The vision that led to the creation of Cardiff’s outstanding city centre more than 100 years ago has sadly gone missing in recent decades and an incoherent jumble has been created, Rhys David argues.
One of the joys of watching Michael Portillo’s Great Railway Journeys series on television – especially those focusing on the Continent and the US – is the sight of the magnificent railway stations he visits. National or provincial capital, big town or small, the arrival of the railway has usually been celebrated with an impressive building that could make a statement about the destination the visitor had arrived at.
In most cases the station main entrance leads out into a central square where civic pride could be further demonstrated with an open public space or small park, perhaps surrounded by dignified municipal or commercial properties.
In Cardiff, too, the station was built to project pride in the growth of the new coal metropolis. Isambard Kingdom Brunel even went to the trouble of moving the River Taff to get the right alignment for his railway through south Wales. The Great Western Railway put up a building in 1934 which has received perhaps the ultimate accolade – inclusion and three-star status in Simon Jenkins’ most recent buildings blockbuster, Britain’s One Hundred Best Railway Stations.
The work by architect Percy Culverhouse is described by Jenkins as clean and confident, and a rare example of proto-art deco. It captures, he claims, the moment when neo-Georgian was flirting with new decorative forms, its finest feature being the main concourse’s superb display of modulated art deco, its space lit by a superb sequence of hanging lights.
It dominated its location when constructed, the only other tall buildings in sight being Charles Bernard’s 1868 Royal Hotel in St. Mary Street and Henry Tanner’s General Post Office in Westgate Street. The new Cardiff General (now Cardiff Central) faced on to a square, originally the grid pattern working class streets of Temperance Town. This was bounded by Wood Street, the river and the rear of lower St. Mary Street. Following demolition of the properties, it was first an open space, and then the city’s bus station.
No longer. The area is named Central Square, but the description does not hold. Into it have been crammed a series of concrete and glass monoliths that completely bully the station and fail to make the slightest nod to the history of the area and its original form. Government and commercial offices, lawyers, university departments, as well as the BBC’s Wales headquarters are being crammed into this area together with a token bus station for long-distance coaches.
Further development is planned on the other side of the station on the extensive Brains brewery and adjoining sites. The result: thousands of people, many of whom will want to be mobile during the day will arrive by car every weekday into an already heavily congested area, effectively accessible only along the bus-clogged Westgate Street and the Wood Street bridge over the Taff. It is little wonder the Royal Hotel has protested that existing high levels of atmospheric pollution can only increase.
The massing of the BBC building along Wood Street, whatever its modish green credentials, overwhelms its surroundings and joins several other uninspiring blocks completed or due for construction that look like they have been dropped in randomly from above. A corridor running through to the Principality Stadium tells you where priorities for the redevelopment lie – ensuring rapid access and egress to the stadium on rugby and pop concert days. Don’t be surprised if this processional way – and much of the rest of the Central Square environment becomes an unpleasant wind tunnel on winter days. The station frontage, too, is set to lose its clean, unobscured lines, buried under a steel and glass canopy for new retail – the obsession of Britain’s station owners. If money is to be spent on the station, how much more sensible and convenient it would be for passengers just to cover the exposed, elevated platforms against wind, rain and seagulls!
Cardiff’s planners have fallen in love with the idea that a landscape dotted with mini-skyscrapers equals prosperity so that it would seem anyone with a plan for a multi-storey building is shown the red carpet. A towering stump has now emerged to overpower the former Pembroke Terrace Presbyterian Church of Wales in Churchill Way, catering for the latest developers’ fad – student accommodation. Another student block developer was sufficiently emboldened to put forward plans for a corner of Park Place previously occupied by solicitors, Blake Morgan, which would ruin the setting in which Cardiff’s most important ensemble of buildings – the City Hall, Museum, and Law Courts sits.
As marketing expert Roger Pride has recently pointed out, by contrast the few fine old buildings Cardiff possesses lie neglected and he rightly calls for more imaginative uses for architectural gems, particularly around St. Mary Street, and not yet more bars and restaurants. He lamented the loss of Cory Hall opposite Queen Street Station and the classical fire station in Westgate Street (now the site of a hideous car park). He could have mentioned others that have gone, including the old Taff Vale Railway’s Queen Street Station itself, Ebenezer Welsh Congregational chapel, (swallowed by Marks & Spencer), the vast Wood Street Congregational Church (where Southgate House stands), and the Dumfries Place urban mansions.
Other historic buildings have languished for decades in a state of decrepitude, bridesmaids at the redevelopment wedding but never the bride: the GPO building in James Street and the adjoining Cory’s Building, or the buddleia-bestrewn Bute Street (Cardiff Bay) Station, believed to have been the work of Brunel. The GPO in Westgate Street, too, lies half-empty, and James Howell’s store awaits an uncertain fate. In case it does not continue in something like its present use, have the city’s planners even thought about an action plan to try to find an appropriate use for this iconic building or will developers determine what happens to it?
The student block bubble could, too, be about to burst, as declining student numbers suggest. The planners, too, seem belatedly to have realised that perhaps they have been authorising too many blocks. Some developers have been trying to escape the conditions under which planning permission was granted, seeking temporary dispensations to let the apartments to non-students until demand catches up. This brings with it the danger that Cardiff – and many other university cities – will be left with unsuitable buildings that, because they were meant for students, have been built to much lower standards than is required for normal domestic occupation. If too many are built, or student numbers fall, they will need to be adapted for other uses or will remain empty.
It must be said, of course, that Cardiff is a succes d’estime. The chefs Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, writing in the Financial Times this summer, seem to have been blown away by their first visit, loving the Castle Arcade, the animal wall at Cardiff Castle, and the buzzing atmosphere. Indeed, Cardiff has established itself as a visitor destination, able, like historic Bath, Bruges and Bologna to support Hop-On Hop-Off buses around its attractions. Visitors, drawn to a weekend break or to attend a sports fixture, opera or a pop concert, seem impressed. As a city it punches above its weight.
One cannot help thinking, however, that not a huge amount of thought has gone into how the city’s constituent parts should be organised, what concentrations of activity should be allowed where, and what is appropriate in which place, leaving it with what the visitor stepping out of that art deco concourse at Cardiff Central might now regard as a bit of a (congested) mess. Nearly 20 years ago the distinguished architectural critic, Deyan Sudjic described the Cardiff Bay redevelopment “a sad example of a city that, given the choice between the second rate and the excellent, had no hesitation in grabbing the former with both hands”. Plus ça change.
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