The lack of big plans for the city has meant lots of opportunities for little plans

Nick Childs

Business Leader Magazine met Childs and Sulzman co-founder Nick Childs about property, conservation and the city of Bristol.

Can you tell readers about Childs+Sulzmann?

As architects, we’re most interested in the creative re-use of existing buildings and using our design skills to find new ways of doing things.

From our studio in Bristol we have projects all over the UK but recently we’ve become involved in some very interesting projects around Bristol, such as the Engine Shed, creating innovative working spaces. So, we’re not particularly interested in the standard residential and office developments but in the more unique projects.

Can you give a more detailed example of the type of projects you’re involved in?

The Engine Shed is a good example as it typifies the things we like to do. This is a unique showcase for tech innovation and start-ups. The brief wasn’t clear – when we started talking to the Science Foundation at the University of Bristol, we didn’t have a site and we didn’t have a budget.

So, we helped the university define its brief and work out what they were trying to do. When the Grade 1 Listed Old Station at Temple Meads was identified as a possible site, we used all our network in Bristol and experience from elsewhere to get all the necessary approvals within eight weeks. We started on site a few weeks later and completed the project in less than five months. It was voted best University Incubator Space in Europe within weeks.

How have you seen Bristol change as a city?

Enormously. There was a time when Bristol really wasn’t a very attractive location for property investment. It was thought that the planning context here was just too difficult; but that changed rapidly in the mid-90s when the city decided it would become open to development.

What do you believe sparked this change?

It was the change in the Chief Planning Officer at the time; at Bristol City Council. The city’s focus shifted and its attitude to inward investment and business improved. Changes were happening that we would never have seen under the previous administration.

What does the city need to do to keep to its roots but also develop and grow – and manage the tension between growth and conservation?

For 35 years, we have been good at looking after our old buildings. The Conservation Act came in 1976; and we’ve got 19 conservation areas and hundreds of listed buildings. Bristol was very keen to grab the opportunity to protect its history and heritage because they had been through that horrible period, like many cities did, when engineers and planners were wanting to drive motorways through the middle of the city.

The city objected to most of the proposals that were coming through and since then we have had a conservation guided policy. Now, we have all those important buildings and areas protected and Queen Square is looking beautiful and there are plans for St Mary Redcliffe and lots of nice parts of Clifton.

But it (conservation) is starting to get in the way of development because of when you think of something like the enterprise zone and a project we are involved with – Engine Shed 2, the conservationists say you can’t build big buildings anywhere around Temple Meads or St Marys as it impacts on views of the station and the church.

That becomes a problem. Because it we are going to be a really thriving economic city then we need to build some big, new buildings to make that happen.

What do you think needs to be done to bring more sites forward and get the city building?

Leadership from the Mayor and Metro Mayor is important. Marvin Rees has shown his colours in areas such as the Redcliffe Quarter, where developers were planning to build a tower. Far from saying he didn’t like the idea, he is proposing to get it built and built big. He asked the developer to make the tower taller. His view is, if you’re going to do it, do it properly. That’s leadership.

Bristol has grown rapidly – however people abroad ask, ‘where is that?’ – do you think it matters that Bristol isn’t as well known?

It’s difficult – its known very well in certain areas. In the media and culturally it is well known – in the music industry, the film industry, the creative industries – Bristol is an absolute focus of attention. It depends who you are asking. Nationally I think it is very well known. People are endlessly quoting Bristol as the most attractive place to live outside London. There is lots of inward investment, people who want to get out of London as its too expensive.

What makes Bristol different to other cities?

Interestingly, the lack of leadership over time and lack of big plans for the city has meant lots of opportunities for little plans. If you take a city like Manchester or Birmingham, they tend to make a master plan and say, ‘this is what we want to do’ – lots of funding, lots of energy and commitment and go ahead and do it.

They build the new bull ring or they re-create the middle of Manchester with real commitment, real fast. Bristol has never done that. Bristol has small plans and doesn’t implement them all at once. It is incremental.

That leaves lots of opportunities for small entrepreneurs and creative industries to fill in the gaps. So, a lot of what’s going on here is not new shiny tower blocks in the middle of town – it’s in Stoke’s Croft or the back streets of Bedminster. Where small businesses are doing well.

Birmingham was a city built on production lines, whereas Bristol goes off in different directions all the time, experimenting and changing its mind – because it’s a highly-educated place, we are always self-critical.

What is your favourite historic building?

One thing that did strike me the other day, was that we all go off charging around the world for our weekend breaks – we go to Amsterdam or Madrid or Barcelona. I was in London as a tourist the other day with some visitors from France and I realised how brilliant London is in terms of what it has got.

St Pauls comes to mind – because I went in there for the first time in 20 years and it is phenomenal. I had completely forgotten how magnificent that place is and it is a good as any major historical landmark anywhere in the world and yet you catch a bus outside on the way home and so often we don’t realise what we have just behind us.

What is your favourite European city to visit?

Paris and Amsterdam are my two favourites. Berlin is great but it is too big and difficult to walk round.

What city can we best learn from?

Small European cities such as and Paris and Amsterdam. Copenhagen is another good one because they have taken some very bold decisions about their ethics. They aren’t going to let dual carriage ways through the centre of town just because it is the most convenient way of getting to the station. It is more democratic and I think Bristol can learn from this.