Carly Wijs, acting as a real estate agent, escorts you on a future visit around the re-designed Arnolfini building on Bristol’s Harbourside in 2011 – the year that marks Arnolfini’s 50th anniversary. Find out what it’s all about, and see a familiar site transformed through her eyes.
It’s late summer and I have decided to spend the best part of the day in and around the new Arnolfini building on Bristol’s Harbourside. Since I was here last in 2009 to promote the re-designed building and its exciting new ‘collection’ appropriately branded The Good Life, I have heard and read a lot about it, but this is my first real sight of what it has become, and I have to admit, it surpasses all my expectations.
I can see that Bristol’s old harbour has been transforming rapidly into a lively centre for culture and commerce, including up-market residential properties, business and retail spaces, high-class bars and restaurants, and all of it, if I may add, thanks to Arnolfini’s bold gesture into the future. The art centre has taken its cues from The Good Life, an artists’ proposal that was developed in collaboration with an office for architecture, a creative team including a graphic designer, a video and a sound artist, a lawyer and myself Carly Wijs, acting as the development’s real estate agent. Oh, and we shouldn’t forget the Arnolfini. At the time they did a magnificent job in making The Good Life become reality.
Walking along the old train tracks sunken in the asphalt, the first thing I can see from afar is the elegantly designed tower rising above the old building’s gutted shell. Tripling its former height, it offers an impressive sight, truly a beacon, with the sun reflecting off the huge glass panels at the top of the building. As I approach it I can see a slender shaft supporting a monolithic upper structure, which is seemingly floating in mid-air. Sitting on the perfect spot in Bristol’s marina, with its reflection in the water, the visionary design blends in perfectly with the area’s history.
The architects 51N4E, an emerging practice based in Brussels, have fused industrial architecture of the past with a hi-tech elegance of the 21st Century, and it seems they have thought of just about everything. Peter Swinnen, one of the office’s founding trio, and the lead on this project, commented: “Although the building was at a strategic spot in the city, at that moment (in 2008) it lacked visibility and just did not live up to its potential. We aimed to retain its historic character, while energising the site through the creation of a 21st Century landmark building.”
Approaching the building’s monumental presence, I have come across a terrace pleasantly situated under the trees of Narrow Quay. I’ve decided to prolong my curiosity before venturing in, and I order a large latté from the Pero (1) open-air coffee bar. I’m enjoying the sun and the waterfront while contemplating the success of The Good Life development. It’s triggered numerous positive changes economically, whilst helping to alleviate the rapacious credit crunch of 2008.
During those times of economical upheaval, the project was a calculated risk, but it proved to be a marvelous opportunity to bring a new dimension to the centre of this city. Arnolfini has always been a pioneering example of the mutually beneficial mix of art and commerce. (2) It is an approach that fits well with the atmosphere in this city. Bristol is a city that is creative. It is an ideas city. Businesses are coming around to the idea that culture is important and we have to build on that. (3) The creative city is on the rise and always thanks to real estate developers. (4)
Now I want to have a look at what else there is. I’m entering the building’s emptied shell. I’m almost deafened by the peace of the interior garden. Taking its inspiration from the classic English landscape garden, it is an ingenious work of art, yet designed not to look like art. From the plans and models I saw, and even from the artist’s impressions in The Good Life brochure (2009), it was hard to imagine this exquisite and imposing enclosure. For me, as I see it right now, it finally seems to live up to the idea of a renaissance patio, which was the inspiration for this original 19th century warehouse. Mr. Arnolfini, the Italian man living in 15th Century Flanders, whose portrait was painted by the Flemish artist Jan Van Eyck, and who the organisation was named after, would have been delighted. And come to think of it, Mr. Arnolfini was a colleague of sorts, being a real estate agent himself, and a merchant. (5) I always had The Arnolfini Portrait in my mind at the time I was involved with The Good Life development, which for me was more an act of curatorial passion than of creating profit. (6) And it proved that despite the funding crisis, there was still substantial demand for high quality buildings in prime locations with good quality tenants.
But the thing that is truly amazing inside this secluded garden is when you look up and start to discern Bristol’s marina reflected in the convex lower part of the new building. Nav Haq, Exhibitions Curator at Arnolfini: “A very exciting feature of the building is a miniature view of Bristol brought inside the secluded garden. This is exactly how the Van Eyck painting takes your gaze; from the intimacy of the painted interior view it would give you a view of the world.” Yes, I can imagine creative people being enchanted with this space opening up marvelous views. Anyway, we wouldn’t have sold to people who didn’t buy into the principle. (7)
I am really delighted that this garden is a privately owned public space (8) in which people can sit quietly. The imposing enclosure, actually the building’s original façade, reminds me of the romantic image of a cathedral in ruins with trees growing inside as well as outside it. This is a peaceful place, a secret refuge to cherish. And it is kept pristine by hourly sweeping patrols and by its proper policing team. No beggars here. (9)
Right now seems to be a good moment for me to take the lift in order to have a look at the living spaces hovering over the harbour. Whilst I press the button I can feel my body faintly holding back. I think of the lift getting stuck during the shoot of The Good Life promotional film, and then the gunshots. I step inside. The reward is immediate as I see the garden of delights sinking away below my feet while a breathtaking view emerges into my field of vision. A disembodied voice says: “Enter The Good Life – Thermae”. I’m moving away from the view and experience the slightly saturated air and moist perfumes of the spa. Only now I experience the full impact of this mysterious space. The daylight filtering through the concrete columns causes striking reflections on the dark surface of the water. The ambiance is so peaceful. In an unimposing way, this place makes the building an indispensable part of the city’s magic, if not one of its major attractions.
The artists who initiated this unique alliance with the art centre and the architects refer to their project not only in terms of building an iconic combination of art and cutting edge architecture. (10) Katleen Vermeir & Ronny Heiremans: “The Good Life not only offers the ultimate in urban living aimed at satisfying people who conceive their life as a work of art. (11) It is also about belief in this city.” (12)
Peter Swinnen of 51N4E: “The fluid relationship of art, cultural heritage and commerce will be the heartbeat of this building. Its force will be this assertive and open attitude.” (13)
I am getting pretty envious of the residents of those 12 lofts perched above. How much more central to where it all happens can you get? Oh my God, this has become such a luxurious destination! From the position I am standing in, I can see the huge glass façade panels, creating soaring floor to ceiling visual spans in each of the building’s unique homes. I can imagine a handful of lucky residents enjoying unrivaled intimacy as well as sublime sunrise and sunset panoramas. These are lofts that offer potential for drama in everyday life. (14)
I could see that these people wanted to build a good life. (15)
I remember the desire building up when I was showing them around the empty exhibition spaces of the former Arnolfini. I still hear myself introducing The Good Life Collection, which was to include a first editions library, indoor and outdoor terraces, sundeck with infinity pool, a yoga studio, fitness centre, a 24-hour spa. Oh, and I forgot to mention the lobby. Its pristine white walls and double height ceiling give it the feel of a cutting edge gallery. (16) It is an incredible feeling to stand up here and experience how computer generated images floating in a void have been made totally real. Not such a long time ago, all of this was merely fiction. After today’s sunny afternoon in the heart of Bristol’s marina, it is clear to me that there is no longer a need to point to other places. A valuable reason has been given for why one would want to live in this city – and this is it.
Yes, I can think of a few things to do up there in those lofty spaces… Indulge, explore, unwind, kiss, eat, create, snuggle, laugh, love, enjoy, deceive, work, taste, listen, meet, succeed, cry, imagine, reflect, pioneer, sleep, flirt, destroy, tease, giggle, touch, cheat, relax, devour, smile..."