Bristol is perhaps the one southern city which really feels independent of London. For whatever reason – its diversity, its distance, or the internal emigration patterns of wealthy Londoners in the 1970s, some might suggest darkly – it largely lacks the lamentable parochial mentality and substandard architecture so common in the Lutons, Portsmouths, Readings, Southamptons, Guildfords and Swindons. It's clearly a very long time (200 years to be precise) since it was the UK's Second City, and the port is now six miles away from the centre, but it doesn't feel all that bothered by either fact. Bristol doesn't feel all that bothered by anything, which is its virtue but also its curse – it takes itself both too seriously (as centre of alternative culture, street art and suchlike) and not seriously enough (as modern, industrial city and sponsor of architecture). Stereotype it may be, but the place is seriously lackadaisical, and it succeeds and fails on this. Often, architecturally, this big, dynamic and multi-racial city feels like it's been asleep since 1910; the awakenings, when they happen, can be like nightmares.
As an example of the wastes that Bristol's general air of torpor can so easily create, there is little better than the area around Temple Meads station, one of the worst introductions to the city in the UK (and here, happily, a deceptive one). Inside, a Brunel shed and then immediately outside, cutely silly Jacobethan – but then, in front of that, a wasteland, made up of some startlingly grim 1960s buildings (to paraphrase Ian Nairn, if you want to like modern architecture, don't come to Bristol) wide and pedestrian-hostile arterial roads, and in the middle of it all, looking forlorn, the moderne Grosvenor Hotel, as featured in Chris Petit's classic film Radio On. In that film, the Hotel was passed by a spindly steel flyover; that went in the 1990s, but though less modern and hence apparently less 'alienating', the road is surely even more obnoxious and impassable without it. Then opposite that, we have one of the finest, most original Gothic buildings in the UK, in the craggy, lurid form of St Mary Redcliffe, all monsters, tendons and grottoes. It has no foil, is not placed into a viable public space. It just sits there surrounded by traffic.
Go past this towards the river and the centre, and things pick up very quickly; past the tiresome radical chic ('Che's Bar') is the frankly staggering 1869 Granary, a monumental example of the misnamed 'Bristol Byzantine' style, all Venetian detail and hulking robustness - this is real port architecture, worthy of a Glasgow or a Hamburg, and you can smell the sea. Bristol architecture could have developed from this style, or from its unique Gothic heritage, into some form of Amsterdam School Expressionism. Yet the Georgian tradition is equally present here, so in the 20th century neo-Georgian, like the bloodless Council House that insults the Cathedral, was a safer bet. Topograpically, the Granary gives way to the huge showpiece of Queen Square, where elegance, pastiche and muddle are made coherent by the simple 18th century plan. Amazingly, in the 1930s a road was built bisecting the square, and the 1990s removal of that, at least, was probably mourned by few.
Anyone looking just for good buildings can easily find an enormous amount to admire in Bristol – late Medieval, Regency and early industrial architecture is especially rich here, though there's little Victorian or modern work of comparable note. As townscape, the city is all over the place. The dramatic topography and tight, winding streets seem to encourage this, so the city's most interesting places are all a matter of hills, snickets and unexpected, panoramic vistas. Often, however, you'll step out of the bustle into a void. Conventional wisdom may bunch them together, but Bristol's post-Blitz rebuilding was more Sotonian fudge than Coventrian triumph. There are exceptions – near the University there is a tiny, clipped Barclays Bank that is quite exquisite – but the stumps of several clearly uncompleted schemes lie scattered all over the place, from the Stafford Cripps Beaux Arts of Broadmead to the roundabout expanse of St James Barton. The former's architecture as bland as the latter's planning is inept.
