Time for an architecture policy for Wales

Patrick Hannay says Welsh buildings are hiding their light under a bushel

Over the last three year Wales’ architecture has been awarded sixteen RIBA Architecture Awards. That’s an all-time record for Wales. Do you know what those buildings are, where they are? Is one at the end of your street? Have you been to visit them? Isn’t it something all citizens in Wales should be proud of? Of course. But the glowing light is hidden under a bushel.

The last issue of Touchstone, the magazine for architecture in Wales, was bursting with remarkable projects. The south-east is now host to four remarkable university buildings. In mid and north Wales, there was arts building patronage under Alan Hewson at Aberystwyth Arts Centre by Heatherwick Studio, under Martin Barlow at Oriel Mostyn by Ellis Williams Architects and under Philip Hughes at Ruthin Craft Centre by Sergison Bates. All won awards. There were brand new libraries and one library re-modelled from Bargoed’s Baptist Chapel by the Pentan Partnership.

But then, sadly, you cannot buy Touchstone in the bookshops – its publishing economics make that unviable. It has gone digital, but I doubt it is yet a bookmarked favourite on your computer. More lights under a bushel.

Prodigal sons and daughters are returning to Wales and investing huge sums in our historic fabric without which they would likely crumble and rot. But is this being sufficiently celebrated publicly? Keith Griffiths the Director of Aedas, the largest architecture practice in the world, is a Pembrokeshire-born lad. Through the Retreats Group Ltd he is in the process of bringing back to life four major listed buildings. The two completed so far are Roch Castle and Penrhiw Priory both in conjunction with Acanthus Holden Architects. Mr and Mrs Shane Lipscombe are just re-opening the 18th century country house ‘Nanteos’ outside Aberystwyth by Catalina Architecture, as Wales’s third five-star hotel.

Wales’s one and only architecture school – the Welsh School of Architecture at Cardiff University – is premier league. Competition is fierce to get into it, sadly restricting the number of students from Wales. As a consequence too many of its students do not stay in Wales. The School’s Design Research Unit Wales is executing qualitative guerrilla raids, popping up here and there to raise the bar of architectural expectation, but the projects are small, so chances are you won’t know of them. I pick out only four:

  • A mountain biking centre for the Forestry Commission at Brechfa in Carmarthenshire.
  • A low energy house and an environmental classroom, both for Blaenau Gwent Council at Ebbw Vale.
  • An environmental discovery centre for Neath Port Talbot Council at Margam Park.
  • Assisting Ruthin Town Council to plan a future for the town.

One of the unit’s members is one of the finalists for the competition to design the new architecture pavilion at the National Eisteddfod, and the School’s final year unit is focussing on projects in the Heads of the Valleys. Yet how many will see this at the School’s end of year show? Will you venture across the neo-classical threshold in Cathays Park to see it? It starts on Friday, 21st June in the Bute Building. It merits a public response.

The Design Commission for Wales (DCfW), the Welsh Government’s quango guardian of environmental design quality, has been very busy for a decade raising the design temperature. But how would you have known that? It receives scant publicity for its work. Its design review process is all politely done behind closed doors. It’s mostly for those clients who aim high. It is they who tend to submit their projects voluntarily for review. The frequent horrors executed by the architecturally lazy or ignorant are either not even submitted, or the advice ignored when it’s given. Yes there’s a website. But when did you last visit it?  Wales’s DCfW, with a very tiny team, has done a lot with a little and still does, but how many non-environmental professionals know about it? Surely this should be the home, the hash-tag, the twitter feed of a national debate.

One national architectural indulgence we will no doubt all fess up to, is ogling at the seemingly bottomless budgets of Kevin McLoud’s ‘Grand Designs’ on Channel 4 (is it ever off the air?). But what does that programme do for our understanding of architecture? It’s mostly just a tale of woe, troubles and fairy tale endings. The architect only appears in order to be grumbled at. It’s a travesty to make the imaginative lateral thinking of architects so consistently invisible.

Our national press is no better. Development after development hits the Western Mail and Daily Post headlines – usually in commercial property features in business sections – but again architectural responsibility and contribution is invisible. There are no credits, just the PR facts and figures of jobs envisaged and the cost and square metre-age, and no debate or comment unless a local group is vociferously opposing it.

Even in the good times, pre-2008, we somehow drifted into a procurement process where accounting for architectural delight has disappeared. Public building procurement is contractor-led and dominated. Around every building site are the fence-high adverts for the BAM’s, Kier Construction, Carillion, Vinci, or Leadbitter – architecture now a mere subcontractor supplier. How did it get this way? Yes to on-time, yes to on-budget, but if it’s not delightful what’s the point. The conversation instead is about ‘BREEAM excellence’ – sustainability – as though it was somehow separate from good architecture. ‘Design out crime’, environmental impact analysis, protection for bats and newts – all this, worthy no doubt, is now top of the list, while the architecture of delight struggles at the bottom.

There are brief moments when contractor, client and architecture partnerships all raise the bar and also allow delight to shine through. One such project is the Mariners’ Quay Housing for Fairlake in Newport by the Powell Dobson Partnership with Leadbitter as contractors.

In the north, Wales has arguably a globally significant piece of contemporary architecture that embraces delight as well as the responsible custodianship of our planet’s resources. The WISE building at Machynlleth’s Centre for Alternative Technology by Pat Borer and David Lea won a well-deserved RIBA award. You have only to read David Lea’s essay in Touchstone to sense the utter clarity of the project’s underpinning values which have delight at its core. The building was almost shortlisted for the UK’s Stirling Prize but not a single commission or even enquiry to Lea or Borer, has followed its completion. More invisibility?

Maybe this is simply a foretaste of more austere times to come. The swathe of public cuts still in the wings does not augur well for a nation whose economic bedrock has been the public sector. Does that mean even greater invisibility for architecture? I would suggest the very opposite. With Planning, Sustainability and Building Regulations Bills lining up for Welsh Government consultation, now is the time for a publicly- and vociferously-formed Architectural Policy for Wales.

It is time for the Design Commission for Wales to go volubly public across all media about the good, the bad and the downright ugly. It’s time to point out clearly how few buildings are actually executed by architects. We need that questioned. It is time for the Royal Society of Architects in Wales noisily to promote those projects where architectural imagination, embedded with local community action, produces incalculable as well as tangible benefits – as with Hoole and Walmsley’s Talgarth Mill project. It’s time to remind ourselves that in Wales we still have public architects. They, above all, should be the leading lights of community enabling, and the galvanisers of imaginative local development plans with all stakeholders. Are they up to it?

It’s time to look to Belgium. Belgium I hear you splutter! Well yes, since they have a civilised and eminently clear public building competition system where citizen participation appears embedded into the process and delight is re-instated as central (see Architectural Review April 2012, p.27).

It’s time for architecture to recognise it’s all about ‘place’ not just singular new buildings. That is what I hope to reflect as Touchstone develops a new persona in the coming months. Delicate remodelling of the existing is the prime game in town, re-oxygenating the vital social life-blood that courses through its public arteries.

If all those institutional bodies I have listed feel that professional probity forbids such public propaganda then others have to take up the mantle. Touchstone will do its bit. If you read it and enough subscribe to it, we might do it all together with more force. We might lift the bushel.

Patrick Hannay is the editor of Touchstone, the architectural magazine for Wales. It is available to read online at Touchstone. If you would like to subscribe to receive a paper copy of Touchstone on a regular basis, then please click here to download a subscription form.

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