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The Welsh wonders of the world

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Richard Rogers opened proceedings as 'Space-craft: the art of urban design' - the 10th anniversary conference of the Royal Society of Architects in Wales - landed in Cardiff

Successful conferences are like good urban design: lots of informal spaces for human interchange producing the vitality between the set pieces, and then continuity of the 'places' (the audience) between the formal set building blocks (the speakers) who may never stay around long enough to recognise the necessary dialogue there should have been between them.

Thus it was at the 10th anniversary conference of the Royal Society of Architects in Wales last Friday in Cardiff, entitled 'Space-craft: the art of urban design'.

Richard Rogers, speaking in the St David's Hotel and Spa across the water from his Assembly building site, gave a prodigal-son-returns-toWales speech to open the proceedings. He was clearly in more comfortable surroundings now that the new Welsh Assembly finance minister Sue Essex - a planner by training and one committed to design quality - had become his client for the Assembly building.

Many knowing smiles passed between minister and architect during both their presentations. All this bodes well for the future. But in an informal aside to the conference chair Paul Finch, Rogers recounted the 'best news of the week', John Prescott's approval of Renzo Piano's 'Shard'. Rogers wasn't there, at the end of the day, to rebut Niels Torp's veiled attack on such projects as 'too pompous and arrogant', a symbol of 'too many one-offs' and a result of 'boyish games'.

Rogers was upbeat about some of the place-making achievements at Cardiff Bay, particularly the continuous public domain around the waterfront, but was not around to hear Welsh-born New Yorker John Belle of Beyer Blinder Belle (awarded an honorary fellowship by RSAW) give an impassioned call for local architects to attend to the 'orphan' of the Cardiff Bay family, as he described it, the historic fabric of Bute Street, once the heart of the city's economic powerhouse. The neglect and mistreatment of its buildings deserved better.

But Belle, whose practice was wrongly hounded for the first Ground Zero proposals, turned again, like Niels Torp, on the real villains of that piece. Namely the mere 'form-making' architects whom Belle accused of distracting the public debate away from the essential reinstatement of New York's key urban design qualities.

Lars Gemzoe of Gehl Architects, author of the hot-selling book New City Spaces, gave a well-timed body blow to those who still play the must-have-car-parking card within our city centres. Gemzoe's carefully researched figures on the economic impact of pedestrianisation provided useful ammunition for any developer. Dominic O'Rourke of Land Securities (its £450 million Cardiff scheme increases the parking from 1,800 to 3,500) nevertheless absorbed the message (and maybe bought the book) as he followed Gemzoe with an exposition of the Cardiff mega-scheme by Eric Kuhne and Reid Architecture. Let's hope he can convince the mayor of Cardiff, Russell Goodway, of the Dane's sanity and civility. It is only when you hear of other European city planning strategies that you realise how lopsided we are in the UK, with our shopping-obsessed developers (viz Birmingham's 'blob'). But then this is often a direct outcome of who owns the city-centre land.

In afternoon workshops on Urban Villages at Llandarcy and Ebbw Vale, speakers all sought to distance themselves from the ill-defined term and any thought that they might have to look like Poundbury, which is a relief to all of us. SOM's Daniel Ringelstein extolled the strategies of the Welsh Development Agency and Welsh Assemblybacked planning framework for Newport's Regeneration Unlimited project, and Chris Wilkinson of Wilkinson Eyre showed its National Waterfront Museum project for Swansea under construction. The southern seaboard of Wales seems awash with action.

As a poignant memorial to the 10th anniversary conference, RSAW had commissioned the poet Gillian Clarke. Her poem, Letting the light in, captured the spirit of the space-crafters: 'In the re-imagined nation, dream fine buildings/squares where a golden section of sunlight/turns all day like the gnomon of a sundial/touching the strollers, the drinkers, the street musicians /a woman sitting at a cafe table/ a curl of steam rising from a white cup/the silver in the fiddler's open case . . .' But she was not to have the final say.

In the first bi-annual Dewi Prys Thomas Award for an outstanding contribution to the Welsh environment, the first prize went to the ultimate 'object maker', Norman Foster, and the practice's spectacular glasshouse at the National Botanic Garden of Wales - a classic example of an object growing contextually out of a place. The garden is in financial trouble. The nation won't pay up. In a magnanimous gesture by Graham Phillips of Foster's office, the practice donated its financial prize to the garden. These object fetishists are quite human really.

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