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Welsh architects’ conference looks to channel the spirit of Nye Bevan

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The relationship between architecture and wellbeing was explored at the Royal Society of Architects in Wales annual event, reports Patrick Hannay

It was a Welsh RIBA president who, 40 years ago, had the temerity to propose ‘long-life, loose-fit, low-energy’ as a valuable ‘meme’ for architecture. That was Alex Gordon in 1972. Now we wrestle with the imprecision of ‘sustainability’.

Twenty-four years before him, another Welshman, Aneurin Bevan, brought a model of public healthcare from Tredegar, south Wales, to create the remarkable NHS. Health and architecture now have a more urgent conversation.

So it seems only fitting that in the year when the Welsh government’s Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill was laid before the assembly in Cardiff, seeking to make Wales one of the few countries in the world to enshrine the wellbeing of future generations into its legislative programme, that Cardiff should play host to ‘Architecture and Wellbeing’, the title of the sell-out 21st Royal Society of Architects in Wales (RSAW) annual conference last Friday.

Like the architecture of happiness, the architecture of wellbeing can just sound too soft, too comfortable, something to move on to once essentials are in place.

There was an awful lot of happiness among the audience before proceedings began in earnest as RSAW president Dan Benham and everyone in the house cheered the win of the 2014 Manser Medal by Loyn & Co for its remarkable Code 5 house Stormy Castle. But with the long applause subsiding, conference curator, RSAW director Mary Wrenn, ensured the audience returned to the business at hand.

Fuel poverty, house performance upgrading through insulation, and installing renewables for those most in need is base-level wellbeing architecture. Wouter Poortinga, a professor at the Welsh School of Architecture (WSA), reported on his team’s meticulous monitoring of two Welsh housing initiatives: the Welsh government’s European-funded ARBED programme, which seeks to tackle climate change and reduce fuel poverty; and a £203 million housing investment programme for Carmarthenshire County Council.

Unfortunately it seems to be a necessary task in times of government-induced austerity to prove to policy makers the link between investment in improved housing conditions and fewer cases of asthma, fewer deaths, less mental stress, and thus less wasting of vital NHS resources and better wellbeing of residents. Many would see that link as simple common sense. Bevan didn’t wait for all the figures, after all. Once upon a time housing and health were in one government department.

As Sunand Prasad argued in his elegant presentation of lessons from history on the architecture of health, we once knew how to do it. We need to relearn how ‘in-between-time’ –  that curious suspension of experience in looking after the unwell – needs ‘in between spaces’ of great beauty, thoughtfulness, intimacy, and connectedness to spatial legibility, sky, landscape and the poetry of light. When faced with Prasad’s clarity, it is hard to understand why the architecture of health, with some rare exceptions, has been so poor.

Following Prasad, Dow Jones Architects set out the poetic and painterly influences that informed its Maggie’s Centre designs at the Velindre Cancer Care hospital in Cardiff. Maggie’s Centres have a truly expert and experienced client.

Dow Jones Maggies

Site context, the need to simply make ‘home’, and the intimate scale of the brief in the best of architectural hands often make the outcomes seem like an easy win, but one that rarely gets scaled up effectively to hospital-sized challenges. But for those at the sharper end, wellbeing needs sharper definition.

In an impassioned exposition, Irena Bauman used the New Economics Foundation’s (NEF) five ways to wellbeing – connect, be active, give, keep learning, and take notice – to explore rich architectural interventions from her practice, Bauman Lyons. While NEF’s suggestions might seem trite, Bauman used that framework of values, and put convincing architectural flesh on it.

Stuart McKnight of MUMA entranced the audience with an effortless, authoritative demonstration of all that is best in architectural skill through his practice’s art gallery work at Newlyn Cornwall, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester. It was a masterclass. The term ‘wellbeing’ never passed his lips but inevitably was present through all the sensitive intent.

The penny only dropped during the lighthearted after-cocktails ‘Desert Island Buildings’ interview, a regular feature of RSAW conference fronted by the sharp humour of Malcolm Parry, this year speaking to Foster + Partners’ Gerard Evenden, himself a WSA graduate.

The recent announcement of substantial state investment in electrifying the London-to-Swansea rail lines and those up into the Welsh valleys makes Foster’s arrival in Cardiff at a large station gateway site seem, at least for the moment, most welcome. 

Foster’s has a noble legacy of transport architecture, but as slide followed slide of Foster icons over three decades, only interrupted by an image of Evenden’s Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, all became clear. This was for the most part wellbeing’s bête noir – a fossil-fuelled 30-year consumption binge for the elites of bankers, oil sheiks and the power hungry. As Naomi Klein has so bluntly argued in her most recent book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, the values of wellbeing, honestly enacted, are – and need to be – truly radical. Aneurin Bevan and Alex Gordon knew that. We should honour their memory.

  • Patrick Hannay is editor of Touchstone, the magazine for Architecture in Wales
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