Brutalist Dreams in Weston-super-Mare

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon are best known as the architectural practice responsible for the Barbican development in London. Construction began in 1963 after 10 years of design negotiation and is now regarded as one of the most iconic examples of post-war Brutalist urban planning and a sought after location to live in Central London.

Meanwhile…

Would you be surprised to know that at about the same time they were commissioned to design a scheme to redevelop a large area of the centre of Weston-super-Mare here on the Somerset coast?

In Weston-super-Mare museum is a beautiful architects project model dated 1961 presenting Chamberlin, Powell and Bon’s scheme. The area around Oxford Street and Carlton Street south of the main shopping area and fronted onto the beach beside the ostentatious Victorian Grand Atlantic Hotel. A 22-storey round tower was to take the beach-front position rising out of a raised deck that extended well back across the site. An hotel the building would have dominated the whole promenade. Set further back, two lower blocks of flats were to be reached from the deck and two more from ground level. Behind the tower, alongside Oxford Street, a sports complex with a spectacular open-air swimming pool. The model has no legend so it isn’t clear exactly what is what but features were to include a conference centre, a shopping mall and extensive parking at the lower level. The long narrow building the back beside the town hall for instance sits on more-or-less the same footprint as the present Police station although that building is clearly later in date. The blocks of flats are characterised by projecting fins, presumably for stairs, lifts and fire-escapes. The largest has a particularly dramatic detached fire-escape tower with linking walkways.

The integration of recreational opportunities was clearly intended to help make the place a destination as well as a place to live, a characteristic it shares with the Barbican. Unlike the Barbican the planting is fairly unadventurous but the quirky embellishment of the deck in front of the tower with a rococo parterre is a playful touch in the context of so much concrete. What is remarkable to me is Weston-super-Mare’s ambition. Whatever doubts one might have about wholesale replacement of historic town centres, they were prepared to think big and explore the idea with one of the most adventurous architectural firms of the day. This in the context of Bristol City Council’s clumsy home-grown 1966 plan which incorporated some of the same ideas but was wildly overblown and lacked a coherent architectural design brief. As a result of preemptive clearances and the piecemeal building of bits of it, it blighted areas in its path for decades. That said, the area of Weston-super-Mare to be redeveloped in 1961 seems to have had a checkered career in the 60 years since. Clear of the area had begun in 1957, removing an large number of small houses and back-streets. The high cost of the development (over £3m) and protests about the destruction of an well-established neighbourhood ensured it did not happen. Subsequent development has been piecemeal. The proposed site of the feature tower and the sports complex is currently an empty space. I suppose a high-rise scheme featuring a large expanse of raised decking might well have become a troubled area in a town with its share of problems. For admirers of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon and of Brutalist architecture and urban planning this is a forgotten project to savour.

This is an edited version of a post previously published on Oliver Kent’s blog Clay and Fire.

Photos copyright Oliver Kent 2019. Aerial photo courtesy of Google Maps.

Some references:

Brodie, A. and Roethe, J., 2020. Weston-super-Mare, North Somerset: Historic and architectural development. Volume 1: Report. Research Report Series no. 1-2020. Portsmouth: Historic England.

Brodie, A. and Roethe, J., 2020. Weston-super-Mare, North Somerset: Historic and architectural development. Volume 2: Gazetteer. Research Report Series no. 1-2020. Portsmouth: Historic England.

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