Tomorrow's landscape: Sylvia Crowe and the brutalist public spaces of the Cumberland Basin Road Scheme


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This is the western end of Bristol's harbour, an area which the council have recently rebranded 'Western Harbour', despite it already being better known as the Cumberland Basin area. A new name for a newly rebuilt district, because their intention is to transform this view almost beyond recognition.

As you can see, the area is dominated by a high capacity dual carriageway with an accompanying sprawl of slip-roads: this elevated road scheme was Bristol's first, built in the mid-1960s, and it's nearing its end-of-life. Since it needs to be demolished or replaced, one way or another, the council sees an opportunity to free up some land while they're at it, giving them somewhere to put thousands of desperately needed new homes.

This video isn't here to dissect those plans. Although these options are fascinating to consider, the whole thing is currently a bit stalled by the Environment Agency's awkward refusal to sanction any housing development here on the basis that it finds itself underwater fairly regularly. Instead, I'll be looking at the past and present of the area, but the fact that it will look very different in the future, whichever option we do end up with, definitely hangs over the entire thing.

A lot of the motivation to spend such a long time filming... well... a bunch of ugly roads, was to record this space as it is for posterity, in the hope it'll be an interesting time capsule in a couple of decades. Whether or not I can make it interesting in the immediate term, I'm not so sure. I did hit the archives to view the original '60s landscaping plans, and looked into the life of the woman who drew them, which I hope might tempt some of you to stick around, but mostly it's just my whining monotone, going on for far longer than necessary.

In a previous video about Spike Island I touched on this Cumberland Basin road scheme, and I condensed this sprawl of slip roads down to a little montage of awfulness, with a clear message that it was basically terrible on every level. I cited noise pollution, air pollution, visual pollution, and the sheer wasted space, bemoaning that an area that could be filled with thriving industry and commerce or beloved homes and gardens - indeed, used to be filled with those things - was instead miserably crushed under this car-centric sprawl of concrete.

Setting aside that whole flood-risk part, replacing all these slip roads with nice walkable communities is something I would generally support enthusiastically. And yet, I'm about to spend 20 minutes or so delivering a kind of melancholic eulogy for the road-scape we are about to lose, pretentiously waffling about the retro-futuristic appeal of the brutalist architecture and the liminal energy of the landscape... So what's going on? Am I completely contradicting myself?

Well... hopefully not. I think I called it horrid because in a lot of ways it is really pretty horrid. The fact that the occasional weirdo photographer, urbexer, flaneur, loner or overthinker (like me) enjoys poking around broken, brutalist or derelict urban landscapes doesn't mean they are good urbanism. Some people enjoy 'dark tourism' in places like Pripyat, but that doesn't mean they want irradiated bears released in their home town. You can't seriously look at this and tell me this space is either beautiful or put to its best possible use. You can't look at this and tell me it is a welcoming pedestrian corridor. For me to even hang around here filming was, rather perversely, an example of privilege: some people would be physically incapable of climbing the stairs, and many more would not feel safe in this sort of space on their own.

So, yes, it is kinda horrid, but I suppose I was at least guilty of being reductive, because for all its undeniable flaws I can't help loving some of the features of this landscape. These spiral staircases for example. I don't know if my viewer base contains any Haruki Murakami readers, but if so, I defy you to go up or down one of these without thinking of the reality-warping transition of the elevated Tokyo expressway staircase in 1Q84. To head up those stairs is to shift between parallel universes, from that of people to that of cars, and for all that is a weird and mostly unpleasant universe to walk in, there's a strange thrill to it, like you're trespassing, even though you're not.

Another small design gem to discover in this '60s landscape is this bench. A comment on a previous video compared it to Yugoslav spomeniks, which is a delicate comparison since they're war memorials and the locals are keen they are not reduced to instragrammable novelties, but I can see why the comparison was made in good faith: the bench is brutalist, but not of the concrete-is-cheap, so you'll get brutalism-by-economic-default school of brutalism. No, this is very much from the defiantly sculptural, deliberately avante-garde school of brutalism. It's not so much a bench as a throne. It has some serious flair. I mean, it has a pronounced flare, but I'm not even trying to make a pun, it has flair flair: someone designed it like this. They didn't have to. They could have just dumped a couple of these things here and been done with it. But no, we got this. Bespoke and magnificent.

