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October 15, 2006

The Welsh Assembly… bit of a mess?

Offering critical opinions of a quintessentially Welsh landmark such as the Welsh Assembly is not without risk for an Englishman living in Cardiff. But [welsh joke deleted for fear of my life] so I’m not afraid…

Yesterday the Assembly building missed out in the Stirling Prize, Britain’s most prestigious award for architecture. I’m ambivalent about whether it should have won – the Madrid airport which took the prize (it was eligible because it was designed by Brits) is attractive on the inside but looks like a long car production line from the outside, so perhaps wasn’t the obvious choice.

But having visited today, I think there’s a few problems with the Assembly building, some of which were architectural and some which were not.

Interior of the Welsh Assembly buildingFirst impression is the security box which has been added on to the front so they can make sure you’ve not bought anything English in (luckily my recording device which set the machines off was made in Norway). It’s necessary but doesn’t feel like it was part of the original plans as it’s a bit of a sore thumb.

The chamber itself is very nicely-designed, but it feels like they were tight with fitting it out. The desks and chairs look like they’ll need replacing in a year’s time, and even the carpet looks a bit temporary. Notably once they upgrade their computers you can bet the new ones won’t fit in the same space.

And then there’s the architectural bit. The roof is basically falling apart. Above the chamber is a funnel leading to daylight that isn’t entirely different from that in the Reichstag in Germany (also British-designed). The key difference is that the Assembly’s ceiling is made mostly of wood rather than glass. Shaped wood.

Wood that’s been bent into curves. Only trouble is some of the wood’s snapped because it would much rather be straight, and the bits between the wood (which looks like the stuff on top of garden sheds) is poking out of the holes.

Quite frankly it’s a bit of a mess.

A Guardian article yesterday went back to previous winners of the Stirling Prize and asked how practical the buildings were (especially the Peckham library built on the fourth floor, making it problematic for the elderly).

Sadly the Assembly looks as if it might join the long list of architectually magnificent buildings which after six months hadn’t quite lived up to practical expectations, even if it does look impressive.

P.S. Just so the Welsh don’t feel like I’m picking on them, remember that the Millennium Dome’s roof kept getting holes in it when it was opened, so we’re just as inept as you are.

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