Friday, 22 January 2010

Bristol's Lost Quarter

In November 1940 cities across Britain burned. On the 24th of the month the Luftwaffe's assault on the City Docks missed its target and instead left the heart of the city in ruins. Until then, Bristolians worked, shopped and played in and around Castle Street and the surrounding area, where cinemas, restaurants and chain stores like Woolworths stood cheek by jowl with the metalworking shops, haberdashers, costumiers and a host of other independent commercial enterprises.

Since the demolition of the Norman castle some three centuries earlier, the area had evolved into a bustling centre of commerce, only a short walk from the City Docks. If Park Street was then the most prestigious shopping street in the South West of England, Castle Street attracted the crowds. They came from the north along Gloucester Road, from the south over Bristol Bridge and from the east along the wide boulevard of Old Market - a street that combined the qualities of thoroughfare and marketplace as Whitechapel Road does on the eastern approach to the City of London.

Old Market today is a broken stub of a street, cut off from the city centre by the traffic-filled canyon of Temple Way and from the eastern suburbs by the outer ring road. And while Cabot Circus and Harbourside pull in the crowds, the space between them is still empty.

The humps and hollows of Castle Park give it the air of an ancient site, but the humps and hollows are not vestiges of the castle, but of shops, factories and cinemas.

After the war, the Broadmead shopping centre was built and this convenient space used as a car park. There were plans for a Museum of Bristol on the site, but in the 1950s and 1960s forward-thinking city councils built roads not museums. The past was pedestrian; the future had wheels. So Bristol got its Temple Way and its M32, and the city sprawled outwards, away from its historic centre.

Castle Park, the office worker's favourite summertime haunt, became the city's green oasis more or less by default. In wider terms it's a classic piece of SLOAP - Space Left Over After Planning.

So what should be done? As debate continues to rage between developers and park-lovers, the Architecture Centre is hosting an exhibition put together by Architecture postgrads at UWE. Recovering Bristol's Lost Quarter explores the history of Castle Street and the surrounding area, then suggests ways in which it could be improved, with a wide deck over Temple Way to tie Old Market back into the city and myriad inventive ideas that aim to connect the park to the surrounding streets and structures.

And underlying the various schemes for museums and health centres, gardens and bike parks are a well-thought-out set of aims and principles - designed not to try and recreate a lost city but to learn from it as we continue the decades-long task of rebuilding.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Country Life names 'The Story of High Street' in 2009 Best Books

Country Life magazine has picked 'The Story of High Street' as one of the Best Books of 2009. Peyton Skipwith wrote:

Alan Powers's and James Russell's Eric Ravilious: The Story of High Street not only reproduces Eric Ravilious's lithographs and JM Richards' 1938 text from 'High Street' (Country Life) - copies are rare because the plates were destroyed in the Blitz - but includes informative essays that put it in context, as well as identifying for the first time a number of the shops, bars and restaurants depicted. These are nostalgically evoked in the original words and pictures, but, as Mr Powers says, Richards and Ravilious 'have left us with the key to unlocking forgotten rooms in the mansion of English culture in the 1930s'. A rare case of having one's cake and being able to eat it as well.