Cabot Circus, Bristol



Cabot Circus is a £520 million mixed-use development on a thirty six acre site of buildings, streets and cityscape in the centre of Bristol. Some fifteen years in planning, this major regeneration project was driven forward under the aegis of the Bristol Alliance, a joint venture between Land Securities and Hammerson, two of the UK’s leading property development companies who previously worked together on the transformation of the Bullring in Birmingham.

The London-based arts consultants InSite Arts were appointed in 2001 by the Bristol Alliance to develop a public art strategy for Cabot Circus, embracing both permanent and temporary artworks. InSite Arts subsequently managed the commissioning and realisation of the public art programme, from early design stage through to Cabot Circus’ opening as a new retail and entertainment destination in Autumn 2008.

Public art within the Cabot Circus involved extensive collaboration between the commissioned artists and the project development team. Their combined vision has resulted in fully integrated permanent artworks designed to enhance the public realm and architectural landscape of Cabot Circus, and a series of temporary interventions which celebrate the diversity and vitality of the large workforce involved in reshaping such a significant part of the city centre.


Bristol’s historical importance as a port city is reflected in the grandeur of the Regency townhouses and merchants' rooms to be found around the city. However, the city centre’s appearance had until recently been blighted by Broadmead, a somewhat dilapidated 1960s shopping precinct of mainly low-rise reinforced concrete retail units.

The character and vitality of the city centre changed dramatically in September 2008 with the opening of Cabot Circus. The expansion and redevelopment of Broadmead and its adjacent area was seen as a key dimension of the city’s economic regeneration. Central to the project was the creation of new and improved retail, leisure and inner city living opportunities – comprising some 140 shops, 25 restaurants, a 13 screen cinema complex, 500 private residential and student accommodation units, 160,000 square feet of new office space and a hotel.

As a design-led initiative, Cabot Circus aimed to achieve a barrier-free public realm with improved connectivity and transport, employing a sustainable, environmentally low impact approach to construction, incorporating new artworks and the sympathetic restoration of listed buildings as an integral component of the scheme. It was also an important project in terms of local employment opportunities, with 3,500 jobs being created during the construction phase and 4,000 on opening.

Description of the Project

At the heart of the Cabot Circus development is an ambitious and innovative series of site-specific public art works, comprising one of the largest and most diverse public art programmes of its kind in Europe.

The artists were selected from open calls for interest, invited shortlists or in two specific cases by direct appointment. Wherever possible, artist briefs were kept open. Encouraged to bring their own interpretation of artistic practice to the scheme's public realm, the artists’ role has been to contribute not only to the fabric of Cabot Circus, but also to the diversity of experience apparent throughout the development. Each piece of work, conceived as an integral part of the scheme design, involved the artists working alongside the scheme's architects, planners, engineers and contractors.

Artists Involved

The permanent artworks comprise:

Nayan Kulkarni

The central roof at Cabot Circus has been created by artist Nayan Kulkarni in partnership with the main scheme architects Chapman Taylor and the project engineers. The free-form shell-shaped glass roof 'floats' above the central square and the scheme's three shopping streets. At 6,500 square metres and composed of some 1,000 panes of glass, the roof creates a light, airy, open environment, while providing protection from the elements.

Susanna Heron

In a detailed collaboration with the architects Stanton Williams, Susanna Heron developed a distinctive artwork for House of Fraser in the form of a series of organic drawings etched into glass panels to make a shallow relief which encourages contrasts between light and shadow play. The spectacular window is made up of 18 large glass panels. individually sandblasted and acid-etched by hand. At street level, a 35 by 7 metre cast bronze artwork has been integrated into the Portland fossil stone facade of the department store. Running the full length of the building, and continuing the themes of marine fossils, reflection and shadow play, the artist has milled a series of recessed forms as smooth flat planes into the organic surface of the bronze.

Timorous Beasties

Wallpaper and textile design studio Timorous Beasties introduced to the scheme a sandblasted 'wallpaper' on one of the main building elevations on Bond Street, the principal road which flows around the scheme. The artwork is a repeat design on a floral, domestic theme. The concept behind the work is to offer street users an unexpected and intriguing experience of the building facade, bringing a sense of the domestic to a busy urban environment.

Ackroyd & Harvey

Ackroyd & Harvey's 15 metre high sculpture is landmark presence at the gateway to the city. The work has been designed to have a low environmental impact and to harness the natural energy of Bristol's prevailing winds. The artwork’s lighting is powered through solar and wind energy, and is clad with an intensive layering of thin dark grey slates. The slate is a waste material from the roofing industry. The strata-like tower supports a glazed solar canopy, from which rises a four metre high vertical axis wind turbine.

Vong Phaophanit and Claire Oboussier

Vong Phaophanit and Claire Oboussier have created a highly visual permanent installation within the Cabot Circus car park. 'All the World is Two' takes the form of twin neon 'figures' each measuring 10x10m suspended within the car park's central void. The work features twelve red coloured, hand-moulded neon strands encased in acrylic. The viewer catches multiple glimpses through the apertures opening onto the void from each of the car park's levels, providing a series of viewing points which frame a different composition.

