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A recent ideas competition launched by Arts Council England began an interesting discussion in Studio 8 about the roles and limits of reuse in regeneration. The brief called for innovative ideas for improving the ‘sense of arrival’ at Bristol Temple Meads train station, which although a beautiful series of buildings in itself, is surrounded by undeveloped no-man’s-land, and remains notoriously cut-off from the City Centre proper. Although the brief did not call for an architectural proposal, as a commuter who battles Temple Meads twice a day I had to throw in some thoughts, and the chance to address the infamous hulking shell of the old Sorting Office was too good to miss.

The Studio 8 proposal suggests utilising the existing structure of the Sorting Office to house temporary arts spaces: exhibition, production, expression and debate, and placing Bristol’s culture of creativity and contemporary arts ‘front and centre’ as visitors arrive into Brunel’s terminus. A swift set of ‘pop up’ temporary interventions could quickly make this notorious white elephant into a useful interim asset for the city whilst it’s future remains uncertain.

Bristol Sorting Office Refurbishment 01

It feels right that after so many years of unanimous derision as an unbearable eye-sore that the Sorting Office be given an innovative reuse that places it at the cutting edge of the regeneration agenda, whilst retaining its uncompromisingly rough appearance (see my earlier thoughts on Unlovable buildings). Rather than demolishing it or giving it a typical over-clad, the shell could be inhabited flexibly, with small pockets of accommodation housed within the monumental concrete frame, which itself becomes the canvas for Bristol’s creativity.

The sense of activity that would be evident upon arrival into the station would be exhilarating, watching as artists develop ideas for large scale multi-storey murals on the facades, sculptors grind away at steel and concrete in open workshop areas at the heart of the deep floor plans, and teams of students from the fine arts and architecture schools work together on vast one-to-one scale installations. Even at night the unfinished works would be illuminated or projected, proclaiming loudly the contemporary culture of the city and confronting visitors before they have even stepped off the train.

The next logical step would be to create a new back entrance to the station, feeding arrivals directly out to the planned arena and commercial blocks of the up-coming enterprise zone, using the revived arts centre as the lynchpin tying the elements together, exploiting its generous forecourt as a new cultural destination and public space. Visitors arrive, the city thrives and the dereliction revives.

Bristol Sorting Office Refurbishment 02

The outcome would be a very bold statement, ensuring that the values that make Bristol special are proudly represented at the very gateway to this new commercial and leisure zone, which, whilst being a huge potential boost to the city’s economy, could all too easily become another bland and soulless district of speculative commercial accommodation. It is essential that these values are the foundations from which this new quarter can emerge: Innovation, fluidity, flexibility, confidence, bravery, challenging the status quo, and most importantly – not waiting around to make things happen. If the Sorting Office is to be demolished or extensively retro-fitted anyway, then what have we got to lose?

Charlie

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