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'Streets full of iconic buildings make no sense' Architect Neil MacOmish tells Robert Llewellyn Jones architecture has to be sustainable not just environmentally but socially and economically as well.

Byline: Llewellyn Jones

IT has been said that the role of an architect is to create buildings and have the ability to integrate them with the landscape.

Neil MacOmish, the architectural director who leads the Scott Brownrigg team in Cardiff, takes this a step further.

"A great architect once said the purpose of architecture is to make the cosmos intelligible," he said.

"In this is the essence of what we try and do. We try to make spaces and places for people and communities to inhabit, which are not just functional but make our lives better."

At the firm's office in Callaghan Square MacOmish looks relaxed and at home in what he calls an inspiring, innovative and dynamic environment.

When it is suggested that Sir Clough Williams-Ellis might disagree, he laughs.

He said: "A good architect can be described as a pencil in his client's hands. A great architect, however, is someone who draws something that a client reacts to and lifts our spirits."

In achieving this the part played by an architect has changed profoundly over the years. The architect as visionary and master craftsman has, he believes, been lost through a lack of rigour in the profession.

He said: "Sadly architects became overtly arrogant to the point of saying we are not interested in certain aspects of our role. Then along came quantity surveyors who said: 'We'll be the project manager and have the key interface with the client. You'll just do a set of drawings'."

He added: "I think that detachment of the architect from his client leads to a breakdown in communication resulting in instructions being received secondhand, which I don't think is healthy."

This leads him to the perennial question of sustainability. If architecture is to be anything, over the next century, it has to be sustainable not just environmentally but socially and economically as well.

He said: "We have seen those grand projects that have been developed through Lottery and Heritage funding that seem like terrific ideas at the time, but might be in the wrong place and might not have a sensible economic grounding. To me the danger here is that the whole of the property and construction industry is seen as building white elephants that have no real community or social use and we have to be mindful of that."

Presenting the counter argument to this he believes there will always be buildings that have a high cultural or artistic values and cites the National Museum of Wales as an example.

"That would be profoundly difficult to build today because of the economic conditions and even the public's attitude, which was seen in the conflict aroused over the Zaha Hadid design for the Cardiff Bay Opera House [later replaced by the Wales Millennium Centre] and the building of the Millennium Stadium.

This seemed to me to a choice between rugby and opera."

Since he first came to Cardiff as a student in 1978 MacOmish has had a love for the city which is now his home.

He said that Wales has been adventurous and progressive in the way it has come to terms with the demands architects face in terms of applying specific and regulatory building standards like energy consumption, health and safety standards which, he points out, come at a price.

"We have to strike the balance between pushing architectural and building technologies above and beyond where they are now to the betterment of the environment and the places we live and work in.

"But we must not make the cost of development such that it deters investment into Wales.

"For instance Cardiff only recently broke pounds 20 a sq ft for office space, while in London pounds 65 a sq ft is not unheard of.

"We cannot have such a huge differential in our cost and return to developers, otherwise it would stop them building here."

And he has concerns over increasing regulatory burdens.

"Now we have to produce, with every planning application, a design and access statement," he said. "One of the key components in this is 'what is your attitude towards sustainability?' "It's always difficult for design teams and clients to deal with a planning authority because nine times out of 10 we only ever deal with the officer who is dealing with the application. While he makes a recommendation for approval or rejection. it's still the committee that makes the final say."

That said, he is quick to stress that planning committees should be careful not to reject schemes that have been recommended for approval by executive officers, who are applying the Town and Country Planning Acts.

It would be, he said, a good idea to give an opportunity for any scheme to have a pre-planning application presentation to the committee allowing the design team a chance to explain the scheme.

"It's difficult for a planning officer to capture that," he said. "Yes, he is going to be impartial but sometimes we do want to understand what the emotions behind the scheme are."

It's these emotions that lead him on the question of how important it is for the architect to be in harmony with the powers that be to create the building he has been commissioned to design.

A building has, he points out, three clients - the one who pays for it, the one who lives or works in it and finally the client who has to walk past it every day as part of his built environment.

Buildings, he believes, have to be responsive and listen to the local communities they find themselves in, but that doesn't imply that the architect should respond to a populist view.

He said: "If that were the case think what would have happened to St Paul's Cathedral which, when finished, was considered a modern monster, out of scale with the City of London. Now every planning law in London is about protecting historic views of St Paul's so sometimes the only real judge of architectural quality can be time." Encapsulating this he said: "We all have a view on our built environment, the architecture that captures that and the public spaces we move through. We often think that the community view is an absolute. I think it needs to be modified, it needs to be responded to and taken into consideration."

Turning to the commercial property sector, the necessity is to construct buildings with a sense of economy which, at the same time, provide better and more inspiring environments driven by the sustainability agenda.

He said: "Even though we are going to go through between five and 10 years of austerity in terms of public finances we have to be more prudent with the way that design commercial buildings, public buildings and the spaces they face on to."

He is, he admits, not always an advocate for the iconic. Good architectural language, like any other language, has a syntax.

Streets full of iconic buildings are like sentences full of exclamation marks and make no sense.

There has to be some quiet, neutral background buildings that are counterpoints for moments of architectural celebration, he says.

Callaghan Square has been called the gateway to Cardiff Bay and provides, MacOmish believes, a fitting location for Scott Brownrigg's growth in the coming years.

There is however a caveat to this. "What we still need to do as a city is to ensure that public infrastructure and connectivity between the city centre and the Bay is improved," he said.

"I think that if and when this is done it will make Cardiff a single unit and not two fractured spaces.

" I remember what Cardiff was like in 1978 and what it is today and the transformation has been astounding.

"But we mustn't forget other places in South Wales and Wales as a whole - let's not kill the fatted calf."

To emphasis this point he draws the comparison with Barcelona, capital of Catalonia, with its own culture and language just as Wales enjoys. "I would hate to think we didn't promote the success of Cardiff because Cardiff as a city can benefit Wales as a nation. We've seen it at work in the world-class facilities we have here. So let's build a better environments around them, improve the city thus ensuring that Wales also improves."

Projects MacOmish has worked on include the Swalec Stadium in Cardiff and extra seating FOR the Oval in London, a well as the 190-bedroom hotel at the cricket ground.

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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 16, 2010
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