Bristol is a city renowned for many things – its left-leaning alternative culture, vibrant music scene, street art, and the omnipresent fug of high-grade skunk. Architecturally though it draws a bit of a blank. Other than the suspension bridge, draped impressively across the Avon Gorge and a million tourist snaps, there’s not much of national renown.
The city’s architecture though, like its people, is diverse and deserving of celebration.
Large parts of the city centre were destroyed in World War II and much of what replaced it was built in the modernist style, including some fantastic examples of brutalist architecture. Le Corbusier even visited in 1947, letting go one of those long whistles perfected by tradesmen and car mechanics the world over. When his lips finally unpursed, he shared some words that seemed to inspire the architects tasked with building Bristol’s future. It was a vision where pre-fabricated concrete would create geometric structures to rise up triumphantly from the rubble.
Bristol’s brutalist structures tend to be subtler, more functional and less bold than those found elsewhere – nestled among the city’s forgotten corners, unfussily going about their business. The scope and scale certainly don’t compete with London but the structures are more than deserving of appreciation from fans of brutalism. The stunning cathedral in Clifton is worth the trip west alone.
The following is a round-up of the best brutalism in Bristol. From churches to car parks to unique structures, it serves as a guide to the city’s well-known and lesser-known examples of brutalist architecture.
#Disclaimer: Some buildings listed here may not strictly adhere to the more rigorous definitions of brutalism but will appeal to fans of modernist architecture.
The Best of Bristol Brutalism
Sheldon Bush Shot Tower, Cheese Lane
This phallic shot tower is a striking structure and a must see – it is one of only three twentieth-century shot towers still in existence. Rising into the sky like a rocket ship or a bilateral boner, it achieves that brutalist balance of function and form.
Completed in 1969 by E.N Underwood and Partners, the Sheldon Bush Lead Shot Tower replaced the world’s first ever shot tower patented by local plumber William Watts. The original Redcliffe tower was completed way back in 1782, only to be knocked down centuries later to make way for a new road and the arrival of this brutalist edifice.
The tower was still producing lead into the nineteen-eighties and received its grade two listed status in 1995. The vertical ventilation slits and windows are particularly attractive details within its twelve-sided concrete crown.
You can’t get up close to this Grade II listed totem, but it can be appreciated from across Bristol’s floating harbour, five minutes from Temple Meads train station.
Arts and Social Sciences Library, University of Bristol, Tyndall Ave.
One of the more sci-fi dystopian examples of Bristol’s brutalist architecture, this library is a veritable fortress of knowledge. Completed in 1975, it is delightfully out of step with the grand and elaborate neo-gothic university buildings in the vicinity. Details of the architect are hard to find.
Lloyds Banking Group building, Wine Street
Simplicity with a touch of flare, this understated and elegantly uniform building is elevated by a space-age multi-sided window feature. The building was completed in 1962 by Wakefield, Jarram and Harris (TBC).
You can take a short walk through Castle Park towards the Castlemead triptych (more on this later) and take in Peter Randall-Page’s the Beside the Still Water sculpture.
Plimsoll Swing Bridge Control Tower, Cumberland Basin
This unassuming tower is like the Pixar lamp – loveable in its cutesy, near dainty concrete proportions. Built in 1965, it rises above the Cumberland Basin road junction and what at the time of construction was the largest swing bridge in the country. There is a nice concrete spiral staircase nearby, leading down to what was the Cumberland Piazza – a recreational park amongst the concrete.
168 Oriental supermarket, Nelson Street
Featuring impressive Stik graffiti from 2012, this Nelson Street tower rises high above a Chinese supermarket. It is a prime example of scale and simplicity. The gorgeous orderly repetition of the external stairwells and the symmetry of Stik’s two elongated figures makes for a dramatic contrast. There’s lots of other large scale graffiti in the area that’s well worth a look too. Nelson Street was once home to the city’s brutalist magistrate’s courts and a series of concrete skylines and staircases, now all sadly demolished.
Water Tower, Durdham Downs
This lovely water tower standing proud on Durdham Downs is dramatic and elegant. Completed in 1954, it caused such outrage that fully grown trees were planted in an attempt to hide it from view. It’s still largely obscured, but you can catch some glimpses of the abandoned tower through the railings. There is a large reservoir that stretches out alongside it too.
1 Temple Way
Created as the head offices of the Bristol Evening Post in 1974, the solid stepped profile and brick facade of One Temple Way is certainly striking. Although a mix of modernist architectural styles, its original structure and juxtaposing multi-level roof has elements of brick brutalism. There are some nice shuttered pillars and waffling to be found too.
Brutalist Churchs and Cathedrals in Bristol
A truly breathtaking example of brutalist architecture, the recently restored Roman Catholic Cathedral Church of SS Peter and Paul to give it its full title is not to be missed.