And then there's this control tower. Not only my favourite feature of the Cumberland Basin's road landscape, but quite possibly my favourite brutalist slash modernist slash post-war building in Bristol, full stop. I don't have any fancy architectural jargon or theory to justify why I love it. I just do. I suppose I could point out that it looks a bit like the bridge of a ship, which is 'wonderfully contextual for a port'. But mostly I just enjoy how retrofuturistic it is. Even though it was built way before I was born, in a style that was unfashionable, even despised by the time I grew up, it so clearly radiates a progressive, forward-looking optimism that I can't help but be charmed by it.

This sense of optimistically building a new and better future was perfectly encapsulated by the title of a book Sylvia Crowe published in 1956, Tomorrow's Landscape, and a decade later the landscape designer commissioned for the Cumberland Basin road scheme was none other than... Sylvia Crowe. Although her book title chimes perfectly with the architectural vibes here, I should probably note for clarity's sake that I found no evidence that Sylvia Crowe had any direct input on the deliciously '60s stylings of those stairs, that bench, or the control tower, specifically.

In fact, the other name on the plans is probably a more credible candidate for those: J.B. Bennett, the City of Bristol's resident Engineer and Surveyor, who was ultimately responsible for all the structures north of Spike Island (Freeman Fox & Partners led on the southern half of the scheme). But even then, I can't imagine he personally styled everything down to the last bench - I have to assume the design heroes behind those specific features were his deputies and juniors who'd been assigned to staircase duty, or whatever. Unless anyone viewing can inform us in the comments, I suppose they'll have to stay nameless.

The space below the control tower was designated as Cumberland Piazza, and is where Sylvia Crowe focussed much of her attention. She was one of the pre-eminent figures in her field, wrangling with the big contemporary questions of how post-war Britain should landscape the tidal wave of New Towns, motorways, power stations and so forth that it was constructing. She served as President of the Institute of Landscape Architects, was the landscape advisor to the Forestry Commission, and was later made a Dame.

We therefore have a curious conundrum - how did a designer so esteemed produce a landscape so reviled? How did a design produced with such well-intentioned optimism come to inspire such dystopian public perceptions as these?

Crowe was born in 1901, homeschooled on her family's fruit farm in Sussex, before training at a horticultural college. Between the wars she had worked as a garden designer on a domestic scale, winning a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show, and designing the gardens of a Cheshire mansion which the internet tells me is currently owned by Man United and Newcastle legend Michael Owen.

If you take a rather stereotypical view of what Chelsea Flower Show gardeners are all about, and stir in a decent chunk of sexism, you might assume the story here is that the megalomaniac , modernist men of the 60s were strutting about chucking monumental amounts of concrete everywhere, belatedly bringing in a woman to soften the edges by planting some nice shrubs and flowers and things.

This would be very wrong on multiple levels. First, Crowe was not trying to cushion the shock of modernism; she was something of a modernist herself. One of her Chelsea Flower Show designs in the 30s was praised for its innovative use of concrete; one of her minimalist maxims was "Landscaping is often what you leave out, not what you put in."

Second, she was not hired in as a beautifying afterthought; in fact, she had gone to great professional trouble to ensure landscape designers were never hired in as an afterthought. Along with her colleagues at the ILA, Brenda Colvin and Geoffrey Jellicoe, she had lobbied the government hard during the '40s and '50s to ensure landscape architects were involved from the start of New Town and motorway projects.

Third, she was not much the sort to consider scattering decorative shrubs and flowers around to be good landscaping. In fact, the aforementioned lobbying for professional landscape design involvement in post-war construction and reconstruction had been conducted in more or less direct opposition to the Roads Beautifying Association. Although they didn't call out the RBA by name, their lobbying was derisive of 'beautifying' with a lowercase b, and you didn't have to be a genius to put 2 and 2 together. The RBA had been founded in 1928 and their modus operandi was very much planting ornamental garden-type species to prettify roads; a philosophy which Sylvia and her allies regarded with something like scorn or contempt.

For starters, they strongly favoured the use of native species, whereas the RBA cheerfully planted exotic cultivars from around the world, as you would in an ornamental garden. Ecological reasons were part of this argument, but the ILA also felt that the RBA's domestic garden-style planting was completely inappropriate even on a purely aesthetic level. A person strolling through a garden can admire the delicate wonder of intricate individual petals; a motorist cruising along in their modern car on the unfathomably modern motorways at astonishing speeds of sixty miles per hour, could not begin to discern such details. The landscaping of motorways, and other such large scale projects in post-war Britain, needed a far bigger approach: roads had to knit into the contours of the terrain at large, Crowe and her colleagues thinking in terms of hills, valleys, cuttings, embankments, copses, meadows and forests, not flowerbeds in the verges.

