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The Welsh School of Architecture displays a welcome internationalist outlook

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Alan Francis of Gaunt Francis Architects takes a look around the Welsh School of Architecture’s end-of-year show

The Welsh School of Architecture in Cardiff is one of the leading schools in the UK. This year’s exhibition, which travels to London after its Cardiff unveiling, proves again that its reputation is well earned and that its ethic remains exceptionally high. There is a heavy accent on research, which is exemplary, and an intellectual rigour in the fundamentals of building and placemaking. And all this in a school that runs its students up to postgraduate qualification in five years rather than the usual six. It’s no doubt a highly intensive final year, but there’s no suggestion of any missing thinking or lack of expertise in the exhibited wares.

There’s a certain irony in assessing a school that sits physically and metaphorically in the heart of a small country’s capital city, displaying a welcome internationalist outlook, when that small country is often so insular and now, post-Brexit, so deeply divided. The European question has the potential of causing more heartache and division in Wales than could have been imagined. In a place that has been such a massive net beneficiary of EU funding, a majority vote for leave poses fundamental questions. Interesting then that much of the school’s final year concerns itself with the notion of regeneration in post-industrial society, using plenty of European examples and often projects much further afield. Wales has its problems and they aren’t going away soon. There’s plenty of resource material here that could make a major contribution to future thinking.

Welsh School of Architecture

Welsh School of Architecture

Joanna Hart

The school’s home is the Bute building in Cardiff’s ‘civic centre’, the city’s most outstanding architectural phenomenon. Grand civic setting it may have, but it’s clearly not an easy place to host a major exhibition. Luckily I had the benefit of a little hand-drawn map. Other visitors may not be so lucky, and it would be a real shame if the ‘sensation’ studio hosted by Jonathan Adams, lurking in the bowels of the basement, was missed. The central focus of the exhibition is the final year, though excellent contributions are also provided by the undergraduates. Final-year students choose from six thematic studios – tectonics, economy, politics, sensation, shadowing and infrastructural urbanism – defined by the tutors, but with the benefit of additional inter-departmental tutors and visiting critics. Some key recurring themes are evident across all six studios:

  • Reimagining the place of production and craft in a post-industrial society
  • Using expansive urban thinking to create a brief for small local interventions
  • Devising bottom-up strategies to regenerate fractured places and societies
  • Exploring the impact of sensory moments on place
  • Understanding the impact of ideas by full scale modelling or installations
  • Rethinking the idea of ‘civicness’  

Welsh School of Architecture

Welsh School of Architecture

Xuanxin Xu

The resulting projects are realised across a diverse range, from the tiny home to the public megastructure; from urban planning to a single rural retreat, and from the re-use of a decaying factory to a major new development fashioned out of a single material.

The quality of students’ work is consistently high, and it’s clear that presentational techniques are now so well understood and delivered, that students’ final pin-ups are perhaps merging into a certain stylistic sameness, even if the projects themselves are diverse. A reflection on the state of the arts?

Projects are realised across a diverse range, from the tiny home to the public megastructure; from urban planning to a single rural retreat

Certain exhibits caught my eye. Xuanxin Xu, working in Stephen Kite’s ‘shadowing’ studio, imagines regenerating the glass-making traditions of Murano through an inhabited bridge that reconnects depressed areas of the Venetian Lagoon, and it is all thoughtfully considered and presented, if a little disparate of form. Joanna Hart analyses Robert Adams’ ‘sensation’ and confronts viewers with ‘cartographical poetry’ – a beautiful idea focused on a retreat sited off Garth Mountain in Caerphilly.

Welsh School of Architecture

Welsh School of Architecture

Lizzie Brooke

In Peter Salter’s ‘infrastructural urbanism’, Jess Robinson tackles the forgotten place that is West Rhyl in north Wales. A town in the throes of decay is given a new protected lagoon to reconnect its undoubtedly fine but down-at-heel Edwardian hinterland with its seafront, using water as the sensory magnet. Kate Darby’s ‘tectonics’ set develops the idea that the redundant river infrastructure around the Wyre forest area in Worcestershire could be repurposed by a considered new cultural programme. Lizzie Brooke examined this quite beautifully by suggesting a peripatetic floating theatre venue on the River Severn, built from the forest’s natural resources, and capable of mooring at any one of the regions rural communities. Anyone with a better idea step forward. Where are you Aldo?

Alan Francis, director, Gaunt Francis Architects

student banner wide

student banner wide

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