Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cardiff Crassening

Relatively long-promised, here are some digressions on the Urban Trawl round the capital of Wales. I enjoyed Cardiff as a place a lot - it felt like a real city rather than some autonomous emanation of Gradgrindian money-grubbing, which is always a rare sensation in Britain. Nonetheless the BD comments folk seemed to think I was there in order to denounce the Welsh capital for being a bit of a mess, when in fact its being a bit of a mess was, I felt, one of its virtues - my problem was the lamentable provincialism of getting Benoy, Crapita and if feeling a bit naughty BDP in to design a Capital City. It's pathetic, and invariably justified via a strange circular argument - how dare some jumped-up ponce from London come here and slag off our brilliant buildings, and anyway the reason they're so shit is because of our clients and it's not our fault so there. The suggestion I 'do my research' was particularly irksome, as it took several days of searching and eventually some desperate appeals on Twitter before I found out who designed this bad boy - a new police headquarters at the entrance to the new 'Bay', designed by Capita Symonds. While it may look like a child's drawing, inside this a veritable behemoth of punishment - it increased the amount of cells in the former Cardiff Police Station from 4 to 60. It also has a range of exciting security features. Apparently, 'full integration allows for the operation of multiple systems from one holistic front end - with high levels of control. Comforting, no?

We were given a clue as to the reasons for this when we watched 'Cardiff Carnage' sweeping down St Mary's Street. This militarised pub crawl was a thing to behold - hundreds of freshers, all of them clad in promotional T-shirts and with writing all over both t-shirts and themselves via marker pens, given out so they could cross off each destination on the list, doing all the expected things - drink fall over be sick snog knee trembler if you're lucky etc - but on such an enormous scale that they had fluorescent-jacketed stewards on hand, as if this was a political demonstration. The stewards seemed to be there to channel and watch the students, ringing ambulances if necessary, but in the context it seemed more like, as with stewards' role of providing liaison with the police, they were there to protect the youth from the possible wrath of Cardiff. I've never before seen fun of such a weirdly desperate, over-organised yet nonetheless spectacularly dissolute sort, and it was hard not, without getting too Daily Mail about it, to feel terribly sorry for them all - even the defenders of this curious event write about it as something done fully in the knowledge of impending debt and temp hell. You can be as hedonistic as you like, as long as you're prepared to be indentured for it for the rest of your life.

Back to architecture...the place we saw all this occur was St Mary's Street, and this really is a fabulous place, its impressiveness barely affected - possibly improved, who knows - by hordes of screeching petit-bourgeois virgins covered in marker pen groping each other before being sick in the gutter. It's a curious urban object, a continuous block with each of its buildings differently styled (hence the Belgian comparison) which range from shouty low countries Gothic to two massive Americanised neoclassical department stores, one of which was once the hulking headquarters of the Co-Operative; and on the other side of the road, the buildings lead into markets and arcades. Here I have to confess assuming that Arcades were something uniquely found in Paris and Piccadilly, so hence my previous idea that their presence in West Yorkshire was proof of the area's aptness for flanerie. Cardiff, however, has absolutely loads of iron-and-glass Arcades, albeit all in the same place, which carve unexpected and relatively intrigue-filled pathways through what would otherwise have been some Victorian alleyways. The Market has some great vintage signage on the outside, and the general atmosphere would have been perfect for a '30s Hitchcock film, at just the right level of seedy.

Not all of central Cardiff is as interesting, but there's a good line in silliness in some of the architecture, which for the most part - excepting the invariably dreadful towers - can be quite entertaining. I'd be especially interested to know what the FAT or AOC neo-postmodernist contingent think of buidings like the Cardiff Cineworld, which without ever quite being good, have at least a bit of fun with our prevailing modernism-on-the-cheap, as does the Millennium Stadium, although it's a shame the struts are painted white, when black or red would have taken the admirable tastelessness to a more charismatic level. There's one fine bit of late Brutalism, St David's Hall, in the middle of this, looking improbably chic and European Grey by comparison.

