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Cultural revolution

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A Welsh working-men’s institute, built in 1908, has been saved from the fate suffered by most buildings of this type - conversion to bingo hall or demolition - by sympathetic refurbishment. Niall Phillips Architects has converted the institute and public hall at Pontardawe into an arts centre designed to answer the cultural needs of the townspeople as satisfactorily as the original building met the leisure needs of their predecessors. This was largely thanks to the foresight of the client, the former Lliw Valley Borough Council, now Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council.


npa has made minimum changes to the building’s handsome exterior. Similarly, insertions in the main internal spaces - the public hall and snooker hall - have been carefully worked around the existing structure but kept distinguishable from it. Spaces within the institute were improved, but interesting details retained where possible so that the character and charm of the 1908 building would not be lost.


npa’s chief aims were: to make maximum use of available space; to provide circulation that would link the public hall and institute while also providing disabled access; to install a revenue-generating bar; and to arrange facilities so that the main areas of the building could function independently and to separate schedules.


The multi-purpose public hall now has its own entrance and foyer. A control room has been introduced at second-floor level, and the use of acoustic plaster in specific areas has helped reduce reverberation times and improved the acoustic qualities of the hall. Seating capacity remains roughly the same at 456 but the aisles have been reduced from three to two. Some of the seating can be removed to make space for dancing and music events. Stolen balcony balustrading has been reproduced with the help of archive material. npa’s redesign pushes the proscenium arch forward and provides a modernised backstage area, with changing rooms and two additional escape stairs. wcs, opening into the foyer, have been installed under the hall balcony.


The bar is at the western end of the double-height snooker hall, screened by a partly opaque acoustic glass wall with two ‘windows’ giving theatre- goers and other users views of the snooker players.


The ground floor of the institute now includes an exhibition space created by removing non-structural partitions, and, served by the new reception desk, an administration area and a disabled wc. New large automatic fire doors are normally held open and disguised as wall surfaces to give free circulation to the rest of the building. A meeting room and a multi-purpose room have been provided on the first floor with a changing room, wc and shower. On the second floor, reorganisation of partitions has created a top-lit studio/gallery exhibition space for arts club activites and classes, and a small suite of offices. The installation of a hydraulic lift has avoided having to puncture the roof.


The refurbishment has ensured the survival of a stalwart building and an institiution which, in its modernised guise as an arts centre, will continue to play a social and recreational part in the lives of Pontardawe residents for years to come.

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