Hartcliffe in the south of Bristol was not glamorous in the 1970s and still today is not the area you would kill to live in. But intrepid business people have twice in the last 30 years ventured into this dull suburban area to create something of awe. In the early 1970 the cigarette maker Wills Imperial Tobacco decided to import the elegant American office architecture of Skidmore Owings Merrill (SOM) and build themselves a new state of the art factory for preparing, packing and storing cigarettes, alongside with a sleek new office block, all connected by a tunnel system. Wills were not the first company to look across the Atlantic and import steel framed structures: SOM together with Yorke Rosenberg and Mardall (YRM) had previously built for Boots in Nottingham, and the new D90 building of 1967-8 there showed that Miesian elegance could well be built in Britain.
Wills acquired the Hartcliffe site and five years later, in 1975, operated Europe’s largest cigarette factory. The production building, a five hectar one-storey metal frame structure with an irregular footprint, was the largest building on site. An office block was placed into the southwest corner, five storeys high and resting on an L-shaped podium. This housed an astonishing variety of facilities for the 4500 employees, ranging from restaurants, a bank and post office to a film theatre. Perhaps comparable to Le Corbusier’s Unité buildings, Wills’ office block was conceived as a self contained unit with all services included, just that living was swapped for working; the open plan offices were located in the upper section of the building.
The block and podium were elegantly placed over a newly created lake, part of the landscaping scheme by Kenneth Booth. Wills was served by bus services and a particularly elegant bus shelter was built between factory and office building. The whole site was carefully modelled in a sober modern idiom, the buildings, all defined by their expressed metal structure, placed object-like on the ground, the landscaping binding them together. The scheme won awards by the RIBA and the British Steel Corporation.
Thirty years later not much is left of the buzz of cigarette production. Wills left the site and while the office block was listed in 2000 in a last ditch attempt to save it from demolition, the factory was turned down for statutory protection and has gone. So has the listed bus shelter and so far Bristol City Council has not explained what happened to it – the Society certainly was not informed of an application to demolish it. Instead of factory and bus shelter we find a retail park of the usual out-of-town meanness, one large undistinguished shed pushed against another, and all surrounded by too much ghastly car parking. This is all the more disappointing when one contemplates the original advanced thinking; underground car parking, hidden below the factory building. The office building remains – sort of. Its most spectacular feature, the sturdy Cor-Ten steel frame, has survived years of vandalism, neglect and a malicious asbestos removal which resulted in much physical harm to the building and asbestos left scattered on the ground and in the overgrown lake. All soft interior features though have gone and it is a mere skeleton that remains. Strangely this de-fleshed structure still has an amazing presence. And this potential was discovered by the Developers Urban Splash who these days seem to offer the best and bravest solutions to buildings at risk that most other developers would not touch. Together with architects Acanthus Ferguson Mann they have drawn up a conversion scheme; steel frame into posh housing is the concept. In order to block views from the flats in the former office block onto the former factory site which is now the retail park, the scheme proposes a long new residential block which would serve as a physical boundary between the listed building and its neighbours. The original landscaping has not simply matured but has grown beyond recognition and Urban Splash hope to gain permission for new landscape features around the building. A planning application has been submitted and Bristol Council seems as delighted as the Society that the ghost of Wills might be returned to the living. Fingers crossed.