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steel design

This was done to house a guide to what Alsop and Lyall are doing on that huge piece of infrastructure design for Cardiff Bay. It was right next to where Zaha was going to build and Neil Thomas at Atelier 1 did the engineering.

When it was commissioned Cardiff was effectively saying that it was looking ahead and were using great architects. Naturally Cardiff didn't revitalise the Bay any more than they built Zaha. But they built this visitor centre with its wonderful view and simple internal organisation.

What I thought interesting about this building was the mix of elegance and economy in something which was always intended to be temporary - but which didn't look cheap and temporary. It was fresh - which came from the fact that the budget was limited and they were designing right up to the limit.

First of all the shape: that oval section perching on V-shaped props which were that way to keep the foundations uninteresting. And all the services came in through the shallow curved zone under the floor so that the external underground works, which are always the most expensive, were kept to a minimum.

The second thing is the structure, a series of elliptical steel frames with a ply skin and floor - so it's a composite structure in which the steel and ply have different functions - the ply for bracing, for example - but which work together as one. Normally we tend to think it's purer to go for one structural material or another but I quite like the idea of using the special properties of different materials in a structurally appropriate way and I think this was one of the earliest steel/ply diaphragm structures.

And then Will did that thing where he cut patterns in the ply. Their function, apart from the art bit, was to express the fact that the ply didn't need to be everywhere - like making steel beams with holes in them.

When the site was wanted for something else, Cardiff decided they wanted to keep it and there was this wonderful moment when it was being moved around 300 metres like this huge Thunderbird on a sort of trailer with loads of wheels. So here we have a temporary, portable building. I haven't seen a visitor centre which has its power. It's simply a great small building.

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