Nobody is cruising through Cumberland Basin at a futuristic sixty miles per hour, but it's nonetheless a landscape of motion. Most obviously the incessant churn of traffic, but here even the roads and bridges themselves move for boats and ships passing through, and of course the tidal river never stands still. In warm weather you do fairly often see people sitting and chilling on this strip of grass, but elsewhere in this vicinity most visitors seem to be inherently on the move - joggers, dog-walkers, cyclists - passing through, not lingering.

There's an internet fad for "liminal spaces", and much as I'm loath to tag onto an internet fad, if liminal spaces are defined as "commonly places of transition" then this would surely have to qualify. Not only are the people within this space almost always travelling from A to B, the geography itself is a place of transition. The floating harbour and New Cut transition back into a natural river. Perhaps most dramatically, the city transitions into... not a city. And while most transitions from city to countryside are rather gradual, blending over several miles from dense city centre urbanity through lower density suburbia, this one is abrupt.

The 9-storey Bond Warehouses provide buildings of the most city-ish scale, and this spaghetti of elevated roads provides infrastructure of the most city-ish scale, and just stops... and the trees take over.

This shot sums it up for me - full on 'concrete jungle' in the foreground, but the background looks like bucolic English countryside.

Technically, the Ashton Court Estate is more like parkland than countryside; and even if it was countryside, there's nothing very 'natural' about the English countryside; and even though it's not part of Bristol it's owned by the City of Bristol; all of which, if you're pedantic, rather complicates any narrative attempt to draw a perfect dichotomy between Bristol and not-Bristol, city and country, urbanity and nature - and yet, pedantry aside, that contrast is pretty much the impression you get in person.

If the city is your world, then this tip right here is the end of the world - it's a very dramatic location, so it justifies such a dramatic bench, and that dramatic, jarring, end-of-the-world energy is probably a big reason why I like hanging out here as much as I do.

Crowe clearly recognised the power of this 'look-out point', as she labelled it, and demanded "seats" here, but her report is no more specific than that, so it seems difficult to credit her for our concrete throne. Actually, it seems like her report was mostly ignored in this area, because it called for the retaining wall of the road to be extended into a sheltering canopy for that seat, which doesn't exist. She also suggested a building with public toilets, restaurant and viewing terrace be built inside this loop, which doesn't exist either.

At the Cumberland Piazza, too, we find some big differences between her plans and the reality on the ground. In this case, though, it was less that her plans were never built, and more that they were built, and then torn down.

The centre-piece of Crowe's design for the piazza was a Swiss-designed 'Butterfly' fountain, located at the centre of a sort of Fibonacci-ish spiral where the two curving slip roads meet overhead. Photos of the time do show it looking rather swish. It didn't last though, as you can see.

She specified a children's playground with 'nautical themed' play equipment, but this too fell into neglect and was ultimately demolished.

Next to the playground she specified a cafe should be built, and this modernist gem was duly constructed. If it had Le Corbusier or Oscar Niemeyer's name on it, it'd probably be a listed building, but it had Bristol City Council's internal engineering department's name on it, and it was demolished with such little ceremony, I couldn't even find out exactly when. All the sources simply talk of the council failing to maintain the place "in the 70s", and considering this place was brand new in 1965, it seems they abandoned upkeep shockingly soon after opening.

So if you're looking to build a narrative in which the esteemed Crowe designed a glorious utopia, which only failed due to the council failing to build it or maintain it as designed, then I suppose there is some evidence for that.

And as a narrator, the Council would certainly make an appealing scapegoat for the failings of this landscape. Firstly, because it's plainly true that they abandoned the upkeep of the area almost as soon as they'd built it; secondly, because as a nameless, faceless collective entity, I don't feel guilty berating them in the way I do picking on Crowe as an individual; and thirdly, given their present-day competence, I'm sure to find myself preaching to a sympathetic choir.

But I'm afraid such a narrative strikes me as a bit lazy and flawed on several levels. Sure, the council aren't blameless, and abandoning Hotwells & Cliftonwood's only public space was pretty shabby behaviour towards the people of the area. But pouring money into facilities that were simply not being used would also have been poor for the people of Bristol. I can't imagine they closed that cafe despite the fact it was doing booming business - on the contrary, I imagine it was pretty dead, because when you want to relax with a coffee on a nice sunny day, you definitely don't choose here - a concrete expanse with the rattling background din of lorries pounding up and down slip roads.

