Free tank

The retrospective view of the pathway


Free tank: The retrospective view of the pathway is a permanent public artwork created by renowned British artist Roger Hiorns. Developed over a four-year period, the work comprises an open-air architectural space designed in collaboration with Stirling Prize winning architects Witherford Watson Mann, which is the setting for a pair of monolithic granite sculptures. Together these elements form a new urban space in the heart of Bristol’s Historic Floating Harbour.

Hiorns’ artwork is situated in Glass Wharf, an area that was up to the 17th Century home to Bristol’s glass industry. The artwork occupies a space marked by an historic land feature called the ‘Free Tank’, an ancient ‘right of way’ or path through the many glass furnaces that previously populated the site. Free Tank permitted the public ‘free’ access to water from the river or ‘tank’, from which its name is derived. During its lifetime this route was walled to form an alleyway, however over time its use waned and by the early nineties all that remained was a square space in the banks of the Floating Harbour marked by a single pennant stone wall.

In the early 2000’s Glass Wharf became the focus of large-scale development as part of a master plan for the waterfront and in 2012 Roger Hiorns was invited to develop a proposal for the redundant Free Tank. Roger’s concept focused on the reinstatement of the public’s access to the water and a redesign of the Free Tank space. This would involve the insertion of a new staircase and a thick stone floor which would be the setting for a pair of sculptures. These large forms or ‘furnaces’ would rise above the walls of the tank with a central cavity which would permit the setting of fires within them.

In developing the project the artist worked closely with the project curator Aldo Rinaldi, and the scheme architects Stephen Witherford and Arthur Smart of Witherford Watson Mann. The design of the space is characterised by the use of a variety of different concrete casting techniques including pre-cast, shuttered and poured, all of which contain specially selected aggregates including Cornish and black basalt.

Standing ‘outside’ the prevailing logic of the site itself, a different responsibility to this place can exist. Something corporeal, lasting and immovable — founded close to the water — a bodily place partly removed.

Roger Hiorns


The architectural proposals for Free Tank take their lead from three material and psychological conditions: the ancient tank with its Pennant stone block wall and quayside stones, the two waxy honed black granite furnaces imagined by Roger Hiorns and the surrounding context of regeneration optimism represented in the reflective surfaces of stainless steel and glass. We have responded materially to these conditions through the use of concrete to bind the historic and the new elements of the Free Tank into an outdoor room. Through this action we have consciously created an alternative condition for experiencing the river to the everyday festival landscape presented by the regeneration development.

The poured concrete walls and floor establish surfaces which are monolithic and consciously ambiguous in scale. They ground a pre-cast concrete stair that re-establishes public access to this privatised space. Both the pre-cast and insitu concrete incorporate black basalt aggregate that, through acid etching and needle gunning respectively, is revealed, drawing qualities of the black granite furnaces into the body of the room. The needle gunning brings the human hand to bear directly on the surface texture of the concrete walls, in the way that the masons polishing and waxing does to the computer controlled milling of the giant granite stones. The abrasive removal of the concrete surface also introduces an accelerated sense of wear, like stone washing jeans. In this way the concrete begins to bind together the ancient stone wall and quayside stones through both its texture and the sense of historic time that this suggests.

This modest room open to the sky and the river, provides a deep sense of the earth and time. The mineral quality of the historic stones and concrete create a matt set of surfaces in contrast to the river and sky. The concrete room is monolithic and inert in contrast to the shifting reflections and movement of the water and clouds. The waxy black granite furnaces articulate the relationship between this earthy room and the shifting light and movement of the sky. As one descends the steps into the tank the transient materiality and insistency of the waterside regeneration is slowly framed by the deep sense of pathos manifest in the Free Tank.

Stephen Witherford.

The work has been many years in development, partly due to the nature and location of the free tank, its proximity to water and access. Roger's approach was simple and stood out immediately; to re-establish a previously permitted right of way and in the process create a space for a new sculptural intrusion

Aldo Rinaldi


As you enter The retrospective view of the pathway the use of a number of different concrete casting techniques and finishes used to create the walls, floors and staircase form a new enclosure immediately transporting the senses and the visitors relationship within the surroundings.

The artist explaines his approach,

“From the start, it was important to oppose the rigidly established code of materials that surrounded the remnant of public space called the Free Tank. To defy and humanise the local pallet of reflective glass, stainless railing, Portland paving, leather seated meeting room and abbreviated graphic, a global material code that hides the corporate lawyer within, all tidily rational office blocks, further hiding the personal litigator, the insurance salesman, paperwork is produced, contract machines, surrounding the out of time and out of place ledge of the Free Tank. 

