Nov 2, 2015

Colston hall exterior, illustrated circa 1870s

A visitor in our fair city today would have the opportunity to see many different styles of architecture, old and new, from the centuries old medieval city walls to the recently constructed glass walkway at Cabot Circus.

Amongst this variety they may spot some buildings which seem almost to have been transported here from another land and time.

‘Robinsons Warehouse’ on the floating harbour and ‘The Granary’ at Welsh back are two striking examples of a style known as ‘Bristol Byzantine’ with their decorative arches and polychromatic brickwork these eye catching structures evoke thoughts of the Mediterranean ports of Venice or Istanbul which inspired them.

However ‘Bristol Byzantine’ was never about mere imitation, from the outset it was a statement of intent about Victorian Bristol’s ambitions and versatility.

It was a statement of intent about Victorian Bristol’s ambitions and versatility.

Originating in the 1850s it emerged as a response to the demands of a rapidly expanding economy based around a bustling commercial port. With increased trade came a need for new specialised buildings, especially warehouses and factories.

Robinsons Warehouse

In meeting this challenge pioneering architects such as Edward Godwin and William Venn Gough successfully combined form and function. The buildings they designed not only met the practical needs of Bristol’s merchants and manufacturers, they also declared Bristol to be a port city which stood equal to any other in the world, a nexus of global trade which looked outward as much as inward for artistic inspiration.

The colourful façades were wrought from local materials, such as white and yellow bricks from the Cattybrook brick pit near Almondsbury.  New technologies brought about during the Industrial revolution allowed for mass production which dramatically reducing the expense and time frames of construction projects.

These colourful bricks which are a defining feature of the ‘Bristol Byzantine’ style, not only added visual interest, they also provided the insulation needed for effective temperature control, reducing the costs of operating the buildings during their working lives. The distinctive windows were not just decorative, but also served for ventilation and allowed goods to be delivered on multiple levels.

The foresight of these Victorian architects to use design not as a cover for the buildings’ commercial functions, but rather to find ways in which beauty could be realised through practical adaptations, still reaps benefits today.

Bristol Byzantine buildings have been re-purposed as trendy music venues, pubs and apartment complexes, whilst the Colston Hall remains in use as a theatre, with a modern foyer complimenting the distinctive Victorian façade. Whatever changes of use they may be subject to in the future their continued preservation is guaranteed as they are listed by English Heritage. The Granary in particular enjoys a Grade II* listing marking it out as having special historic and cultural interest for the nation.

The Granary, 51 Queen Charlotte street


We can look to these buildings for inspiration today, both for their unique style and for the ideas which fashioned them, they show how the practical demands of a project, however big or small, need not be limiting, but rather can be the starting point for innovation and expression.

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