Dragon spirit alive in steel and stone

October 15, 2004

With Cardiff about to unveil a distinctly Welsh landmark building, Adrian Mourby ponders how architecture can encapsulate a country's identity

Can national identity be expressed through architecture? After the megalomaniac building excesses of Hitler, Stalin and Ceaucescu, it is tempting to propose that architecture and nationalism would be well advised to give each other a wide berth. But the Welsh have not been deterred. The result will be unveiled next month in Cardiff - a £106 million landmark building that was designed to be distinctly Welsh.

Jonathan Adams, the Welsh designer, took over the design for the Wales Millennium Centre in 1998 after plans for the projected new home for the Welsh National Opera foundered. A local backlash against the internationalist "Crystal Necklace" design of Zaha Hadid scuppered Cardiff's initial ambitions for a new opera house. The earmarked lottery money was instead diverted to rebuilding the rugby stadium.

Adams's brief was not only to revive the project of building a lyric theatre that would serve opera, ballet and West End musicals but also to make sure it was suitably Welsh.

In the opinion of Malcolm Parry, professor of architecture at Cardiff University's Welsh School of Architecture, the approach adopted by Adams has paid off. "It's not easy to make a building Welsh, English, French or whatever while making it modern and of its age, but Jonathan has been literal in using Welsh materials - slate, stone, timber and steel - to make his building distinctly Welsh."

In Parry's view, modernism is inseparable from internationalism, but he points to Finland as being able to produce buildings that are nationalistic - that is, indisputably Finnish - and modern. "Those of us who would wish to make our architecture Welsh and modern envy the Finns," he says.

According to Severi Blomstedt, director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture, Finland's position right up against the Russian border has made it necessary to assert national identity in all possible ways, especially through the arts. "The arts were important elements in the struggle. Because of this, Finnish people came to have regard for architects and designers."

By happy coincidence the march to Finnish independence coincided with the end of art nouveau and the birth of modernism. "Eliel Saarinen's Finnish Pavilion at the Paris World Fair in 1900 made him a leading figure of the time," Blomstedt says. "And in the Twenties and Thirties, there was the second generation of great modern architects, such as Alvar Aalto. The result was that Finnish architecture gradually became an internationally known concept. By the Fifties and Sixties, foreign newspapers would always mention its name in connection with nature, with simplicity, natural materials and originality."

Ten years ago, Finland got a new opera house, built in Helsinki to a design by Eero Hyvämäki. "Balancing the needs of national symbol, opera house and exhibition hall was never easy," Hyvamaki says. "Stepping into the shoes of Alvar Alto, one of the century's great modernists, wasn't easy either, particularly when this building had been eagerly anticipated ever since independence."

Wales, like Finland, is bordered by a more powerful neighbour, but it has been less successful in its struggle for cultural and political autonomy.

Unlike Finland, on whose frontier are simple Russian timber camps, Wales is confronted by the legacy of 1,000 years of English architecture. "Take the great white country classical house set in a green landscape," Parry says.

"It is essentially English, whether or not it is built in Wales, and even when it is built in America or Russia."

Gerallt Nash, curator of historic buildings at the Museum of Welsh Life, finds intrinsically Welsh architecture only in its vernacular tradition.

"And that vernacular is essentially poor in Wales. The gentry houses in Wales were not distinctly Welsh in appearance. They owed their allegiance primarily to fashion, which meant they were very similar to country houses found in England, Ireland and, to a slightly lesser extent, Scotland."

He adds that there is a twofold problem in making a great Welsh public building today: first, there are a lot of building traditions to draw on, including the limestone and sandstone used in the south, timber-framing in the border counties and boulders, granite and slate in the north. The different materials were used to cope with different conditions, but they are in essence vernacular in character. Second, Nash says, "in a country such as Wales, where prosperity and urbanisation came late - generally it's Victorian - how do you avoid making a civic statement look like an English building?"

He believes the answer lies in the buildings of ordinary Welsh people.

"These were built using materials they had to hand. I think Jonathan Adams has got it right. He has gone down to the bare bones and made use of traditional Welsh materials. In this sense, I think shape matters less than materials."

Adams's determination to break away from contemporary expectations of a British arts centre has resulted in a building that doesn't look much like a building at all, certainly not externally. Its shape has been likened to a giant computer mouse, a cycle helmet or an armadillo. Moreover, it comes ready-graffitied, with giant letters on its frontage that spell out mottos in English and in Welsh.

"I wanted to break with the tyranny of glass frontages that makes every contemporary public building look like a shop or office," he says. "I thought we should work hard to avoid any of the corporate-office language that has been commonplace in recent theatre design."

Parry agrees that a stand had to be taken against the glass-and-metal fetishism of recent British architecture. "I think there is something particularly English about the high-tech style of Lord Rogers and Lord Foster. In its love of detail and engineering imagery, it smacks of boys brought up with Meccano - a strong interest in fastenings and systems - I wonder why the French haven't christened it " le style anglais " - a love of how things work!"

Another country that has struggled with the need to assert its own architectural aesthetic is Canada, which, once again, borders a country with a powerful style of its own. The Finns may have been able to identify modernism as their national style, but no one can look at a skyscraper and think of any country other than America.

In the early part of the 20th century, Percy Nobbs, an architecture professor at Montreal's McGill University, encouraged Canada to break away and create a national architectural style that eschewed all things American and based itself on French and British historical models. His exemplars were the green-roofed Canadian Pacific railway hotels (based loosely on French chateaux) and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris, whose influence can be seen in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and Toronto's magnificent Union Station, designed by John Lyle.

For a modern architect working in Canada, the issue of national identity still arises - although less directly these days, says Jack Diamond, a leading architect. "Those chateaux had an exuberance about them - they're almost Disney, but not entirely. They have a strength, they're acceptable, but to do something overtly nationalistic like that now would be hokey.

Modernism infuses everything today. We're too conscious, too internationalist to produce cuckoo clocks like that anymore."

When Diamond was awarded the contract to design Toronto's new opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts, he was aware of a need to produce something Canadian. "It came up, but not explicitly. It came up in the larger sense of avoiding the kind of iconic architecture that is being built around the globe that could be anywhere. That has novelty and shock value, but it's real-estate driven. It's driven by the architect wanting to get his building on the cover of professional journals and by the non-cognoscenti needing a recognisable symbol."

He adds: "It's extreme capitalism. It's Republican individualism gone rampant and very much the American sense of anyone can do anything. But it's not the Canadian way. A city of iconic buildings would be deadening - and deafening."

Diamond has chosen to reflect the ethos of his native Canada by creating a building that is wholly contextual. "Toronto is a city made up of streets in which buildings contribute to aggregates and help define public space.

The Four Seasons follows the street grid and includes shops along its Queen Street elevation to link the east and west retail areas. This for me is Canadian, it's different from the laissez-faire attitude of America. It's the whole notion of consideration, as opposed to extreme individualism.

Canadians accept government intervention. In America, presidents campaign on a ticket of fighting government. This is reflected in their buildings."

At the Four Seasons, Diamond is creating an external shell that runs in line with the Toronto streetscape and then building a performing space within that. "It's actually going to be a separate building within a carapace of rectangular walls that run with the grid. It's going to be like an egg within a protecting nest. In this way, we resolve the tension between the contextual street and the needs of the performing space.

"That resolution, rather than any particular shape, is for me what makes it Canadian," Diamond says.

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