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Roath Lock Studios, Cardiff, by FAT and Holder Mathias Architects

FAT’s half-metre thick, clip-on facade for Cardiff’s BBC studios is a poster boy for procurement today, writes Rory Olcayto

The facade for the new BBC drama production facility in Cardiff Bay is frontloaded design at its most extreme: architecture condensed into a single plane. It’s a clip-on, 300-metre long, half-metre thick timber screen with abstract, cartoonish cut-outs – of rose windows, crosses, gothic patterns – and a GRP centrepiece in ‘space-age Baroque’. Dew-drop ‘drips’ underline the elevation at eye level, with more Baroque stylings amplifying the top line.

Its creator, Sean Griffiths of FAT, calls it a ‘figural section, a slice, extrusion, fragment or surface for information, offering a rich but non-expressive, deadpan or objective form of communication’. Behind the facade, there’s a strip of ‘bog-standard, cat B office’ and some great big sheds for studios, where Casualty, Upstairs Downstairs and Doctor Who are filmed. ‘There’s not a lot to it,’ he says.

There are similarities with other FAT projects, such as the Hoogvliet Villa in the Netherlands, the new Islington Square housing project in Manchester, or the Sint Lucas Art Academy in Boxtel, again in the Netherlands. Those projects, as Griffiths implies in the recent FAT-edited ‘Radical Postmodernism’ Architectural Designspecial, were also frontloaded, to ‘counteract the expressionistic spatial promiscuity that characterises much current architecture’.

And while that’s evidently true – more than any other UK practice, FAT has embraced the charms of the ‘figural section’ – the facade is the only bit of the BBC building, called Roath Lock Studios, it has actually designed. The rest, including the offices, cafeteria and vast sheds housing studios and sets, was produced by Holder Mathias Architects. A fact, as Griffiths admits, that probably says more about how we make architecture today than any number of provocative, thoughtful Postmodern ruminations for AD could ever do. He says: ‘Procurement is shaping architecture in the same way that technology and materials shaped Modernism. It’s all about timescales and money. It’s very interesting in a boring kind of way. But no one talks about it. You wouldn’t believe how quickly this was designed.’

The project’s origins lie within a joint venture formed in 2005 between Igloo, which is a real-estate fund managed by Aviva Investors, and the Welsh Government. Their plan was to turn 38 acres in the Roath Basin, Cardiff Bay, into a mixed-use development with commercial, retail and residential buildings. Igloo called its proposal ‘the final piece in the Cardiff Bay Inner Harbour jigsaw’, and asked Terry Farrell, then DEGW, to draw up masterplans. But these were severely compromised by the credit crunch in 2008, which made the residential schemes unviable. But around this time, another key element – the development of a creative quarter – took hold, when the BBC mooted a move from Bristol to Cardiff.

Griffiths explains that FAT, alongside dRMM and Holder Mathias, was asked to propose ideas, and was appointed in July 2009. Yet because time was tight – it had to be ready by September this year, when the new series of Casualty began filming – so was Holder Mathias, which had the workforce and systems in place to produce a project of this scale: the facility is one of the largest drama production studios in Europe. Furthermore, the funding from the Welsh Government was a deadline-dependent grant, placing even more emphasis on speed of delivery. Holder Mathias did everything from Stage E onwards. ‘They did the offices, the studio sheds, even the facade. We oversaw the detailing, but they were doing it. And to be fair to them, they did it pretty well,’ says Griffiths.

While Igloo has a good track record in hiring smaller firms – Studio Bednarski designed a nearby bridge – there’s a wider debate here regarding how the British construction industry operates. As Griffiths says: ‘There’s definitely a prejudice against creative practices – and we’re at the extreme end of the spectrum. There’s an assumption that if you’re a little bit arty, you can’t deliver. It’s a constant battle. One of the reasons Holder Mathias was brought in was because Igloo was nervous about whether we could deliver.’

