Highways Engineers and Ambitious Bristol



George Ferguson’s plans for Bristol are impressive, but there’s something in this otherwise admirable article in the Guardian that makes me nervous.

Mayor Ferguson says:

“I’m going to be intolerant of bad architecture,”, describing how the former head of planning was a highways engineer who “let anything and everything through – including office blocks stacked on top of multi-storey car parks.”

It’s a mistake to assume that highways engineers know nothing of aesthetics or creativity, and arrogant to assume that architects don’t design ugly buildings. I’ve worked with hugely innovative and creative highways engineers who were passionate about the beauty of public space, as well as wanting it to work well for all its users. Exhibition Road wouldn’t have been possible without a stunning team of highways engineers who designed the southern end of the road and made the whole scheme work.

Those office blocks on top of car parks were designed by architects who should know better, but frequently don’t. The combination of a rapacious or cash strapped client and a mediocre or headstrong architect has repeatedly messed up chunks of our cities.

The problem isn’t the background of the people in charge of the planning system, but that the system itself isn’t geared to taking decisions based on aesthetic considerations. Planners and the Planning Committee can reject an application because it’s too big, or its windows don’t match the fenestration of nearby buildings, or because it’s a block of flats and not a factory, or for a whole raft of other technical reasons, but not because it’s just a hideous, stupid or ugly design.

Getting an architect and their client to change a design radically before it gets into the planning system requires energy, time and political backing because the poor planners have no legal basis for their stance, so they have to use their very best influencing skills to try to change a design on aesthetic reasons alone. And as hard as try, they’re not always succesful.

I care about good architecture, but I try not to assume that what I love, or think good, everyone else will. Good architecture is an interesting mix of fit for purpose function (roofs that don’t leak, spaces that don’t overheat), appropriateness (buildings that give you a clue as to their function from the outside and have some relation to the place they stand in) and aesthetics. And everyone has their own idea about the aesthetics of space and buildings.

Good public spaces live into the future and need a shared passion from everyone involved, landscape architects, architects, planners, highways engineers, mayors and other politicians.

Good luck to Bristol, it’s a brave intention, and the city has ambition to want to undo the mess of previous policies and previous developments. And I’m much chuffed by the Bristol Architecture Centre’s statement:

“New York has the High Line, Madrid has the Rio Project and London has Exhibition Road. Where is Bristol’s standout piece of new civic space?”