The harsh fact is, this space feels inherently flawed and unpopular. Since my script was talking about transition and movement I had the grand idea of speeding up long chunks of footage as a kind of advanced visual metaphor and to make it look, y'know, cinematic and that. In practice, this meant standing around in various local vantage points for hour upon hour, week after week, from winter, through spring into summer, come rain or shine, or even on one particularly memorable occasion, rain and shine simultaneously - all of which gave me a pretty good period to observe exactly how the public used these public spaces - or didn't.

See for yourself. How many kids play in the play area? How many stop and sit on this bench and enjoy the ambience? In all my months of observation, I could count the grand total of both of those questions on the fingers of one hand.

And this despite the fact the space is no longer derelict and unmaintained. In recent decades the Hotwells & Cliftonwood Community Association have been working hard to improve the area. It's thanks to them that the pillars of the flyovers have been painted into this 'urban forest'; that it's decorated with street art and topical local murals; that it has a small skate spot with a few obstacles; that it has flowers and greenery in planters. I wholeheartedly applaud their community-minded efforts, and I sincerely hope that this video and its rather critical assessment of the landscape here, is not taken as in any way dismissive or derisive of them.

But when I stand here on a lovely warm summer's day timelapsing for an hour or so, and see a grand total of.... literally nobody relaxing in the piazza, and then go home via College Green or Greville Smyth Park or Castle Park and find them absolutely thronging with people - I'm afraid it's impossible to conclude this is successful public space.

It seems to me that even setting aside matters of maintenance and neglect, this is just not a likeable landscape; if I say Sylvia Crowe's designs were brilliant on paper, it is only in an unusually literal sense. That is, the original plans are a wonderful piece of work in themselves: I couldn't help but admire the hand-drafting skills, with typography just as evocatively 1960s as the architecture.

But as for what they depict, I can't really believe the piazza would have been a successful public space even if it'd been built and maintained exactly as designed. For all Crowe's earlier professional insistence that landscaping not be an afterthought in these projects, looking at the Cumberland Basin road scheme as a case study it's kind of hard to see it as anything but a 'lipstick on a pig' situation.

Big concrete viaduct overhead? Let's call it 'shelter' for kids playing on a rainy day. Spoil heap left over from the roadworks? Let's call it a viewpoint hill. Empty field miraculously not designated as a road, or car park, or lorry park, or car and lorry park? Errr, let's leave it as an empty field, might be nice for a kickabout or something. There's really no doubt that the roads and parking were planned first and everything else had to fit in and make do as best it could.

For all Crowe's aspirations that the scheme "benefit pedestrians equally with motorists", this was, ultimately, the Cumberland Basin road scheme, not the Cumberland Basin park and play area scheme - the project primarily existed to benefit motor vehicles, not local residents and recreation seekers.

And of course, with a channel name like Pedestrian Diversions, I've been looking at this space from a generally pedestrian perspective, prattling on like the road is the bad guy... but the fact is, a big road here was and is necessary. It's all well and good me whinging about traffic noise spoiling the piazza, but it does invite the retort of how exactly I think food is supposed to be delivered to my supermarket.

This is not one of those cases of a city pointlessly cannibalising itself to build urban motorways to service its own sprawl. In some ways it's barely even about Bristol at all - it's a key link between Avonmouth, the M5, South Wales, and a host of regional Somerset destinations.

All the usual youtube urbanist arguments about highway removal seem a little bit hopeless here. You can't possibly eliminate the need for it by boosting the public transport system from 'ok' to 'good' or 'good' to 'great' and making pedestrian and cycling options attractive. A lorry load of cargo isn't going to walk from the container ports at Avonmouth no matter how nice a footpath you build, and Bristol doesn't actually have a public transport system to boost. Behold, on the left, recently threaded through the southern part of this Cumberland Basin road scheme, is the newest, shiniest flagship infrastructure of Bristol's so-called transit system: a bus lane. I started filming, then looked on my phone to see how long I'd have to wait for a bus to come through my shot. My phone said: tomorrow. I thought Google must have a bug, but no, it really doesn't run on Sundays, at all. Pathetic.

The Cumberland Basin road scheme, by contrast, was overengineered with 24/7 resiliency in mind, despite the constraint that ships must still be able to enter and exit the floating harbour.

