A tall order to pick Bristol's best buildings for veteran architect Mike Jenner
DAVID CLENSY talks to veteran Bristol architect Mike Jenner about how he chose his 100 favourite Bristol buildings for his forthcoming book.
WHEN Mike Jenner first came to Bristol 61 years ago, as a wide-eyed architecture student, he was stepping into a city that had been forced into an unprecedented rebuild, thanks to the Luftwaffe's brutal town planners.
The Brighton-born student had only planned to live in Bristol for a few years – long enough to complete his studies at the Royal West of England Academy. But like many before him and countless more since, Bristol ensnared him with its charm.
"They call this the graveyard of creativity, because so many creative people find their plans for a career in London forgotten when they fall in love with this place," the 82-year-old says, as he leads the way into the leather book-lined study of his Montpelier home.
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"But it's been my city now for so long, and I've really grown to love the place. I suppose I know its buildings as well as anybody. So when I was asked to tackle a book with the title Bristol's 100 Best Buildings I knew it would be quite a challenge.
"If you ask anyone for their 100 best buildings in the city, there's an obvious 20 or so that I think everyone would choose – Bristol Cathedral, St Mary Redcliffe, the Wills Memorial Tower, and these days Cabot Circus.
"But it's the other 80 per cent of the book that will be a cause for great debate I imagine – if not out-right disagreement. I'm fully expecting everyone to have their own opinions about certain buildings I should have included, but haven't, and others that I should have left out.
"I approached the challenge in the only way I could think of – by choosing my 100 favourite buildings, but I realise it is very much a personal choice.
"The wonderful thing about Bristol is that, outside London, this is the best city in the country for its broad range of buildings from all different eras," Mike adds.
"Starting from the Norman architecture of Bristol Cathedral, which is superb, you can work your way through the entire history of architecture simply by walking around the city. There aren't many places where you can do that.
"Of course, I realise the whole thing is a bit of a nonsense," he adds with a grin. "How can you suggest that one building is better than another after all? That's why I decided it would be absurd to actually put the buildings in any order of rank, with my absolute favourite at number one – how can you compare a parish church with a warehouse and say that one is better than the other.
"But I suppose I've chosen buildings on the basis of their interest, their historical importance and their individuality."
Mike says the controversy is likely to surround the 15 post-war buildings on the list.
"The one that I've no doubt some people hate as much as I love, is the Robinson Building – number one Redcliffe Street. The 15-storey tower block, built in 1960-63, was essentially Bristol's first "skyscraper", and it caused a stir a the time.
"But I do think it's a rather beautiful building, as well as being a practical working space."
Mike says it is important to be conscious of the fickleness of fashion in the architectural world.
"Every generation looks back at what the previous generation did and hates it, while at the same time starting to see the merits of the previous generation again – so disliking the buildings of their fathers, while falling in love again with the buildings of their grandfathers.
"I remember when I first came to Bristol, Victorian architecture was absolutely detestable to us. We used to say that taste disappeared in 1837 when Queen Victoria came to the throne. But now everybody loves Victorian architecture.
"I would say that one of my favourite Bristol buildings is The Granary in Welsh Back, which is now acknowledged to be a building of national importance. But the architectural historian Pevsner, when he wrote about Bristol in the 1950s, hardly gave the building a second look – I think he only devoted about five paragraphs to it.
"So fashions change all the time, and one of the things I've tried to do in the book is to record the way that people have viewed particular buildings in different eras."
Somewhat modestly, given an architectural career in the city spanning more than half a century, Mike has only included one building that was the work of his practice – the Colston Tower.
There were a few near misses – buildings that almost made it into the top 100, but lost out by a few places.
"The Evening Post Building in Temple Way would be one of those which would have come in the first few of the second hundred," he says. "I think it was a great building in its time."
But the building that caused Mike the biggest headache was the Council House at College Green.
"To me, it's a fairly dreadful building," he says, "but I have to confess I felt compelled to include it because it is such a prominent Bristol building. I think it is a drab building – a poor reworking of a Lutyen's ideal, with only a few redeeming details.
"But I do think that my opinion of the Council House is coloured by my dislike for the architect – a man called Vincent Harris, who was almost universally disliked by Bristol architects because of what he did to get the commission for the project."
It was back in the 1930s when the council – after decades of debate about moving away from the old Council House in Corn Street – decided to launch a competition to design a new Council House for College Green.
The council set up a judging panel of architects, headed by Vincent Harris, a London architect.
"After looking through the entries, Harris declared that they were all awful, that he could do much better, and so the council should give him the contract. Which they duly did.
"It was a pretty awful thing to do, quite unprofessional," Mike says. "And it wouldn't have been so bad if he didn't then come up with such a dreadful building."
● Bristol's 100 Best Buildings, by Mike Jenner, is published by Redcliffe Press on November 10, priced £17.95.