Backstage with Keith Brewis

Backstage With Keith Brewis
Backstage with Keith Brewis

With just two weeks to go, 2020 is almost over.

It’s been an eventful year to say the least and, as always, the start of the new year is a great time for reflection. Nine months ago, our planning application to transform the Brabazon Hangars into a 365-day-a-year entertainment destination, YTL Arena Complex, was approved by Bristol City Council and South Gloucestershire Council. Next year will be a busy and exciting one for Team YTL Arena, so make sure you’re following us @ytlarenabristol on social media and signed up to our newsletter for the latest updates.

To mark this special time of reflection, we go backstage with Keith Brewis, Partner at Grimshaw architects, the design team behind YTL Arena Complex. Keith has been with Grimshaw since 1995, and has led the design of a number of the practice’s most significant projects, such as Paddington station, the Fundacion Caixa Galicia master plan in Spain, the National Space Centre in Leicester, and now YTL Arena Complex. In this interview, Keith talks to us about his impressive career, how to design a building for the future, the unforgettable experience of walking through a building you designed and why Bristol needs an arena.

You’ve been with Grimshaw for an incredible 25 years now – why were you initially attracted to a career in architecture and what major changes have you seen in the industry during your time with the practice?

Throughout my entire childhood I was obsessed with building things. I think the only award I ever got at school was in steel-work. I was fortunate enough to find maths straight forward and enjoyed every aspect of art. Yes, it is a long time – but what I have found with the practice is that it has given me the trust and autonomy to explore my own projects, and my own interpretation of “Grimshaw” – the philosophy which Nick (Grimshaw) developed in the 1960s whereby a building’s architecture should simply be the result of properly revealing the things it needs to do – and that always it should consider and enable the building to adapt to future needs. One of the most important things a building needs to do is to lift the spirit, to inspire. In my time in practice, there are three or four very obvious changes that have happened – building sites are much safer; architects have sadly given away a lot of their contractual and leadership responsibilities within construction; the drawing board is now digital – so we have lost the preciousness of the original drawing, as now everything is replicable; and finally not enough has changed in terms of environmentally-conscious imperatives within the design and construction industry.

The Eden Project, Cornwall, designed by Grimshaw Architects.

Grimshaw has joined the ResponsibleSteel initiative. What is the purpose of the initiative and why is it so important?

Well I suppose in relation to the last point, we recently declared that we (Grimshaw) would seek to design net zero carbon (NZC) buildings by 2025 and offer NZC ready designs now. We joined the ResponsibleSteel initiative in September. This is set up to drive the net zero carbon agenda within the steel industry – looking at every aspect – excavation, transportation, smelting, fabrication, construction, re-use etc. We took the view that we need to show leadership, and support this initiative as they will provide products that help us deliver NZC buildings and NZC infrastructure assets. It’s great as well that YTL are publicly declaring their own environmentally-conscious initiatives.

How do you design a building for the future?

You have to intensely imagine yourself, and/or other users within the future building within its future urban society or place. It is vital to  grasp your client’s dream and ambition, but as well you must immerse yourself in the relationship of the building to other influences – its surrounding climate, its social responsibility, its function, and you need to bring to the fore the likely opportunities or agendas at play. I suppose the greatest way to design for the future, is to make the building “loose fit” so it can change, as things inevitably change in or around it.

Thermae Bath Spa, designed by Grimshaw Architects.

How would you describe the feeling when after years of hard work, you finally walk through a building that you designed?

Two things are definitely at play. Firstly, you see all of the things that you wished you had designed better. These can either be to do with the overall concept or the detail. It is impossible not to have this feeling. Secondly, I am always nervous about the impact of the building on its city and those who use it. Will it be accepted, will it become properly integrated and liked, will people be lifted by its presence? I was once asked if a major building I was working on was good – it is really for others to answer this, and their judgement is what counts.

What excites you the most about designing for a live entertainment venue such as YTL Arena Complex, Bristol?

This is for me, a very serious privilege. The project, the re-use of the remarkable hangars, by enabling it to receive hundreds of thousands of people over the future years to entertain or be entertained is about as good as it gets. When you walk into the Brabazon Hangars, their scale; their detail and their history astounds you. As well there are so many locked-up stories of the hangars as part of the former Filton Airport. We are trying, as much as we are able, to respect the enduring structure of the hangars – to slot in a new purpose for a period. But isn’t it great that the purpose is all about the live show – with all of the intensity that that gives!

YTL Arena Complex, designed by Grimshaw Architects.

What does it mean to you for Bristol to have an arena?

I simply see the YTL Arena as a serious venue. For a city of the scale of Bristol, with its gateway to the South West mantra, and the deep influence of the music and creative industries, not to have a large scaled amphitheatre to music, seems difficult to comprehend. I think the city has accepted doing without it, but the sad fact is that acclaimed international artists need to perform elsewhere, and everyone here needs to journey to see them, and that is quite odd. I am glad that Bristol’s arena will be different to the generic model you see in most cities – it will feel industrial, quite raw, I hope - and I hope that the performers will revere the future Bristol Arena as being a unique concert or event on their circuit.

First gig, last gig, favourite gig?

First gig - Thin Lizzy at Newcastle City Hall 20 June 1978

Last gig - The Slacksons at the Hen and Chickens Pub in Bedminster, Bristol. Not big but a brilliant intimate evening, something we have all sadly missed.

Favourite gig - Debbie Harry/ Blondie and The Pretenders at Rochford Wines, Yarrah Valley Melbourne. Saturday 4 December 2010 – sunny day, far too much to drink, great company and two of the best female music influencers of all time.

Which artist/band/performer would you like to see perform at YTL Arena Bristol (...and why?)

I thought about this for a very long time and I think I have the perfect answer.

Green Day – because they are clearly a massive international and infamous band so they will illustrate at a stroke that Bristol is now on the world stage for music. But they have as well stayed true to their ideals and they are an extraordinary and humble trio of genuine, often angry individuals. Their music would suit this raw industrial venue.

Can you name a song that can instantly boost your mood? (and why?)

Two Princes – The Spin Doctors.

I love the rolling drum beat and the stunningly simple guitar riff. The song is all about basic humanity and chivalry being triumphant over entitlement.

And finally, can you share an all-time favourite song/ a song that means a lot to you so we can add it to our YTL Arena Backstage Pass playlist?

Little Wing – Jimmy Hendrix

On top of the stunning Hendrix guitaring the whole feel and the lyrics seem to be about dreams - abstract and free. I find the song plays to every mood.