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Creative Industry Buildings as Anchors for High Streets - The Tobacco Factory, Bristol

Anchoring one end of North Street in the urban ‘town’ of Bedminster just south of Bristol city centre, the Tobacco Factory represents a wonderful story of both mixed use regeneration of a single building and positive impact on a failing high street. 

A fine robust brick structure designed by the architect Sir Frank Wills – a leading member of the Wills family who commissioned the building and made their fortune in tobacco. Sir Frank had also designed the Bristol City Art Gallery, now the Museum and Art Gallery, which was one of the many gifts of the Wills family to the City and its institutions.

The Tobacco Factory today represents just one of what had been a large complex, the rest having largely been demolished in the mid 90’s. The whole site – constituting approximately one million square feet of factory buildings had, apart from one building at its northern end, now occupied as Imperial’s HQ, been sold to a private developer. The site changed hands in a series of deals. The last of the purchasers went into receivership in 1993 and the sale of the site was put into the hands of receivers who decided to demolish the buildings and sell various plots.

Governance and Funding

Local architect George Ferguson had long admired the complex and had developed a sketch plan entitled ‘a sustainable urban village’. This failed to convince, but not being prepared to contemplate defeat he decided to make a ‘silly offer of £200,000’ for the corner site on which stood some 44,000 sq ft and to his surprise the Receiver accepted.

Problems Targeted

Having bought the building in the middle of a deep property recession in the early/mid 90’s he had to dream up a purpose for his newly acquired ‘red elephant’ and what he considered an ideal opportunity to demonstrate to deeply sceptical property developer and agent friends, who all advocated the wisdom of single use ‘monoculture’ development. He was determined to show them that the more you mixed it the better and more sustainable it would be despite being sited at one end of a run-down high street in an area that was suffering from depression at the loss of its staple industry and employer and a country in the throes of a macro recession.

Interventions

The first task was to create some much needed income. The easiest start was with workspace, mainly utilising small management offices on the ground floor, followed by bigger spaces created from the laboratory spaces on the second floor. This was driven by a desire to create a community of independent creative industries, requiring a blatantly selective leasing policy. Pent up demand existed for ‘funky’ affordable space from those looking for an alternative to standard city centre offices that fitted their more freewheeling and creative lifestyles.

Ferguson felt strongly that the Tobacco Factory had to put the arts at its core. He had started by allowing some artists to occupy raw unserviced space on an informal temporary basis partly to occupy a building vulnerable to vandalism. His instinct was that its future should be driven by the performing arts rather than being another ‘art-space’ building – and that it should strive to give a new heart to the community and to the ’cultural desert’ that South Bristol then was. Serendipity would have it that the locally formed Show of Strength theatre company were looking for a home. It fitted his plans and he identified a space on the first floor that had been part of Imperial’s head office with its standard suspended ceiling office interior – he stripped it bare, back to its concrete 12 ft high ceiling, steel columns and patchy timber and quarry tile floor, leaving only a few ducts and pipes to maintain the factory character and left them to paint it black, bolt up some lights, and to get on with it. That was the birth of the Tobacco Factory Theatre.

Theatres bring with them people who want to eat and drink and apart from a couple of greasy spoon cafés which closed early, there was nowhere to eat for theatre goers. Ferguson heard that Teoh, who had established a restaurant in the inner city area of St Pauls was in search of a second place South for the river. It was just what he was looking for in terms of a very affordable eatery – serving Chinese, Japanese, Malay and Thai food. Opening in 2000, it proved to be an instant success. The second theatre spin-off came in the form of a ‘performance school’ for young people, and occupied the studios that had been created on the remainder of the first floor, bringing teenage dancing and singing ‘wannabe’s’ to the Factory, alongside all forms of activity from Martial Arts to Belly Dancing.

With activity growing it was decided to set up a dedicated Tobacco Factory café/bar in the remaining space on the ground floor drawing on inspiration from Manhattan’s cosmopolitan mix. ie urban ‘edge’, in a socially mixed area, not scary to anyone of whatever age or background – and above all affordable and inclusive. The space was stripped back to its basics – with additions reflecting its industrial character, distinguishing it very clearly from the offer in either the city centre or the (then) smokey local pubs. Nothing would be hidden under some beer stained patterned carpet or softened with curtains or cushions. This aimed to be an independent and indestructible place with no pretensions. ‘As I did wherever I could in the building, I ‘went with the flow’ keeping all that was sensible to keep, in this case turning a laboratory cold store with its impressive doors, into the cellar – putting it at the heart of the operation. This ‘making do’ approach makes decisions for you – it is not a cop-out but a fundamental aspect of sustainable conversion, as was the desire to reuse as much in the way of elements and materials as was possible. This applied to the reuse of the massive slabs of slate from the upstairs rooms. Failing to find suitable lights at the right price to hang over the bar, I cut up and bent bits of steel gauze to form each fitting at a cost of pence. The effect was spot on!’

