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The Welsh Assembly shortlist

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The Welsh Assembly shortlist is anonymous, but the aj newsdesk has come up with some hot tips for which designs correspond to which architect. Nicknamed the 'coiled Dragon' by locals, scheme one looks to be the work of Benson + Forsyth. Scheme two, which was immediately branded the 'Alarm Button' after the red drum poking through its roof, appears to emanate from the office of Eric Parry Architects. (Continued overleaf)

The 'Matchstick House', or scheme three, has the hallmarks of Niels Torp and the only Welsh practice on the list, Stride Treglown Davies, while scheme four (branded 'Marbles' after what are in fact trees on the model), could well be designed by Richard Rogers Architects, with its resonances of Bordeaux. 'Glassy Slopes', or scheme five, is surely the work of Itsuko Hasegawa Atelier & Kajima Design Europe, which leaves the most surprising design from MacCormac Jamieson Prichard. Branded the 'Spaceship', it has a hint of Zaha Hadid, a little of Alsop and Stormer, and even a small piece of Frank Lloyd Wright. Roll on Friday.

Welsh parliament U-turn as public suddenly consulted

Suddenly, a week ago, the script changed; everyone who took an interest in Wales' new assembly knew that the six competition submissions were due on 5 October and Lord Callaghan's panel of six wise women and men would meet today, 15 October, to judge them. No one, neither the panel nor the competitors, knew when or even if the schemes would go on public display. Last Tuesday all that changed.

Lord Jim had frequently been at pains to stress that after six months' hard preparation his panel's role was to make a preferably unanimous recommendation of a winner to the Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies. This recommendation was, in Jim's perception, to be made free of direct public influence. The panel had been given a public duty which it would discharge, preferably by 16 October. Any public debate could follow on from its recommendation. The length and timing of that debate was a decision for the Secretary of State. But Jim's stance was tricky and made even trickier by his positive and welcomed backing of the 'Cynulliad' exhibition some weeks earlier (see aj 17.9.98) informing the Welsh public about the design of assembly buildings world-wide. What was the point of raising expectations of informed public debate if there was already a chosen winner. Was it information, consultation or fully fledged participation? Even, which public are we talking about?

Only last Tuesday did the real gameplan unfold, 24 hours after the schemes had come into the Welsh Office. The competitors all received a call. The Welsh Office wanted to reduce the three submitted A1 boards to one for display in four locations simultaneously around Wales. Would the practices prefer the Welsh Office or themselves to do it ? You can imagine the answer, and no doubt the wo's sighs of relief. Frantic communication began instantly between the competitors and a wo-commissioned London agency. The boards had to be in place by the following Monday, 12 October: But that wasn't all. This is after all the beginning of the age of electronic democracy. So all the schemes had to be on the Internet by Monday too (at www.assembly.wales.gov.uk).

Officially for the moment the public display is only on for a week (by the time you read this it may all be over) but that could change if a populist preference begins to emerge during the week which coincides with the panel's recommendation to the Secretary of State tomorrow.

Several factors inevitably make this attempt at public consultation/information just a little awkward. The editing down process, done at the last moment and in a great rush, must severely limit any chance of accurately conveying anything meaningful, although some might think that it sharpens the message. The lack of texts on some schemes means that it tends to become a fashion parade, a three-second image-bite, rather than an opportunity to respond to poetic ideas and study anything in depth. This is certainly no 'Monica- gate' on the net. This awkwardness is then further exacerbated by some competitors who make little concession to publicly comprehensible images, however elegantly they are drawn. At the displays around Wales and on the Internet there is no summary of the competition brief's objectives, or a list of design issues.

Seen in its most kindly light, this is intelligent, fast-moving, decisive democracy which doesn't leave space for bad vibes to become earthquakes. It offers the chance for public comment without compromising the panel's authority, and this strategy is underpinned by a belief that we are, as a culture, as yet unschooled in understanding and assessing architectural proposals. Doing a little and quickly is thus appropriate and is better than nothing at all.

Seen at its worst it is a cynical calculated method of doing the minimum to prevent a public outcry. This is then coupled to a patronising misunderstanding of what the public can and wishes to engage with if presented properly and with adequate time for serious perusal. This strategy is driven by an undemocratic desire to sew up the design of a building for a democratic client body which until next May is not in existence.

No doubt the truth of wo intentions lies somewhere messily in between the two, and anyway, who cares about process if the end result is a stunning much respected piece of contemporary architecture. Is that really what you believe ?

The exhibition locations are Cardiff's St David's Hall, Colwyn Bay Shopping Centre, Carmarthen County Library, and The National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. The shows are open from 10.30am until Friday evening.

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