Stephen Macfarlane has been an architect – and an advocate for public engagement with architecture – for more than 60 years. In this interview with Axel Wieder, he talks about his work, which features in our current exhibition, The Promise.
In 1959, a group of young architects organised an exhibition titled "A Plan for Bristol." In the introduction, they wrote: "The history of civilization is the history of cities; it is difficult to imagine life without them." The Bristol Architect's Forum, as the group was called, argued vehemently for the need to infuse new life into the heart of the city. Besides a regulation of traffic, the group saw above all a need for a public engagement with the quality of architecture. Stephen Macfarlane was one of the founders of the Forum group and, later, of the Architecture Centre on Narrow Quay.
AW: How did the Forum Group start?
SM: I arrived in Bristol in 1954 on my motorcycle from North Wales where I was employed as a forestry worker. I had studied at the Architecture Association in London, I met my wife and she was working in Bristol, so I got a job in the city's architecture department. At the time we had a very good city architect called Nelson Meredith. It was the only possibility to work with a number of younger architects – all the private firms in Bristol at that time were very Edwardian, they were pyramidal: you had a man at the top and you had very little delegation. A bit later, I started our own firm with another contemporary of mine. We decided to do this because even in the city architecture department you never met the clients, you never went to committee meetings where the real policies were discussed. But on the other hand, there were very good people there equally slightly frustrated. I found my feet in Bristol thanks to working for the city council and I must acknowledge that that was a very good period.
There were a number of people who had been students at the other institution in Bristol which was the Royal West of England Academy School of Architecture, started in 1921 for returning ex-service people from the First World War. They got together and started their own school for the profession, which was underwritten by a couple of established firms – it was still the time of article pupillage, the usual way of getting into the profession was that your parents would go and talk to the principal of a private firm. Very little formal training is involved. You are supposed to be apprenticed in the rather medieval manner, you would learn just by looking at your elders and betters doing their work but that wasn't enough for these young men. The only other school which was similarly independent was the Architecture Association in London, which started in 1848, and is where I was trained for five years, 1945-1950.
Anyway, in January of 1957 we had been getting together a few people – I had started teaching then and we organised an exhibition with photographs, in the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, which was called "Our City". That was our first public event which was influenced by the "Anti Ugly Movement" nationally.
AW: What was the experience and what were the photos about?
SM: The photos plainly said "look at the surroundings we live in". The centre was pretty miserable, where we now have more pedestrian areas – of course, this was a time when Britain was bankrupt and very little was happening. I think the exhibition made quite a few people think, including some city councillors, but also some of the older professionals that were equally pretty concerned that young people normally didn't have a voice.
AW: So you showed the photos at the Museum?
SM: They hadn't realised until they looked at it! They expected images of "nice buildings" and decided that the museum can't show this sort of thing, since it is criticising the city! So they made us move it out there and brought in another exhibition, this time about the Parthenon and "beautiful" buildings. But the event catalysed a few of the younger people to come forward in sympathy. Our own professional organisation, the RIBA, was pretty stuffy and not very supportive, so we decided to go outside and found our own independent group of younger professionals, which we called The Bristol Architect’s Forum.
Within this group we were starting to look at the City as a whole. We saw that the biggest problem in Bristol was the increase of traffic. People were picking up the idea of rebuilding but were missing the whole point of a larger infrastructure, that there was no major bridge over the docks at Cumberland Basin and many overloaded junctions in the central area of the city. So in 1957 or 1958, after criticism by the city fathers of the 'unconstructive work of the forum' with the exhibition we began to prepare proposals for a Plan for Bristol in the reconstruction of the city centre. About twelve to fifteen architect members of the Forum worked in their spare time for over two years and produced a series of panels plus a model of the centre – it is the model that is reconstructed for The Promise exhibition now on show at Arnolfini. We presented this proposal in 1959 at the Building Centre, causing great public interest, we invited Lord Silkin, the father of UK post war planning, to come to Bristol, and the Lord Mayor of Bristol attended the opening. Richard Hawkins, the editor of the Evening Post, the local newspaper, was on our side, which was a great help. We were often going out giving talks about the need to look at the city as a whole. At that time there wasn't any sort of unitary view of how you should look at human settlement. Our view was all very questioning, very optimistic and very progressive.
