A detached House designed by architects Nic Downs & Carolyn Merrifield, for their own use.
The site with its mature trees was ideal for their house, in a central residential location, but tucked away in a cul-de-sac.
To quote Nic: 'Retaining the trees was very important for us ..... we wanted the house to reflect our environmental principles, with a strong use of timber and energy saving products'.
It became rapidly apparent that Nic and Carolyn were warm, modest, and highly intelligent people – removed from the public image of architects who often exude arrogance.
After seating us comfortably in their double height dining kitchen area, Carolyn and Nic gave us a Power Point presentation of their design. In essence, it comprised the development of the brief and programme, followed by their overall design approach to planning an open-plan family home.
It combined an emphasis on low energy and a prefabricated structural system.
‘High levels of insulation, triple glazing with airtight but breathable walls'.
The house was clad in three materials: natural slate, render and timber 'chosen to blend in with its surroundings'.
On approaching the house, I was immediately aware of the dramatic grouping and articulation of volumes expressing the dominant first floor with its large window framed in banded three-colour polished wood.
Additionally, the entrance elevation was similarly framed, as was the linking single storey garage wing.
The interior areas had a richness and warmth as a result of a very high quality of detailed design. 'God is in the details' said Mies Van der Rohe, and Nic and Carolyn certainly embodied this concept.
The garden elevation was a tour-de-force of hung slate banding and panels of vertical timber. The interior and exterior were closely related – the kitchen dining area opening directly on to the garden.
The extensive slate terraces were planned at different levels, providing a variety of relaxed seating opportunities. A group of acers and exotic architectural plants bordered the terrace adjacent to the house.
Finally, it emerged that Carolyn is a highly respected portrait artist. I had noticed the wide range of beautiful images of their children and Nic throughout the house.
Carolyn sings with Nic in a local choir, runs a book club and is a keen gardener and cook.
They are a remarkable couple.
Cardiff Central Library
Architects BDP, opened 2009
I was disappointed with the building, for me architecture is more than cladding a six storey library to give the impression of a leather-bound bookends and achieving a BREEAM rating of ‘excellence’. The interior was design as for open planned offices with direction signage and an unresolved token to the partially sighted with a variety of large and small dots to nowhere.
When we visited the new Birmingham Library we were impressed with the variety of spaces that drew us through the building. In Cardiff the Welsh Millennium Centre was also a good example of how to successfully handle space. Entering the large entrance area the ceiling sloped down to the rear wall where the inquiry and booking desks are situated where it was at human scale. Moving to the left the full height hall of the building had an elegant and beautifully designed staircase to the upper floors. In contrast at the other end with a full height space for receptions the staircase was discreetly situated.
My impression was of an exciting, inviting building that manages to include a wide range of activities within a restricted triangular floor plan.
The children’s area is safely placed on the first floor accessed by a lift. The escalator rising from the entrance by-passes this floor completely, providing an added level of security.
The atrium and open plan floors form a ’readable’ environment, creating an exciting experience. The circulation takes you to the centre of the building. All library activities branch from it, including spaces for group activities or individual study.
The building consists of two interlocking elements; a transparent area containing the open plan library and a solid block housing offices and meeting rooms.
The two elements are linked by a four storey atrium providing ventilation and daylight. Diagonal walkways cross the space and offer dramatic views over the city.
I was impressed by how the building is being used to provide a range of activities involving the local community; providing book clubs for children in the school holidays; Story time, Rhyme time or Language and Play (LAP) sessions for under 5s and even picnics on artificial turf with food donated by local businesses!
Reading groups meet regularly throughout the year and there is a conversation club in English for speakers of other languages (ESOL).
Learners of the Welsh language have a Welsh Scrabble club and there are free music gigs on Saturdays.
The Glamorgan family history society hold regular sessions and there is an E-reference group – to help with using the library online resources.
It was interesting to hear that because of Cardiff’s past involvement in world trade it is similar to Leicester in the high number of languages spoken. This is reflected in the stock of books as well as the need to have books in Welsh and English. The library provides a help desk on each floor.
The book stacks in the centre of each floor are lower to facilitate disabled readers and have the advantage of supporting the open plan layout.
The Council Hubs are ‘one stop shops’ where advice is given about Council services, including: Housing Benefit, Council Tax and Reduction, Housing, Anti- Social Behaviour, Waste Management, Bus passes and Education. The Advice Hub is also the venue for other agencies including Citizens Advice Bureau, Credit Union, Age Connects, NEST and Blavo & Co solicitors who can offer help and advice.
On the top floor the natural finish of concrete is offset by the warmth of a timber glulam panelled roof which spans the entire library space. The variety of layout, colour and furnishings used obviously appeals to a wide cross-section of users and creates a library with a buzz and sense of life.