In August 1965, Percy Thomas Partnership was commissioned to build a new cathedral in the city’s leafy Clifton area. Architect Ronald J. Weeks took the lead on the project working with Jennett and Poremba. It was no ordinary architectural brief either – much more was at play here. The Roman Catholic church was looking to redefine and re-establish its role in society, and change how it engaged with its followers. The Clifton cathedral needed space to hold around a 1000 worshippers but in a way that would foster a more intimate connection with the high altar during mass. This was not about distance and detachment but instead encouraging active participation.
Page from the ‘Liturgical Brief’, showing R.J Weeks’ sketches – 1966
After a long process of collaboration, construction began in 1970. The cathedral was completed and consecrated in 1973. The Grade II listed cathedral is striking from every angle inside and out. The three-pronged spire is eternally poised on the verge of liftoff, never to begin its rocket-fuelled mission to the heavens whilst the inside is a symphony of geometric concrete design and openess. It even has a beautifully angular litter bin outside for you to through your scepticism in (notice the architect’s mark to the left).
All Saints Church, Clifton
A mere stone’s throw or concrete-chuck from the Roman Catholic Cathedral is the All Saints church. The original church suffered significant damage in the Bristol Blitz and received a long overdue modernist extension in the nineteen-sixties. Architect Robert Potter, whose career included work on numerous religious buildings, replanned the church, cleverly tying the old and new together.
Work began in 1963 and was completed four years with the new church consecrated on 1 July 1967. The angled concrete roof panels are powerful but don’t overwhelm a busy but well-balanced space. Potter was a gifted mathematician and this is evident in the interior’s complex but harmonious design. The dramatic coloured light that flows through the church is thanks to several impressive panels of stained fibreglass by the artist, John Piper.
Broadmead Baptist Church
Designed by ecclesiastical architect Ronald Sims and completed in 1969, the strikingly sculptural canted roof is the highlight of this underappreciated church. Sat atop some non-descript shops, its concrete textures are easy to miss, especially against a grey Bristolian sky. The interior is a real treat too with plenty of elegant modernist design and some pleasingly robust concrete pillars.
Marriott Hotel, Castlemead NCP Car Park and Castlemead Tower, Bond Street / Lower Castle Street
Keeping to the religious theme, Bristol’s holy trinity of the Marriott Hotel, the NCP car park and Castlemead tower is not something worshipped by all. There’s no denying that they make for an equally imposing and impressive trio, rising high above Castle Park and Cabot Circus.
Built in 1960, the NCP car park was one of Bristol’s first multistoreys. The neighbouring Castlemead Tower by architect A.J. Hines came much later – although construction started in 1973, an economic downturn meant it was not completed until 1981. At 262 feet and with 18 floors, it’s still one of the tallest structures in Bristol. Last but not least, we have the repetitive windows and balconies of the Marriot Hotel that possesses its own architectural rhythm.
Brutalist Car Parks in Bristol
Prince Street Car Park, Waterfront
Diamonds are forever – or not as the soon to be demolished Welbeck Car Park in London will testify. Hopefully, the Grade II listed-status of this fine Bristol example will guarantee its survival long into the future. Located on Prince Street, this really is a superb structure, marrying both function and design. Its repeated diamond tips, designed by Wakefield, Jarram and Harris and completed in 1966, can be enjoyed from numerous vantage points.
Eugene Street Car Park
The area around the Bristol Royal Infirmary is ripe with concrete, with plenty of shuttering and simply constructed hospital administration and teaching buildings to be discovered. The highlight though is Eugene Street Car Park. The stairwells are particularly pleasing, with a grubby patina and more than a hint of snaggle-toothed menace.
Temple Gate Car Park
Behind the Holiday Inn that sits opposite Bristol Temple Meads train station, you’ll find the unassuming and utilitarian Temple Gate car park. The concrete skeleton framework and metal barriers are about as functional as it gets. It is the handsome concrete lift shaft with its stunning ‘Lift’ typography though that makes this a true celebration of brutalism – a symbol of the endless energy that was to power the brutalist revolution and the doomed optimism at its reinforced core.
Rupert Street Car park
This large multi-sided rust-coloured oval car park was opened in 1961 and was Bristol’s first multi-storey car park. Designed by Scottish architect R Jelinek-Karl, ably assisted by structural engineers Mander & Partners & E.N Underwood, this ambitious structure features a continuous spiral ramp. Like a flying saucer that’s come to land in the centre or an arthropod fallen from some prehistoric perch, incongrous in all the best ways.
All images by Tom Spooner – all rights reserved. To read my take on brutalism and music or follow me for more brutalist architecture on Instagram. If there are more brutalist buildings I’ve missed please let me know on Twitter.