Veil: A new face for the Bristol Royal Infirmary

12 December 2013

It’s always exciting to see how a project will turn out, but one which I am particularly excited about is the redesign of the facade of the Bristol Royal Infirmary (BRI) Queen’s Building by internationally acclaimed Spanish architects Nieto Sobejano.

Last night Fuensanta Nieto gave an inspiring talk at the Arnolfini as part of the Architecture Centre’s lecture series articulating the themes that have stayed constant over the past 13 years of their practice. It was almost awe inspiring to see the origins of the BRI facade designs develop through amazingly inventive, conceptually brilliant and visually stunning architectural projects in San Sebastian, Cordoba, Graz and Munich. The geometric elegance of the new hospital facade can be traced back to the Mercado Barcelo and the Cordoba Contemporary Arts Centre. The importance of the relationship between the old and the new buildings and the subsequent creation of new and exciting interstitial space can be seen in the San Telmo Museum at San Sebastian. The use of artificial light as a means of creating impact and vitality at night is echoed in their work on the History Museum in Lugo.

Willis Newson is not usually involved in the appointment of architects. But the project came about because we have worked with University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust (UHBristol) on a number of public art projects over several years, and won the Building Better Healthcare Award for the Best Use of Art in 2010 for our work with UHBristol on the Bristol Heart Institute . When the Trust asked us for ideas on how to improve the appearance of the facade of the existing hospital, we suggested running a design competition. We put together a shortlist of 6; 3 artists (Daniel Burren, Luke Jerram and Anthony Malinowski) and 3 architectural practices (Nieto Sobejano, Tham and Videgard and So-Il)

Concepts were developed by all 6 practices and - after much public consultation including displays in the hospital and front page coverage and an online poll run by the Bristol Evening Post – 3 practices were selected by the project steering group to take their designs to the next stage.

All three architects’ practices made it through to the second stage of the competition and feedback on final designs was sought from the public at consultation events in the hospital and in the city shopping centre, as well as at an exhibition at the Architecture Centre in Bristol. Public involvement has created a sense of excitement and anticipation beyond the immediate hospital community, helping fuel momentum.

Nieto Sobejano’s winning design is called Veil. It sweeps across the existing facade of the hospital, linking a recently added extension to the front, back into the main building to create a unified whole. The rhythm of the new screen by Nieto Sobejano echoes and respects the rhythm of the old building. A new buffer zone between the hospital and the main road on which it sits creates a breathing space for patients and visitors arriving at the hospital. And, proposals for lighting will transform the building at night into an iconic landmark.

“It was a challenge to think of just designing a facade to an existing building,” said Fuensanta Nieto at the talk at the Arnolfini in December 2013, “but we came to see that by providing the building with a new facade we were creating a new urban space.”

Nieto Sobejano is currently working with UHBristol on a planning submission for the project and hopes to start on site later next year. I, for one, wait with bated breath. Not only will the new facade transform the Bristol streetscape, creating a new urban space, it will also transform the public face and perception of the hospital.