Breathing new life into Bristol's iconic music venue
Our team have underlined their role as one of the UK’s foremost regenerators of heritage property and cultural landmarks by completing the five year refurbishment of the Bristol Beacon, the largest concert venue in the region that was hailed by Arts Council England as “one of the great cultural icons of modern-day Britain”.
Bristol Beacon opened as a concert venue in 1867 and became one of the most important rock music venues in Britain, hosting acts like The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Elton John, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
But by 2015, it was no longer fit for purpose, leading to Bristol City Council to call in our regeneration and refurbishment expertise in 2018 to make it fit for the next century and beyond.
The council called in our refurbishment specialists to undertake the huge project of making the Beacon fit for a new era of entertainment.
Over five years, our team worked with a multitude of stakeholders to deliver the once-in-a-generation £132m transformation of Bristol Beacon. It involved more than a million hours of time to recreate this flagship venue that will attract thousands of people each year to see some of the world’s best entertainment acts.
When opened in November 2023, the Bristol Beacon can rightly be regarded as one of the most iconic cultural landmarks in the South West of England. It has four new world-class performance spaces, allowing it to deliver over 800 events a year and generate an estimated £13 million annually to the economy. Its music education centre in the transformed and previously inaccessible cellars, called Bristol Water Sound Studios, will enable 30,000 children a year to use new state-of-the-art practice and rehearsal spaces.
A complex refurbishment
We have a track record for modernising some of the UK’s best-loved entertainment and culture landmarks. This includes the Globe Theatre in Stockton-on-Tees, East Wing at Alexandra Palace, the Halls at Wolverhampton Civic, the Box in Plymouth and Darlington Hippodrome Theatre.
However, transforming the 156-year-old Bristol Beacon was the most complex yet, with a myriad of challenges. This is probably one of the UK's most intricate and complex transformation projects in the last ten years. It required every inch of our team's skills, knowledge, acumen, abilities in project management and supply chain collaboration.
Some of the unexpected discoveries included three Elizabethan wells ten feet deep in the cellars, sinking below the level of the floating harbour, a Victorian heating system, and hollow pillars that they had thought were solid supporting columns.
When the building roof was removed, the 120-tonne birdcage scaffolding put in place to hold the original walls in place was believed to be the largest of its kind on any building project in Europe. Thousands of tonnes of concrete – enough to fill 1,280 baths – have been poured in to shore up the foundations.
Main hall (above) - key stats
- The space here is huge and could fill six and a half Olympic sized swimming pools. We took it apart piece by piece, removing the stage, the balcony and even the roof.
- Thousands of litres of concrete have been poured in to shore up the foundations – the amount of concrete would fill 1,280 baths.
- Scaffolding – known as ‘birdcage’ scaffolding – weighing a whopping 120 tonnes was erected in the main hall to support the walls after the old roof came off. The project team says this was believed to be the largest birdcage structure in Europe at the time.
- Hundreds of tonnes of rubble have been removed, all of which are being recycled as part of Bristol Beacon’s carbon neutrality and sustainability commitments.
- As what was the venue’s smaller, more intimate performance space, the Lantern was also dismantled and cleared, revealing further hidden gems from the past:
- Previously blocked up windows have been uncovered, and soundproof, blackout glass has been installed to let light in when needed and keep sound from escaping out
- A number of historic masonry arches and delicate features previously covered by existing finishes have been uncovered during the plaster removal and repair.
Richard David, director who led Willmott Dixon’s team at the Bristol Beacon, explained:
“The complexities and challenges have been like nothing the team has ever undertaken. Everyone has risen to the challenge and both our team and our supply chain partners deserve recognition for their commitment and dedication.
The project has required intricate planning at every stage, and we have ensured that since the start we have truly respected the heritage of the building, its conservation, restoration and renovation, as well as understanding the building structure and fabric. An extraordinary amount of work and skill has been required to resolve the issues we faced; archaeological, historical, logistical and technical."
"The building that has been delivered is incredible. Bristol Beacon is so much more than a construction project and will have a fantastic impact on the city for generations to come.”
The £132 million transformation has been made possible by funders and supporters that include: Bristol City Council, Arts Council England, HM Government, The National Lottery Heritage Fund, WECA, Bristol Water, Burges Salmon, Foyle Foundation, Garfield Weston Foundation, Jack and Monica Britton Trust, St James Place, John James Bristol Foundation, Nisbet Trust, Quartet Community Foundation and The Wolfson Foundation.
