27 Mar 2011
Cardiff Bay Blues
Cardiff Bay – a marketing con trick and proof of the banality of the Big Idea. Yes, I admit it, I don't like Cardiff Bay but I do love Cardiff, the city where I grew up. Of course it was not called Cardiff Bay then, or even Tiger Bay except in newspaper headlines. The trolley-bus ride down Bute St was exciting. It was lined with ethnic shops, dangerous looking pubs, mosques and exotic churches long before this was the norm for inner city high streets. In the summer the paddle steamer for Weston Super Mare or Ilfracombe left from the Pier Head across the tidal lagoon of the bay, past Penarth Head and out into the Bristol Channel.
Decline and Fall
Bute St was sanitised by redevelopment in the 1960s but the Pier Head retained an important office and commercial role, detached from the city centre a mile away at the top of Bute St. The fine late Victorian and Edwardian office buildings are centred on Mount Stuart Square around the grand Coal Exchange where my grandfather used to work. The Nat West Bank on West Bute St, completed as late as 1927, shows an American scale and confidence but in fact the docks were then already in decline. The whole area east of Bute St was derelict by the 1980s and the Pier Head commercial district was a ghost of its former self. Clearly there was a need for action. An early initiative was the building in 1975 of an Industrial and Maritime Museum on Bute St right by the Pier Head, although this meant the demolition of the fine Flemish style Merchant's Exchange. The museum, along with other proud buildings on Bute St, has since been demolished for the Mermaid Quay shopping centre. (Not a joke – more on this later.)
'A whim set in concrete' (Sian Best)
The bay with no tide
The de-industrialisation of Britain under Mrs Thatcher led to riots and the invention of Regeneration by Heseltine. One of these grand projects (probably the biggest after London Docklands) was to be a Cardiff Bay barrage creating a 2 kilometre square lake around which a new maritime city would emerge. Most people did not think this was a good idea. The tidal mud flats were one of the most important wild-fowl sites in Europe. Many people (like me) enjoyed the changing tides, the wildlife and the drama of the glistening mud. The barrage would raise the water table causing untold problems. But the Establishment was determined. The Cardiff Bay Development Corporation was set up in 1987 and although the people of Cardiff put up spirited resistance eventually the barrage was built, completed in 2001 at a cost of £200m. And it takes £20m a year just to maintain it.
Environmental disaster and boat motif
Cardiff Bay has always been big on ROADS. The whole plan was predicated on a 20 mile long dual carriageway loop from the M4, most of which has been completed except for a short but crucial section through Cardiff Docks. This means that if you are coming from the east you will be directed via a huge diversion all around the western outskirts of Cardiff. The road line slashed right through the Pier Head area and there was massive demolition in anticipation of its construction. To its credit the CBDC ensured that this section was put in an expensive tunnel but redevelopment above the tunnel has not re-established any coherent townscape; rather we end up with Mermaid Quay.
Welsh Prime Ministers (dead but not forgotten)
When is a square not a square? When it's a roundabout.
One of the main objectives of this grand project was to 're-unite Cardiff with its waterfront'. However if you anticipate a pleasant stroll from Central Station to the Blue Lagoon forget it, although the walk is instructive. You can take the no. 6 shuttle bus instead (free with your train ticket). There is also a station at Cardiff Bay but it does not connect to Central - it is part of the Valleys commuter network. For years the CBDC tried to remove this branch line as it stood in the way of the grand plan for the Ceausescu-like Lloyd George Avenue down to the Bay – more later.
Ceausescu-like Lloyd George Avenue
Butetown is cut off from the city centre by the mainline railway. Just north of this is the massive new St David's shopping centre with an impressive (certainly very large) John Lewis box. Strangely this seems to have been planned with a complete disregard of Cardiff Bay. Whereas you might have expected a strong pedestrian axis through the shopping centre to Bute St, in fact it turns its back on the Bay. St Mary's St, the most impressive street in the city, has been extended under the railway to the new Callaghan Square. However this attempt to improve connectivity is hampered by the Cardiff vice of unreconstructed over-the-top highway design, which means your passeggiata is thwarted at every junction by the nanny City Engineer.
