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Cardiff: a city of big ideas (Architects Journal article)

With many grands projets in waiting, Felix Mara finds practices expecting the scales to tip in their favour when the economic situation changes

The main arrival point at Cardiff Central Station is inauspicious, with row upon row of bus shelters and a grim backdrop of failing shopfronts, propping up stacks of offices. Inner Cardiff is pancake flat and the city’s topography only comes to life at its outskirts as you approach Caerphilly or Penarth.

On its way into the central station, the train grinds past lumpen 1970s office towers and Blair-era apartment blocks and hotels, constructed with brisk, pragmatic efficiency. The main point of interest is the heavily engineered bravura of Populous’ Millennium Stadium, remarkably central and, with a smaller venue close by, capacious enough to freeze up the public transport network as the city teems with revellers never more than six feet from a pint, as they say.

But don’t despair, the architecture does get better. First, there is the shopping district with Victorian arcades off the pedestrianised canyon of The Hayes, then there is the castle with its Gothic revival additions, the remarkably well stocked National Museum Wales welcoming you to the Edwardiana of the Civic Centre and, further to the north, the leisurely ribbon of Roath Park with its miniature Lake Geneva.

Cardiff is a multicultural city. According to local boy Mark Hallett, development director at Igloo it has been diverse for the best part of 200 years. It has welcomed wave upon wave of overseas immigrants along with Welsh hopefuls from the valleys to the north and beyond.

As a capital city, it is not surprising that Cardiff does not scream ‘Welsh’
As a capital city, it is perhaps not surprising that Cardiff does not scream ‘Welsh’, despite bilingual signs and recorded public announcements. If you want to hear Welsh spoken on the streets, head north to the land of the Gogs.

Capital city or not – nearby Merthyr Tydfil previously had this role – Cardiff is small, with a population of 300,000, which is less than its rival Bristol across the channel, although its hinterland stretches to 2.5 million. It is also more affluent than nearby Swansea and Newport, or anywhere else in Wales for that matter.

According to the economics and data consultancy Experian, its output growth in 2012 was 2.3 per cent, compared to 1.8 per cent for the UK, and its growth rate was also higher at 4.4 per cent.

Neil MacOmish, group board director of another AJ100 practice, Scott Brownrigg – which set up its Cardiff office six years ago – is bullish, comparing the Labour councillor Russell Goodway to François Mitterrand with a shopping list of grands projets. ‘If London is Madrid, Cardiff is Barcelona,’ he adds. Like Barcelona, Cardiff is a city region by the sea with its own language, he argues.

‘It was a falsification to build the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea rather than in Cardiff,’ he adds.

Likewise, Hallett thinks the Welsh should take a more pragmatic view of government and European Union funding allocation, rather than expecting it to be thinly spread.

‘We should be looking at ourselves as a city region, the way Manchester does,’ says Gamble. ‘But Cardiff and Bristol would never see themselves as acting together.’

Some local architects remain level-headed. ‘We are very good at bigging things up and it is quite tough here actually,’ says Alan Francis, a director at local practice Gaunt Francis Architects and chairman of the Design Commission for Wales (DCfW).

‘There hasn’t been a lot happening recently, although things are picking up now,’ adds Peter Gamble, senior partner at Holder Mathias Architects, which he describes as Cardiff’s largest indigenous practice. ‘The big thing is reliance on public sector work’, partner Stephen Hill explains.

These views touch on an interpretation of Cardiff as the quintessential insular regional capital and indicate the central role of charismatic individuals in what can seem like a very small world. To compare the Cardiff region with another Celtic land across the St George’s Channel, Mary Robinson once said it is not what you do that matters in Irish politics, but what you say. Along with individuals, the main players in Cardiff’s complex architectural and urban power dynamics are institutions: the Welsh government, the council, the universities, DCfW, property developers, local practices and the Royal Society of Architects in Wales (RSAW).

The Welsh government is influential as a source of funding and is involved in developments in Cardiff like Cardiff Central Enterprise Zone, 1 Capital Quarter and Callaghan Square, part of the masterplan drawn up by MBM, which all have the potential to stimulate the region’s economy.

The government is also promoting regional autonomy through various channels, including legislation, for example, by introducing Welsh Building Regulations with lower U-value requirements than England.

Cardiff Council has drafted an LDP which is at discussion stage and it has also been involved in a number of projects, including the Central Square redevelopment being looked at by Foster + Partners, which proposes a reinvigorated gateway to Cardiff to greet people arriving from the main railway station. It has also revived plans for a convention centre, as well an arena and an exhibition hall. And Fosters is investigating various infrastructure improvements.

Cardiff’s universities have a vital role in commissioning new developments, such as the Cardiff Business School Postgraduate Centre and ATRiuM at the University of Glamorgan, designed by Holder Mathias.

With a reputation for producing solid, capable graduates, the Welsh School of Architecture is also enormously influential. Discussions with local practitioners invariably lead back to this institution, where so many of them trained or teach – although local practices also recruit from the schools at the University of Bath and the University of West England.

