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MELLOW DRAMA

building study - Richard Murphy Architects' Galeri in Caernarfon, a gathering and performance base for local creative groups, melds the practice's well-developed approach to planning and use of materials

As the cafés and burgeoning shops moved into the culture houses of the 1980s and '90s, the boundaries between private commerce and public art museum as agnostic churches of spiritual redemption became confused.

Many bemoaned this denouement as cultural vandalism, conveniently forgetting the murky commerce of the art dealers in the shadows. Then came the turn-of-thecentury look-at-me 'blobs' and 'fractals', clamouring for one-day-only headlines, as if art was going to regenerate the urban landscape for the long term through globetrotting city tourists spoiled by ecologically unsustainable cheap air travel.

Drunk on the quicksand of Lottery gold, floating on dream-like business plans, the brute reality of bums on seats, revenue spend and life-cycle costs was to arrive inevitably as a cold shower to many hot, fevered dreams.

Caernarfon in north Wales cannot afford such luxurious misdemeanours. This building's creators have their feet firmly on the ground - the social and political penalties of getting it wrong are too high in such an economically deprived community. The creative minds behind Galeri (the Cwmni Tref Caernarfon development trust) are no johnny-come-latelies to the hard graft of creating social redevelopment where local authorities - stripped naked by the Tories and New Labour - can't find the funds to make a civil environment, and private enterprise won't. Gwyn Roberts and his fellow workers have been at it for 13 years, seeking to creatively mend economic wounds in the town.

They are exhausted and elated by Galeri.

Aided by David Clark of DCA Consulting as client support, one of the most able consultants for creative buildings, Galeri stands out bravely as a bold new cultural animal for a town of this size (Caernarfon's population is around 60,000).

Clark suggests possible precedents in the medieval Pease Hall in Halifax or, more recently, a giant version in the new Wales Millennium Centre. Sadly, the Gadarene rush to publish, which does such disservice to serious architectural discourse, will mean we are still left with the vital question unanswered. Can the spell of 'Murphy magic' at the Dundee Arts Centre and Cwmni Tref's astuteness be cast over this new Caernarfon dockside building?

The initial omens look promising, with many full houses, almost full rentals of the creative enterprise spaces and four to five applications a day for hiring the shared facilities, but it is actually far too early to tell.

This is not an art house that has spawned creative enterprises organically over time.

Nor is it a speculative incubator unit spinning off-shoots from a partnership of academia and industry. This is a group of local, formerly isolated, creative enterprises, gathering for mutual support and inspirational succour around a feast of cultural display spaces that can be offered to other diverse communities.

It is intended to be economically selfsustaining, not dependent on public grants.

Local citizens who may have sniped for years at the supposed folly of the enterprise are now queuing up to share in the riches, quietly swallowing their curmudgeonly pessimism.

What a relief it is to find at this dockside, that once bustled with the wealth of Welsh slate, a new, modest, sober structure, a seemingly simple rigorous plan and section, and a building with sufficient external public presence to attract your attention to the inner riches, which is what really matters.

The three adjacent long-houses, separated by two parallel circulation/servicing zones, could not be more economic or more subtle in their rigorous internal execution. What a pleasure it is to see an architecture again that knits plan, section and elevation so neatly.

The hallmarks of Richard Murphy Architects' language are visible instantly: the love affair with the thin steel flange casting shadows (particularly sweet is the columnbracing plate in the atrium that doubles as a drinks table); the subtle spatial manipulation of multi-levelled space to engender social interaction and energy; the steel-edged stepped walls to staircases; the polished Venetian Armourcoat plaster; the transformative objects that always seek to blur boundaries between inside and out - here the large, sliding external windows to the external walkways; the angled mirror to connect the theatre space to the waters of the Menai Straits, and the tricksy auditorium triple-function screen that is at once a cinema screen, acoustic reflector and theatre backdrop (see Working Detail, pages 30-31).

Anybody who has read Murphy's description of Carlo Scarpa's descending stairs from the battlements at Castelvecchio will recognise in this practice's building that the comprehension is not merely academic. Once you step inside the Galeri, the choreography of route and view is immediately enriching and masterful. The glance to the right to the small ground-floor art gallery; the glance left to the reception desk, which strikes through spatially to the events manager's office, leading you along to the secondary performance spaces; the curving welcoming stair that in parallel beckons you to the upper levels of glass-fronted workspaces, which you can spot instantly across the atrium.