Sit and watch the cars go by - Callaghan Square
Callaghan Square is a big formal space cut off in the middle of what is effectively a big roundabout. It has substantial and well considered landscaping, fountains and a statue of Lord Bute (not Callaghan). The landscaping tries to create a sense of enclosure which is very necessary as the only part of the Square to be built is the elliptical offices to the north, restrained and well proportioned. The Square is at least an attempt at place making but needs to be completed with buildings of consistent quality. The bog standard new offices to the west are not a good sign.
Butetown air-brushed out
The new ruins - Lloyd George Avenue
The problem is that Callaghan Square is not really leading anywhere. You will find the unprepossessing start of Ceausescu Boulevard beyond the railway bridge in a chaos of traffic and budget hotels. Given that Bute St runs straight as an arrow from Callaghan Square to the Pier Head, why was the parallel Lloyd George Avenue necessary? Well, you know, Butetown, Tiger Bay – not really the right image is it boy. Lloyd George Avenue defines Butetown as a ghetto just like any London Docklands council estate. Actually Bute St is a lot more fun than Lloyd George Avenue. Firstly there is the wonderful neo-Norman St Mary's Church (1845) and there are actually people. Lloyd George Avenue is the most boring street in, well at least Cardiff, lined with the most boring apartment blocks you will find anywhere, all smothered with apologetic landscaping. Actually it is lined only on one side; the other is landscaped as a cordon sanitaire to Butetown.
The death of street life - hidden ground floor car parks
The Dock of the Bay
East Dock Life
Whilst the West Dock was tragically filled in decades ago the East Dock has been retained although it is lifeless, cut off from the sea. These were coal docks but there are some attractive warehouses at the head of the docks which are renovated but submerged in the banality of recent buildings. On the far side of the dock another dual carriageway thunders down to the Bay (I did warn you they were big on roads.) County Hall, built in 1986 as a symbolic statement of commitment to the area, is at the south end of the big pond. It is in the style of Hillingdon; a satisfying composition of low pitched roofs but rather self effacing. It looks rather lost in acres of car parking and the great expanses of the Bay.
Steel works beside the dual carriageway - East Dock
South of County Hall all the new roads come together in a chaos of roundabouts, tunnel slip roads, car parks and left over space with absolutely no urban structure whatsoever. There is an attempt at a pedestrian axis through this confusion past 'Craft in the Bay' which sits precariously in the middle of a big unnecessary gyratory road system and the Red Dragon Centre, a shed multiplex which presents a blank glass brick façade to the pedestrian boulevard, because of course you will enter this tat via the rear car park.
The Establishment bottle it
Eventually you will reach the oval Roald Dahl Plass. This is a handsomely designed events space which used to be the sea-lock for the West Dock. Unfortunately it is subsumed into a much larger formless space dictated by the gormless dominance of unnecessary new roads. Facing this uncomfortable space is the Millennium Centre (not to be called the Opera House – it is home to 8 Welsh arts organisations). Despite the Taffia's grim determination to go ahead with the unnecessary and destructive barrage, together with the English establishment they bottled out of building Zaha Hadid's opera house, which would have been quite something. You will now have to go to Guangzhou. This is not the fault of the Millennium Centre, designed by Capita Percy Thomas. Given the lack of any urban context the building is inevitably dominant but its patinated stainless steel roof (known locally as the Armadillo) is very overwhelming. The entrance canopy has inscribed poetry, a nice touch, and to either side are wings of roughly banded polychromatic stone evoking a Cardiff building tradition. What is most successful is the auditorium itself lined in warm shades of wood – a big but very intimate space.
James and the giant peach - Roald Dahl Plass
The problem with the Millennium Centre is its lack of context. There is no enclosure. To the north space just bleeds away towards the blank multiplex and the wastelands of Lloyd George Avenue. To the west there is a remnant of the stucco Bute Crescent which follows the subtle curve of the old sea lock. But rather than strengthen this townscape the crescent has been bookended with big illiterate new blocks. Bute Place, with its fine but scandalously empty classical offices, should be a lively axis between the Millennium Centre and the old commercial quarter, but is just a race track.
