People Profile: Bristol Director Jonathan Bethel talks about his passion for urban regeneration

Jonathan Bethel joined Chapman Taylor in 2001, becoming Associate Director in 2006 and Director in 2016 (joining the UK Board soon afterwards). As one of the two founding members of Chapman Taylor’s Bristol studio in 2013 (along with fellow-Director Nick Thursby), Jonathan specialises in the design of mixed-use urban regeneration projects across the UK. He talks to us here about his background, his work at Chapman Taylor’s London and Bristol studios and his love for creating successful urban renewal schemes.

Tell about your background and why you chose architecture as a career?

I was born in Dublin and educated at a Christian Brothers’ school until the age of 13, after which I went to comprehensive school, where I learned art, drawing and metalwork. I studied Building Engineering at Cork Institute of Technology, subsequently going to work in Munich on railway embankment engineering projects in 1993.

My partner and I went to live in Denmark for a while, before she got a post teaching at Queen’s University in Belfast – I studied Architecture part-time there, and subsequently at Westminster University in London. I found the rigidity of the RIBA education process disenchanting, as I was already running my own business and employing people, two of whom were my own tutors (who had their own consultancy businesses). I preferred to do things my own way, with skills and experience proving to be much more important, particularly in the London of the 1990s.

While studying in Belfast, I worked for Mackel & Doherty Architects in what was an interesting and still-troubled time in the city – we worked on the first Gaelscoileanna (Irish-speaking schools) in Belfast, which came about as a result of the early stages of the Irish peace process. In London, I worked for PKS Architects in Camden, and separately helped set up a firm, Building Matters, which specialised in creating production information for large-scale housing developers. I worked on a number of big housing developments in east London while there.

After a two years, a couple of us separated away from Building Matters and set up our own architectural company in Canning Town, Foundation Architecture. We worked on a mix of projects, including private residential schemes and the conversion of warehouses into office space (mostly around Holborn) for internet companies, until the dot-com crash led us to wind up that enterprise.

You joined Chapman Taylor in 2001 – tell us about your work at the London studio

I joined Chapman Taylor because it offered me the opportunity to work on a much more diverse range of projects, on a much larger scale. I worked first on the Bullring project in Birmingham, which was a great project to be involved in – there was a team of about 40 people involved. I went on to work on a number of retail-led projects, such as Fremlin Walk in Maidstone, Princesshay in Exeter, SouthGate in Bath and Cabot Circus in Bristol.

Princesshay was, and is, an exemplar project for urban renewal. We brought other architects in on the project to design individual buildings, knowing that our masterplan was strong enough to accommodate different styles. As an example of town centre regeneration, Princesshay set the mould for the whole of the UK

Cabot Circus was more akin to a traditional shopping centre, but we designed it as an open streetscape. It was a very large project which had to be delivered on a tight schedule, so it was important to be able to think on my feet when delivering it, as Site Architect. For example, when we had a shortage of material supplies, I would be on site at 5am to see what might be delivered that day and would then instruct the workmen to do whatever works that delivery made possible. It was a really exciting environment to work in.

Princesshay in Exeter

You specialise in large urban projects?

My passion is large-scale, mixed-use urban renewal schemes which create 24-hour environments and a sense of place. We will see that retail-only buildings will disappear in favour of built environments with a mix of uses (which can be adapted to other uses as time progresses), with a substantial provision of F&B, markets, etc. Our town and city centres will return to an architectural, social and economic model which was normal until the 1950s, and should have remained so.

Chapman Taylor was an early advocate of the benefits of open, mixed-use streetscape environments. I remember having very enjoyable conversations over a decade ago about the best way to create an urban sense of place – a successful townscape which looks like it developed organically even though it had to be created in one go.

From a slightly different urban regeneration angle, I also helped with the layouts, detailed design and planning application for the retail areas of St Pancras International (which, by coincidence, I worked on as a student in the mid-1990s). I worked on the glazing and shopfront standards, as well as working out the flooring layout and vertical circulation aspects. I liaised with English Heritage regularly, given that it was such a sensitive regeneration project. I believe that railway stations are almost the new cathedrals – community destinations which can act as catalysts for regeneration and economic activity. Helping to turn St Pancras into a well-functioning, vibrant space which unlocked the potential of the beautiful architectural heritage, was immensely exciting.

