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Architecture can create an identity


When governments wish to create a building with serious identity, they do not do so by inviting design-and-build contractors to reach into their bottom drawer to 'come up with some ideas'. No, what they do is seek real designs from real architects; viz the Scots with their new Parliament building, and now the Welsh with their marvellous group of designs for their assembly chamber in Cardiff. Rather late in the day, they have realised the virtues of displaying the shortlisted schemes for some public comment before announcing a decision. Better late than not at all, and let's hope the sorry history of some architectural proposals in the principality is now behind us.

The task of the architect thinking about national identity is a particularly difficult one. One of the worst aspects of cut-price Post-Modernism in unskilled hands was the way in which architectural history was mugged for a quick return, rather than absorbed and understood in a way which would have cultural relevance. Yet Modernism in unskilled (and some skilled) hands paid scant regard to local or regional contexts, hence the uniformity of so many of our cities, with their dumb towers. In Beijing the authorities went though a phase of asking for a Chinese 'look' to be given to these buildings. The result? The surreal topping of slab blocks with traditional- style rooflines.

But the Chinese recognised a dilemma: the potential price you pay when you lose your identity (alas, they are still knocking down traditional community areas and shunting people to high-rise apartments - just as we did). For architects, the successful connection of a representative building to the history with which it must engage requires their full intellectual and design powers. Synthesising materials, form and in particular space can achieve something which, though new, has a real relationship with both past and present. If London's new assembly building can match what is to be built in Cardiff and Edinburgh, it will be doing well.

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