A tour round Cardiff gives an intriguing glimpse into its past and future
Architects often think of cities as being assemblies of buildings and spaces. Most people, however, know cities less tangibly – through their own memories and stories, which they use, consciously or unconsciously, to project meaning on to the physical fabric. This is the premise of an art project recently unveiled in Cardiff. Called Museum of the Moment, it assembles clips of audio interviews recorded by artist Jennie Savage. The voices include shopkeepers, shoppers, developers, historians and architects (including a couple of snippets from this reviewer).
To participate you collect headphones, an MP3 player and a map from the Tourist Information office. You follow the map, listening to 10 audio tracks, winding through most of Cardiff’s Victorian arcades and the Central Market. The audio interprets and describes your surroundings and occasionally gives instructions, asking you to look up or to consider your reflection in a shopfront. Although the walk would normally take half an hour, there are about seven hours of recorded material so most participants will only dip in to each track.
Whereas much of the audio material looks back in time, the last track primarily looks forward. About a third of Cardiff’s city centre is currently the building site of ‘St David’s 2’, a mall that triples the existing St David’s Centre to hugely expand Cardiff’s ‘retail offer’. It follows the same relentless capitalist logic as Birmingham’s Bull Ring, Bristol’s Cabot Circus and London’s Westfield at Shepherd’s Bush.
The last track takes St David’s 2 and sets it in the context of Cardiff’s exquisitely proportioned Victorian arcades and their eclectic one-off shops. We are told by one voice that the word ‘mall’ was banned early in the design of St. David’s 2 – instead we have the ‘Grand Arcade’ – and we are informed that the generic ‘soft modern’ facades are distinctive to the city. The audio does not pass judgement – the developer part-funded the Museum of the Moment – but the juxtapositions seem clear.
The technology is fiddly, but, when you’ve mastered it, the project curates Cardiff effectively, presenting the city back to you in intriguing ways. There is genuine affection and enthusiasm in the voices of the shopkeepers, many of whom are displaying posters for the project. Enthusiasm also seems to be there in the project’s participants, who can be seen peering at details, loitering in doorways and generally paying attention to different things from everyone else around them.
Adam Sharr teaches and practices architecture in Cardiff.