I intruded a pair of monumental granite furnaces to the business composition, impossibly graceful and complicatedly dense, each 7 metres tall. The granite agrees a permanence that the 30-year lifespan of the surrounding buildings perhaps do not. Each furnace has an opening, a mouth as organic, as sexually suggestive as I found fit.

The work suggests a density materially that absorbs the surrounding light-handed surface play. A pair of honed granite objects, set within a dark concrete and renovated brickwork outer limit of public availability.”

As you step inside the modest space that is The retrospective view of the pathway, the work quietly speaks to our collective imagination through all the surrounding visual ‘noise’

Roger Hiorns


Roger Hiorns (born 1975, Birmingham) is a leading British artist whose installations and sculptures generate and occupy the lacunae between divergent ideas: construction and destruction, the theological and the technical, the temporary and the permanent, authoritarian control and spontaneity. His work is informed by a functional, material presence, which is, however, always combined with a sense of the imaginary, the poetic or the esoteric. He was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2009 for the celebrated work Seizure, a huge crystallisation in an empty London council block commissioned by Artangel.

Hiorns has exhibited widely including solo shows at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (2016), The Hepworth, Wakefield, (2013), MIMA, Middlesbrough (2012), Aspen Art Museum, Aspen (2010), The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago (2010), Tate Britain, London (2010), Camden Arts Centre, London (2007) and the UCLA Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2003). Group exhibitions include the Hayward Gallery, London (2015), Colombus Museum of Art in Ohio, Ohio (2014), Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow (2014), Taipei Biennial, Taipei (2014), The National Gallery, London (2014), 55th Venice Biennale, Venice (2013), Marrakech Biennale 4th Biennale, Marrakech (2012) CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain, Bordeaux (2011) and many others. In 2016 he was awarded the prestigious Faena Prize for the Arts, Buenos Aires, Argentina.


Witherford Watson Mann are award winning architects and urban designers. Established in 2001, they make buildings that are durable and generous, responding to unconventional institutions and historically layered sites. Completed buildings include Amnesty International UK headquarters and the Whitechapel Gallery in London, the Arts Council England Northwest office in Manchester, and Astley Castle, Warwickshire, which won the RIBA Stirling Prize in 2013. The practice has worked since the beginning on the transformation of the city of London, with projects including Bankside Urban Forest and a collaboration on the Olympic Legacy Masterplan.

Art and the Public Realm Bristol

Bristol is one of the leading cities in the UK for public art commissioning and for its programme of projects with artists of local, national and international significance. Our programme focuses on the development of visionary public artworks across the city, outside of the conventional gallery and museum setting. The public art programme has been active since the adoption of a public art policy by Bristol City Council (BCC) in 2000, and the development of a Public Art Strategy that followed in 2003. To date over 100 commissions have been produced within a diverse range of contexts, including public spaces, housing, health, retail, education and local parks.

Project Team

Artist: Roger Hiorns
Architect: Witherford Watson Mann Architects (Stephen Witherford, Arthur Smart)
Curator / producer: Aldo Rinaldi
Client: PriceWaterhouse Coopers for Castlemore
Main Contractor: Hills Construction Ltd (South West)
Stonemason: S McConnell & Sons Ltd (Northern Ireland)
Sculpture prototyping: Rapido 3D
Structural engineers: Price & Myers
Archaeological advisor: Peter Insole (Bristol City Council)
Pre cast concrete: Evans Concrete
Project Manager: Alder King (Paul Hooper)
Legal advisors: CMS Cameron McKenna LLP
Insurance advisor: JLT Specialty Limited
Planning: Bristol City Council
Silicone finishes: Blocksil Ltd
Communications and PR: Carissa Andrew-Smith (PONY)
Photography: Max McClure and Jamie Woodley
Signage and interpretation: Wards of Bristol
Metalwork: Morganweld Ltd



A level two minute walk from the rear exit
of Temple Meads train station, across the
Meads Reach "cheesegrater" footbridge
Glass Wharf, Bristol BS2 0ZX View location in Google Maps

Opening Hours

The Retrospective View of the Pathway 
is open 24 hours a day

Bristol’s Harbour, a sinuous water body that winds its way through the city centre possesses a significant historical element. It is a feat of engineering with a lock system designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and is lined with historical artefacts such as the SS Great Britain, The Industrial Museum (M Shed) and shipping elements. It is an active waterway.

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