The Wow Factor
Pier head detail
Your arrival at what used to be the sea is marked by the beautiful Pier Head Building of 1896 in bright red brick and terracotta, vivid with detail. You can see the great sweep of the Bay now perpetually at high tide but not quite as blue as the artists' impressions. It is sheltered from south-westerlies by Penarth Head. The barrage actually blocks your view of the Bristol Channel.
Devolution in design
Scattered around the littoral are various buildings which look rather lost apart from the imperious Pier Head Building. Richard Rogers's Welsh Assembly building must wonder why it's in this frivolous place rather than Cardiff's majestic civic centre. It has a wonderful projecting roof like a whale's tail fin over a grand flight of slate steps, visually spoilt by the need for ramps and handrails. Inside the undulating wooden ceiling is spectacular and if you manage to find the Chamber (follow signs for the loos) you will be impressed with the space, the intimacy and the great wood lined ventilation 'chimney'. This is a building, in a sense like the Millennium Centre, which is attuned to the dynamics of life in a small nation.
The Assembly building's position is challenged by a very aggressive office block with a glazed prow-like feature rearing over it towards the water. Beyond this near the lock for the Roath Basin are some more interesting small scale buildings including Alsop's 'temporary' (now 20 year old) wow factor Visitor Centre tube. This still impresses – something good to come out of the tawdry marketing of the Bay. Nearby the restored Norwegian seaman's church made of corrugated iron is charming.
WTF public art, near Roath Basin
Development on the north side of Roath Basin is at least built in some coherent relationship to the streets and the water. Some of the new offices are (almost) elegant. However the overall picture is terribly depressing. Although there is lots of paved quayside and public art, the new apartment blocks have no relationship with this and are hidden behind walls or above car parks and blank to the quaysides. The public space is completely lifeless, as is the water.
Tiger Bay but not as we knew it
South of Roath Basin big new developments are underway. Kitschly renamed 'Porth Teigr' (geddit?) this appears to be learning from earlier Bay mistakes with a lot of effort going into making a genuinely mixed use urban quarter with some decent public spaces. Too early to tell yet but the new BBC studios by FAT with a long, playful stage-set façade look pretty amazing.
From Porth Teigr you can reach the Barrage but it is a long rather bleak walk past the still working Cardiff Docks. Although undeniably an impressive engineering achievement the Barrage is not really very interesting, certainly not as interesting as what it has obliterated, the changing tides, the bird life and ecology of the mud flats.
The Bay that knows no shame
The mind boggles, the security guard watches from the bridge
Back past the Pier Head Building we come to Benoy's coy Mermaid Quay. This is inconsequential seaside town frivolity with a few nautical references, mostly restaurants and bars, and on a sunny day the waterfront here is quite lively. To the west are old graving docks and various old buildings and structures which have been adapted for leisure use. Beyond is the big St David's Hotel with its look-at-me sail roof.
What is unforgiveable about Mermaid Quay is that this trivial development has actually wiped out the old Pier Head at the termination of Bute St. This included the lovely Pier Head Chambers with its long Venetian facade. It gets worse; in order to build a pathetic shopping mall Bute St has actually been diverted behind Mermaid Quay's service backside - just unbelievable public squalor.
Contemporary incoherence - Sold
This is why Cardiff Bay is so awful. The new developments turn their back on the conservation area in the most ignorant and boorish way. The swathe of destruction for the loop road (now in a tunnel beneath) has created a no-mans-land of blank low rise housing turning its back to the streets, left over space, car parks and service yards. Shamefully many of the surviving old commercial buildings are vacant, some derelict and there are numerous gap sites – a real indictment of the CBDC and the City Council.
Historic coherence - To Let
Coherent townscape has shrunk to the area around Mount Stuart Square with the magnificent if pompous Coal Exchange (reconstructed in 1911) now partly used as an entertainment venue and looking down-at-heel. Gap sites, the result of extraordinary neglect by the City Council over decades, have been infilled with horribly crude and overbearing apartment buildings, but if you can screen these out of your mind, Mount Stuart Square with its eclectic mixture of style and decoration is a delightful piece of urbanity in the desert of Cardiff Bay. Together with West Bute St and the remnant of Bute St (which leads to Cardiff Bay station) this little enclave is another world which actually looks and feels like a real city. It should have been the starting point for the regeneration of the Bay, but the CBDC went for an anti-urban car based sprawl instead.
