Brutalist architecture isn’t so called because it is harsh or bullying but because it emphasises the use of raw concrete, via the French: béton brut. Bristol’s brutalist buildings, as well as being a pragmatic response to the post-war need to build quickly and cheaply, are powerful, sometimes even beautiful presences in the cityscape.
At first glance the Shot Tower on Cheese Lane might be mistaken for a Cold War watch post. Its actual purpose was the manufacture of lead pellets. Designed by Underwood and Partners in 1968 it succeeded the world’s very first shot tower which occupied a nearby site. It demonstrates how varied and interesting concrete buildings can be, the chunks from which it is constructed given texture by the casting process, and used to create futuristic forms. It reminds me of the Discovery from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but it is perhaps also somewhat, just to the tiniest degree, phallic. It is now part of an office complex.
Concrete fetishists are about the only people who get excited by multi-story car parks which offer plenty of opportunity for bold design and abstract forms. NCP Prince Street, designed to serve the hotel next door by Kenneth Wakeford Jarram & Harris in 1966, is a much-admired example, made mesmerising by the saw waves and diamonds that cover its bulk, brough alive by the shifting of light and shadow. Another of note is NCP Rupert Street, the first multi-story car park in the city, designed by R. Jelinek-Karl in 1960, which sits above the street like a coiled concrete python.
Among Bristol’s most exciting buildings of any style or vintage is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul in Clifton by Percy Thomas & Son. The thrusting spaceship-like spire can be seen for miles around and the more-or-less hexagonal church was apparently unpopular with conservation-minded locals and worshippers when it arrived from its home planet in 1974. It was built using especially fine, pale concrete and so hasn’t aged as poorly as some similar buildings.
Nobody can have missed Castlemead, the tower that rises over Castle Park. It is part of the last gasp of brutalist building, conceived by A.J. Hines in the early 1970s but not finished until 1981. It looks like the kind of building evil corporations in Hollywood films choose for their bases but there is at least a little humour in the concrete battlements at the top of the tower.
The Arts and Social Sciences Library of the University of Bristol on Tyndall Avenue (Twist and Whitley, 1975) is another building often described as ‘fortress-like’. Its windows, angled to control the entry of light, and its top-heavy structure, do give the impression that it is peering down on passing pedestrians.
I’m going to finish with a leftfield suggestion: take a closer look at the M32 motorway from beneath, at somewhere like Stapleton, where the song of the traffic between concrete columns brings to mind the interior of a cathedral, with mile after mile of the rawest béton around.