Perhaps the most successful of these measures is, aptly enough, a shopping mall – Chapman Taylor's partly open-air Cabot Circus, which, tastelessness aside, is a spatially imaginative thing, all flying walkways and quasi-parametric roofs. Like Liverpool One, the clone-town tenants somewhat defeat the object of designing a Mall as a real piece of city. While there I'm told that Cabot Circus is in effect a long-delayed element of the 1940s City Plan. In a city where the Gothic Revival lasted until the 1920s (in the form of the enjoyable pastiche of the Willis building), it somehow makes sense. But it's not all slumber; Charles Holden's earliest buildings are here, a Library and (mutilated) Hospital of striking civic confidence and originality, albeit with few successors here.
The other redeveloped area is the city docks, which closed to industry as late as 1991. Mostly, Bristol can be criticised for not hiring architects of any talent or significance; here that doesn't apply, and yet the results are just as unimpressive. Fielden Clegg Bradley's housing is identikit city-centre-living well below their usual standard, Hopkins' '@Bristol' entertainment centre is muddled and drab, and Cullinan's housing scheme in particular is distressingly poor, with no trace of their usual originality and drama, indistinguishable from the work of the usual regen grunts. And that, 80s neoclassicism and the obligatory 'iconic' bridge aside, is basically that for new architecture. If you must, then further back into the centre there's the tacky post-war reclad of the Radisson Hotel, and sundry CABEist blocks scattered around around at random. Most are furnished with the usual phoenix-from-the-ruins public art.
That might not be the essence of Bristol's urban identity anyway – who needs architecture when you've got street art? Here I should declare my prejudice in advance – I don't find Banksy funny, nor particularly 'subversive'. Yet his redecorations of Bristol façades at least have a point to make of some description, however obvious. Mostly, areas like Stokes Croft are daubed in day-glo inanities of various sorts, as relentlessly bright and jolly as a bumptious barcode façade, though with more countercultural pretensions. Meanwhile, above Stokes Croft are the impressive interlinked towers of Dove Steet Flats; regardless of the planning hashes, Bristol's City Architects evidently had at least some talent. As a resident walks in, we mutter of these hilltop beauties 'the views must be amazing'. 'They are', he replies. 'But they're so bloody cold that I'm actually warmer out here than in there. I'd die to get out of 'em'.
Bristol makes a better use of its topography than any English town outside Yorkshire, and identical towers were proposed for another hilltop site near the University; they were replaced with High Kingsdown, a low-rise scheme which shuns the site's loftiness – but, happily, here the reaction against monolithic planning led to an imaginative, complex arrangement of houses rather than mere pastiche. Its Swedish politesse fits the sleepy city very well, as does its labyrinthine arrangement. Plenty of mock-Victoriana would follow, of course, in the subsequent reaction against even this tamed modernism. One Thatcher-era villa nearby features a Victorian-style roundel showing its builders as bewhiskered nineteenth century notables.
From the University's elevated point, the beauty of Bristol is inescapable – the details at ground level may often be poor, but up above it doesn't seem to matter. There's one last moment here, though, a piece of half dirigiste, half accidental 'planning' so exquisite that it could be a whole model for how to stitch together the contemporary city.
Bristolians may be alarmed to find that I am referring to Lewins Mead, a 60s-70s redevelopment of a medieval area with walkways and towers. It is, the two estates above excepted, the most interesting part of modern Bristol. That's not for the elevations – most of these office blocks are of little note. It's because, if you have a good enough guide, it's the city's most rewarding promenade architecturale. Start on the walkways, pass through towers, survey the views of the city's innards, then proceed along alleyways, past fragments of the old city walls, slip through doorways, and spot on the way art nouveau printworks, expressionist adornments on contemporary nightclubs. Here, just for once, this perpetually unfinished city makes a virtue out of its heterogeneity, with the walkways and alleys providing surprising and thrilling pieces of townscape. Somehow it has all bled together into one, a delicious melange of faïence, concrete and Bath stone. It's a great improvisation, and it exists outside of all our familiar divides – masterplanning vs localism, Ville Radieuse vs Rue Corridor, it doesn't matter. Given how much of the UK is this diverse, this messy, there's a lesson here or several. For Bristol to take advantage of this chaotic dynamism, it might have to take its architecture seriously.
Originally published in Building Design, 17th March 2011