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Millennium Centre optimism, Welsh Assembly worries

After the fiasco of the Cardiff Bay Opera House non-event, it was almost too much to hope that any subsequent Millennium scheme in the city would make up for that bitter disappointment. But designs for the proposed Millennium Centre, shown at the Royal Society of Architects in Wales annual conference last Friday, were welcome evidence of a continuing desire to embrace first- rate contemporary architecture.

Jonathan Adams of Percy Thomas Partnership (he recently joined the firm to work on the project after a decade working with Will Alsop) presented a scheme which is being fine-tuned before submission for detailed planning in November (land negotiations have yet to be completed). The proposal is deeply contextual yet determinedly modern; it incorporates a range of Welsh building materials, from slate spoil to steel, without ever falling into the trap of the exhibition pavilion which merely shows off products.

Using the slate in linear bands, separated by long 'bricks' of thick glass acting structurally as well as admitting light, the building becomes forest-like inside, using thin cast-iron columns and interior landscaping to evoke the atmosphere of Welsh nature. Use of other Welsh visual references, and taking cues from literature and graphic representation, should convince anyone with eyes that his is design of a very high calibre, unlike any other building in the country (the fly-tower is incorporated within a great steel drum rather than expressed separately).

How will it be received? Judging by the reaction of the conference delegates, extremely well, although there will be more work to be done on presentational drawings and models. The proposals will go on public exhibition shortly prior to final decisions. Adams outlined very well the inspirations and processes from which the design sprang, and as a genuine Welshman, complete with accent, he starts with an inherent advantage.

There were more worries about the Welsh Assembly, designs for which were submitted by the shortlisted architects this week. It was not a worry about the quality of architects which concerned the delegates and speakers, who included the teacher and editor of Touchstone, Patrick Hannay. It was the indecent haste with which the decision-making process is being undertaken, under the avuncular control of Lord Callaghan. The designs are only due to go on display after a decision has been made as to which will be the winner, a decision likely in two weeks' time.

This sequence of events, in which public comment is excluded from the decision-making process, is the opposite of how the Scots have managed their new parliament. A highly revealing presentation illustrated how it can be done - with the competition winner Enric Miralles making more instant friends with a presentation which showed his essential modesty and good manners, but also the perception and drawings of a very good architect indeed. No matter that his 'upturned boats' turned out to have been photographed by him on the English side of border; the quest for an iconography was the important thing, part of another process in which the literal and metaphorical lay of the land have produced a design which is subject to consultation with the client panel at every stage.

A crucial role in this process has clearly been taken by Miralles' co-speaker John Gibbons, the Scottish Office chief architect who has advised and protected this competition from the outset. Significantly, Gibbons is also an under-secretary in the department, which means that architecture is being promoted from the inside rather than being imposed from without. Gibbons advanced the argument for wide consultation: the shortlisted competition entries were shown simultaneously at six sites nationwide, attracting more than 40,000 visitors. More than 5000 submitted written comments on the five proposals, most opting for one of two designs (Miralles came a narrow second). The comments were indeed helpful in informing the final decision, and one can only wonder at the Welsh decision to keep things more closed. Perhaps rumours that the Cardiff building, close to the Millennium Centre, will be only one venue for the assembly which, like the Eisteddfod, could move around.

Next year's rsaw conference may be held in Cardiff. where progress on these ideas can be seen at first hand. It will do well to exceed the quality of this year's event, organised by regional director Mary Wren and the society president, Richard Parnaby.

Paul Finch

Cardiff sports village reprieve - minus the swimming pool

Following Welsh Office intervention and after two days of frantic last- minute negotiations, Cardiff county council last week gave outline approval for the city's planned waterside sports village (aj 1.10.98). However, as forecast, the Sports Council of Wales lottery grant panel has withdrawn its preliminary support for the city's £9 million bid to include a national swimming pool at the village. Cardiff's scheme, and any competing bids from elsewhere in Wales, will now be considered at a December meeting.

Cardiff Bay Development Corporation reluctantly agreed to back the sports village, on condition that it has closer involvement in the planning and development of the complex. cbdc insisted that it must approve the design brief and development programme and that the neighbouring Vale of Glamorgan council must also be consulted at every stage. Corporation officials remain adamant in their criticism of the promoters' present plans and proposals.

The Welsh Office is considering the business plan and other aspects of the proposals and may call in the application, since it departs from the established local area plan.

There is still no agreement by cbdc to hand over the necessary land at the 28ha Ferry Road site. Corporation executives say that firms are queuing up to get into the Bay area and that the market price will have to be paid by the sports village consortium.

cbdc's attitude has dismayed consortium leaders and interested parties across South Wales. 'Just because they are being closed down,' says Russell Goodway, leader of Cardiff council, 'it does not give them the right to turn the lights out on Cardiff before they leave.' cbdc will be wound up at the end of March 2000, by which time it is expected to have achieved just over half of its development targets.

David Fanning

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