Rubble & limestone - Bristol University's new library versus the fabric of the city


Historic England listings for (most of) the buildings featured:

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This is the junction of Bristol’s Woodland Road and Elton Road, as it appeared at the time of filming, which was spring 2022.

I say “at the time of filming” because the current intention is to replace this, with this. Given how annoyingly long it takes me to finish videos, demolition may well have happened by the time I actually upload this, and given that somebody might watch this at any point therefore, for all I know construction has long since completed. For now, though, I shall call them current, and proposed, respectively.

This huge modern cuboid contrivance is the proposed new University of Bristol library, and even you don’t particularly consider yourself an architectural critic, and even if you’ve never seen these renders before, in the last few seconds you’ve probably already made your own snap judgement on a few questions: is it a good piece of architecture in its own right? Is it an appropriate development for this location? Does it justify demolishing this historic chunk of the urban fabric, in a Conservation Area no less?

In my first draft of this script, I spent a good six or seven minutes explaining my own opinions, but I’m really not on board with the idea that my own opinions are worth that much of anybody’s viewing time, so I’ll try and make it a bit shorter, at the expense of being a bit blunt.

Basically, I don’t think this is that great. It’s meh.

I don’t want this to be your typical “all modern buildings are so terrible” rant. For example, when I went to Belem, in Lisbon, I found myself genuinely more enamoured with this, than with this. So I’m plenty open to crisp, minimalist, modernist lines, and I’d love for this channel to celebrate not only historic buildings but also cutting-edge, world-class contemporary architecture. But unfortunately, this isn’t that, in my opinion.

Usually, reading a development’s Design & Access Statement softens my initial kneejerk criticisms of proposals, because the architects justify their choices, and I come away feeling a bit sheepish that I thought I knew better than professionals. This one actually made me a bit angry, because the architects spout the sort of waffle which leaves me chafing against my self-imposed decision to not swear in these narratives.

We are told, for example, that the “Composition of massing [is] more closely related in scale and grouping to high quality iconic Edwardian buildings than the monolithic modern found on Tyndall Avenue.”

I mean… just look at it?

Somehow because this bit is the same height as these and this bit on top is the same size as this we are supposed to pretend that the combined entity is comparable to those and not comparable to this. Which is clearly absolute, steaming… waffle.

We are told that this interplay of stacked and rotated cuboids is “dynamic” and “contemporary”, but I’m afraid I just find it rather boring, unoriginal and bland. Stacked and rotated boxes have been done, for decades, many times, many places, bigger, better, jauntier… Here the rotations and cantilevers are so small and timid, from even moderately distant views the whole thing just congeals into a fat blob.

We are told that the top volume is an “interpretation” of a ‘tower’, a ‘landmark’, and accompany this talk with skyline views showing it positioned alongside the cathedral tower, Cabot Tower, Wills TOWER… yet somehow fail to grasp the essential tower-y-ness of towers. You know, being taller than they are wide. Tower-shaped?

But, like I say, who really cares about me nitpicking this thing to death. You’ll have your own opinions and I don’t particularly care to attempt to influence them.

Instead I want to go off on a long tangent about stone.

Because, whatever else you might think of it, one thing the proposed library isn’t, is brutalist. While the renders don’t really do it many favours, showing a generic off-white that could be taken for concrete, the building is actually due to be clad in limestone. The design & access statement unsurprisingly justifies the choice of limestone by referring to the fact that both its immediate neighbours, such as the Senate House here, and other buildings across both the University and Bristol as a whole, such as Wills Tower, commonly use this material. Therefore, using limestone will help it fit in, or as the architects put it in architect-speak, “ensure it is read as part of this family”.

This was about the first and only thing the design & access statement said which I could easily agree with.

But let’s look at the building doomed for demolition, The Hawthorns.

At first glance you might think it’s a classic Victorian piece of architecture, probably a listed building, and therefore it’s scandalous, or tragic or stupid to knock it down.

In fact, the original four villas forming the nucleus of the building do date from 1888, but it only takes a layman’s second glance to see this is not an example of authentic, well-preserved Victorian architecture. One of the houses was acquired in the 1920s by a Mr John Dingle, who converted it into a hotel, and over the following decades continually extended, purchasing neighbouring houses and joining them together into a haphazard conglomerate, eventually totalling 250 rooms.

This messy history explains why the buildings are not considered historically or architecturally worthy of listing in their own right. However, they are part of the local Conservation Area. In the council’s lingo, they “have value within the overall townscape context and make a positive contribution to the character of the area”.

For me, this is mostly because of the stone they are built with. The aforementioned limestone is here, but this building is to be ‘read as part of a different family’ as the architects would probably put it - the limestone is only used for the trimmings, giving a nattily two-tone contrast with the grey sandstone rubble.