Where regeneration should have begun
No public allowed
It gets worse. Immediately west of Mount Stuart Square on Clarence Road a Big Brother new police station guards monstrous stacks of gated flats that crowd along the banks of the Taff. What appear on the map as streets like Taliesin Court (unintentional irony) are actually guarded fortresses of contempt for the residents of Butetown and the whole concept of society. There is not even a public path along the riverside. Disgraceful, intimidating, alienating, alarming, depressing – regeneration my arse.
The end of urbanism
And there is more. On the foreshore between the Taff and the Ely is a bewildering array of new development. This extensive area is cut up with elevated expressways which provide convoluted access; there is no continuity with the pleasant streets of inner city Grangetown. (You can get there on the infrequent no. 7 bus from Bute St.) Yet more blocks of mostly gated flats hug the shore. There is no coherent waterfront or maritime park. Behind are massive supermarkets and retail parks. The main interest is the troubled Sports Village, originally planned around a mega casino and other iconic structures like Bay Pointe 'Wales' tallest building' but it has fallen victim to its own hubris and the recession. The City's private sector partner Orion has recently pulled out. A new swimming pool, a temporary ice arena and a white water course have been constructed. The best thing is the new pedestrian and cycle bridge across the Ely river to Penarth Dock.
Bridge over troubled waters
Expressway-side apartments on the River Ely
Penarth is a very pleasant seaside suburb which likes to think it is a separate town. The redevelopment around the narrow dock below Penarth Head is one of the more successful elements of the Bay at least once you have negotiated the obligatory Tesco megastore at the entrance. The enclosure provided by Penarth Head, the smaller scale of the housing and its close relationship to the busy marina is quite a relief after the rootlessness, restlessness and formlessness of so much of the Bay. At the end of the dock you reach the more interesting bit of the Barrage – the big sea locks. However as you would anticipate the fine old dock offices are boarded up and semi derelict.
What's the Big Idea?
Contrast & Compare #1: Cardiff Bay
Of course the mad plan goes back more than 20 years. In retrospect what is so striking is the lack of any concept of sustainability. You might ask why the unique asset of the lagoon was destroyed just to make a big, boring lake that is little used. But the environmental objections to the barrage were very convincingly made at the time and were just ignored. You may despair at the contempt for the heritage of the built environment. You might wonder why in such an exposed location there are such vast open spaces with no attempt to create sheltered micro climates. You might think it is barking that the area was developed without any effective plan for public transport, walking or cycling and that the whole thing is based on massive new roads and car dependency. You might query why there are so many apartment blocks given the number of empty flats, or why so few houses, shops and local amenities. You may compare the Bay very unfavourably to what has been achieved in big waterside regeneration plans elsewhere like Hammarby Sjostad or Vastra Hamnen in Sweden.
Contrast & Compare #2: Hammarby Sjostad
Why did it happen? The political and the regeneration mind-set sees development per se as good and big shiny things as even better. Never mind about the quality, liveability or sustainability. Cardiff, actually quite a small city, wants to 'punch above its weight' – an appropriately aggressive term given the outcome of some very unpleasant urban environments. Regeneration plc is not good at townscape, streetscape, detail or finesse.
The bay that cannot remember its past...
Ultimately Cardiff Bay is a consequence of the failure to plan properly. It is not really about the buildings – many are dreadful, most are nondescript and a few are interesting but this is not much different from regeneration schemes up and down the land. What singles out Cardiff Bay is the desperately poor relationships of buildings to the water which is the raison d'etre for the whole damn enterprise in the first place, to streets and public spaces and the lack of any attempt at place-making.
A lot of lessons should be learnt from Cardiff Bay but I very much doubt they will.
Such is the power of the Big Idea.
N.B. There are no pubs approved by the Good Beer Guide at Cardiff Bay
Sian Best: A Whim Set In Concrete
J. Newman: The Buildings of Wales - Glamorgan
M. Daunton: Coal Metropolis
J. Hilling: Cardiff and the Valleys