As you enter the atrium, the bar reveals itself and, beyond that, you glide into a space that becomes the dockside café, with entrancing views across to the Menai Straits. As you rise up the stair, the spaces open out, revealing more facilities to visit.

On the upper levels the rigorous application, almost everywhere, of open-sided circulation spaces alongside fully glazed workspaces (avoiding enclosed corridors) under neatly detailed timber-slatted lower ceilings, leads you directly into the main auditorium, where the circulation zone transforms into excellent side seats, with long, comfortable benches with back rests. Again, it is all so seemingly effortless, but, of course, it comes from an intense application of a particular humane sensibility.

The architecture of open-top, day-lit atria with perimeter circulation is always tricky.

You want the human movement, the views up to the busy galleries of workers, the shouting and signalling to visitors and colleagues from the circulation routes; you need the hubbub of the bar rising up through all levels, but you want both 'room' and 'route', a place of rest and yet movement. That's a difficult challenge. Success relies heavily on judgements of proportion to the 'room' and on the path of the sunlight in the space. Here, the perimeter stairs to the 'room' are hidden rightly from it by the stepping walls that take you on a perambulation around the atrium to reach the top floor, cunningly leading you past the major secondary performance space on the way. The visual restlessness of staircases is avoided.

References to Alvar Aalto and the presence of a sweeping curved volume of an auditorium expressed in the public foyer seem to account for one of the giant curved dramatic walls to the 'room' (even though Murphy admits it is an illusion, the auditorium being rectilinear, with its demands for retractable bleacher seating). The curve is mirrored on the opposite wall.

Already there are concerns that somehow the ground-level gathering place, with its bar, is not entirely comfortable. The building managers talk of altering the hard concrete floor surface, but this may be mere tinkering with what may be a more challenging matter.

Is the 'room' simply too tall and chimneylike in its proportions, too restless because of its two projecting curved walls and too much in the shadows because of the building's orientation, width height and depth, and prone to too much diagonal crossmovement from entrance space to café? Let's hope the manager is correct and it's only the floor surface.

There is a curious architectural blindspot, which those familiar with the building will not be troubled by, namely the main entrance. At one scale of reading it is obviously marked by the tall rendered drum with 'Galeri' written clearly on it. But at a closer reading, for the first-time visitor, the door becomes lost in a dark shadowy inset space, facing the opposite way to the main pedestrian approach from the town.

Of course, once inside the building, the direction of the entrance delivers you perfectly to all the facilities. The practice talks of a missing canopy element, still not funded, to the top of the drum. I would suggest a projecting canopy would be more valuable to mark the ground-level entrance for firsttime visitors.

The structural frame is expressed fully on the long elevations. There is a lot of dark, painted steel, with shadows expressing the flange edges. The frame is filled smartly with western red cedar infill panelling.

At one level this is all simple and appropriately restrained. But one extra line of horizontal structure carries the weight of the splendid large sliding doors, which in summer months will make this building such a visual and sociable pleasure to work in and will keep it cool. But is that line one too many? The balconies that run the full length of the elevation, dropping at their ends down external circular stairs, add another layer.

It is always the same heavy steel section throughout, with a lot of bracing. There is little subtlety. The long elevations never quite make up their mind as to whether the primary thrust is horizontal or vertical. One senses that, for the balconies, Buckminster Fuller was not on the structural engineers' reading lists when they were at college. In contrast, the end gables are both magnificent and make fitting neighbours to the adjacent older stone warehouses left on the dock.

Let's hope that the contractor, Watkin Jones, a local contractor and development company, can find the goodwill and finance to place proper mirrors, to bring the Menai Straits into the auditorium, instead of the inadequate stainless-steel plate in place.

More importantly, even though the contract has probably made it virtually no profit (£6,399,384 for 2,393m 2 of gross floor area), it is remarkable how much quality architecture has been squeezed out of such a tight budget.

Let us pray that Watkin Jones can now understand why the Design Commission for Wales might have hoped it would hire an architect of the calibre of Richard Murphy Architects to execute its huge commercial and residential development on a site adjacent to the Galeri.

If the only lesson it draws from the Galeri experience is that architecture equals 'not much profit' and 'not worth the effort', then it will be a sad day for Caernarfon and architecture in Wales. The Galeri is testament to how visionary clients and simple but spatially rich architecture can be constructed under challenging circumstances to make for a culturally and commercially more civilised world.

Patrick Hannay is course director of interior architecture at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff and editor of Touchstone

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