I have to say, this is a material palette which feels extremely Bristolian. I can’t say uniquely Bristolian, because, well, during the making of this video I happened to visit Wales, and here’s an extremely similar building I genuinely just happened to stumble across without even trying. So clearly Bristol doesn’t have a monopoly on this style, but it is very widespread here. In this channel’s first ever video I highlighted the Wool Hall, by Richard Shackleton Pope, and his subsequent Bush House, today the Arnolfini art gallery, as key buildings in the evolution of Bristol Byzantine, and both display the rubble-with-limestone-trimmings palette.

But to focus on one or two big, famous buildings in the city centre would be to rather miss the point of the role that this stone combination plays within the urban fabric here. It’s not about high-profile showpieces, it’s about everyday ubiquity.

I will showcase a selection of these buildings while I ramble away, but must resist the temptation to bloat this video with lengthy detours into their individual histories. Leave a comment if you’d like a future video on any of them perhaps. Suffice to say, these examples cover a full spectrum, from numerous churches and chapels, to schools, hospitals, railway stations, industrial buildings, pubs, and, of course, housing. What could be more vernacular, more en masse, than housing?

But to me, there’s something about this style which is more deeply Bristolian than just a matter of mere statistical prevalence. Pretentious overthinking bit of the video alert, but to me there’s actually some sort of cultural resonance between this material palette and the spirit of the city.

See, that gorgeous limestone is almost certainly Bath stone, quarried near Bath just a short distance up the river Avon, where they like it so much they built the whole city from it. But Bath was born and reborn as a resort for Roman and Georgian elites, respectively, so it makes sense that it relies on this luxurious limestone, almost always cut into crisp, neat ashlar blocks - an architectural embodiment of that whole Jane Austen and rich people at spas and afternoon teas kind of thing.

Bristol, though, is historically a port city, and you know I hate to trade in crude social stereotypes, but well, let’s put it like this... When 18th century sailors got back to port, starved of human contact and opportunities to spend their wages on pleasure after months on the high seas, they weren’t known for their bingeing indulgence of triangular cucumber sandwiches, a mineral bath and some classic literature, were they?

No, they were men of a rather more… rugged character, shall we say; Bristol was rather more of a rugged sort of city, with a more rugged sort of cityscape. The widespread use of sandstone rubble, a cheaper and quite literally coarser stone seems to embody this to me. Rubble buildings reflect the local rural vernacular style of housing, and echo the squarely practical, foundational infrastructure of this hilly city - the rubble embankments and retaining walls necessary to slot a settlement onto these slopes.

Where Bath’s smooth, neat neoclassicism pandered to upper class tastemakers perhaps from London, or even Paris, and whose aesthetic ideals ultimately harkened back to classical Rome and Greece - Bristolian rubble rather ties back to more local, West Country pragmatism, a vernacular tradition of working people like fisherman and shepherds looking to root some shelter on the jagged cliffs or wind-blown moorlands of this region.

But, before we get too carried away with all the dewey-eyed romanticism of working-class localism, remember, we do still have those limestone trimmings. Bristol may have been a bit more of a rough and ready, working man’s kind of place than Bath, but it was a city more of merchants than labourers, a kind of petit-bourgeoisie who were definitely neither parochial nor lacking in aspirations or ambition.

Adding these formal, fancy quoins, voussoirs and cornices to the otherwise rustic rubble constructions seems to be an architectural embodiment of this character. Bristol, this combination says to me, was a practical, working place, but don’t mistake that down-to-earth quality for any lack of wealth or learning, or disregard for pride and prestige.

For someone who was criticising architectural waffle a moment ago, I’m producing a lot of my own waffle about this stone, but I guess what it comes down to is that even though the Hawthorns is, in itself, a bit of a mess, the fact it is built from these materials makes it very much part of the fabric of the city, which makes its demolition more regrettable than its own architectural value might suggest.

Still, I have devoted an awful lot of time to a somewhat nebulous concept of ‘urban fabric’, which ultimately boils down to “what it looks like (from the outside)”. Architectural criticism based on only the look of a thing from the outside is a bit like food criticism based entirely on visuals, never mentioning the taste or sustenance it provides. Buildings are after all built to be occupied and used, not observed.

I didn’t talk about how good a job of being a library the new library building will do, because I’ve got absolutely no way of knowing, but since I was kinda harsh on the architects stylistically, I’ll assume it will be brilliant.

As for the Hawthorns, in 1991 it was purchased by the university and is currently mostly used as student accommodation as well as hosting a few other student services. The low quality of all those gradual architectural interventions is visible from the outside, but is apparently far more evident on the inside. A resident student there wrote a piece in the student newspaper in 2020 entitled “The Hawthorns accommodation is not fit for people”, bemoaning collapsing ceilings, broken plumbing, confusing internal layout, regular false alerts from the fire alarm system, and so on and so on.

