Skip to main content

Bristol Ideas: A Festival of Freedom Marwa Al-Sabouni

Written by Marwa Al-Sabouni

Share this

Marwa Al-Sabouni and Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, at Festival of the Future City in 2017. (Jon Craig)

Marwa Al-Sabouni is an outstanding Syrian writer and architect whose books have especially inspired the work of Festival of the Future City. She writes here about her two visits to Bristol: the first pre-Covid, the second in the more difficult years after the worst of the pandemic was over. The pandemic saw audiences fall, some speakers reluctant to travel, and the atmosphere was less positive. Though there were signs that things were beginning to improve, these were all factors that contributed to the decision to close Bristol Ideas. Given the past success of the Festival of the Future City – and the momentum beginning to be regained in 2023 – the festival was rescued and will be run by the Growing Together Alliance from 2025.

I visited Bristol for the first time in October 2017. Bristol Ideas invited me to speak at the Festival of the Future City about my first book, The Battle for Home. Although by that time I’d had the opportunity to travel to different places around Europe and Australia, to get a UK visa for a Syrian citizen who is still living in Syria was (and probably still is) extremely difficult. Nonetheless, Bristol Ideas persisted and eventually my visa was granted against all the odds. I saw that as a genuine desire to gather different voices from different places in order to participate in the discourse of city building.

Indeed, the festival was uniquely diverse, in the true meaning of the word. The festival went beyond diversity in appearances and exhibited a wide spectrum of intellectual contributions: liberal and conversative, technical and creative, general and specific. This is a rare sight in the western cultural scene, where cultural institutions usually follow the general political mood of their city or their funders. True intellectual freedom is the way to reach answers to the problems with which our cities and communities around the world wrestle. This freedom is only achieved through such a comprehensive invite as the one I experienced with Bristol Ideas, where no single lens is offered to look at the questions on the table.

In my experience, when it comes to addressing the question of city building, the issue is usually tackled through the premise of architecture and planning. We rarely see a cultural endeavour like Bristol Ideas dedicated to deal with the matter from 360 degrees; where politicians, economists, philosophers, poets, writers and journalists are invited to the table along with architects and city specialists. This not only provides the best chance for addressing the subject matter comprehensively, but also lends itself to the general open invite to the people of Bristol who are an equally important part of the success of the festival. When an audience is introduced to as many voices as those described above, they will inevitably lead an even wider conversation and reach better results.

I loved Bristol when I visited for the first time in 2017. By being less pretentious than London, and more welcoming in its human-scale buildings and topologytracing streets, it reminded me of my own city, Homs, where simplicity didn’t necessarily mean failure. Where people were as nice and welcoming as their streets.

Visiting in 2023 had a different feeling: Bristol Ideas had announced it was closing, and the heaviness of this news was reflected in the way the festival carried itself, no longer buzzing with life as it was the last time I took part. The audience seemed less engaged, the guests were less diverse, and the burden of running the sessions fell on the shoulders of Andrew Kelly, the man behind it all. Bristol as a whole is changing as well. It seems to be blindly marching towards stardom for which I fear it will be sacrificing its lovely soul. My hope is that the immense work achieved throughout the years with Bristol Ideas will in some way save Bristol even if the festival can’t be salvaged.

Marwa Al-Sabouni is an award-winning architect and author, a well-known public speaker, named by Prospect as one of the Top 50 thinkers around the world. Her books include The Battle for Home and Building for Hope: Towards an Architecture of Belonging.

This essay is taken from Our Project Was the City: Bristol Ideas 1992-2024, published May 2024.

Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Find out how to update