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welsh wisdom

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Carole-Anne Davies, chief executive of the new Design Commission for Wales, doesn't take herself too seriously, but when it comes to putting Wales on the architectural world map, she has a clear, single-minded vision

Some would say that Carole-Anne Davies, the first chief executive of the new Design Commission for Wales - Cardiff 's answer to CABE - occasionally underestimates the importance of what she has achieved.

But to take the view that Davies occasionally is willing to put herself in second place would seriously underestimate the abilities, successes and tenacity of the 37 year old, whose mission must surely be to ensure that Wales can hold its head high in the architectural and design world rather than sometimes hang its head in shame - or dodge around the corner in the hope that no one will notice the 22 counties and county boroughs lying to the west of Offa's Dyke.

Davies may possess a CV that seems to shout more about fine and applied art than about architecture and applied design, but she stands right at the heart of the Welsh debate about whether the country should establish its own successor to the old Royal Fine Art Commission - a body which the Welsh are convinced never crept beyond the confines of the M25.

She was one of only six high-powered, architecturally oriented individuals who came together under the wing of Wales' premier think-tank, the Institute of Welsh Affairs, to publish, in mid-2000, Designing Success - The Case for a Welsh Commission for Architecture and Design. Eventually, the 34 pages of proposals arrived on the desk of National Assembly environment minister Sue Essex - herself until election a Cardiff University planning lecturer. By October the following year, a plenary session of the assembly had voted to establish such a body; by last May, a seven-member commission was appointed;

and on 1 April, a chief executive will be in post.

After having taken a key part in forming this body, surely this was a ready-made post for her? But Davies never applied. 'I saw the advert but I was not sure that I would be in the running, ' she says. 'I always believe that I am second in the queue.'

No one has ever hinted that the assembly might be experiencing difficulty in filling the post. But in December, it was re-advertised.

And it proved a shoo-in. Now she has the job, those she deals with should take careful note of an aspect of her character about which there is no dispute: once she wants something, she pressures endlessly until she gets it.

Davies represents a new Wales. This is a Wales which knows what is wrong with its own country; goes to London to get a taste of the Big Smoke; then quickly returns to improve its own homeland, confident that Wales has the ability to count itself on occasion among the world's best.

It is also a new Wales that talks about the country's triumphs. Designing Success has plenty to say about what has gone wrong: 'The general standard of new building and environmental design is mediocre, if not poor.' The authors - Davies included - slated volume housebuilders, 'irredeemably downgraded' gateways to all the main towns, decline of historic town centres, low quality spec industrial and retail development, and the failure by local authorities to demand planning agreements delivering higherstandard quality.

But now is the time to talk about success, and to encourage emulation. Talk volume housing and Davies praises the improvements being delivered by Bellway. Talk offices and she eulogises No 1 Callaghan Square, just south of the main Cardiff railway station (Nicholas Hare for MEPC). Crickhowell House in Cardiff Bay, the home of the assembly's legislative side, she tries to avoid mentioning - although if pressed, she will say that the 1993 building, one of the first erected in what is now Cardiff Bay and described by first minister Rhodri Morgan, before he took up residence, as a 'bog-standard office block' - 'could have carried a little more gravitas'.

Perhaps there is now some politics in her forgetfulness about architectural neardisasters in Wales - Davies will have to work with some of the firms she might fancy criticising. There is always the fear of libel - she is currently reading a book on celebrated libel lawyer George Carmen.

A sharper idea of her attitude emerges when asked about the row of photographs of current Welsh artists that adorns the main committee corridor in Crickhowell House, from the modern art collection at the National Library in Aberystwyth. Some critics have asked which model of the Brownie camera they were taken with.

Davies prefers to screw up her face, say nothing, and reach for the catalogue of an exhibition held in her Cardiff Bay Arts Trust gallery in Bute Street.

Her period as director of CBAT, founded in 1990 under the wing of the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation, is the practical rock on which Davies' new job is based.Asked if she had any unusual fancies, Davies replies:

'Wandering around building sites wearing a hard hat.' That has been her task since she started with the trust in 1998, to ensure that one per cent of the cost of new developments is spent on art. Cardiff Bay is now dotted with 112 items, often occupying prominent sites.

Most are noted with an affectionate eye by the locals - a core element of the commissions has been to display items of the coal-handling machinery which brought wealth to Cardiff, but which never caught the eye of the public during their working days.

Some installations have been a massive success: for instance, the 1992 Landmark (Pierre Vivant), a roundabout which is festooned with traffic signs. 'People call it the Magic Roundabout, ' says Davies. 'It has become part of the psyche of the city. It shows that not everything in life should be taken too seriously.'

Davies does not always take herself that seriously. She lives with her Dutch husband - commissions director at CBAT - in Grangetown, a working-class suburb of terraces only a few minutes walk from her Bay office, and one day she decided to paint the house bright yellow. 'I got a rap on the wrist from my husband for that, ' says Davies.

'But now everyone in the street has painted their houses different colours. You could say I am really a light-hearted person.'

But beneath that laughter lies a toughness, as well as a feeling for what is practicable.

Born of a mining family in the Valley-top town of Brynmawr, her father worked in that town's biggest factory - Dunlop Semtex.

Despite a massive campaign, that pioneering block of buildings is now no more. Why wasn't it saved? 'No feasible scheme was put forward, ' is Davies' severely practical answer.

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