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Callaghan sets out vision for Wales Assembly building

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Wales will get a timeless building for its National Assembly, promises Lord Callaghan, chairman of the design competition assessment panel. It will also be functionally better than any possible adaptation of Cardiff's City Hall.

'What we want is a building for the twenty-first century,' he said last week.

Lord Callaghan revealed that the design panel is more concerned with how the £11.5 million building will work and how the chosen design will affect functional efficiency than with its external appearance. 'We are spending more time on the inside of the building than on the outside, and we are not going to be conned into producing another House of Commons chamber.'

While he and his fellow assessors want a building that can become a visual representation of Wales, using Welsh materials and local art to reinforce its Welshness. Lord Callaghan said that the final choice will be based on more than visual appearances. 'We will pick the team that is most likely to fulfil all our design brief conditions.'

Aspects such as accessibility and security are playing important parts in the panel's assessment, as are the size and structure of the debating chamber which is to reflect the mainly administrative nature of the assembly rather than provide a confrontational party political forum.

'We are anxious to give the building some elbow room,' Lord Callaghan added.

He insisted that the sole function of his panel is to recommend one design to the Welsh Secretary of State. There will be no public consultation before the panel makes its choice in mid-October, although Lord Callaghan said that he would like the Royal Society of Architects in Wales (rsaw) to organise a public exhibition of the final design. 'We want to put the public in the picture,' he added, but stressed that the final decision was up to the Welsh Office.

The assessment panel has been working on the competition for six months, during which time Lord Callaghan said that he has had a lot of fun and learned a great deal.

He was speaking in Cardiff last week before opening an exhibition presenting national assembly buildings from around the world. Organised by the rsaw, together with the Welsh School of Architecture, the University of Wales Institute Cardiff (uwic), the Academy of Design in Wales and Touchstone (the rsaw magazine), the exhibition highlights the kind of issues that face the Welsh Assembly designers and demonstrates how these have been tackled in other modern parliament buildings.

Patrick Hannay of uwic's School of Design, editor of Touchstone and one of the exhibition's organisers, said that the intention was to increase public understanding and involvement in architectural debates about important buildings. That was the reason for locating the exhibition not in museums or galleries but in shopping centres at Bangor (where it was for the final week of August) and in Cardiff.

'The exhibition is arming people with a lot of knowledge about the complex issues facing any designer of an assembly building, so that when they see the shortlisted schemes they can express more informed opinions.

'It is, in this way, a unique initiative in the architectural world of competitions - and Wales deserves some credit for that.'

Hannay added that the exhibition had proved a very effective briefing opportunity for the non-architect members of the assessment panel. 'Once the panel makes a recommendation, it is up to the secretary of state to set in motion a level of public display and debate before he makes a final decision. It is then that the value of this presentation will be truly tested.'

Hannay said that the exhibition was the first venue outside Scotland to display the winning design for the Scottish parliament building. Members of the Scottish winning team will be attending the rsaw conference at Llandrindod Wells on 2 October 1998. 'They will talk for the first time about the process of public involvement in their competition,' said Hannay.

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