AW: About the Forum Plan: Can you talk a bit about the intention of the proposal and the plan you made? First of all, it was a collective proposal – a lot of people were working on it together…
SM: There were about twelve to fifteen in the group, and we had one or two older people, such as Crofton Gane, who brought Marcel Breuer to Bristol to design the interior of his own home and a pavilion for public exhibition of furniture; Peter Cuddon, a designer, and Ken Stradling, who were among our best local supporters. Ken ran the Bristol Guild, a design shop on Park Street. We had also the ear of some of the people in the Chamber of Commerce who were quite progressive and very open minded, especially about making traffic work more efficiently. This was one of the arguments for doing enormous road building, however we said we ought to address how we can make the congestion points work better, thinking about the overall traffic pattern of the city. There was no expert traffic engineer working in Bristol at that time. Our plan tried to improve particularly the Cumberland Basin which was the national route – our scheme was in fact very similar to what had been built and we wondered if the City Engineer really got there first or if we managed it! We did not have great proposals at that time – we were really concentrating on the need to look at the city as a whole because there was virtually nobody talking about reducing traffic densities. We were saying: "Let's look at our existing patterns and see how we can improve them". The other great thing that we discussed was traffic and pedestrian segregation. In 1963 Colin Buchanan published his report "Traffic in Towns" for the UK Ministry of Transport which did suggest that there should be much more segregation, but there was no real discussion about traffic densities, the cause of all this. It was extraordinary, this myopia, to assume that progress meant only bigger and better for remedial action.
AW: Why do you think the planning department at the time had such a limited perspective?
SM: The answer is that I really think the idea of the culture of cities wasn't as much of an issue as the building technology and the needs of post-war reconstruction. It is disappointing, there were things going on elsewhere, but Bristol tended to either be undervalued or undervalued itself. In pure development terms – until the property boom got out of control – there has always been an issue of building costs being connected to rentals in the speculative part of the economy where bottom lines are very short lived, people want to get their money back very quickly. In Bristol rental values were pretty stagnant for a time, but building costs were inexorably rising and therefore the amount of money allowed in budgets for new developments was very limited by the fact that Bristol had a much lower rental valuation of office blocks than London. I have had experience of this when I went into private practice, I saw how unfair it was that the government also put stringent cost limits on subsidies for social housing, which we all did quite a bit to improve.
AW: Another big project of the Forum group started in reaction to a private development, the Wine Street development. What happened there?
SM: The Bristol Corporation itself, the City Council, started to make money by leasing land that was allocated in the Development Plan for open space and public facilities next to Castle Park with some private companies – the City leased off the land without any real public discussion. Nobody really knew about it until it was too late. It was corrupt. We started "Save Wine Street" campaign which has been very well documented, Lord Silkin took it up in parliament. He was quite a good friend to us and he saw there was something unacceptable happening and our members were putting ourselves, our families on the line with this sort of action possible threatening our careers.
AW: The companies were Norwich Union and the Bank of England?
SM: Yes. These buildings are mostly empty and absolutely useless, they have been unused over many years and the site hasn't yet been properly sorted out. We produced our own proposal, we got it costed, a very serious piece of work. We were taking them on their own terms, this time and the City – the Tory government, then said that everything had been done properly. We had a column in the local newspaper called Isambard that we started as part of this discussion, every month we had a whole page. We got 1,000 names on a petition, we had a great public meeting in the Colston Hall, but there was absolutely no response, no feeling that all of this had been happening on the part of our elected council.
AW: The proposal was a kind of cultural centre?
