Design and realisation of three jesmonite follies cast from moulds taken from a 19th Century brick and stone wall that was due to be demolished to make way for Phase 2 of the adjacent student housing development.

David Street, Bristol 2016-2020

Project Category: Long-Term

This project introduces fragments of lost and re-imagined local buildings into their sites. The follies are monumental, robust, and beautifully crafted. They evoke the past while suggesting imaginative and playful new ways of reading and inhabiting the public realm, and arose from the question: what might a new park look like if it embraced rather than erased its existing urban context?

The designs for the follies evolved from detailed site and archival research and consideration of the area’s recent history in terms of use, scale and materials. In the last 100 years parts of David Street have been opened, closed, reopened and pedestrianised; Jacob Street has been cut off from Temple Way; the fortunes of Old Market declined; Hawkins Street was built. Much of the local area was destroyed in the Second World War, and optimistic post-war planning- in particular, the construction of the Old Market Flyover road scheme in the late 1960s- problematically reshaped local pedestrian and vehicular routes. The establishment of the new park is intended to add a generous new public space to complement the increase of residential dwellings within what was previously an industrial area. 

The off-white jesmonite used to cast the follies refers to the whiteness of plaster of paris and marble, both traditional sculpture materials, but also to the convention in architectural model-making of representing existing buildings in white. The detailed cast surfaces are cropped by plain orthogonal faces which underline the fact that these are high-resolution copies rather than sections through the kinds of real brick and stone walls they represent. The neighbouring buildings similarly play games with material surfaces; the facades of the student housing look like context-appropriate brick, but are in fact made from thin tiles- ‘brick slips’- that are prefabricated offsite in large composite panels. They are therefore similarly referential and illusionary.

Large-scale erasure, reconnection, removal and rebuilding have defined this site for the last century. These designs address the implications of these radical changes- of memory and forgetting in material terms. From the intimacy of the eye-level detail to the scale of the neighbouring buildings, they intend to invite curiosity and act as a counterpoint to the follies’ wider built environment.

Project Credits

Client: Alaska Developments

Art Consultant: Ginkgo Projects

Fabricator: MDM Props

Landscape Architect: Planit-IE, Alex Frazer Landscaping

Architect: Russ Drage Architects

Principle Contractor: Midas

With thanks to Ryan Chiu, Alma Hawk and Marion Delaporte

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Research & Development

In 2016 I was commissioned as Lead Artist for a small new public park adjacent to Print Hall, a development of new student housing. The old Bristol Post building had a private garden, and this was to be reorganised as part of the redevelopment of the adjacent sites and to become the new public garden. This commission was my first within a dense city centre site, and I was keen to begin by researching its history and local context.

Bomb Damage, Castle Street area, c1946. Credit: Bristol Reference Library

Cleared city-centre sites such as this were often used as informal playgrounds and community gardens before being redeveloped, and as such offered substantially more extensive (though temporary) public space in city centres than had ever previously existed. Fragments of basement walls and fireplaces surround wild plants and variations in the ground level divide the landscape into a varied terrain quite different from conventional flat, undifferentiated park lawns. 

My research into the Print Hall and Unity Street sites revealed the extent to which they had undergone radical change during the last 100 years. Cleared city-centre bomb sites such as this one were often used as informal playgrounds and community gardens before being redeveloped, and as such offered substantially more extensive (though temporary and informal) public space in city centres than had ever previously existed. Fragments of basement walls and fireplaces are surrounded by wild plants, and variations in the ground level divide the landscape into a varied terrain. Despite their apparent timelessness, the site’s contemporary local parks have erased their historic street patterns in order to establish undifferentiated green open space. In response to this, what might a local park look like that took its historic landscape into account?

I decided to resist the ‘tabula rasa’ approach, instead incorporating reimagined building fragments from the urban site’s recent past. My concept designs for the new Unity Street public realm consisted of a robust patchwork of hard landscaping materials based on Jacob Street’s existing surfaces; retention of all the existing trees, as well as the introduction of numerous new trees; the removal of most of the site’s low shrubs to improve sight-lines; terracing of the lawns with low walls and new planting to improve access and to break up the green space into a series of welcoming ‘outdoor rooms’, and five new finely-crafted follies based on fragments of old and existing local structures. 

The art commission and approach to the landscaping were initially considered together, and were intended to be fully integrated. Later, the client decided not to proceed with my proposals for the park as a whole beyond the concept design stage, so from that point my commission evolved to focus on the detailed design and realisation of the follies.

Derelict warehouse wall prior to its demolition to make way for Phase 2 of the development. April 2017

Several derelict structures were to be demolished as part of the Print Hall and Unity Street developments, including the ruined wall enclosing the site’s temporary car park. The condemned wall included richly weathered surfaces in two local materials: red brick and pennant stone, and featured traces of elements such as doorways, windows and buttresses. The three follies for Print Hall were cast from moulds taken from this wall in order to translate fragments of the site’s historic grain into three contemporary structures.