The DCfW was set up by the Welsh government in 2002, with similar functions to CABE. Its objectives are to promote quality design practice, compatible with the Welsh government’s Sustainable Development Scheme, equal opportunities and social inclusion.

Porth Teigr Masterplan, a joint venture between Igloo and the Welsh government
Porth Teigr Masterplan, a joint venture between Igloo and the Welsh government
Developers include JR Smart, involved in the One Capital Quarter commercial development, and Igloo whose work, for example in the Porth Teigr masterplan for Cardiff Bay, promotes high-quality, sustainable design to nurture and improve local communities. Igloo’s Hallett – who studied at the Welsh School of Architecture – has involved high-profile designers and experts in its Cardiff projects and sustainable policy work, including FAT, Sunand Prasad, Jonathon Porritt, Ash Sakula, Urban Narrative, Soeters Van Eldonk Architecten, Allies & Morrison and Studio Bednarski, along with local firms Loyn & Co Architects, Holder Mathias and start-up Rhys Thomas.

A number of AJ100 practices have offices in Cardiff, including Capita and HLM Architects. These firms are currently involved in projects outside Wales, as well as doing local work where available, although they expect the scales to tip when the economic situation changes. Loyn & Co is a smaller local practice which is very focused on the art of architecture and has specialised in high-specification, one-off houses, but is expanding its repertoire with its work on the residential development at Porth Teigr.

Dan Benham, who works for Loyn & Co, is president of the RSAW and is passionate about promoting ecological design and architectural quality in Cardiff. He is urging local government to be more prescriptive, holding up the German town of Freiberg as an exemplar of green planning and infrastructure, embracing its former chief planning officer Wulf Daseking’s view that the home should be the foundation for this. ‘The challenge is to drive these sustainable principles into the commercial market,’ says Benham, who thrives on the approachability of Welsh government members and professionals involved in Cardiff’s arena of architectural and urban ideas.

Benham’s views, considered outspoken by some, highlight the conflict between the ideals of laissez-faire and regulation in Cardiff’s planning strategies.

The built environment might suffer from building too much, too quickly
In recent years, Cardiff’s Labour council has been very pro-development and the city has comparatively low concentrations of conservation areas and listed buildings which allow for more freedom, but there are concerns that, compounded with accelerated investment, the built environment might suffer from building too much, too quickly. As HLM associate director Jonathan Jones explains, the RSAW is using initiatives such as the Design Circle and the Eisteddfod Gold Medal for Architecture to promote quality. However, given current levels of growth, this concern seems academic.

The main focuses of commercial development are the city centre and Cardiff Bay. As associate Mark Sutton, of Knight Frank explains, the city centre is expected to attract financial companies, whereas development in Cardiff Bay is targeting creative industries. In addition, Scott Brownrigg are working on two developments in the area to the west of the bay: the International Sports Village mixed-use regeneration and the Cardiff Pointe residential towers.

Cardiff city centre commercial space take-up
Cardiff city centre commercial space take-up
‘Headline commercial rents have been firmly established at £22 per square foot in Cardiff Bay and £21 per square foot in the city centre as at Q2 2013,’ explains Sutton.

‘This could be very attractive to businesses priced out of London, where rents can be four times as high. But Grade A stock remains in very short supply, with less than 20,000 square feet available in the city centre until completion of the Number 1 Capital Quarter with its 80,000 square feet, and there is only 40,000 square feet available in the bay.’

‘So in the short-term, due to the lack of available Grade A space, we expect to see a reduction of incentives offered to tenants, which will improve “net effective” rental levels, and this should lead to an increase in “headline” rents in 2014/15.’

Potentially, a new supply of Grade A office space could be on the market within the next two years, totalling 310,000 square feet in the city centre.

‘Residential pricing in Cardiff lies behind Bristol and Birmingham,’ says Tate Property director Catherine Maunder. ‘Two-bedroom apartments average roughly £190,000 and three-bedroom terraced houses around £220,000. However, more expensive suburbs such as Pontcanna have regularly seen houses prices at more than £500,000. Rentals remain strong, with an average two-bedroom dwelling in the region of £750 to £800 per month.’

Some people are more critical of the council’s lack of vision. For example Alex Whitcroft, who worked on the proposed Imagine Cardiff masterplan, strongly urges improvements to the transport infrastructure serving the bay, as well as the need to foster a sense of community in this area, where it has proposed an artificial beach. These concerns are being addressed by Igloo’s Porth Teigr development, but without the beach.

There are also strong indications that the protracted discussions about Foster + Partners’ Central Square project will soon proceed to the next stage, with the implementation of proposals which will enable Cardiff to offer people arriving at the central railway station the type of welcome they, and the city, deserve

The critical importance of regional transport in the City Region should not be underplayed. Felix rightly points out the scale and population of a South Wales City region, but it is one that is crying out for greater employment opportunities. Transport for the region as a whole is required. Having looked for example at numerous projects large and small across Wales and in particular in the south, my overall impression is that welsh enthusiasm and skill is often denied by the lack of the urbanist's vision for these independent towns and cities who jealously guard their identity, but miss opportunities to work together. By all means celebrate history, culture and individuality but share the proceeds and collaborate.