The St Mary's Street area is one of two really very good things in Cardiff, the other being the Imperialistic Beaux-Arts pleasures of Cathays Park, lots of Portland stone classical buildings housing sundry museums, assemblies and suchlike, with green space inbetween and boulevards laid through. Interestingly, this was planned decades before Cardiff was designated 'capital' of Wales, and yet it is laid out with confident gusto as if it already were. It's not to my taste, mostly, - generally a bit too limpid and cold, and retrograde for the 1910s-30s, given what was happening elsewhere in Europe - but at least they made a bloody effort. It's this which makes the comparison between Cathays Park and Cardiff Bay so irresistible, in that both were explicitly laid out as bureaucratic and cultural centres (with some retail added in the new version). 'Cardiff Bay', previously the beautifully-named 'Tiger Bay', became, as with Greenwich Peninsula and the Cardroom Estate in Ancoats aka New Islington, a Blairite tabula rasa - and like those it remains fundamentally unfinished. Even the ceremonial boulevard towards the new district, named after an enthusiastic leader of the most senseless war in history, Lloyd George Avenue, was apparently botched, and is likely to remain unfinished, with anything slightly adventurous in the original proposals - oh, interesting planning, light transit, whatever - replaced with a mere road from A to B.

It's all there - wonky sub-decon, New Urbanist-indebted 'proper streets', dromes, and upriver, lots of call centres - and none of it (except the aforementioned Senedd/Harry Ramsden's similarity) seems to notice the other bits, let alone exhibit a spark of personality. But among the more innovative things done here was the creation of a new Barrage at enormous expense, seemingly solely because of the assumption that muddy water would have deterred people from moving into the adjacent condos. Yet, as it taketh, Blairism also giveth - another load of Microflats-By-Water features an 'Animal Wall' to accommodate any creatures that may otherwise have been displaced, and it's interesting to see that both in terms of interesting design and social policy the birds have been getting a better time of it than the humans. Amusingly, one Dezeen commenter compares the bird wall to a 'socialistic concrete apartment block'. Perhaps the birds and bats need something in their vernacular?

Past the soft-brutalist visitor centre (as we stood taking this picture, the CCTV camera swung round to look at us), St Fagans provides the Vernacular Experience, a park where you can look at everything from piggeries to prefabs, and although the prevailing implicit argument is for the 'authentic' (and, as you can find out for yourself, the unfit-for-human-habitation) architecture of rural Wales, plonked in a Capital which voted an overwhelming No in the referendum for the Welsh Assembly, it's the excursions into industrial south Wales which are the most tragic. There's the House for the Future and the miners' terrace, but there's also the Oakdale Miners Institute - now the coalfields in the Valleys have gone from being Cardiff's raison d'etre to being its outer suburbs, they can be safely commemorated, their institutions of self-education torn out and re-rooted in the fallow soil of compulsory heritage. I have a mole in St Fagans, and he says the following about the failure of the House of the Future:

The negative reaction to the House of the Future was, I think, a recent thing (it closed this year). For one thing, its contents had ceased to look futuristic after 7, 8 years. The museum rejigged it, but half-heartedly, as Ty Gwyrdd [Green House], the House for Sustainable Living -- this meant new displays on the walls etc. but no major changes otherwise. The public picked up on this and were always pointing things out to us -- such as the two combi ovens "for flexibility", necessary due to a sponsorship deal with AEG -- and, quite fairly, saying "but that's not sustainable". Also, they now expected us to be knowledgeable about environmental issues about which we'd have to bullshit; we weren't trained to talk about such things. We actually hated the place. It would have worked if the change of emphasis had been addressed properly (there were no recycling or compost bins) and if the technology had been kept up to date, but neither is in the museum's culture. The house was built by Redrow, by the way, with Jestico & Wiles as architects. Can we safely assume that none of Redrow's actual houses of the future will look like it?

Meanwhile, I'm informed of the following exchange about the Miners' Institute: Small girl, in the Institute library, asks her mother what sort of books the miners would have read. Answer: 'Oh... books about making things, I suppose, do it yourself and that sort of thing'. No subversive literature in the former 'Little Moscows' of South Wales, then. Oakdale adjoins Blackwood, where - oh yes - the Manic Street Preachers come from. They opened the new Cardiff Central Library a few months ago, a not completely awful BDP-designed design & build project whose adherence to the ethos that 'Libraries gave us Power' is rather negated by large chunks of its ground-floor space being given over to Wagamama. In front are new blocks of flats sitting empty, leading the way into a similarly derelict new shopping mall. A design for life indeed.

(thanks to Anwyn, Lang Rabbie and the St Fagans correspondent who will remain anonymous, unless they don't want to be, in which case do say hello in the comments)