Louise Mitchell, chief executive, Bristol Beacon, said:
“The skill, hard work and love poured into this huge refurbishment has resulted in one of the best and most accessible performance and music education spaces in Europe. What excites all of us here is the potential of the new Bristol Beacon, which will allow us to continue delivering transformative musical moments to all Bristolians.”
Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, added:
“Delivering a world class music and arts venue for Bristol signifies a major investment in our city's artistic reputation and its cultural roots. The generosity of funders and donors, alongside our city's major investment, has brought to life one of the finest music venues in Europe and an inclusive centre for community learning and education. It is thanks to the city’s significant investment that Bristol Beacon will create hundreds of jobs for residents and has the potential to generate £253.7 million to Bristol’s economy. To those who have contributed to this project in all shapes and forms, I thank you, and look forward to the Bristol Beacon thriving for many years to come as part of Bristol’s strong and diverse cultural sector.
“Bristol Beacon is not a two, three, or even five-year project. It is a 100-year legacy for Bristol; from the main stage to the cellars’ recording studio, it is a venue designed by the people of Bristol, for the future of Bristol.”
The first phase of Bristol Beacon's renewal in 2009 involved constructing the £20 million foyer space, which we also delivered. The rest of the building has not been refurbished for 60 years, making it the only major concert hall in the UK not to have been redeveloped in recent times.
Our team updated the remainder of Bristol Beacon, procured under the Southern Construction Framework.
- The construction site was over 80 tennis courts in size
- Hundreds of tonnes of rubble have been removed - all to be recycled
- The number of bricks required for the re-build would measure over 21 miles if laid end to end
- The ‘birdcage’ scaffolding structure in the main hall is Europe's biggest, with the total scaffolding weighing over 100 tonnes
- Unexpected heritage finds include three ten feet deep Elizabethan wells deep in the cellars and a historic Victorian heating system.
In addition to the new performance area, the cellars now include new classrooms and a technology lab, providing a fantastic space to educate and inspire young people about music and the arts. On the exterior, the historic façade saw the opening up of the striking Byzantine colonnades (below), further enhancing Colston Street’s public realm.
History of Bristol Beacon
Bristol Beacon was built in two phases between 1867 and 1873 and designed in the Bristol Byzantine style by the architects Foster and Wood, one of Bristol's best regarded local practices. The main concert building opened first and was built over two levels of bonded storage. It had a hauling arch serving as a goods entrance which linked the cellars with Bristol's docks that once extended further into the city centre. It was joined six years later by the entrance building which included Lantern Hall, built over retiring rooms, box office and a grand glass roofed atrium containing stairs which led up to the two halls. Beacon Hall has since been rebuilt three times before the most recent transformation project, and only the external walls and cellars exist from the original building.
In 1898 a serious fire at the adjacent clothing manufacturers destroyed the original main hall interior, although the Lantern building was saved.
In 1900 the rebuilt venue reopened with an extended capacity. The second interior featured deep side balconies and a semi-circular rear balcony, a classic shoe box style of some of the best concert halls in the world. The Hall was purchased by the Bristol Corporation from the Colston Hall Company in 1919.
In 1935 Bristol Beacon closed for remodelling and reopened again in 1936. The third interior had an exceptionally deep rear balcony, and the side balconies were rebuilt solely as access and escape galleries without seating. It is thought that the new capacity was reduced because of dwindling audiences and that the venue needed to be adapted to other uses such as occasional cinema use or face further losses.
In February 1945, after surviving the incendiary bombs of the Second World War, a second major fire caused by a cigarette destroyed the 1936 auditorium interior, but the enclosing walls again survived.
The reconstruction scheme was designed by the city architect J. Nelson Meredith and opened in 1951, but retained the deep balcony overhang, turning it back to a concert hall proper.
Rebuilt in the Festival of Britain style, it was constructed in an era of materials rationing and compared for example to the Festival Hall in London, the materials and details used to rebuild Bristol Beacon were relatively cheap and unremarkable.
This is largely the auditorium that existed pre-transformation. The historic Lantern building is Grade II listed.
2009 saw the completion of the foyer building – a striking new copper-alloy clad building containing bars, cafes, a foyer performance space, education studios, offices, and toilets. The customer experience of visiting the venue has greatly improved with this new space and provides a popular all-day public space.
Bristol Music Trust is the charity that runs Bristol Beacon. Bristol City Council owns the building and managed the building project.