Wolfgang Buttress

A series of 22 slender tree-like structures, ranging in height from one metre to nine metres all are 'planted' in clusters within the Podium site in the existing Broadmead shopping centre. Wolfgang's sculptures, 'saplings', form a sculptural glade in the heart of the city, creating a sense of calm and tranquillity in a busy urban environment. Words and automatic writing, inspired by the artist's own personal poetry and the lyrics of Massive Attack and Portishead, have been carved into the sculpture.

Neville Gabie

'A Weight of Stone Carried From China For You' is an intimate installation reflecting the global nature of the procurement and processing of materials, and celebrating those involved in the creation of this part of Bristol's city centre. The artwork is the result of a documented journey taken by Neville which tracks the movement of a single granite kerbstone from its source in a quarry in the Fujian Province of China and its transportation by truck, train and ferry to its final installation in Bristol's Bond Street.

'R310 RCF Ford Mondeo' is also concerned with the supply and sourcing of construction materials, and follows the journey of a Ford Mondeo car to its eventual siting as a recycled steel bar within the Cabot Circus car park. Purchased by Gabie on eBay, the car was driven to a scrap yard in Newport where it was shredded to become 680 kgs of steel. It was then transported to Celsa, the Spanish-owned steelworks in Cardiff, to be melted down and turned into a 32 mm reinforcing bar. The cast number given to the steel scrap enabled it to be tracked to its final destination on the car park's third level where the Ford Mondeo's registration number 'R310 RCF' is inscribed in a concrete column to mark its place.

Neville Gabie - Artist in Residence

A central feature of the public art programme was a series of socially engaging interventions developed by Neville Gabie, artist in residence during the final stages of Cabot Circus's development (2006-9). Seven additional artists were appointed during Gabie’s residency, under a special programme called BS1. Each of the artists responded to the evolution of Cabot Circus from building site to retail destination.

Over the three years of his residency Gabie developed relationships at all levels within a development team of over two thousand workers - a complex structure with several layers of management, from the clients and architects to the multiple contractors and sub-contractors. He discovered that the site team was composed of 59 nationalities, reflecting a diverse array of trades, some skills being located within particular cultures, for example, many of the concreters came from Pakistan and security guards from Nepal.

Gabie celebrated this diversity in two projects: Canteen, A Building Site Cookbook and Cabot Circus Cantata. In the former, members of the workforce suggested recipes for meals that reflected their different cuisines and cultures, which were prepared and served on site by professional chefs sourced locally. Cabot Circus Cantata, a collaboration with musician David Ogden, developed through recordings of builders, foremen, secretaries and tradesmen singing informally on site. After transcribing many songs, fifteen were arranged into a single cantata. David Ogden then directed the City of Bristol Choir to perform the entire piece to an audience of two thousand workers within the empty shell of one of the first buildings to be completed.

BS1 enabled Gabie to appoint other artists whose practice was not usually associated with public art, but who could stimulate debate and interaction around what public art could be in the context of a major retail development of this kind.  Dan Perjovschi’s witty line drawings on the wall of the canteen and in a specially published site newspaper played on language and double meaning, offering clever and often irreverent political and socio-economic comment to the daily life of the workers.  Marie-Jeanne Hoffner made works which remain on site but are invisible to the public. Her large photographs of the interiors of flats during the construction process became concealed in the wall cavities as the work was completed. Leo Fitzmaurice’s longstanding interest in advertising and signage inspired striking vinyl artworks on three empty shop fronts in adjacent Broadmead. Describing them as De Stijl, Neo-Tudor Contructivist and Archigraph, Fitzmaurice provided a set of visual puns drawing on art history and commercial graphics. Writer Donna Daley-Clarke contributed three short stories imagining the lives of construction workers on and off-site.  Finally, Dryden Goodwin’s intimate drawings of site workers, from the canteen staff to management, capture a few of the many individuals who contributed to the development. The twelve small portraits have been etched into copper and finished with chrome, sited at eye level on one of the main staircases in Cabot Circus. The aim of this work was to democratize the development process, project directors treated the same as any other member of the team.

Other temporary works

Outside of BS1, mention should be made of three other temporary commissions. Bristol-based poet and text-based artist Ralph Hoyte produced an exciting text-based work on the hoardings around the Quakers Friars area of the site.  Claire Morgan, a visual artist with a strong interest in organic processes, created an installation A New Moon which involved a four metre light bulb suspended from a tower crane illuminated by hundreds of miniature lights mapping its contours. Under the title intimate~INTIMATE, Blackout Arts produced a series of large-scale video projections on Tollgate House, a concrete tower that was demolished during the Cabot Circus development. Blackout Arts worked with Creative Partnerships, local schools and a wide team of creative practitioners, sound artists, filmmakers and photographers.  The project ran over two evenings.


