With the announcement of the 2013’s Pritzker Prize winner and the approaching of the first ever Welsh Architecture Festival beginning this Saturday in Aberystwyth, mid-Wales, this has been a busy week for architects and architecture lovers all around Wales.
Seizing the opportunity, The Archer took a look into the projecting craftsmen’s world and searched for the Welsh Architecture identity across the dragon country to discover a horizon full of talented designers and economic difficulties.
Architectural works, either in the form of public buildings, monuments or even private houses, are often considered as symbols of generations, cultures and their people since ancient times. Internationally, sometimes whole cities are reminded or characterized by their architectural masterpieces, like the Opera House in Sydney or the twin Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur, with the famous Millennium Stadium in Cardiff not being an exception to the rule.
Cardiff has been a centre of attention for international architects to develop their projects, taking by example the Senedd building down in the Bay quarter designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Richard Rogers. But when it comes to the architectural identity of the country outside the major metropolitan centres, we have to ask ourselves where the Welsh architectural identity stands.
After the 2013´s Pritzker Architecture Prize winner has been announced earlier this week, the architectural world entered as usual in a frenetic spotlight with the art in the centre of the media agenda. Toyo Ito, architect whose buildings have been praised during the last years due to their fluidity and balance between the physical and virtual world, became the sixth Japanese awarded with the honour equivalent to a Nobel Prize or an Oscar for architecture.
In a press release statement, Ito confessed that Architects have been making the art too complex. “We have to base architecture on the environment”, Mr. Ito said, reporting back to his influences in nature and its relation with the human action, a theme that seems to be recurrent in the Welsh Architecture.
For Ollie Green, postgraduate student at Cardiff University´s School of Architecture, which worked for the Penarth based architecture company Loyn & Co, Welsh architecture has a “reasonably strong identity.” He said: “with so many natural materials and landscapes where you can work on, themes like slight mountains and long panoramic views keep reappearing in Wales and used masterfully.”
Although this may seem a successful case in big cities like Cardiff or Swansea, filled with buildings to remember, Mr. Green confesses that he has some doubts concerning the Welsh countryside. “Countryside architecture is already blooming in the United Kingdom, mainly in the private housing market, but it requires really rich rural areas like Oxford. The architecture in Wales outside the big cities is facing a tough time, because the Valleys are a bit like many American towns, planned with short-term resources, badly and unsustainably,” he added.
On the other hand, for Rory Wilson, architect and owner of Catalina Architects in Aberystwyth, although there are a lot more high profile buildings with architectural merit nowadays, “it seems that the vast majority of the buildings and houses are in many cases very poorly design.”
He said: “We need not only to work and be inspired in landscapes or buildings but also to focus on new aesthetics, merging them together.”
Mr. Wilson was also the co-founder and the father of the idea for the Aberystwyth’s Welsh Architecture Festival; wish will begin this Saturday the 23rd and will last for six weeks until the 4th of May.
It all started when a small group of architects from Aberystwyth or and surrounding areas got together to organize something that could capture the creative energy of the west coast and mid-Wales. They felt the need to do themselves rather than waiting for it to be organized by London or Cardiff.
“We wanted to highlight the importance of good high profile buildings and architecture blooming around Wales, especially outside the big city centres. The most important purpose of this festival is to raise more awareness to an under-looked art, given the fact that we all live, work and die around buildings and architecture. It’s an intrinsic part of our lives and it should be regarded as such,” Mr. Wilson said.
The festival´s programme ranges from film showings to expert talks, with a special focus on open public discussions on the topic. Mary Wrenn, director for the Royal Society of Architects in Wales, under the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) guidance, is the coordinator of the project and took the leashes since the very proposal to the RSAW branch in mid-Wales.
She said: “Our aim is to reach the widest possible audience showing the power and pleasure of Welsh buildings and places and foment discussion between people. We want people to be able to talk about architecture as naturally as they talk about the weather.”
More than helping the Festival from the RSAW’s Cardiff Headquarters, Miss Wrenn is also committed on developing the relation with local planning committees and mustering the welsh architecture on general.
She said: “I think it is quite hard for architects at the moment. Practices are finding disclose because of the economic situation. Architects had to lose staff, because the workloads have dropped considerably in the past few years. However I think we have to be optimistic and think that there is very good work being produced anyway.”
Miss Wrenn also pointed out as a good example the fact that in this year´s RIBA awards – architecture awards for the whole of the UK – there are eight Welsh schemes short-listed for the grand prize, and that interestingly none of them is within the big cities except a headquarters building at Newport.
Liz Walder, ex-director for RSAW who recently completed a PhD on the RIBA Gold Medal, also agreed that architects in Wales should look more into the good examples. She said: “A good benchmark to look at the statues of Welsh Architecture in the present might be the winners of the Eisteddfod Architecture Medal and the RIBA Awards in Wales.”
Back to the words of Miss Wrenn, “there is a lot of good architecture happening, but there are more challenges than ever before”. Although it is a good thing that the architecture in Wales is finally spreading towards the valleys and the west coast, the economy and the financial decisions will always be ahead of creativity when it comes to the ancient art of projecting buildings.
In the view of the student Mr. Green, there is always a big difference between what architecture can or will end up doing. “Very often the architecture follows where the money is at. It is an incredibly luxurious device having a really high profile building. Architecture is just like a yacht, one of the most expensive things you can ever have.”
Questioned about his prospects for the future, the aspirant architect inspired profoundly. “My prospects for the future are in general pretty poor, but still good compared to other students from other schools. Cardiff University enjoys a good reputation and we do a solid amount of work. However the money hasn’t been around for the last few years.”
“We are living in a difficult time for architects, no matter where you go,” he added.
Welsh Fetival of Architecture: http://www.aberystwythartscentre.co.uk/festivals/wales-festival-architecture-g%C5%B5yl-bensaerniaeth