2. Why was the transformation needed?
2.1 Issues with Beacon Hall
Bristol Beacon had fallen a long way behind comparative venues for audiences, performers, and staff pre-closure in 2018. It is remarkable that each of the site’s three previous halls were radically redesigned within 35 years, but despite an era of unprecedented change for music and audiences, the pre-transformation version had had no significant modernization for 60 years. Where alterations had been made – for example to cater for the staging demands of amplified rock and pop – they were undertaken in an ad hoc and barely satisfactory manner.
The building suffered from serious under investment and a significant maintenance backlog. There was a stark disparity between the standards offered by the new foyer building and the remainder of the complex which was affecting the visitor experience and the quality of performances.
A detailed analysis of the main hall was undertaken in 2004 which identified many major issues with the 1951 interior when compared to newer halls in other regional UK and European cities. Major issues included:
- poor condition of existing buildings including dry rot and leaking roofs
- asbestos in need of treatment or removal
- a compromised acoustic
- inflexible and small stage
- inadequate noise control within auditoria meaning performances had to be staggered and carefully programmed to avoid noise bleed
- tight and uncomfortable seating
- no disabled access for performers and disabled access for audiences was shameful, and those in wheelchairs had to access the space via a poorly lit and unloved side entrance
- poor standards of comfort – small, uncomfortable seats with limited leg room
- ineffective and noisy ventilation making for unbearable conditions in the summer
- failing and irreparable systems including heating and electrics
- limited technical capacity
- archaic and dismal backstage facilities
- limited and tricky get-in
- poor environmental performance wasting money and energy
- generally very poor condition of the building fabric.
The old building was suffering from a backlog of maintenance and repairs – £2.2 million worth of urgent repairs were identified before the transformation started.
Sir Mark Elder CBE, Music Director of the famous Halle Orchestra, called the facilities lamentable from stage when they performed at the venue in 2015.
2.2 Why were the acoustics compromised?
- the balcony overhang compromised the acoustic for unamplified and amplified events
- the ventilation system was excessively noisy
- virtually all the surfaces in the hall needed improved acoustic performance
- the shape of the ceiling did not support good room acoustics
2.3 What was wrong with the stage?
- the stage had been permanently extended into the auditorium once since 1951 and always required further temporary extension for the largest orchestras, which was time consuming and cut down the capacity of the venue
- sightlines suffered as a result
- storing the piano and organ console on the stage restricted flexibility and size of layouts for orchestras and other types of music
- there was no disabled access to the stage or choir seats
2.4 Why was it so uncomfortable?
- the main hall was just not set up for modern standards of comfort
- 46% of the seats were without arms and unacceptably narrow
- there was not enough leg room between seats
- sight lines from many areas of the venue were poor
- much of the seating had fixed tip-up unattractive and uncomfortable seats
- the mechanical ventilation system was in a poor state of repair and could never be upgraded to modern levels of comfort
- the boilers were old, under constant repair and new spare parts were no longer available
- years of touring bands not caring about a clearly unloved space meant walls were battered, dirty and in incredibly poor condition
- the fire alarm system was over 20 years old and difficult to manage and maintain
3. History of Lantern Hall
The old Lantern Hall was an ad hoc conversion of the once-grand Victorian recital room. Original plans show that the stage was at the northern end of the room and later photographs show that this was moved to the southern end. In the 1930s the space was converted to the Little Theatre, and the Rapier Players began performing there with their repertory theatre company, producing a new play every week and performing it six days out of seven. At this time a concrete proscenium arch was constructed at the southern end, a balcony introduced, and the windows blocked up. Subsequently the balcony was removed and the room used as the venue’s only bar until completion of the foyer building in 2009.
3.1 Issues with Lantern Hall
- poor sound insulation making simultaneous use of the two performance spaces impossible
- no installed ventilation system
- ad hoc technical infrastructure
- inadequate heating
- limited means of fire escape
- incomplete and dilapidated interior
- no independent level access for audiences, performers or equipment
- inadequate and very poor quality dressing room facilities
3.2 Issues with Lantern lobby
This once-grand area originally featured an imperial staircase surrounded on three sides by arcade walking spaces. The original staircase was removed in 1900 and replaced by two linear staircases that many current audience members will remember, although these imposing structures were completely against the architectural style of the current building and created a clear and dramatic access barrier for those in wheelchairs.
