Nearly a decade has passed since the construction of the Senedd and the Wales Millennium Centre next door to each other in Cardiff Bay; enough years for the novelty and wow-factor of both to have worn off. The time is ripe for a considered critical assessment of the two most important Welsh buildings of the 21st century so far.
Opened in 2006, the home of the Welsh Assembly has given Cardiff Bay the gravitas it so desperately needed, and has also given Wales a very special building. It is one of the least applauded but most effective works of prolific Richard Rogers, the optimistic urbanist, unapologetic modernist and implacable opponent of bogus pop antiquarianism in architecture (as promoted by Prince Charles). Rogers’ buildings, from the Pompidou Centre in Paris to Lloyd’s and the Millennium Dome in London, might sometimes be absurd or ill-considered but they never hide in the past. Russell Goodway inadvertently did Wales a favour when Cardiff Council priced the Assembly out of the redundant City Hall, forcing the homeless new institution to build from scratch. The Assembly was thus spared being permanently associated with the retrograde bombast of Cardiff’s Edwardian civic centre and instead acquired the prestige of Rogers’ distinctive creation
Access to the Senedd is free (although it’s a right palaver emptying pockets and getting past metal detectors) and one can wander round the airy public space, the Neuadd, or go upstairs to lounge in the laid-back Oriel and peer down on AMs in the circular debating chamber, the Siambr. Boasting environmental features galore, which make it as Green as a building can be, the Senedd does not have an immediate visual grab. Low-slung and self-effacing, set at a funny angle to other buildings around it on its water-level site where the Bute East Dock once met the sea, it is barely noticeable until you are nearly upon it. Its appeal is more subtle and enduring: the flowing glass, the swirling wood funnel, the fly-away roof, the slate plinths and the meshes of slender steel, all topped by a peculiar louvered cowl turning with the prevailing wind, suggest that a democracy of openness, transparency and creative tension might perhaps be possible in Wales. And the sweeping steps of Blaenau Ffestiniog slate dropping down to the water side mark out a space gradually becoming familiar across Wales as the backdrop to political interviews. People are already in the habit of using it as a gathering ground in which to agitate, protest, demonstrate, lobby and engage. Here is developing the national public hustings Wales has never had; our own Place de la Concorde, Tiananmen Square or Plaza de la Revolución.
The Senedd’s satisfying aesthetics and futuristic utility are complemented by notable artworks that all avoid the off-putting stereotypes of typical governmental iconography: the massive slate slabs of surprisingly comfortable seating by Richard Harris called the ‘Meeting Place on the Plinth’; the ‘Assembly Field’ by Danny Lane, 32 clear glass plates positioned outside in a hexagonal grid which act as a functioning wind hedge and endlessly transmute, disappear and reappear as you move among them; 600 coloured glass acoustic panels in the public galleries and committee rooms by Martin Richman; and the ‘Heart of Wales’ by Alexander Beleschenko, a domed glass circle of radiating abstract dots rising out of the Siambr’s oak floor.
The ultimate test of the Senedd is how it matures and ages. Will it look dated or timeless in 50 years? Will it be under water in 50 years? And will it, one day, be the home to a true sovereign parliament of a real Welsh democracy?
WALES MILLENNIUM CENTRE
The WMC will be 10 years old this November. It has become part of the furniture in Cardiff and seeped into wider general consciousness. This means the building has succeeded, given that its purpose was to put Cardiff on the map. It hardly mattered how that was done, whether through a performing arts centre or a pigeon loft; all that mattered was that the city got a memorable, photogenic three-dimensional logo. And Cardiff sure got the icon it craved. In fact, Cardiff went further and got the icon’s icon; an icon that yells “Hey, look at me! I am an icon!” And here we come to the problem. Nothing is left to the imagination, everything is spelt out in terms so explicit and non-negotiable they are inevitably patronising and simplistic. Groaning with symbols which are then carefully explained, just in case their meaning eluded you, the WMC removes the bother of having to filter anything through one’s own mind.
This is literal-mindedness taken to extremes, and architect Jonathan Adams of local firm Percy Thomas Architects (taken over by London’s giant Capita Group in 2004) makes no bones about it. The stratified walls of slate slabs from the quarries of Wales represent the cliffs of the Glamorgan coast, the curving native timber concourses and galleries reference the mythic forest edges of the Mabinogion, the riveted steel shell pays homage to the south Wales iron and steel industry, the glass sandwiched between the stonework stands for veins of coal, and as for those monumental poetry inscriptions – this is Wales, land of bards, stupid!
Gwyneth Lewis also kindly helps us grasp the full significance of her words. “Creu Gwir Fel Gwydr O Ffwrnais Awen” (“Creating Truth Like Glass From Inspiration’s Furnace”) is about legendary Ceridwen’s cauldron as well as Wales’ industrial heritage, because doesn’t the copper oxide-coated dome remind one of both? And “In These Stones Horizons Sing” deals with internationalism, music and the geology of yonder Penarth Head in five short words – brilliant, this poetry lark, innit? Inside, there is no let up from the symbolism onslaught. Gideon Petersen’s silver dragon and Ann Catrin Evans’ archaic key are sculptural embodiments of – yes indeed – Wales and opening doors.
The Wales Adams and Lewis have summoned up in big gestures is the one we were all familiar with already; the Wales of the Tourist Board and the BBC: industrial, masculine, lyrical, well-fed, nostalgic, and with all conflicts amicably resolved. I can think of a few constituencies this formula banishes: the Wales of the woman service-sector worker who will never come here because she can’t afford it, the Wales of the besieged heartlands where cultural genocide continues without pause, the Wales that remains stubbornly unreconciled to being England’s eager-to-please Keltic-lite theme park, and the Wales of acid rain, wind farms, radioactive seas, tidal barrages, military bases, low-flying fighter planes, forestry commission plantations, drowned valleys, leaking oil tankers, explosive gas pipes, marching electric pylons, Aberfan and Senghenydd…the Wales that time and time again takes its punishment as Britain’s punchbag.
The sustainably-harvested hardwoods and bands of multi-coloured slate reassure and soothe. Everything is alright really. We forget and we will be forgotten. Unless the WMC wants to end up a vapid vessel, gorgeous but empty, it must bring radical, enraged, up-for-the-fight Wales in from the cold.
Pictures: Gavin Lewis; Lisa Sinclair