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Restoring Welsh pride

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Richard Parnaby plans to lift design quality in Wales and put the country's chequered architectural past behind it through the new Design Commission for Wales and the RSAW conference, which starts tomorrow in Cardiff

Richard Parnaby still misses the pleasures of architectural practice - 'the smell of wet cement, the thrill of building something' - if not the chores of running a business and making it pay. For 16 years (1980-96) Parnaby was in partnership with Peter Brown in the Abergavenny practice of Parnaby & Brown. (Brown continues to work solo from the small Welsh market town. ) But in 1996, Parnaby took up the full-time post of principal lecturer in the newly established Faculty of the Built Environment at the University of the West of England in Bristol.

He is proud to have been in at the beginning of 'a very different sort of school - multidisciplinary by definition'. Britain's newest school of architecture is 'doing well', he says - the former school at the University of Bristol had been wound up in the 1980s.

Parnaby combines teaching - happily, it seems - with a very active role in the RIBA and the Royal Society of Architects in Wales (RSAW), of which he was president from 1997-99. (His wife, Mary Wrenn, is the regional director. ) He serves on the RIBA's board and council and on the education committee.

Parnaby is also chairman of the Design Commission for Wales (DCfW), the Welsh version of CABE, a role he took up this year.

Trained in Liverpool, Parnaby spent six years teaching and practising architecture in the US and Canada before coming to Wales in 1980. He has a long association with the Welsh School of Architecture, and he and his wife live just outside Cardiff.

As an adopted Welshman, Richard Parnaby might be expected to err on the side of caution when it comes to the state of architecture in Wales. But he freely admits that there have been disasters in recent years, most famously the debacle of the Cardiff Bay Opera House. However, Parnaby is hopeful that Percy Thomas Partnership's Millennium Centre (the substitute for the abandoned Hadid project) will be a very good building.

'Jonathan Adams has done a remarkably bold scheme, ' he says. 'It's a challenging take on the idea ofWelshness.

'We get a very bad press outside Wales - not entirely deserved, ' says Parnaby. True, the unfortunate matter of the Welsh Assembly building remains unresolved, with the RIBA and RSAW campaigning for the reappointment of Richard Rogers Partnership. But Richard Murphy is designing an arts centre for Caernarfon, and Wilkinson Eyre is doing a maritime museum for Swansea, a city, says Parnaby, where 'there is a lot happening' (and where the farcical binning of Will Alsop's Literature Centre is presumably regarded as best forgotten). The issue of 'Welshness' in architecture remains elusive. 'Dewi PrysThomas [a leading light on the Welsh scene for many years] tried to merge modernity and the Welsh vernacular, but it didn't really work, ' Parnaby says.

Wales is a small country. To outsiders, it seems deeply parochial, with the Welsh sadly divided among themselves - not only town versus country, but North versus South, and Welsh-speakers versus the English-speaking majority. Richard Parnaby was closely involved in the establishment of the annual RSAW conference as a major event on the Welsh scene - but the first few conferences had to be held in Llandrindod Wells, exactly halfway between Cardiff and Snowdonia.

The conference is now firmly rooted in Cardiff, but the RSAW runs an annual 'spring school' at Clough Williams-Ellis' Portmeirion, within sight of Snowdon.

'The two are complementary, ' says Parnaby, 'though the spring school is very much CPD-oriented and focused on issues of practice. And we have no problem in attracting excellent speakers - Portmeirion is an attraction in itself.'

The RSAW also runs 'surgeries' for members around Wales, looking at key issues - for example, disability legislation.

And its magazine, Touchstone, of which Parnaby was a co-founder, is an impressive production. The total membership of the RSAW is fewer than 800 - the fact that more than 100 members have booked for the conference, which starts this Friday, is therefore quite impressive.

Accepting the chairmanship of the DCfW was clearly not something that Parnaby undertook lightly. The initial funding from the Welsh Assembly is a mere £100,000 a year, and the seven-person commission is only now considering the appointment of a chief executive. 'All I can say is that is likely to be a man - no women applied, ' says Parnaby. Two design panels, for North and South Wales, are to be appointed - 'but, given our limited resources, we don't want the design review function to dominate our work. Major issues like sustainability and procurement methods need to be examined'.

The DCfW is in dialogue with CADW (the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage) about approaches to development in historic towns - the trend to pastiche, Parnaby believes, needs to be curbed. Then there is the continuing issue of Cardiff, a capital city which often seems to set its sights low, despite its (now shortlisted) bid for the title of Capital of Culture 2008. The big issue locally at the moment is the forthcoming planning application for a major city centre retail development with Eric Kuhne of Bluewater fame as lead designer. Given his position at the DCfW, Parnaby cannot comment on the merits of the scheme, but he does insist that it will be judged as much on its qualities of urban design as of architecture - 'some civic gestures are badly needed'.

The relationship with local authorities, Parnaby believes, is 'absolutely fundamental' for the DCfW. 'We've got to raise sights, encourage a sense of vision and discourage the bland and the purely safe.' There is a problem, he adds, in that very few planners have an architectural training.Which brings our discussion back to the University of the West of England, where students pursue an integrated planning/architecture course to degree level. 'A third of our graduates so far have gone into planning, ' says Parnaby.Most, however, have gone into private practice, not into local authorities.

Understandable, but regrettable, since Wales, as much as anywhere, has need of their talents.

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