Artist and project fees and commission costs for Cabot Circus’ public art programme amounted to around £2 million, with larger permanent works typically costing between £100 - £250K to realise. Significant projects such as Nayan Kulkarni’s collaboration in the design and construction of the roof involved an additional £7.5 million of direct spend from the development budget. Robin Dobson, Retail Development Director Hammerson plc, believes that overall the public art programme influenced around £20 million of project spend. For BS1, Neville Gabie and InSite Arts secured funding of £32K from Arts Council England, South West on behalf of the Bristol Alliance.

Key issues

  • Dealing with scale and complexity

Given the scale and complexity of the Cabot Circus development, there was a real danger that the public art component would become marginal and compromised by the sheer number of clients and architects involved. Negotiations with different layers of management and the numerous contractors and subcontractors on site can be complicated and sensitive, given there are competing priorities and deadlines. Upon arrival, Neville Gabie found this a somewhat daunting context for an artist to work. He confesses that it took him four months to understand the “huge beast” and its various protocols in order to build effective working relationships with key members of the site team from the ground upwards. Throughout the whole development, Sam Wilkinson, InSite Arts’ Co-Director,who spent eight years working on the project, was an important advocate and mediator between the artists, architects and planners, construction personnel and the Bristol Alliance management. Richard Belt, Cabot Circus’ Centre Director, feels that InSite Arts’ early appointment and the continuity of their involvement was a key success factor.

“It meant that the arts professionals were taken very seriously throughout and had access to the whole construction process. Unlike so many schemes where developers pay lip service to percent for art, we wanted to ensure that the art was fully embedded and integral to the design of Cabot Circus, adding to its overall look and feel, and giving meaning to the development”.

  • Encouraging community engagement

Expectations of community benefit from Cabot Circus were high, not least in terms of local employment creation and stimulating the regeneration of adjacent areas. However, the development plans had attracted some early criticism from neighbourhood groups and improving community relations and support for the scheme was important to the Bristol Alliance. Public art can often provide a vehicle by which local residents are brought into meaningful dialogue with planners and developers. To this end, InSite Arts undertook extensive local consultation in the early stages of the project, including running workshops for artists in the nearby communities of St Pauls, St Judes and Easton. However, achieving a sense of community interest and involvement in Cabot Circus’ public art programme proved to be a frustratingly slow process, as did engagement of the wider artistic community in Bristol.

In his dealings with local residents, Neville Gabie made it clear that he was not a spokesperson for the Bristol Alliance, and it was crucial that at all times his artistic integrity and autonomy were preserved. Projects such as Cabot Circus Cantata and Canteen, A Building Site Cookbook nevertheless went some way towards building positive relationships between the on-site and off-site communities, although generally from the inside looking out, rather than outside in. Indeed, the very act of highlighting the diversity of the working community on site at some level challenged the perceived divide between the Cabot Circus development and the culturally diverse neighbourhoods surrounding it.

  • Visibility and sustainability

In the context of a busy shopping centre, given the intention to fully embed artworks into the fabric of Cabot Circus, maintaining public visibility (and legibility) of the art is a challenge. Over time, permanent artworks all too often blend into the background and their impact and significance fades. To encourage continuing visitor interest in this aspect of the Cabot Circus ‘experience’, an Art Trail Map and guide is freely available in online and print format, highlighting each of the permanent artworks and the story behind it.

Bristol City Council’s Public Art Strategy and Local Plan emphasises the role public art plays in high quality urban and building design, integral within new developments. Aldo Rinaldi, the Council’s Senior Public Art Officer, believes that the approach taken for Cabot Circus provides an important model in this regard. “Whilst the permanent artworks have mitigated the effects of the development, the temporary programme has uncovered aspects of the development that are normally hidden, for example the dynamics within the working community on site during construction”.

The legacy of this project certainly goes beyond that which is apparent to visitors to Cabot Circus. By any measure, the impact of the temporary programme was far greater than that which anyone had anticipated. Neville Gabie’s enthusiasm and tireless contribution as artist in residence earned him huge respect both on and off site, such that Land Securities bestowed on him in August 2008 one of their People in Action awards for an outstanding team contribution.  

Although Centre Director Richard Belt questions whether this level of investment in art as an integral component of a major retail and mixed-use development will be repeated in recession-hit Britain, he believes that art contributed something extremely valuable to the scheme:

“It was an all round team effort, and people should be applauded for delivering at such a high level. What the public art programme added to the Cabot Circus development - musically, artistically and in design terms - makes the scheme totally unique in the UK”

Give the ten-year cycle of refurbishment for such developments, and the prevailing adverse economic conditions, it seems unlikely that Cabot Circus will be undertaking further public art commissioning, at least for the time being. However, what has been achieved already is certainly impressive, both the permanent works and temporary interventions by artists. Whilst more iconic statements such as the roof and various sculptural works help articulate the materiality and strong visual identity of the site, the temporary projects speak to us about the different cultures and histories of the thousands who worked on this development, both local people and other workers from around the world.

© David Drake 2009