At the time, I specialised in areas such as detailed design – producing high-quality detail is of fundamental importance. Successful architecture can be compared to a globe with two poles – one being good masterplanning and urban design, the other being good detailed design – get those right and everything between them, in whatever stylistic variations, will work.

St Pancras International in London

You then led, with Nick Thursby, the opening of Chapman Taylor’s Bristol Studio. How did that come about?

When construction started on Cabot Circus, it was logical that I should work there – I left the London studio and moved with my family to nearer Bristol, working on site for the next two-and-a-half years. I returned to the London studio when Cabot Circus was completing, where I worked on the first version of the Royal Exchange project in Belfast, getting it through to planning stage. I also worked on the early stages of the Moat Lane regeneration project at Towcester, also to planning stage.

Chapman Taylor’s Main Board Directors had been considering opening a studio in Bristol for some time, to geographically triangulate our UK offer (supplementing the London and Manchester studios).Having worked on a number of projects in the area, Nick, who is a Bristolian, and I believed that there was a good opportunity to establish Chapman Taylor as a go-to firm of architects in the south-west of England. From a personal point of view, my wife is from Wiltshire and it was an opportunity for our children to grow up outside London. It also gave me the chance, along with Nick, to create a specific working environment at the new studio.

Nick and I put the business case together, indicating how we would set up and fund the studio, and then set about establishing it. We took care of every detail, down to buying the furniture, sugar and toilet rolls, and employed people who we thought would fit in well with the ethos we wanted to instil. My specific role also encompassed finding new work to supplement the projects we had brought with us from the London studios.

Cabot Circus in Bristol

What current projects stand out for you?

Moat Lane in Towcester is a lovely project. It takes our principles with regard to designing a mixed-use urban streetscape and applies them on a relatively small scale in a heritage environment. The variety of architecture, the ways in which elements of the scheme play against each other and the quality of the detailing are exactly as they should be for a successful urban regeneration project. We are working with English Heritage because the scheme incorporates a scheduled ancient monument, and the process of designing an appropriate backdrop for that was very exciting.

Our residential projects, such as Castle Park View, are also very interesting to work on – there is a strong demand in places like Bristol city centre for high-quality, well-managed rental properties, and we are designing for the Build-to-Rent market with that in mind.

Other significant projects at the moment include Southampton Leisureworld (a new type of mixed-use project driven by leisure and hospitality), the innovative Ashford Outlet Centre extension in Kent and the Orchard Centre at Didcot.

Castle Park View in Bristol

What is your aim with regard to the evolution of the Bristol studio?

Nick and I are focused on helping to develop the studio’s design capabilities, particularly through mentoring younger architects so that they achieve excellence at all stages of a project’s development and delivery. A key part of this will be to encourage them to expand their range of skills and develop their own connections and portfolio in the wider market.

Ultimately, to be the full product as architects, we need to build strong and mutually respectful working relationships with our clients and consultants and win repeat work on the back of successful projects. We want to ensure that our team is made up of well-rounded individuals who can represent Chapman Taylor with confidence.

Moat Lane in Towcester | Ashford Designer Outlet Extension in Ashford

For more information, please contact:

Jonathan Bethel (BSc)

Director, London

Jonathan joined Chapman Taylor in 2001 and is responsible for leading the design of major UK-based mixed-use urban regeneration projects.

He was instrumental in establishing Chapman Taylor’s Bristol studio in 2013 and has overseen the successful growth of the business and our design capabilities in the south-west of the UK.

He became a UK Board Director in 2016, where he shares responsibility for managing the UK business.

His established track-record in complex, mixed-use urban regeneration schemes has promoted the benefits of embedding quality design in a project from the outset.

Areas of expertise:

Mixed-use / Urban Regeneration / Heritage / Retail / Residential

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