It's because of this that the centrepiece Plimsoll Bridge, seemingly a rather dull looking affair, has this party trick up its sleeve. This is also why half of these sprawling slip roads even exist: to keep the traffic flowing when the bridge is open, via another swing bridge at the other end of Cumberland Basin.

Having stood and watched this happen several times, it clearly only partially works. Sometimes I've seen drivers sit and wait for the duration, ignoring the completely traffic-free detour option that's right next to them - whether they didn't realise it existed, or just thought it would be quicker to wait, I'm not sure. Even if everyone does take the diversion, the tight turns and single lane makes for a reasonable bottleneck compared to the main route. This is four hundred yards from Plimsoll Bridge and you can see the stationary traffic building up despite the provision of the alternative route.

They don't open the bridge during rush hour, as a general rule, but stationary traffic builds up in rush hour sometimes, anyway, and on the occasions I've been driven through this junction, I've always found it confusing, almost panic-inducing, to stay in the correct lane. So I don't know if today's drivers would consider the Cumberland Basin road scheme of the '60s a resounding success either. The proposed replacement options all look to me a bit like they'd be even less popular with drivers, though, with more time spent waiting time at traffic lights, and while it's not like me to shed too many tears at inconvenience for drivers as a trade-off for better cities, I can't help thinking that when it comes to public spaces, being surrounded by high volumes of stationary traffic is no more pleasant than high volumes of mostly flowing traffic. Actually, it's probably even worse, environmentally.

It seems like there are only two groups who have made an obvious success of the landscape created by the Cumberland Basin road scheme - skaters and bmx-ers, and graffiti writers - and I was going to caustically note that neither were intentionally catered for in the '60s plans, but I have to give Sylvia Crowe some credit where it's due - she actually did seem to anticipate these sort of uses. Her report called for a bike track where the pump track is, although to be fair I'm not sure if it was actually built as part of the scheme, or just came along later and separately. And while her Cumberland Basin plans only talk of walls for 'murals', on the plans for some other landscaping work she did on the other side of Bristol, I did find specific reference to graffiti.

Still, even if they were intentionally catered for, I might suggest that's not the main reason those groups thrive here. It's hardly a coincidence that skating and graffiti are both somewhat shunned activities by mainstream society. In a city centre or 'nice' area you'll find skate-stoppers, security, police, neighbourhood watch - it's no surprise that such groups would find a home in derelict, under-maintained, unloved landscapes like this.

But stand around here observing for long enough and you realise there's a third demographic group that also finds an important home here. They arrive alone, on foot or on bike, they walk or ride until they can literally walk or ride no more, and then they stop and sit on this very physical edge of the city - and enjoy the solitude. People who are not being exiled by mainstream society, at least hopefully-slash-presumably, but choosing to temporarily exile themselves.

Sometimes, in a busy city, solitude is a luxury, and as such, the same factors that make neglected or derelict, post-industrial, road-dominated or otherwise 'blighted' spaces like these so unpopular for the most part, give those spaces a priceless quality for people seeking some space. Not just 'green space' or 'open space' in a straight geographical sense, but mental space, social space - that you don't find in a thronging Castle Park or College Green.

I belatedly realised why I'd kept coming back here to film so absurdly often. It wasn't because I actually needed more footage, it was because I liked it here. Despite labelling it unlikeable, I like it here; despite labelling it unpleasant, I thoroughly enjoy the mental reset of being at the very edge of the city, at once surrounded by relentless motion and human activity and yet detached from it, left to my own devices in this strange and scruffy and ever-changing landscape. I enjoy the mishmash of historical textures, with Georgian homes overlooking '60s brutalism overlooking Victorian working docks. Perhaps I was just totally contradicting myself all along.

Anyway, I was going to wrap up with some more thoughts on the future of Western Harbour, but I feel like this video is already 20 minutes too long, so I think I'll just leave it at that: whatever tomorrow's landscape looks like, I'll be a little bit nostalgic for this one.

Congratulations to anyone who made it through nearly half an hour of directionless waffle. What can I say, I did try and warn you at the start. This video was really just here for me to muck about doing timelapses and stuff.

Still, if you did enjoy it, I had to spend some money to licence the plans for this video, so feel free to top up my licensing-images-and-documents-and-stuff fund with a superthanks if you're feeling flush, or just like and subscribe and all of that lark. Cheers.