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Vote for architecture.

To understand recent changes to Britain's Parliamentary arrangements, it is important to remember the backgrounds of the leading Labour politicians of the last 30 years. For example, the Labour Party (which ruled for the first three and last 10) has had as its leaders James Callaghan (Welsh); Michael Foot (Welsh); Neil Kinnock (Welsh); John Smith (Scottish); and Tony Blair (English but Scottish-educated). His heir-apparent is Gordon Brown (Scottish).

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Given this parade of the non-English succeeding in national politics via Westminster, why should they have supported devolution and parliamentary buildings in Scotland and Wales? The answer was partly to do with counteracting Scottish and Welsh nationalism; it appears that the creation of a Scottish Parliament, with its extraordinary building designed by Enric Miralles (AR November 2004), and now the Richard Rogers Partnership National Assembly for Wales, have put those genies back in the bottle, at least for the time being.

Instead, Gordon Brown recently made an extraordinary speech in which he called on the British to start flying the national flag, the Union Jack, in the American way, and start behaving more 'patriotically'. This hypocritical drivel was greeted with the loud raspberry it surely deserved; the British only wave flags on very special occasions--for example a visit by the Queen. She will be going to Cardiff on St David's Day (1 March) to open the RRP building.

Happily, the architects and their client have avoided the temptation to turn the Assembly building into a Disney-esque representation of all that is Welsh. While many of the materials used are of Welsh origin, their selection has been part of an environmental programme aimed at minimising journey times for materials. (Other key programme elements included a design life of 100 years, and accessible and inclusive design for people of all ages and abilities.)

This is the first pavilion building by the Richard Rogers Partnership, and a relatively small project for the practice (Madrid Airport opens shortly, for example). However, it punches well above its weight in creating architectural presence in the context of the Millennium Centre next door, the adjacent Pierhead building being used as an educational facility, and of Cardiff Bay itself, a large expanse of water behind the barrage designed by Will Alsop.

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The extended overhanging roof, with its undulating red cedar slatted timber soffit, is a visual complement to the rippling water in the bay beyond. It gives a real sense of importance and occasion as you arrive, at plinth level (magnificently built in Welsh slate, cleaved and pillared to show off the quality of the material). You enter an offset security zone and then arrive in the main 'living room' space, a huge volume where you can sit, attend informal meetings or presentations, and watch whatever is happening in the assembly chamber on one of the many screens available (all the IT in the buildings is top-grade). Within the volume you can go to the upper level cafe and sit round the magnificent timber-clad 'bell' that acts as a light source and ventilation exit for the assembly chamber at lower ground level, which includes meeting rooms and three double-height, glazed-wall committee chambers. Glass bridges link to an adjacent existing office building where members and staff have permanent facilities, but most of the circulation in the building is open to all.

Natural ventilation is the norm, with the help of 27 boreholes 100m deep, connected to heat exchangers to provide a temperature range control, there is some mechanical and air-conditioning assistance if required, plus underfloor heating. It feels very clement.

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This was a project that had its moments of drama; at one stage the architects were sidelined and had to win a second competition, with Taylor Woodrow, to complete the project they had designed after winning a first competition. There were some difficult technical requirements (security, especially after 9/11) and elements (like translation rooms) which put pressure on space.

RRP director Ivan Harbour cites the Richard Rogers dictum, about good buildings comprising simple plans and complex sections, in his description of the building, and he acknowledges an unexpected source of inspiration for the curving roof design--a never-built sculpture for the RRP Bordeaux Law Courts (AR July 1999) where Harbour was also project director.

A complex story and programme has resulted in a building of clarity and calm, which impresses without becoming bombastic, and gives Cardiff a first-class building in which Welsh governance will be admirably housed.
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Article Details
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Author:Finch, Paul
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 1, 2006
Words:768
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