Architecture in Wales: a dying art?

December 21, 2018 1 Comment

John B. Hilling has just published a new book, The architecture of Wales, from the first to the twenty-first century (University of Wales Press, 2018, £27.00).  It’s an updating and rewriting of a book he produced in 1976 called The historic architecture of Wales.  I bought my copy for £5.50 in Cardiff in December of that year, and since then I’ve come back to it again and again, as the only reliable overview of the whole history of architecture in Wales.  I expect I’ll be doing the same with the new book.

The 1976 volume, also published by UWP, is a handsome, well-designed book, but its illustrations were entirely black and white.  The new book has a larger format, many more pages (302 rather than 234) and colour illustrations.  It’s bound to receive a wide welcome, in part because in the 44 years since the first edition no other book has appeared to fulfil the same synoptic function.  It’s interesting to speculate why this is so – when, for example the architecture of all the Welsh counties have been covered in detail, between 1986 and 2013, in the Pevsner Buildings of Wales series.  The new book also raises some interesting questions about the nature of architecture in Wales, especially in our own period.

Hilling’s rewriting of the earlier book is radical.  Chapters are differently arranged and some emphases have changed: the new book begins, for example, with the Romans, and ignores prehistoric structures.  The rewritten chapters benefit from scholarship produced since 1976.  But the chief change is that the period after 1939, excluded from the first book, is fully discussed.  The chapter that took my eye was the final one, contributed by Simon Unwin, on ‘Recent developments, 1985-2017’.

National Botanic Garden of Wales

Unwin begins by summarising the contexts affecting architecture in our own age.  He mentions the renewed concern for the environment and the coming of the National Assembly, but it’s noticeable that it’s economic factors that dominate his list.  Since 1985 (and before) the Welsh economy has performed poorly, and has suffered grievously from the neoliberal ascendancy.  Money, public or private, for architecture of any consequence in one of western Europe’s poorest areas has understandably been scarce.  It would be hard to claim that the structures Unwin mentions and illustrates compare well with those of earlier chapters.  There are only two, it seems to me – the glasshouse in the National Botanic Garden of Wales, Llanarthne (Foster and Partners) and the Senedd in Cardiff Bay (Richard Rogers Partnership) – that are likely to feature in any list of outstanding buildings completed in Britain in the period.  (The Second Severn Crossing of 1996, strangely unmentioned by Unwin, could just be a third.)

Wales Millennium Centre

Architecture, more than any of the other arts, is a protégé of big money, and it’s no accident that the most flourishing part of Wales, Cardiff, has hosted more than its fair share of new buildings, in the city centre and in the Bay.  Unwin describes the work of the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, a public body that operated on classic neoliberal principles.  The result was what Unwin calls ‘a clash of disparate buildings’, most of low quality, ‘lacking consistent design quality and visual integrity’.  He refers to the rejection of Zaha Hadid’s opera house design, and its eventual replacement by Jonathan Adams’s Wales Millennium Centre.  Unwin is discreetly silent about the merit of the WMC building; to me, despite Gwyneth Lewis’s giant inscription, its heavy, defensive shape does little to raise the spirits in an area that should have been full of fine buildings, given the huge injection of public funding over many years.  But there was no overall architectural vision, only a determination to let the private sector build at lowest cost with no concern for quality or cohesion.

Pontio, Bangor

One of the few sectors that has flourished among the wreck of what remains of the public realm – if it can be called public any longer, since it operates on largely commercial principles – is higher education.  Bangor University’s new hillslope arts centre Pontio, opened in 2015, is certainly striking, even if it lacks coherence and yields a low proportion of usable space.  Swansea University’s decision to open a new Bay Campus, opened in 2015, was a golden opportunity to employ a world-class architect to create a new seaside ‘academic village’ of real distinction and wide reputation.  That is not what happened.  Unwin comments that ‘some of the larger buildings … try to appear as if built incrementally in earlier times’.  Perhaps what he’s too polite to say is that they resemble eastern European housing blocks from the Soviet period, clustered around a bizarre Roman temple, the Great Hall, now obscured from Fabian Way by a still newer building.  Unwin, in his dead-pan way, characterises the whole site as ‘influenced by the neo-traditionalist philosophy advocated by Prince Charles’.