The car parking area was reduced in order to form outside eating and drinking space in ‘The Yard’ – giving the al fresco life. Its Ferguson’s view that the provision of good local food, attractions and environment is a basic sustainability issue.

The building’s reputation began to attract more of the sort of the spirited operations that had been hoped for. The call centres etc were not welcome, leaving room for predominantly locally grown creative independents.

The seven lofts on the upper floors are ‘Manhattan’ inspired lofts influenced – 7 large spaces varying from over 90 to 200 sq m for which both live and work planning designations were secured to maintain flexibility. As it happens the majority are usually in work mode with occupants varying from conservators to computer graphics.

The other vital issue for the Tobacco Factory is that of sustainability and energy efficiency. A water harvesting system from the roof serves the toilets to the bar and they recycle as much as possible and take every opportunity to reduce demand both directly and indirectly as well as to develop more efficient and renewable systems including a large photovoltaic system driving the Theatre cooling, landlord lighting and electric car, down to switching and zoning of heating and lighting systems. The aim is to move towards carbon neutrality – and to generate as much as they can on site – before offsetting the rest with such things as the planting of trees and investing in their own off-site generation or forestry.

Tobacco Factory is a project without an end. The theatre will of course develop its programme and audience under the care of the energetic Tobacco Factory Arts Trust and the rest of the building will change to react to circumstances and need. One of the elements with the greatest potential to develop is the Sunday Market, which occupies the car park around which they constructed a permanent shelter structure for stalls. On regular occasions throughout the year they spill the market and street fair activity onto the adjacent roads including road closures to traffic and are at the heart of Upfest, an international street artist gathering, and Octoberfest organised by their own brewery, the Bristol Beer Factory.

Timescale

Ferguson bought the building during the recession in 1994 on a tight budget with projects unfolding incrementally out of necessity as much as anything else. Creative office users provided income with minimal capital outlay. They were followed by the theatre shell being made available which provided a platform of demand for the first ground floor restaurant in 2000.

Implications for practice elsewhere

This story is as relevant to failing high streets as much as large obsolete buildings. Numerous high streets and town centres around the country could start the process of renaissance by creative and flexible consideration being given to derelict buildings either on or close to their high street as our traditional shopping locations change from high streets of consumption to multi-functionality.

Further reading and resources

This case study is drawn largely from interviews with George Ferguson and from his article From Woodbines to Woodchips…The rescue, Regeneration and Retrofit of a Century Old Tobacco Factory (included in full below).

For a video setting out the contrasting fortunes of the Tobacco Factory end of Bedminster with the ‘other end’ see the successful Bedminster Town Team funding application http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4csUSDs5j4



From Woodbines to Woodchips - The Rescue, Regeneration and Retrofit of a Century Old Tobacco Factory

– By George Ferguson

Standing as It does in Raleigh Road, the Franklyn Davey & Co building now known simply as the Tobacco Factory is a smoke free reminder of the history of tobacco and its introduction to England in the reign of Elizabeth 1. Franklyn Davey, established in the 18th century in Welsh Back were sellers of tobacco, wine and spirits – and were eventually to become a constituent part of the great Imperial Tobacco Co that was formed by WD&HO Wills and others in 1901 to face up to the threat of an American monopoly. The factories were remarkable robust brick structures designed by the architect Sir Frank Wills – a leading member of the family and Lord Mayor of Bristol. Sir Frank had also designed the Bristol City Art Gallery, now the Museum and Art Gallery, which was one of the many great gifts of the Wills family to the City and its institutions.

What is now known simply as ‘Tobacco Factory’ is just one corner of the old Raleigh Road site – the rest having largely been demolished in the mid 90’s. The whole site – constituting approximately one million square feet of factory buildings had, apart from one building at its northern end, now occupied as Imperial’s HQ, been sold to a private developer. The site changed hands in a series of deals. The last of the purchasers went into receivership in 1993 and the sale of the site was put into the hands of receivers who decided to demolish the buildings and sell various plots. I had looked out at the ' WD & HO Wills sign from my Clifton house for many years and had long admired what I had thought of as Bristol’s ‘mills’, which resulted in me giving evidence at a planning inquiry against the total demolition. I subsequently developed a sketch plan entitled ‘a sustainable urban village’. This failed to convince, but not being prepared to contemplate defeat I decided to make a silly offer of £200,000 for the corner site on which stood some 44,000 sq ft of robust brick building, to secure a foothold and to try to bring others on board. To my amazement the Receiver accepted my offer, and had to scrabble around to raise the money in 1994 on a building in a then down beat area that no one was prepared to finance.

