Readers were treated to a preview of Bristol’s three new lottery projects, which opened yesterday, organised by Building and Corus. While the visitor attractions are impressive, it’s the open spaces around them that holds it all together.
Bristol is enjoying its 15 minutes of lottery fame this week. Media attention headed west to witness the official opening on 6 July of not one, not two, but three millennium projects, all in the city’s former docks.

Collectively known as @Bristol, the £97m trio consists of two visitor attractions – Wilkinson Eyre Architects’ science-themed Explore and Michael Hopkins & Partners’ nature-celebrating Wildscreen – knitted together by the third project, a series of public spaces designed by Concept Planning Group.

The scheme brings some cheer to Bristol’s maligned waterfront. Sitting on 4.4 ha of former wasteland between the diminutive cathedral and the historic harbour, @Bristol provides both reason and means to venture into a long-neglected part of town.

The public spaces – clunkily branded Open Spaces @Bristol – are justifiably considered a project in their own right and not just in-filling between designer buildings. The urban taskforce would approve of their scale and quality, which are on a par with those lauded in Continental cities such as Lyons and Barcelona. Anchor Square, cobbled and intimate, sits between the two attractions, linking the new quarter to the rest of the town. Here, free open-air cinema is planned for summer evenings, and a timber stage encourages impromptu performances.

Beyond this lies the expansive Millennium Square, dotted with playful fountains and sculptures and paved in dazzling limestone. An underground car park is hinted at by ventilation towers ranged on opposite sides of the square like giant chess pieces and a number of swooping-roofed kiosks containing stairs and lifts.

The car park itself deserves a mention for achieving a dignity and cheerfulness rarely found in vehicle bunkers. Car parks are public spaces too, the designers have realised, responding with liberal use of lighting, colour, architectural capitals on the columns and even the odd bit of artwork. The designers proudly boast that the 18 m deep structure is unique in the UK for using permanent sheet piling (painted a fetching silver) for the walls.

The two landmark buildings, Explore and Wildscreen, could not be more different from one another. For Explore, Wilkinson Eyre has taken a listed building and converted it with restraint and wit to a highly flexible space. Hopkins, meanwhile, building Wildscreen from scratch on an awkward triangular site, has responded by chucking everything but the kitchen sink at it.

Explore is set inside the shell of a listed 1903 Great Western Railways goods shed, a structure remarkable only for being one of the first UK buildings to employ the Hennebique concrete reinforcing system. Within this unpromisingly squat two-storey warehouse, a versatile and generous new space has been fashioned by means of three simple interventions.

First, they opened up the arched bays on the sides facing Anchor Square and Millennium Square to create covered pedestrian arcades. Second, they compensated for this loss of space by creating a double-height gallery to the north, with an austere 90 m long glass facade facing the cathedral. The third intervention was to punch out a rectangular hole in the roof and drop in a two-storey steel box to give greater height and flexibility inside.

The project is an exercise in control, save for a few touches of functional exuberance. Attached to the back of the building is a gleaming, 15 m diameter stainless steel sphere containing a bijou planetarium. In the north gallery, a curvy toilet pod clad in beech strips also acts as a staircase and a sound absorber to dampen noise in the gallery. A giant transparent cylinder containing 45 000 plastic balls is both a thermal regulator and exhibit: the balls contain eutectic salts, which absorb and release heat as required, and being made of thermochromic resin they change colour as the temperature changes. Aside from these flourishes, the building is extremely loose-fit and could easily be adapted to another purpose – not a bad idea in these days of floundering lottery projects.

You have to hope that the adjacent Wildscreen proves a hit with visitors, as you cannot imagine Hopkins’ bespoke building being much use for anything else. Lumped together under the natural-world theme are diverse elements, including an Imax cinema, a walk-through exhibition and a botanic garden, and Hopkins has considered each as a separate design challenge.

The practice appears to have raided its attic for inspiration. The brick drum containing the Imax is reminiscent of Glyndebourne, the arrangement of hefty concrete columns and moulded soffits in the exhibition section reminds one of Westminster Tube Station and the tented lobby has echoes of the Mount Stand at Lord’s.

And there’s more. The botanic garden features an ETFE roof held in place by steel masts and cables, the gift shop has a lean-to wooden roof and the grotto-like entrance was built by spraying concrete on to reinforcement. In fact, so varied is the building that it makes up for the relatively pedestrian set of exhibits it houses. Perhaps the building does have an alternative use after all – if Wildscreen ever closes, it could reopen as World of Hopkins.

But the greatest draw in Bristol’s new quarter will most likely prove to be the public spaces. Even before the landmark attractions opened, the squares were alive with people sitting, chatting or just watching the world go by. It might even be that the pull of these open spaces will save their adjoining attractions from the fate of certain other lottery-funded projects.

Bristol rovers

Twenty-five Building readers were last week given an exclusive, pre-opening guided tour of @Bristol’s lottery projects by the architects – Stafford Critchlow of Wilkinson Eyre, Julie Gaultier of Michael Hopkins & Partners and David Mellor of Concept Planning Group. It was part of a series of readers’ tours sponsored by Corus.