the good city centre guide 2: bristol Brunel's kingdom is the business

After the excess of the Eighties, Bristol now aims to combine the cultural with the commercial. Peter Dormer reports
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The Independent Culture
Bristol is a grand city that grew fat from sherry and tobacco. Profits from these paid for the richly varied urban landscape of dramatically engineered Victorian docks, warehouses on a cathedral scale and swathes of fine Victorian terraces and squares.

Bristol remains a city where things are made as well as bought and sold. It makes chocolate, paper, aero-engines, aircraft and Bristol cars. It has two universities and good theatre and music.

Even so, the economic life of Bristol's centre hangs by a thread, threatened by a vast new expansion of a shopping complex at Cribbs Causeway, north of the city, and beyond the council's control. Had this threat to its livelihood occurred in the boom years of the Eighties, the game would have been up for Bristol, for then there was much political complacency and wrangling between the public and private sectors. The city would have bungled its strategy for urban regeneration.

At the beginning of the Nineties, a new spirit of co-operation between council and commerce emerged, orchestrated by John Savage of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce and Initiative. Out of harmony has come forth strength, enabling Bristolians to put forward a plan that they hope will defeat the philistines massed in their metal-clad shopping malls on the fringes of the city. At the heart of the plan is a long-term investment in both culture and inner-city commerce. Before the Second World War, shops were strung out like a necklace from the city centre, linking the gracious Regency suburb of Clifton in the west - still the place to live - with Broadmead in the east. Broadmead was a densely packed district of small shops and workshops; an air raid in November 1940 blew the centre of Bristol, and Broadmead, to pieces, shattering the necklace of old shops.

After the war, in the wipe-the-slate-clean mood that swept Britain, what survived of Broadmead was demolished. It was rebuilt as a homogenised colony of shops, a million square feet of Fifties retailing, spread in monotonous low-rise buildings clad, in a vainglorious attempt to evoke the past, in Bath stone.

What survived the bombing were jewels like Clifton, a suburb at once urbane and frivolous. Here are streets of 19th-century Grecian houses that radiate both well-heeled langour and gravitas, a "village" of pretty Georgian and Victorian cottages decorated with ornamental balconies and playful ironwork. Clifton is blessed with a seaside atmosphere, being close to the tidal river Avon as it winds through a spectacular and deeply wooded limestone gorge. The gorge is spanned by Isambard Kingdom Brunel's magnificent Clifton Suspension Bridge: bridge, terraces, gorge - there are few more romantic cityscapes in Europe. Clifton shows beyond doubt how our cities can be green and pleasant, a culture determinedly at odds with the edge-of-city dystopia generated by the world of business parks, executive cul-de-sacs and superstores.

Walking from Clifton down into the centre, one can only start in high spirits, a mood encouraged by the superbly crafted Council House (built in 1938), a Lutyens-like structure on Park Street sporting gilt unicorns on its roof. The Council House gives way to the cathedral (although most visitors still mistake the ravishing steepled church of St Mary Redcliffe for the cathedral), which in turn gives way to the docks that push into the heart of the city and are now lined with art galleries.

The Georgian core of the pre-Luftwaffe city clusters around the docks, comprising such delights as Queen Square, King Street, the Theatre Royal, St George's church (by Robert Smirke, architect of the British Museum and now a Radio 3 concert hall) and Royal Colonnade, houses hiding behind a fringe of delicate Ionic pillars.

This is the inheritance of the past; what Bristol is learning to do is to blur this past beauty into a future commercial strategy for its centre. Broadmead is gradually extending westward towards Clifton. This in itself is not a damaging ploy, as long as the architecture is of a higher calibre than the ghastly, if lucrative, three-storey shopping mall called the Galleries erected here in the Eighties.

The city's real effort, however, is being channelled into Harbourside, a newly coined name for an area of derelict dockland close to the centre. The site, a kind of Bristol Balkans, is a gaggle of fragmented plots of land owned by the city council, Lloyds Bank, British Rail, British Gas and the JT Group: it took three years to sign a peace pact between them.

Last year the "Harbourside Accord" that emerged set the agenda for a district of new offices, shops, housing and culture. Bristol has long been capable of generating its own cultural projects: the latest for Harbourside include a new centre for the performing arts and two science-based projects. Christopher Parsons, former head of BBC Bristol's internationally acclaimed natural history unit, plans an "electronic zoo" at Harbourside. "The Wildscreen World" will use multimedia wizardry to entertain and inform visitors about animals and the environment, together with a research archive on endangered species.

Similarly, Richard Gregory of the University of Bristol, an expert in the psychology of perception and an authority on "hands-on" scientific information, is advising on the development of "Science World". This will build on the already successful "Exploratory", now housed in Brunel's old Tudor-style railway shed at Temple Meads. Architects for both projects will be chosen through competition.

Home-generated projects should protect Bristol from the ravages of new money generated by outsiders. In the past such local companies as the tobacco giant Wills invested heavily and intelligently in the city's culture and architecture - one of Bristol's most distinctive and handsome monuments is the Wills Tower, built in a Gothic-style skyscraper in 1925.

The new money has been spawned through pension funds with few or no aesthetic, spiritual or homely allegiances to Bristol. City councils throughout Britain have been all too willing to grant pension funds permission to build all kinds of overscaled horrors both in the heart and on the edge of their centres. Pension fund money is directed towards profitability, not to likeability; it is concerned with cash, not culture.

Bristol City Council and local architects are determined that the development of Harbourside will show how local commercial and cultural initiatives framed by the best modern architecture can be likeable and profitable. For the past 15 years, Bristol has been a slave to smooth-operating, yet aggressive, commercial forces that have shown little love for what remains one of Britain's finest cities. If the spirit of Clifton can be brought to Broadmead, and the mind of a latter-day Brunel nutured at Harbourside, then Bristol will show how local genius can outmanoeuvre the chains and corporations for whom this waterside city is no different from anywhere else.