the top 2 stories of a 4 storey construction, the lower half of which is built in that strain of orange brick that I think of as ‘80s business park brick’.

I personally struggle to understand why an architect would choose that here, or indeed anywhere, but to be fair, it is hardly noticeable from most angles, and overall I think the good parts of this development far outweigh the appearance of this personal bugbear.

Overlooking a small park in Bedminster, the architect behind this row, as far as I can tell, was a firm called Dexter Building Designs, who could hardly be more local, being based in Bedminster.

This site used to be some sort of factory or industrial space called Temple Works, and although I couldn’t find a photo of it, it’s probably fair to assume that this development meshes into the surrounding residential area better than it did. This is a bit of a running theme and I think when architects do this sort of thing it can be a bit thankless. It’s like that Futurama quote, when you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all. If you dump some intrusive or jarring into an established ensemble of buildings then people are very quick to moan about how modern architecture is terrible, but if you replace something ugly and jarring with something that fits really nicely, people take to it so quickly, it can become almost instantly taken for granted.

The planning app is from 2012 although seems to be an evolution of earlier designs. I thought it’d be interesting to trawl the design statements for the architects’ own explanations of how their work was intended to relate to existing stock, and in this case it says:

The contemporary design of the development would sit comfortably with the period properties in the surrounding area. The proportions of the individual facades of the proposed dwellinghouses[sic] reflect that of the period residential dwellings in the vicinity.

The variety in coloured facades and textured surfaces, allied with the verandas and cantilevered bay windows,serve to add character and visual interest to the principal elevation.

Much like the ones over the harbour, I rate these highly for incorporating these classic proportions and colours but retaining an unabashedly crisp contemporary style.

Just across the same park lies another example. Approach from this direction and you might not think this development belongs in this video, but turn around, and you can see a slightly less pastel version of our rainbow palette on the side walls of the double height entrances.

This row was also built on top of a former factory, and somewhat bafflingly the design statement cites the “bright colours of the factory” as inspiration, rather than Bristol houses. Bafflingly, because the only thing that seemed especially colourful about the former factory was the graffiti all over it.

The factory is actually a rather interesting story worthy of a brief historical detour. It was an outpost of the Industrial Therapy Organisation, a scheme for the rehabilitation of long-stay, long-unemployed psychiatric patients in Bristol hospitals. They worked 25 hours a week, paid the going rate for light industrial work such as manufacturing ball-point pens or dismantling telephones.

A Lancet article in 1963 reports that in the first two years “The paranoid schizophrenics were the most successful group, 21 out of 57 being placed in open employment. Other forms of schizophrenia had the lowest success rate, with only 13 patients from 98 placed in open work.”

Back to the factory’s replacement though, and this time the architects, Bristol firm 105 West talk of aiming to “create a traditionally proportioned front elevation of appropriate formality overlooking the park... The houses uniformly step up Lydstep Terrace in response to the rising topography and thus create a rhythm to the street, again in reference to Bristol’s tradition.”

One thing that interests me with this design is that the vertical articulation is essentially provided solely by that stepping up, and the drainpipes. I can’t quite work out if I think this is an inadequate expression of grain, resulting in something that feels too much like a horizontal block of flats rather than a series of houses, or if it’s a sort of minimalist, prosaically structural-expressionist stroke of genius.

I like this perhaps a little less than its near-neighbour, but overall I’d give it a positive assessment nonetheless.

The same cannot be said for all the developments I discovered in making this video, unfortunately. Here for example, we find a nice little set of mews houses, in our rainbow palette, and, in the very loosest sense, somewhat neo-Georgian in their unadorned, well-proportioned-rectangles aesthetic - but zoom out, and they’re built into this… thing.

This Fitzroy Robinson scheme looked screamingly Blair-era to me, and the planning app duly turned up dated 2000. Probably the nicest thing I can say about the yellow brick and glass bits of the building is that they provide an extremely clear example of what happens if you don’t follow any of the principles I’m discussing in this video.

Let’s move swiftly on.

Where that scheme had contextually a fitting terrace at ground floor level, and jettisoned all attempts at localism or visual integration above that, this 2011 project does something of the opposite. The ground floor makes no attempt to present itself as a terrace of housing, being quite clearly a supermarket, but the storeys above minic the historic terraces along this street. Like our earlier examples, this one replaced some shabby industrial buildings that were completely out of place, and you have to give Bristol-based architects O’Leary Goss credit for respectfully filling in this street, at least from this key angle.

Somewhat disappointingly though, step down the side street and you see that once again the vision is not remotely carried through. You’ve got the historic terrace, and then you’ve got… these. Very blocky, horizontal and generic.

Now, I don’t want to suggest I think every development should be heritage terrace pastiche. Pragmatically, with the housing shortage in this country I understand the need to deliver some denser, blockier developments, and stylistically I’d be totally amenable for these other blocks to be a radically different style, contrasting rather than emulating, but the style seen here is what I might politely describe as ‘not compelling’.

If we’re talking about developments that tip their hat to our colourful terraces whilst delivering something actually rather bigger and denser, I was rather more impressed by Paintworks. This is a big site with multiple phases of development and multiple architects contributing, but I’m pretty sure the bits I’m mostly looking at in this video are by Stride Treglown, planning application from 2009..

Although the pastel colours have been relegated to something of a highlight role, you can see how this large horizontal block on the right has been articulated into a series of tall and narrow properties as we’ve discussed. No continuous horizontal parapet here - the pointed roofs could be a reference to the nearest historic stock, but I think more likely a nod to the factory buildings which remain a part of this site.

Yet again we see the use of cantilevered bay windows; it seems contemporary architects are more keen on the proportions of the classic terrace house than their flat, near-2D style, with most of them opting to add more 3-dimensionality. Personally I find the net result is a bit cluttery, although to be fair I have the same opinion about Edwardian houses, so that’s more a matter of taste than a criticism really.

One thing which weirdly fascinates me about these developments is that these colours are (probably, mostly) not a coat of paint. Rather, I imagine developers are using through-renders or cladding where the colour is part of the material. This means these colours are, essentially, permanent - which led me to a strange hypothetical scenario. 50, or 100 years in the future, if everybody in Bristol deems this trend incredibly passe and paints their houses uniformly white, these buildings would endure as a reminder of the trend, a physical embodiment of the once popular and widespread palette, that's now looked back as a 20th or 21st thing, "how dated!"

Anyway I’ll bring this video to a close now because it’s already three times longer than I intended it to be, but I should point out I’m only scratching the surface with this selection of projects. I kept accidentally stumbling upon other schemes with similar traits as I filmed this. For example, I went up to Totterdown to film the colourful Victorian terraces, and what did I find? Yet another modern take. Here’s another small row I stumbled on near Brandon Hill.

Also, you could argue that my focus on the colours is a bit shallow. There are lots of schemes which use the arguably more important grain and proportions of classic terraces with a modern sensibility, but eschew the rainbow paint job. These ones for example, and I really like this street, too. Perhaps one day the owners here might add rainbow colours. Who knows?

Anyway that’s all for this video. As always thanks to all the people whose work I’ve built on in any way, and thank you for watching.

To be honest if anybody has actually made it this far I’m kind of amazed.

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