The glass roof lantern was in incredibly poor condition and had been over-roofed with a temporary shelter to minimise water damage and decay. The blue tarpaulin covering the once-elegant space was a stark reminder of the disrepair of the structure.
4. Problems with the backstage areas
Bristol Beacon’s 2018 backstage areas were incredibly dark and dismal, and cramped and inaccessible to people in wheelchairs; their conditions fell well below those of comparable UK venues. Due to a lack of adequate storage, instrument and flight cases were often stacked in corridors during performances, obstructing circulation spaces and causing trip hazards.
5. Overview of the transformed concert venue
The transformed venue will be the fifth new venue on the site which has been the home of Bristol's main music facilities since 1867. The concert hall itself has been entirely rebuilt according to the needs and fashions of the period four times before, most recently in the Festival of Britain style in 1951 after a major fire, and when the venue closed in 2018 it was seriously overdue a significant overhaul.
Additionally, the scheme cleverly brings into use the vast vaulted Victorian cellars, creating a club-style space for underground and showcase performances, a new bar and studio, and workshop space in which the Beacon’s education work will thrive.
At its heart is an inspirational building that will be great to be in, great to make music in, great to listen to music and experience events in. A space that Bristol artists and audiences deserve.
The venue had had no significant investment for 60 years. The improvements are transformational: tired buildings have become smart, exciting, beautiful, comfortable, and better at what they aim to do.
5.1 Key benefits of the scheme
- The appearance and function of Beacon Hall is radically improved with:
- a new, adjustable stage
- increased standing capacity from 1,900 to 2,124
- two levels of balcony rather than one to improve the acoustic and sightlines
- improved seating size, comfort and leg room
- full access for customers in wheelchairs
- state of the art cooling and heating system
- new removable seats on the stalls floor, making it easier to move from a seated to standing set up
- beautiful renewed space, including artist-designed seat fabric (Rana Begum) and bespoke bricks to improve the acoustic
- reuse of materials from the 1951 hall including wood panelling
- The historic core of the building restored to its Victorian magnificence including:
- restoring the glazed skylight
- replacing the unsightly staircase with an elegant spiral stair in the atrium
- creating a light and airy bar and new restaurant space
- beautiful new tiled artwork (Giles Round) and story wall (Mel Northover) creating a space that will be a place to linger
- new story wall telling the vivid and diverse history of the venue
- The Colston Street frontage has been restored to the prominence and beauty that suit the major public building it was designed to be with:
- a beautiful new columned and glass fronted restaurant in the original entrance space
- new artist designed balustrade animating the newly opened Lantern windows with colour and movement (Linda Brothwell)
- restoration of the beautiful Bristol Byzantine frontage revealing features and colours not seen for 60 years
- improved audience access with new lift from the historic foyer ground floor to The Lantern
- addition of a Changing Places toilet, the gold standard accessible restroom facility
- Lantern Hall restored and improved to become an elegant and versatile second hall with:
- excellent acoustics
- state-of-the-art technical infrastructure
- bleacher style seating to provide fast turnaround for seated and standing events
- a new hydraulic stage allowing for flexibility of presentation, including a fully flat floor
- light and space created by the opening up of the vaulted windows onto Colston Street for the first time since the 1930s
- beautifully resorted ornamental plasterwork by local artisan craftspeople at Hayles & Howe
- new floor created by the reusing the 1951 flooring of Beacon Hall
- dedicated accessible dressing rooms with access to a Changing Places toilet
- Vaulted lower cellars opened up for the first time to include:
- new club-style performance space (Weston Stage) and bar
- separate entrance from the rest of the building allowing for independent use
- Bristol Water Sound Studios – state of the art recording and practice rooms focussed on developing young talent and up and coming artists
- meeting rooms and conference break out spaces
- fully accessible stage and load-in area with step free access from street level
- Backstage areas have been refurbished to a high standard and floor levels have been altered to provide exemplary access for disabled people and equipment
- The get-in, once a source of embarrassment for touring shows and artists, has been completely overhauled with a new get-in lift and backstage storage areas and step-free access from street level
- Restoring the building’s historic facade
- Opening cellars for the first time in 150 years
- Creating space to educate and inspire young people
Global Reach, Wing A, 3rd Floor, Celtic Gateway, Dunleavy Drive, Cardiff
Tel: 029 2022 1002
Fax: 029 2038 8206
Global Reach, Wing A, 3rd Floor, Celtic Gateway, Dunleavy Drive, Cardiff
Tel: 029 2022 1002
Fax: 029 2038 8206