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Wednesday 30 March 2016

Bristol Byzantine and the Café Wall Illusion

One thing that I love about Bristol is that, although it is not a big city, it can still surprise. After a while living here, I learnt about Bristol's own architectural style only a couple of weeks ago.

Buildings on King Street

'Bristol Byzantine' - it has a great name!

Bristol Byzantine came about in the mid to late nineteenth century and was generally used for industrial buildings and warehouses. One of the architects associated with it is Edward Godwin, who was born in Bristol. 

Buildings on Victoria Street

35 King Street

The style may have originated when William Venn Gough and Archibald Ponton (who designed the Granary on Welsh Back which was built in 1869) met John Addington Symonds, a Bristol-born historian of the Italian Renaissance. Some believe the name was coined by the architectural historian Sir John Summerson.

The Arnolfini (Bush House)

The style is heavily influenced by Byzantine and Moorish architecture from buildings in Venice and Istanbul and one building in particular, the Granary on Welsh Back, really shows the influence of Islamic architecture.

The Granary (or Walt and James' Granary)

Some characteristics of the Bristol Byzantine style include: windows that often have arched tops and are aligned in vertical columns on stories above the ground floor, a generally sturdy and robust appearance, rock-faced exterior walls on the ground floor and that the buildings are constructed using grey Pennant sandstone, yellow Bath limestone and/ or colourful bricks that were made from clay sourced from the Cattybrook brickpits near Almondsbury.

The Brew House (formerly part of Rogers' Brewery)

Not all buildings show all of these features but once you start looking, more and more buildings in Bristol show the unmistakable influence of Godwin and his colleagues. 

Brunel building, Gardiner Haskins department store

Browns restaurant, formerly Bristol Museum

Many famous Bristolian landmark buildings are examples of Bristol Byzantine. Others include the Carriage Works on Stokes Croft and Clarks timber merchants in St Phillips.

Colston Hall

Even the iconic towers of the Clifton Suspension Bridge have features in common with Bristol Byzantine: robust design, arch-topped vertical columns. They were completed by Hawkshaw and Barlow in the mid nineteenth century, after Isambard Kingdom Brunel had died with the bridge still uncompleted. Brunel's original towers were to have been a much more elaborate mock-Egyptian style.

Image by A.Pingstone

Some modern Bristol buildings show echoes of the style, such as the vertically-aligned arch topped windows:

I was chatting to some people about Bristol Byzantine and one person there said "Have you also heard of the Café Wall illusion?"

This optical illusion was first officially described by the late Professor Richard Gregory. It is named after these tiles on the wall of a café at the bottom of St Michaels Hill in Bristol, which one of his students mentioned to him. The horizontal lines are truly horizontal, but the offset tiles in two contrasting colours make them look like they're sloping diagonally.

I wonder what other architectural surprises Bristol still has in store?

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