Friday, February 4, 2011


Bristol brickwork (1)

Passing through Bristol last week, I thought I’d take a look at a favourite building I’d not seen for a while. When I last went past, one side of the structure was covered in scaffolding. Maybe this time the poles would be gone. But to my surprise, the building, the Tramways Generating Station, on Counterslip near the river, was covered in even more scaffolding and netting than before, so the photograph I show above is actually from my previous visit.

In 1895, having had horse-drawn trams for some twenty years, Bristol became the first city in the United Kingdom to build an electric tram service and in 1898–99 this new power station was constructed to supply electricity for the quickly expanding tramways network. This power station was designed by a young architect, William Curtis Green, who later became better known as the creator of buildings such as London’s Dorchester Hotel. The Bristol power station contained four steam engines coupled to four generators, and supplied power to the tramway system until 1941, when one of the many bombs dropped on the centre of the city struck a nearby bridge and severed the power lines.

To house the power plant, Curtis Green created a building of neoclassical grandeur. The details – columns, windows, arches, and doorways – are picked out in Bath stone and stand out beautifully from the red brick walls. The façade on Counterslip, shown in the photograph, is rather narrow, and this emphasizes the height of the structure, making it seem even larger than it is. In a way, the effect is rather pompous. The very grand Venetian window on the ground floor, the row of four Ionic columns at second floor level, the triangular pediment at the top with the tiny window in the middle – it’s a busy, unbalanced, and over-the-top composition.

But it makes you look, and it makes you think: the Bristolians were clearly proud of their tramway and their electrification scheme, and it’s not such a bad thing to build a public transport system to be proud of. Not for the first time, I came away impressed by the swagger and confidence of the buildings in England’s southwestern metropolis.


The Vintage Knitter said...

Bristol is full of many fine buildings isn't it? Its a shock though, to see that a fair few are derelict and in dire need of structural work. As I remember, there was a fine eighteenth century house with an ornate shell door canopy set back off St. Augustine's Road near the centre, which looked in need of help. Next time I'm down, I'll have a wander by and see if its been renovated. I hope so as I hate to see such fine buildings going to rot and ruin.

Philip Wilkinson said...

There are some terrific door canopies in Bristol - I saw a few when I was there the other day, but not, I think, the one you mention. I hope it's being taken care of.

Hels said...

Thank you!

Yes it is a bit unbalanced, but industrial buildings of neoclassical grandeur were soooo Victorian. Anyone could build an ugly, functional Tramways Generating Station; the Victorians wanted to show they could do industry, functionality and beauty at the same time.

I am normally not very fond of red brick, but the details in Bath stone give a special elegance.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: Absolutely. Art and industry working together: that's what the Victorians were about.

Terry said...

Where pompous is near perfect. Bravo. Thanks.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Excellently put, Terry!

Vinogirl said...

Nice building, all ship-shape and Bristol fashion :)

Anonymous said...

How would you call the ample first floor semicircular-industrial architecture-like window? a Diocletian one perhaps?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Valentin: In English we usually use 'Diocletian window' (or 'thermal window', after the thermae, or baths, of Diocletian, where they're found) for the type of semi-circular window that's divided into three by a pair of vertical mullions. In this window there are no mullions (although the two Ionic columns do the same job, visually), so it's not strictly a Diocletian window, just a plain semicircular one.

DJK said...

Great post. I wonder though what this building was like inside. Generating stations usually have great height (as here) with a travelling crane built in, able to lift one of the generating sets and carry it over the others (hence the height) for maintenance purposes. So was there an internal steel framework to support the crane? The brick shell, although substantial, doesn't look that substantial.

AIUI, the building is being converted into the usual flats, hence the scaffolding. Whilst it would be nice to have an industrial use, residential flats (plus balconies, washing, car parking, etc.) is better than dereliction.

Google Bristol Listed buildings at risk for some more interesting structures on the city council's risk register.

Philip Wilkinson said...

DJK: Thanks for your comment. I don't know if it had a crane, or a steel structure, but I wouldn't be surprised if it had the latter.

There's a brewery building on the river not far from this one that has been converted into flats, and at least the building has been saved through the conversion.