There is much to inspire awe within Ronald Hubert Sim’s Broadmead Baptist Church. Worshipers and architecture fans can find rapture in these bold, considered spaces.
The entrance though is an anonymous, gloomy space that funnels you from equally uninspiring surroundings. Giant photoshopped groceries along Union Street mark the presence of a Tesco supermarket that stretches out beneath the ribbed concrete and distinctive roof ziggurats of the church. It is only a single glass window with a faded poster quoting scripture, the occasional display of dusty, muted flowers and a crucifix that alerts you to the presence of a church. You are more likely to notice the pock-marked skin of a giant tangerine than details of the next Sunday service.
The Broadmead Baptist Church is in a part of Bristol’s centre where you are inclined to look at your feet and shuffle on through, maintaining a wholly disengaged manner. Looking up for potential glimpses of unique architecture is not a common pursuit in Broadmead – an area marked for redevelopment. It is also why many people miss out on this dramatic exterior and its even more remarkable interior.
Broadmead and this church was the product of a previous redevelopment, a revolutionary overhaul of the city centre bringing the sparkling promise of capitalism to post-war Bristol. In the mid-1960s, Bournemouth architect Ronald H. Sims was given the opportunity to design the new baptist chapel. The ground floor had already been sold off for shops but the space above was all his. Sims pierced the sky with a sculptural statement, announcing the new church to Bristol’s expanded horizon in 1969.
Image via Bristol 24/7 and Bristol Archives
Soon after its erection, the laminated timber spire was removed: quick to decay, the elegant space-age needle posed a threat to the happy shoppers below. Its initial confidence sadly departed, today, the Broadmead Baptist church is anonymous. A general absence of light combined with the dark brick of the croft makes for an intimidating entrance to the church. It requires a certain degree of faith for anyone to leave the pavement behind and enter the gloom. Those that do so are soon rewarded by the appearance of a central staircase, extending invitingly upwards. The dramatic angles propel you up through three floors – a triumph of carefully plotted lines that encourage you further into this building and up to the glory that awaits.
Natural light is soon ushered in to highlight a white waffled ceiling and sharpen the carefully plotted lines that continue to lead your gaze in various directions. There are splashes of bold colour to reward the wandering eye – a yellow door amongst the white-washed concrete, a snapshot of Le Corbusier’s Habitat 54.
The main chapel is off to the right of the stairs and is a carefully considered celebration of bold shapes and dramatic juxtaposition. The mere hint of light on the greyest of days is enough to illuminate the west wall of the church, bringing vibrancy to the stained glass panels. These four panels are salvaged from the original Baptist chapel, founded in the late 17th century on this site.
As you cast your eyes up towards the heavens, the timber roof reveals itself as one of the most unique and striking features. My research suggests the trapezoidal timber roof units has been constructed from the Trofdek system – manufactured by a H. Newsum & Sons in the 1950s and 60s.
There is a calm within the space – the carefully-angled and reassuringly robust concrete is complemented and softened by the wood that curves its way around the pulpit like wings opening, angelically spreading to embrace the worshippers. It focusses your attention on the crucifix, but also highlights the energy rippling out from this sacred emblem. These wings can carry you away from your earthly toil, no matter how far you’ve fallen.
Architecturally-speaking, modern churches need to bring together a potentially large number of people, provide a calm and contemplative space, allow a minister a platform to be heard and seen, and remind people of the grace and power of God. It’s a pretty tough ask but Sims was equal to it.
With the caveat that I am not religious and wasn’t able to attend a service at Broadmead Baptist, I get the impression that this space goes a long way to fulfilling the requirements.
The concrete is bold and geometric, the angles confident. It is not a symphony of angles like the Clifton Cathedral – it is Steve Reichian, minimalist and measured, given space to breathe. The concrete is solid and structural – the supports at the back of the chapel are the foundations of belief: the wooden panels, the undulating leaps of faith.
The use of wood is unusual for a predominantly brutalist building, but it gives the main chapel a sculptural warmth and is evidence of Sims’ architectural confidence. This is a sophisticated modernist building with a surprising and imaginative use of materials. It is a celebration of raw materials and craft, spanning both concrete and timber. Like Denys Lasdun, Sims was an admirer and stickler for high-quality craftsmanship. The wood elements feel distinctly Scandinavian, reminiscent of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.
The Broadmead Baptist chapel is full of original details. It hasn’t been modernised or altered in any obvious way, and this allows Ronald H. Sim’s vision to live on all its glory. Amen to that.
All photographs by Tom Spooner except where stated. All plans courtesy of Bristol City Council planning records and special thanks to Know Your Place Bristol.
Read more on Bristol Brutalism or check out my piece on Brutalism and Music.