Casting Shadows

The Zenith building.

The Zenith building.

Last week I spotted a Tweet talking about: “Cardiff’s ugliest building” and unsurprisingly it was accompanied by a number of architecture, planning and developer related comments. The building in question, the near completed Zenith tower block is certainly stirring-up emotions.

Currently the Cardiff skyline is being transformed by a number of new buildings, and so before writing this piece I went to take a look, and posted one of my photos of the building on Instagram. In response, an American follower commented that they didn’t think it was ugly. From someone living in a country with countless tower blocks and skyscrapers this perhaps comes as no surprise.

Interestingly a Swedish follower commented: “definitely not very beautiful - but not that hideous either.” They also went on to say: “Very modernistic - could be really cool with some rooftop parties on the low sections.” I like this mindset of looking beyond the physical structure and identifying a positive benefit the building could offer.

Ultimately, whether a building is ugly is subjective.

From my perspective, this is a substantial building in terms of its height and volume, and this gives it an immediate presence. The overall design is “typical” it could be in any city in the UK, and that’s where it’s fair to say the building is disappointing. However, there are other “typical” tower blocks that go almost unnoticed in Cardiff and this is where the design of the Zenith building has left it open to criticism.

If, and very reluctantly, I accept, that for all sorts of reasons, new buildings can’t all be architectural wonders, then equally a new tower block that is of a “typical” style should avoid attempts to appear “interesting”. Here I’m referring to the upper floors of the building, where the contrasting colour and roofline detailing appear to be an attempt to add visual interest. Additionally, a decision was taken to emblazon the name in large lettering at the top of the building. For a building unlikely to achieve iconic status the lettering gives the impression of Zenith trying to shout its presence on the City.

Had the upper floors been kept in the same style as the rest of the building and the name not added to it, then I suspect Zenith could well have arrived on the Cardiff skyline without attracting criticism. That still wouldn’t make it a great building. However, what the Zenith building has unintentionally done is to raise important questions regarding Cardiff’s urban environment. From the initial comments on Twitter the story has developed in the media, with concerns being raised in terms of: the nature of current developments, heritage, density, the planning function and the standard of modern architecture in Cardiff.

It would be wonderful if there was a simple answer to this complex conundrum that many cities, not just Cardiff face. Without question people should always to be at the very heart of the agenda to ensure we develop cities that are green, livable, inclusive, commercial and enjoyable. As if this wasn’t complex enough, what we plan for today will be delivered in a future that’s rapidly changing.

At this point it’s useful to have a reminder of Cardiff’s ambition. The Adopted Local Development Plan (LDP) 2016 states that by 2020, “Cardiff will be a world-class European capital city with an exceptional quality of life and at the heart of a thriving city-region.”

The LDP also says that, “High quality sustainable design is vital if Cardiff is to meet the objectives set out in the Vision and develop as a world-class capital. More specifically, good design plays a number of significant roles: tackling climate change; protecting and enhancing Cardiff’s natural and built environment; protecting local distinctiveness; attracting investment and promoting social inclusion, health and quality of life.”

Additionally the LDP states, “Good design, therefore goes beyond traditional aesthetic considerations and should be an aim for all development proposals with Cardiff, regardless of their scale.”

This is all a bit confusing, a plan is in place that wants Cardiff to be world-class, and it acknowledges that high quality design is vital, and yet people are seeing new developments happen that don’t seem adhere to it. With the genuinely local and distinctive Gaiety Cinema in Roath under threat from demolition and the Guildford Crescent buildings potentially set to remain as facades only, further brings into question the effectiveness of the LDP.

In terms of heritage I believe “protecting local distinctiveness” is essential to ensure the buildings that physically and uniquely tell the story of Cardiff remain in place. A genuine concern I have is the rate at which buildings from the 1950s are rapidly disappearing from the city. This includes the Empire Pool, completed in 1958 when Cardiff hosted the Commonwealth Games and was demolished a mere 40 years later. Likewise the bus station has gone, and with it small gems such as Astey’s Cafe with its curved facade that could well have become one of the “hippest” cafes in the city today. Thompson House has also gone, and St David’s House, again part of the 1950s buildings that characterised this part of Cardiff, has just been demolished.

This character can’t be replaced, and although these buildings were tired, with considered renovation they could still be standing and playing an increasingly important role in the visual history of Cardiff.

There is a renewed interest and appreciation for architecture from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and it will be in the long term interest of Cardiff to reflect this by embracing and protecting more buildings from these decades. Different styles of architecture are represented in all great cities, and they help to give people with different tastes and lifestyles an opportunity to feel truly connected with a part of the city that resonates with them. My concern with much of the new architecture we’re seeing emerge in Cardiff is just how clinical and homogeneous it is.

Taking inspiration from leading cities would certainly help Cardiff to achieve its ambition to become a world-class European capital city. For example: in Paris, The Louvre Pyramid by the late I.M. Pei was greeted with controversy when the plans were unveiled, and yet its understated modernism has seen it rapidly gain respect as one of the City’s most notable buildings. Even the Eiffel Tower was subject to significant initial criticism, and yet today is one of the most iconic structures on the planet.

Not immediately popular, the globally iconic Eiffel Tower.

Not immediately popular, the globally iconic Eiffel Tower.

Cities are inter-competitive, and there’s a strong case to suggest that Cardiff would benefit by encouraging more dynamic, high quality contemporary architecture. Maybe the City should consider the benefits of attracting or commissioning a building that would have the potential to become internationally iconic. This would at least send a message to developers, that Cardiff cares deeply about the buildings that are going to be built in the City, and that this ambitious capital welcomes innovative, sustainable and quality architecture.

Whilst a truly iconic building has the power to significantly transform how a city is perceived, the city itself still has practical roles to play, including for example, housing its citizens. As councils can start building houses again, I’d hope Cardiff Council would have the appetite to explore, even on a very small scale, some truly innovative new concepts for housing. This is important because the future is going to be a very different place. Population growth, increases in single person households, affordability and environmental considerations, are a few of the impacts facing our urban future.

Is Cardiff ready to consider innovative housing developments? This is 8 House in Copenhagen where residents can cycle up to their homes. Architect: Bjarke Ingles

Is Cardiff ready to consider innovative housing developments? This is 8 House in Copenhagen where residents can cycle up to their homes. Architect: Bjarke Ingles

It’s worth attempting to identify the types of housing developments that will Cardiff need in the future. For example: Is the traditional home sustainable? Will Cardiff need to grow vertically? In a creative city how will the housing stock reflect this? Will micro-apartments need to become commonplace?

Whatever gets built in any city there will always be consequences. Social, economic, environmental and political factors all, to varying degrees, determine how a city evolves. Architecture alone doesn’t make a great city, and all buildings cast shadows and its within these shadows, at ground level, that people interact with the city. Ensuring that the city is developed in a way that enhances all aspects of life is key to creating the sustainable urban environments of the future.

Ultimately, if I was to be asked if the Zenith building was the ugliest building in Cardiff, I’d be inclined to reply in the manner of my Swedish commentator and say: “It may not be the most beautiful of buildings, however it has shown how passionate people in Cardiff are about their city, and it has helped to identify the need to raise the standard of architecture across the City.”