It’s perhaps with much smaller projects that architects have been able to produce original and exciting designs.  Unwin cites several, like the Maggie’s Centre in Singleton Hospital, Swansea, the Creative Unit pods designed by Thomas Heatherwick for Aberystwyth University and a whole series of visitor centres across the country, and he could have included others, like the underrated Drwm in the National Library of Wales.   He also points to the role of conservation projects like Sker House, Llwyn Celyn, Cwmyoy and Cardigan Castle (he might have mentioned the influence of the Heritage Lottery Fund, even if Wales receives less benefit from the Fund than more privileged parts of Britain).

Bay Campus, Swansea University

But most buildings in Wales are houses.  Unwin highlights some individual houses in the countryside of arresting design, including Malator, the sunken ‘Teletubby House’ near Druidston, Stormy Castle, Gower, John Pawson’s Tŷ Bywyd near Llanbister and Cefn Castell near Cricieth.  These, though, are homes for the elite.  Almost completely lacking from Unwin’s chapter are houses for the rest of us.  He mentions Loftus Garden Village in Newport and St Modwen’s Poundbury-retro development at Coed Darcy near Neath.  An earlier design for the latter was rejected on grounds of cost, and driving down cost has been a pressure fatal to the architectural quality of most new housing schemes.

The failure to invest in housing for ordinary people is one of the big derelictions of our age.  Unwin mentions that the politically-driven collapse in new house-building by local authorities (though he fails to mention the small-scale contributions housing associations have made, like the revival of Swansea’s High Street).  Growth has been driven mainly by private building companies who have little or no concern for architectural quality.  Walking round almost any recent housing development is a depressing experience.

Ty Bywd, Llanbister

Unwin concludes by looking forward.  The architectural future is bleak.  Leaving the European Union will erase a source of capital funding that’s been important to building projects in most of Wales and that’s unlikely to be replaced by UK government spending.  The few sectors capable of commissioning good buildings look unhealthy (the higher education bubble has finally burst).  City and town centres as retail attractions are in trouble everywhere.  Unwin is left clutching at straws (‘Maybe social housing will come back into favour’).  He finishes his chapter with the words ‘The architecture of Wales will be worth watching in the next three decades’.  It will, but not, one fears, because a bright new architectural age is dawning.

Swansea High Street

It’s too easy, though, to wallow in the gloom of economic determinism.  Maybe architects themselves have to take some of the blame for the lack of distinction and quality in contemporary Welsh building.  Planners too are at fault.  But maybe the main problem lies with ourselves – all of us, not just those who employ architects, because all of us who move about in open air, whether we like it or not, are ‘users’ or ‘consumers’ of architecture.  Our expectations are too low.  We’re too used to putting up with mediocre town centres, ersatz house facades, and commercial buildings no better than collapsible sheds.  We don’t complain, and we don’t demand something better to improve our everyday environment.

If you’re depressed by reading Unwin’s chapter, the antidote is to turn back in the book to some of Hilling’s earlier chapters.  Like those dealing with the boom years before the First World War, that saw the building of Cardiff Civic Centre, countless great chapels and miners’ institutes, Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch, libraries and museums.  Days of hope and fine buildings.

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  1. Gaynor Jones says:

    Excellent review, looking forward to getting a copy, but depressing that the future fir exciting innovative state sponsored architecture is bleak along with the rubbish the private sector foists on us. I will always be gutted by the rejection of the Welsh Opera House , just imagine what could have been…. a Bilbao like Bay not the tacky one we got!!!

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