SM: It was a cultural centre because that was the proposal in the city's initial plan. The Museum and Art Gallery was going to move there and it was what came to be done on an alternative site with M Shed on the harbour side. Arnolfini was planned to be near this building too!
AW: Can you talk a bit about the aftermath of the Forum Group activities and how the Architecture Centre was founded?
SM: After the Wine Street project, the Forum Group did widen and drew in many other people, mainly through opposition for a major road building programme called the Outer Circuit Road which would have created a huge amount of destruction and made future traffic planning just appalling. By that time it was understood that widening roads didn't really solve traffic problems. The larger group was now called the New Bristol Group and was a collection of people from many different backgrounds: architects, economists, sociologists and our local MP, Tony Benn. We started a magazine called Output in which the city was being looked at by all sorts of specialists, people with different callings and experience. There were thirty papers written about Bristol life that were published in this magazine and the topics covered library services, education, health services and planning.
Another great achievement was a permanent planning exhibition at Quakers Friars that existed for several years. Anybody coming in from the street could look at the proposals that were going through the city's planning process including models which was a very positive outcome of our initial modest efforts.
AW: Who ran the exhibition?
SM: The city ran it, this was the real breakthrough. It was the effort of two planning officers then in charge: Iain Patterson and Jack Preston. It was about how we should empower the ordinary resident to not only look after his own interests, not being seduced by property values because property becoming a commodity is, I believe, a very dangerous anti-social force. Planning procedures are quite complicated and I think people are daunted by it, and it takes a very unusual individual or member or citizen to put themselves out to the extent that is necessary to try to engage in conversation with those who we elect. In election our democracy has become less valued than it should be because these days people don't take it seriously. Only about 26-30% of people vote in local elections.
The present Architecture Centre is another story. In the 1980s the school of architecture in which I had taught was run by the profession and was found to need more economic backing when Final Recognition was achieved to give its own diplomas. The University saw this as an opportunity to absorb the school and so it became the Department of Architecture. For the academic world the discipline of architecture was not easy to pigeonhole, it was neither just arts or just science. It was always an uneasy takeover, in my view. A lot of people did feel that way and it only went through by a very narrow vote of the same profession that had founded the Royal West of England Academy School of Architecture. When things got difficult in terms of the economy, the size of universities were significantly reduced during the Thatcher years. A new Vice Chancellor, Sir Alec Merrison, a physicist, became instrumental in having the Department of Architecture demolished. It was in 1984 that the department was closed and that is when the Bristol Society of Architects began to react and to propose that we set up an Architecture Centre. It was initially an initiative of some old players plus some new helpers and people new to Bristol at that time. It took us ten years to build up the Architecture Centre as an alternative organisation. Driving the idea was that there was a need to establish an alternative to the Department of Architecture. This is clearer to me now than it was back then but it is a very important issue. We managed to get the new Architecture Centre recognised and the City Council helped us to get the lease of the building for its current use on Narrow Quay.
AW: When did the Architecture Centre open?
SM: In 1996. Since then it has done quite a lot to open up conversation and discussion between society, officials and those that are elected. It has taken a long time but working in the voluntary sector we found people who would give huge amounts of support and time and continue to do so. Some offices feel threatened by the process of harnessing pro bono help and they have been really slow to listen to what ordinary people feel. I put this down to the problem of existing planning laws. They give too much advantage to the applicants and therefore the presumption has been that we should at all costs keep building and keep enlarging our building stock. That's okay if it is done in the way that these projects enhance the lives of all people in our city but somehow the inequalities are getting worse. It's an interesting story that given even our small number of concerned people, if you can get together a committed group, this can have a beneficial interest for the improvement of the city, but there needs to be much more empathy between different groups. As for planners – politically we need to be reforming the planning legislation that now exists for this 21st century!
This interview is part of The Promise. Supported by Simplyhealth – Art in the Public Realm Commission Award, The Henry Moore Foundation, Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, The Gane Trust and The Ken Stradling Collection, Amalgam Modelmaking, and Creative New Zealand.