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Region of ruins

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The Buildings of Wales: Gwent/Monmouthshire By John Newman. Penguin, 2000. 662pp. £35

The purpose of Pevsner's great project to record, county by county, The Buildings of England, then those of Scotland, and finally The Buildings of Wales, is primarily to be just that, a record of buildings.

The latest volume, Gwent/Monmouthshire, follows the standard format and style and, through that familiarity, carries an immediate authenticity and authority.But it is also particularly successful in communicating a sense of the underlying presence of the landscape of south-east Wales, without which many of these buildings would have little meaning.

The terrain of Gwent/Monmouthshire is immensely rich and diverse. At the centre is the broad Vale of Usk, described here most appropriately as an 'arena', linking the wide expanse of the Bristol Channel in the south to the dramatic mountain forms of Sugarloaf and Skirrid at the northern limit of the county.The other boundaries are defined by valleys as different as the steep, wooded, lyrical Wye to the east and, to the west, the bleak Ebba and Sirhowy with their dramatic relics of a now gone industrial age.

The visible evidence of organised inhabitation of the land extends, chronologically, from 20 or more Iron Age hill forts to Cwmbran, the only post-1945 new town in Wales.

Between these in time are the Roman settlements of Caerleon and Caerwent, and then the great series of castles which still stand, either within most of the major towns - as at Chepstow, Monmouth, Abergavenny and Newport - or in open country at, for example, Caldicot, Pencoed and, most dramatic of all, Raglan.Monastic settlements were less numerous than castles but the remains at Tintern and Llanthony are as magical as any in Britain.

Against this background of longinhabited land, John Newman and his co-authors set out the familiar gazetteer of buildings. In addition to the castles and monasteries, highlights include seventeenth-century Tredegar House, near Newport, and Soane's sadly ruined Piercefield Park, just north of Chepstow.From a later period is the intriguing Mounton House designed, in 1912-14, in Lutyens' Arts and Crafts manner by its owner H Avray Tipping (architectural correspondent of Country Life) with Eric Francis.The same period also saw Arts and Crafts principles applied at a different scale as the ideas of the Garden City Movement were brought to Wales in the design of a number of colliery villages and other settlements. In Gwent/Monmouthshire the largest of these is at Oakdale near Tredegar.

Introducing the buildings of the latter part of the twentieth century, Newman claims 'many heights of achievement'.There are certainly some buildings of international significance, such as the Brynmawr Rubber Factory by the Architects'Co-Partnership, and Richard Rogers' exuberant Inmos factory at Duffryn.

There is also the Bettws High School just outside Newport, which launched the distinguished career of Evans and Shalev in 1967; and, back at Duffryn, a housing project by MacCormac and Jamieson.Elsewhere, there is the usual mix of public and private projects, some of a good provincial standard, but little evidence to support Newman's claim for the heights.

But it would be wrong to end on a negative note.

Gwent/Monmouthshire is a rich and wonderful place and this volume does it and its buildings ample justice. I suggest that the first-time visitor, with the book in hand, might follow a rewarding (if poignant) itinerary visiting some of the significant ruins, because this is a place of ruins. This would include visits to Caerleon, Chepstow, Tintern, Raglan, Llanthony, Soane at Piercefield Park, the ironworks at Blaenavon, the astonishing Navigation Colliery at Crumlin and, before it is finally swept away, the Brynmawr Rubber Factory.

Dean Hawkes is professor at the Welsh School of Architecture

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