Scale drawing and photo collage of the condemned wall, showing the rich texture of weathering and erosion of its brick, pennant stone and mortar fabric. December 2016

Buildings regularly play with materials and resemblance, often as a humourless and pragmatic cost-saving subterfuge. ‘Facadism’ is at work when old facades are preserved and used to disguise a contemporary development’s replacement of old internal structures. Maintaining a traditional appearance is often a planning application-friendly strategy, as it maintains the external appearance of a heritage building (while discarding its authentic interior). The same ethos can be found in the brick slip. It presents an acceptably traditional face, but rather than acting as a load-bearing element, the brick is transformed into a thin, lightweight tile which can be prefabricated cheaply into large panels offsite and craned quickly into position.

1:50 model of the wall’s structure as a volume. This model was used to identify which parts to cast for the follies. December 2016

Map showing the relationship between the moulds taken and the installation locations of the three follies.

Base map: detail from the Insurance Plan of Bristol Vol 2, May 1930 and revised to May 1958. Credit: BrIstol Reference Library

Elevation of Print Hall building, showing the three follies’ locations within the adjacent pedestrian route. May 2017

The Golden Bowl pub (the basis for the follies in Phase 2) was probably constructed from brick, coated with a smooth cement rendered surface to complement its classical details. Neighbouring Shepherd’s Hall uses brick as a load-bearing structural material and self-finished surface consistent with its arts-and-crafts style. The Bristol Post building, which replaced the Golden Bowl in the 1970s, is constructed in hefty reinforced concrete. Uncompromisingly modernist in scale and design it is nonetheless entirely clad in solid brick, perhaps as a material concession to its long-established neighbours. Phase 1 and 2 of the Print Hall student accommodation development replace the building in which the Bristol Post printed its newspapers, and a number of old warehouses between Jacob and Unity Street. Both new developments are largely clad in brick slip panels, and Phase 2 retained and integrated one of Unity Street’s old brick facades. 

Old brick facades retained within Phase 2 on Unity Street. By this stage, the wall from which my moulds were taken had been demolished. September 2018

I think there’s something curious- and not a little uncanny- about inhabiting a city which treats buildings’ facades as scenography. The confidence and optimism we once had about innovative materials and radical design that was boldly expressed in post-war buildings- inside and out- has been gradually eroded, and a broad cultural preference for traditional forms and materials is manifested in so many contemporary developments. However, like the brick slip, this conservatism is often only skin deep, as conveyed in every length of plastic oak veneered engineered flooring and printed marble ceramic tile. We seem to like our buildings’ innovation hidden behind images of old and familiar materials.

Jesmonite sample panel produced by MDM Props. Jesmonite is similar to fibreglass, in that it is cast thinly and is reinforced with fibre strands that can be seen at the panel’s edges. February 2017

Buildings are never ‘finished’. They are assemblies of myriad component parts in a state of pause, wearing out or becoming obsolete at different speeds, requiring care to slow down their decay. My intention for the follies was to take some playful liberties with representation and materiality by transforming all the old facade’s dramatically-weathered architectural elements- stone, mortar, brick, timber, plants and so on-  into one unifying material by casting them monolithically. The section cut usually reveals what’s beneath the surface. In contrast, my intention was to make it clear within the follies’ sections that their form, surface textures and materiality were not what they first appeared to be. The weathered (and since destroyed) wall’s surfaces become monumental, captured in striking high-resolution which is both remarkably life-like and completely illusionary.

The first layers of the silicone rubber mould being applied to the walls by MDM Props. April 2017

The completed silicone rubber mould prior to its fibreglass jacket being added. April 2017

Silicone rubber moulds being prepared for casting within MDM Props’ workshops. May 2017

Jesmonite casts being completed. Care was taken during the mould-making stage to make and include a sliver of cast ground. This had to match the level and gradient of the finished site levels. MDM Props. August 2017

One of the follies being weighed prior to delivery, MDM Props. August 2017

The planter surrounding one of the follies being filled with soil prior to planting. November 2017

Paving adjacent to one of the follies being completed. The gradient of the ground within the cast was produced to match the finished levels, so the folly would appear to be embedded within rather than sitting on top of the ground. November 2017

Detail, November 2017

Detail, one of the follies with established planting. July 2020

Detail, one of the follies with established planting. July 2020

Detail, one of the follies with self-seeded plant. July 2020

I accepted the initial brief for this project in 2016. If I was starting again today, I think I would reluctantly take a different approach. In the context of the climate crisis the use of cementitious materials and single-use, disposable moulds seems questionable at best and irresponsible at worst. In future, my intention is to address the reuse of materials as much as possible. In the mean time, I hope the Follies are welcome new additions to their old neighbourhood, that they weather gracefully, and last for years.