This approach means practices like FAT will never grow. It will also serve to bring about the emerging paradigm that little bit quicker: where ‘studio’ firms are hired as creative consultants to win planning consent and to provide architectural dressing for projects, largely produced by shop-floor drawing rooms. Foreign Office Architects has a similar role on the much bigger Atkins-led Birmingham New Street scheme, but there are many other examples of this model. And there is another element at play: ‘What’s different now,’ states Griffiths, ‘is that it’s partly driven by someone needing to make a profit as quickly as possible, rather than a long-term investment goal.’ In May this year Igloo sold the entire site to the British Steel Pension Fund for a substantial profit.

It’s the reason why, once you cross the threshold and leave the facade behind, there is little to say about the interior design. The cafeteria has a suspended ceiling that drops down below large, circular windows. Offices are nondescript, enlivened here and there with Dalek murals and glass screens to the corridor. There is a long external corridor separating the office block from the studios, along which production staff and actors shuffle as they prepare to make a show.

The corrugated sheds containing the sets are huge, lacking in detail, and not really architecture. What they contain however – the entrance hall, staircase and drawing room from Upstairs Downstairs, ambulance bays and operating theatres from Casualty, and an outdoor neighbourhood for Welsh-language soap Pobol y Cwm – is endlessly fascinating (sadly the BBC does not allow photography of its sets to appear ahead of broadcast). The link between what goes on inside the sheds and how the facade relates to the rest of the building is clear. On set, buildings’ exteriors are designed so that scenographers can hang facades on them. FAT’s facade works like that too, and was even designed so it could be clipped on to the finished building, which would function just the same without it. ‘It is a billboard facade,’ says Griffiths. ‘You could take it off – it would look pretty terrible, but it would remain functional. The wall goes all the way up behind it. It’s no more than a rainscreen.’

It’s way more than that. In terms of urban design, the facade forms one side of a street that in later years will see office blocks across from it. In the meantime, its striking iconography takes advantage of the long-distance views afforded by Cardiff Bay, and its strong aesthetic plugs neatly into the zoo-like gathering of buildings in the area: Will Alsop’s tubular visitor centre, Capita’s slate-wrapped Millennium Centre, an old, white-painted Norwegian church that always catches the eye, and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ Welsh Assembly.

Griffiths explains each of the cut-outs. The cross is for Casualty. The Baroque dew-drops along the top could be mountains or waves; the gothic elements and rose window honour Cardiff architect William Burges; the grid of triangles refers to the houses in Pobol y Cwm (you might need to watch ‘the Welsh Hollyoaks’ to get this reference); and the face-like cut-out could be a Doctor Who monster. The GRP centrepiece, though, is where Griffiths’ interests really converge. Its layered, extruded surface is inspired by ‘the underside of spacecraft from Star Wars’ as well as Venetian church facades. ‘It has a certain civic quality. It looks like Gallifrey town hall!’ Griffiths says, referring to the Doctor’s home planet.

FAT has always collided cultures high and low, so typically there are historical references here too. A neon striplight tracing the top of the facade is an obvious nod to Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans (1978), and given BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten’s observation, ‘Ikea crossed with the Doges Palace’, you might even draw comparisons with the Templeton Carpet factory in Glasgow, a 19th-century warehouse fronted with a polychromatic remix elevation of the famous Venetian edifice. Venturi Scott Brown’s Bill-ding board is another.

The most obvious precedent however, is Terry Farrell’s TV-am building in Camden, London, demolished in September. Farrell was hired for a similar reason: to provide a wrap for a number of incoherent buildings, although the dense city grain was a very different context. ‘Apt, isn’t it, that our project finished just as that one was demolished,’ Griffiths says. ‘That building marked a key moment for British architecture.’ For very different reasons, you might argue, Roath Lock Studios does too.

Credits

Start on site  June 2010
Completion September 2011
Gross internal floor area 16,356m2
Form of contract Design and Build
Total cost Undisclosed
Architect FAT and Holder Mathias Architects
Client Igloo Regeneration
Sub-tenant BBC
Structural engineer Bay Associates
Services engineer / breeam assessor Arup
Project manager Davis Langdon
Main contractor Vinci Construction

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