Perhaps surprisingly, she nevertheless concludes the fascinating history outweighs these drawbacks, and proclaims that it would be “devastating” to knock it down for the new library. And anyway, you could easily argue that all of these complaints are only a justification for a refurbishment, not a demolition.

But they do illustrate the folly of looking at some pleasant historic stone exterior and assuming it must be priceless architectural heritage, something only the recklessly stupid would think to demolish. It’s an equally valid perspective to consider the building to be struggling to be fit for purpose, and to have very little historic architectural integrity to outweigh that rather fundamental requirement of a building.

I am reminded of an analogy about driving I read on a software engineering blog once. Bear with me here, I think it does apply quite well to architecture and urbanism.

In a nutshell, in says that when you’re driving in snow, anyone going 10-20mph slower than you will have you thinking they’re some kind of idiot. It’s hardly even snowing! The gritters have done a good job! No need for this snail’s pace! Whereas anyone overtaking you 10-20mph faster, you will promptly label a maniac. Don’t you realise it’s snowing? Are you trying to get us all killed?

So it is with the pace of change and development in cities and the matter of architectural preservation. In a way, there is arguably very little ‘extremism’ on the spectrum. You’d struggle to find a single person in half a million here who would endorse knocking down St Mary Redcliffe to build new flats or offices. But you’d also struggle to find anybody who would insist on preserving and restoring some derelict 60s concrete lump like the old sorting office near the station. So everyone is somewhere in the middle… everybody has a line where a building is too commonplace, too ugly, or run-down to defend from demolition and replacement, but everyone’s line is drawn in a slightly different place.

We hear a lot about polarisation these days, often from the standpoint of two tribes that are standing on the notional left or right of a spectrum, and faced off across a seemingly empty middle ground, but I think it’s interesting how often we fall into this ‘idiots and maniacs’ form of polarisation - where our own opinion is always the pivot point between the two, the self-proclaimed common-sense stance, beyond which everybody else is the polarised extremist - whichever way they argue.

Some would look at a project like this and say: they want to demolish a historically unique synthesis of Victorian and Edwardian architecture, a quintessentially Bristolian piece of urban heritage, in a conservation area, to build some jarringly modernist abomination that dwarfs the neighbouring residential streetscape? They must be absolute maniacs!

Others would say, you want to prevent the University, one of the primary engines of the city as an economically, intellectually and culturally thriving place to be, from building top-class facilities in a location that is already visually dominated by mid-rise modernist university buildings, and prevent them improving the public realm and road safety in the process, all because you want to preserve this knackered old frankenstein’s monster building that has no real architectural value and is barely even habitable? You must be a complete idiot.

The thing about making youtube videos is, they feel awfully permanent and irrevocable, to the point I’m always frankly paranoid about saying something that crosses a line. It’s one thing to deploy comic hyperbole if ranting about an ugly building with some mates down a pub, but with this medium, I really want to avoid labelling anybody either an idiot, or a maniac, even implicitly.

That’s probably part of the reason why I’m being rather fence-sitting about the quality and appropriateness of this building. Another reason is that I’m genuinely struggling to decide which side of the line I come down on. And in analysing my thoughts on the topic, I can’t help feeling my decision is a lot less reasoned than I’d like to pretend it is. Much as I might pontificate on the values of heritage and so forth, I have to admit it probably comes down mostly to how much I like the proposed new building.

I suspect that had it been some Zaha Hadid or Calatrava level of excitingness and wow-factor, as per my completely subjective personal taste, I could have produced a video ‘systematically’ arguing that The Hawthorns was too muddled and mediocre to really warrant protection, and that cities need to change to prosper, and the economic and architectural boost delivered far outweighs the sacrifice of a fairly small and insignificant piece of blah blah blah blah blah.

But because the proposal is so underwhelming to me, I find myself unable to convince myself of all that, let alone anybody else. And even though The Hawthorns is not a building to specifically revere, and even though it’s not even a style I generally adore, and even though it’s not in an area of the city I ever actually visit, so have frankly no real reason to care about at all - I find myself somewhat sad and disappointed that it’s being demolished.

What do you think? Is the Hawthorns an acceptable sacrifice? Which of the other rubble and limestone buildings I’ve shown is your favourite? Are there any great examples I missed? Let me know in the comments below. I honestly couldn’t care less about your opinions, but having lots of comments makes me look good to the youtube algorithm. Just kidding. Kinda.

Anyway, that’s all for this video, if you enjoyed it why not give it a like, and subscribe in case I make any more. Cheers.