Bristol’s Modernist Architecture – the Dickinson Robinson Building, Redcliff Street

There is one Modernist building that stands out in the centre of Bristol. Often overlooked despite or because of its size – it sits low down beside the river well below the surrounding hills – The Dickinson Robinson Group (DRG) building was the first big office block in the city. Also known as 1 Redcliff Street,  it was designed as the headquarters of the Dickinson Robinson paper company by their Group Architects in 1961 and completed in 1963. Andrew Foyle in the Bristol edition of the Pevsner Architectural Guides argues that ‘a custom-built post-war office block of such architectural quality is a rarity outside London.’

Behind the main tower the two story conference centre mediates between it and the smaller scale of Victoria Street frontages and period buildings. I have been talking to Colin Beales who was one of the DRG team. He explained that planning restraints at the time meant that the height of development on the Victoria Street side was not to exceed 56ft precisely to conserve the feel of Victoria Street. It does surprise me to hear that there was such a concern at a time when planners had been and were considering demolishing whole chunks of the old city. The DRG tower block is in Redcliff Street, a dockside street principally of warehouses and presumably not given the same consideration.

The simplicity and honesty of the building is what makes it so strong. A pale grey box with an orderly pattern of windows cut crisply into a perfectly flat surface with an open colonnade on the top concealing all the roof furniture. The whole rests on fine legs and plate glass. Detailing is minimal. Each corner is broken making the whole building look as if it is been made of card and suggesting delicacy and weightlessness. The window forms are slightly arched making a discrete but conscious reference to the 19th century buildings nearby.

The conference hall in Victoria Street sits beside it on legs a slightly raised plinth. It shares colour and essential simplicity with its neighbour but at the Temple Street end where it abuts the surviving half-timbered 17th-century houses is sprouts a glazed stairwell which projects like a curious animal’s head. Vertical lines slice up the glazing and echo others on the long blank wall of the meeting room itself. Its relative complexity seems to function as a buffer.

The ground floor foyer has been modified in recent years since DRG left. Nonetheless it retains most of it character. Colin tells me that the interior was equipped with Barcelona chairs and sophisticated lighting. The Mies van der Rohe reference is of course deliberate – that is exactly the kind of architecture that the DRG Group Architects were admiring and showing their ability to understand and deliver.

Attempts to get the building listed and protected in the early 2000s were unsuccessful. As I said at the beginning it is a building people can fail to notice and its understated simplicity is one reason why. One can only hope that in the not to distant future it makes the grade.

I am hoping that Colin Beales can dig out some original photos of the build and its interior and I will post again with them and some of his thoughts.

A a matter of interest, the building replaced the earlier company headquarters designed by William Bruce Gingell and built in 1876. By 1961 after losing two stories, roofs and a dome to bombing in World War II it looked like this. Below is an architect’s drawing for it. It is a clear motivation for a company to strike out with a radical new building.

ES&A Robinson building, Victoria Street, Bristol, c. 1960.
(Eveleigh, D. J., 1998, Bristol 1920-1969, Stroud: Sutton Publishing).
ES&A Robinson offices, Victoria Street, Bristol. Architect’s drawing, 1876.
(Crick, C, 1975, Victorian Buildings in Bristol, Bristol: Redcliffe Press).
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One Response to Bristol’s Modernist Architecture – the Dickinson Robinson Building, Redcliff Street

  1. Pingback: 1 Redcliffe Street, Bristol. 1960’s publicity photographs. | Ken Stradling Collection Blog

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