Having bought the building in the middle of a deep property recession in the early/mid 90’s – I had to dream up a purpose. Firstly I did what I could to find other maniacs to buy some of the other buildings – my only success being to encourage an office furniture manufacturer to buy one of the smaller buildings on the other side of Raleigh Road. I then had to watch in agony while the demolition contractors wrecked those other fine buildings – for which I had held such hope – but I salvaged what I could including a pair of great cast iron gates from one of the other factory entrances. My attempt at salvaging the terracotta lions and cherubs over the doorway of Factory no 2 was thwarted by them falling apart on removal – and I have always regretted not removing the great zinc letters of WD & HO WILLS – promised to me by the demolition contractors - as I had planned to rearrange them on my roof as a mis-spelt HOLLIWO&D – as a ‘come on’ to Clifton. The best laid plans….

Anyway – reality suddenly set in and I had to dream up real uses for my newly acquired red elephant. The adjoining site had been sold to the German low cost supermarket operator, Aldi, and the one next to that to a nursing home operator. These both resulted in incredibly low density ‘bungalow’ developments, a wicked waste, standing on the sites of magnificent four and five storey courtyard buildings for which I had had such great plans. It was the makings of an ideal opportunity to demonstrate to my deeply sceptical property developer and agent friends, that all they advocated about the wisdom of single use ‘monoculture’ development was misguided. I was determined to go the whole hog and show them that the more you mixed it the better and more sustainable it would be. The challenge was that I found myself with a building beautifully sited at one end of a run down high street in an area that was suffering from depression at the loss of its staple industry and employer.

My first task was to create some much needed income. The easiest start was with workspace, mainly utilising small management offices on the ground floor, followed by bigger spaces created from the laboratory spaces on the second floor. This was driven by a desire to create a community of independent creative industries, requiring a blatantly selective leasing policy. I found a pent up demand for such ‘funky’ affordable space from those looking for an alternative to standard city centre offices that fitted their more freewheeling and creative lifestyles.

However I felt strongly that the Tobacco Factory had to put the arts at its core. I had started by allowing some artists to occupy raw unserviced space on an informal temporary basis partly to occupy a building vulnerable to vandalism. My instinct was that its future should be driven by the performing arts rather than being another ‘art-space’ building – and that it should strive to give a new heart to the community and to the ’cultural desert’ that South Bristol then was. Serendipity would have it that the locally formed Show of Strength theatre company were looking for a home. It fitted my plans – but not my pocket – so, having identified a space on the first floor that had been part of Imperial’s head office with its standard suspended ceiling office interior – I stripped it bare, back to its concrete 12 ft high ceiling, steel columns and patchy timber and quarry tile floor, leaving only a few ducts and pipes to maintain the factory character. I left them to paint it black, bolt up some lights, and to get on with it. That was the birth of the Tobacco Factory theatre – and I have been intent on building on that rough and ready beginning without losing its rough and ready character that is much of its appeal. Show of Strength could not afford rent, however theatres bring with them people who want to eat and drink and, apart from a couple of greasy spoon cafés which closed early, there was nowhere to eat for theatre goers. It was therefore serendipity that I heard that Teoh, who had established a restaurant in the inner city area of St Pauls was in search of a second place South for the river. It was just what I was looking for in terms of a very affordable eatery – serving Chinese, Japanese, Malay and Thai food. Opening in 2000, it proved to be an instant success. The second theatre spin-off came in the form of a ‘performance school’ for young people, and occupied the studios that we had created on the remainder of the first floor, bringing teenage dancing and singing ‘wannabe’s’ to the Factory, alongside all forms of activity from Martial Arts to Belly Dancing.

With a growing community of activity that cannot live on oriental food and chips alone I decided to set up my own café/bar in the remaining space on the ground floor. In my travels I had been impressed by Manhattan’s cosmopolitan mix. It was a bit of this that I wanted to achieve – somewhere that had urban ‘edge’ but was, in a socially mixed area, not scary to anyone of whatever age or background – and was above all ‘affordable’ and inclusive. As I had done with the rest of the building, I stripped it back to its basics – with additions reflecting its industrial character, distinguishing it very clearly from the offer in either the city centre, with its over dressy multiples or the (then) smokey local ‘pub co’ pubs. Nothing would be hidden under some beer stained patterned carpet or softened with curtains or cushions. This aimed to be an independent and indestructible place with no pretensions. As I did wherever I could in the building, I ‘went with the flow’ keeping all that was sensible to keep, in this case turning a laboratory cold store with its impressive doors, into the cellar – putting it at the heart of the operation. This ‘making do’ approach makes decisions for you – it is not a cop-out but a fundamental aspect of sustainable conversion, as was the desire to reuse as much in the way of elements and materials as was possible. This applied to the reuse of the massive slabs of slate from the upstairs rooms – I like to feel that many fine cigars had been rolled on it! What better material from which to make a bar? Also the galvanised steel, some reused, with the bar built like the side of a ship. The prospect of a smoky room also led to large exposed ducts, and lighting that brought a bit of theatre to the space, cold blue in the cellar and on the galvanised ducts and white spots on the steel grids against the raw brickwork, erected as a simple device for displaying art. Failing to find suitable lights at the right price to hang over the bar, I cut up and bent bits of steel gauze to form each fitting at a cost of pence. The effect was spot on!

I placed at the heart of the operation, as should be expected, the open kitchen – small but efficient – designed for a healthy ‘Mediterranean’ menu – no chip fryer here! I reduced the car parking area in order to form outside eating and drinking space in ‘The Yard’ – giving us the al fresco life. I felt that within this densely populated area there was an opportunity to taste something of both the internal and external buzz that one would otherwise have to go into the city centre to experience. The provision of good local food, attractions and environment is a basic sustainability issue.

Meanwhile the building’s reputation began to attract more of the sort of spirited operations that I was seeking. The call centres and other large soulless space fillers got the message that however many times they called I was not going to say yes, leaving room for predominantly locally grown creative independents - the principal ingredient for driving the vision.

The seven lofts on the third floor are true ‘Manhattan’ lofts influenced by my 2000 New York stay, as opposed to the bogus ‘loft style’ apartments so universally marketed by residential developers. These are 7 large spaces varying from over 90 to 200 sq m for which I gained both live and work planning designations to maintain flexibility. They are all designed as totally open plan with the exception of the loo – and a semi enclosed wet room. They have reclaimed timber floors, industrial fittings and kitchens constructed out of a German steel workshop system. As it happens the majority are currently in work mode with occupants varying from conservators to computer graphics, with only lofts 1 & 2 in residential use, including mine, but the balance will change with demand. Living above the shop has its pleasures and its pains – but for me the pleasures far outweigh and gives me a very hands on involvement with the building and its various activities.

The other vital issue that I have been determined to put the Tobacco Factory at the centre of, is that of sustainability and energy efficiency. It has been at the back of my mind in everything I have done in terms of reuse and sensible use of materials. A water harvesting system from the roof serves the loos to the bar and we recycle as much as we can. However our use of energy has continued to be profligate – with a building that is not heavily insulated, being solid thick brick walls, which do have the benefit of ‘heat storage’, moderating the internal change of temperature. We are taking every opportunity to reduce demand both directly and indirectly as well as to develop more efficient and renewable systems. This ranges from the distilling of bio-fuel from kitchen waste for the use in the Tobacco Factory van, to the large photovoltaic system driving the Theatre cooling, landlord lighting and electric car, down to switching and zoning of heating and lighting systems. The aim is to move towards carbon neutrality – and to generate as much as we can on site – before offsetting the rest with such things as the planting of trees and investing in our own off-site generation or forestry.

Most of all the Tobacco Factory is a project without an end. The theatre will of course develop its programme and audience under the care of the energetic Tobacco Factory Arts Trust and the rest of the building will change to react to circumstances and need. One of the elements with the greatest potential to develop is the Sunday Market, which occupies the car park around which we constructed a permanent shelter structure for stalls. On 4 occasions a year we spill the market and street fair activity into Raleigh Road. We plan to make an application to be enabled to close this part of Raleigh Road bordering the building every Sunday for extended market and events such as Upfest, an international street artist gathering, and Octoberfest organised by our own brewery, the Bristol Beer Factory, another story!

A fitting post script to this Tobacco Factory story is the regeneration of the remains of the listed 1970’s Hartcliffe Imperial ‘Miesian’ HQ building, acquired by the bravest of developers, Urban Splash, who have commissioned Ferguson Mann to convert it into a great new residential development with a difference in an area that so desperately needs a boost. So the 800 year life of its Corten steel frame will be put to a new use that replaces one of Bristol’s most famous killing industries with a dramatic new place for people to live.  

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