The building is specifically designed to be energy-efficient, and includes a sedum roof which improves insulation and reduces rainwater run-off, coloured glass panels and solar shading preventing excessive heat gains, and a full Building Management System providing climate control to individual floors. As a result of these measures the building was awarded a BREEAM rating of 'excellent'.
It has won several awards:
RIBA Award 2010
RICS Regional Award (Sustainability) 2010
Concrete Society Award 2009
LABC South Wales Building Excellence Award (Sustainability Category) 2009
Constructing Excellence Wales Award (Sustainability Award & Project of the Year) 2009
Green Apple Bronze Award for the Built Environment and Architectural Heritage 2009
Craft in the Bay - home of the Makers' Guild in Wales
We arrived in time to take a coffee break in ‘The Pure Kitchen’, which was also our venue for lunch, which shares a striking building with ‘Crafts in the Bay’ a gallery and shop for The Makers’ Guild in Wales. The gallery is an award winning Heritage Building, and was short-listed for a RIBA award in 2004. The building is glass-fronted on two sides to provide views into the exhibition space and features a modern extension, designed as a contrasting element, which accommodates demonstration studios, a conference space, offices and the café with a dramatic roof projecting over an outside seating space. The building, incorporates grade II listed structural metal elements taken down in 1999 from the “D Shed”, one of the last mid-nineteenth century buildings in Cardiff Bay, and has a contemporary extension.
As we drank our coffee we looked out upon the Wales Millennium Centre and the Senedd Building, both of which we were due to visit that afternoon. The shop was full of a wide range of very high quality craft work. It was very difficult not to spend money and money was spent!
The Millenium Centre
The centre comprises one large theatre, two smaller halls, shops, bars and restaurants. It has eight arts organisations in residence and hosts performances of opera, ballet, dance, comedy and musicals.
The Centre was designed by Jonathan Adams, of local practice Percy Thomas Architects and the concept for the centre was that it expressed ‘Welshness’ and was instantly recognisable. It is designed to reflect the different parts of Wales with local Welsh materials – slate, metal, wood and glass. All the materials used come from Wales. Arup Acoustics provided the acoustic design and Arups were building engineers for the scheme
With the steel and multi-coloured layers of slate both have a ‘natural’ texture like the old industrial structures. Glass is incorporated into the bands of slate. Likewise, internally, the use of wood – oak, ash, beech, sycamore, alder, birch, chestnut and cherry woods - is used to evoke the image of the edge of the forest along the galleries with supporting columns like trunks of trees. Throughout the building other attractive details are noticeable, particularly doors with designed textures.
As you walk towards the building you are confronted with the large inscribed message on the front of the dome above the main entrance. Written by Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis it is in Welsh and English. The lettering is formed by windows in the upstairs bar areas and is internally illuminated at night.
It reads (in English)
IN THESE STONES HORIZONS SING
The inscription is a revival of a classical tradition and also recognition of the formative influence of Roman culture upon Wales.
Also, as you approach the building, there is a temporary, memorial artwork, ‘FIELD’ commemorating the 923 Welch Fusiliers who died at the Battle of the Somme in the First World War and have no known grave but whose names are inscribed on the Thiepval Memorial in France. There are 923 lights which change from white to red to black during the day and night. A major new opera, ‘In Parenthesis’ is on at present, the work of David Jones who served during the battle at Mametz 1916.
In conclusion – we had an excellent guide for our Millennium Centre tour and the impression is that everything had been thoughtfully designed, including a very comfortable and cleverly planned theatre. As the whole scheme combined physical, aesthetic and symbolic aspects it made this a unique experience.
The National Assembly for Wales Building
Due to a "heightened alert state" full security checks were required to obtain entry to this unusual building on the waterfront at Cardiff Bay, but the welcome was both courteous and efficient.
The interesting slate, wood, glass and steel structure, conceived by Richard Rogers and fashioned in part in local Welsh materials, houses a debating chamber at its heart, affording it considerable physical protection but at the same time conveying openness to the people of Wales and beyond by allowing access whenever the Assembly is sitting.
The public gallery overlooks the circular chamber where sixty Assembly members sit, fully digitally connected to the outside world and voting electronically to perform their function as a Senate making laws for Wales.
At the centre of the building is a massive funnel like wooden structure depicting a tree representing Welsh democracy with its roots in the chamber below. The "tree" supports the large expanse of undulating red cedar roof which extends outside the glass walls at the front of the building to provide a canopy covering a large open space. The views out over Cardiff Bay from the first floor concourse surrounding the "tree" are expansive and are one of the building's best features. The glass facades of the building allow in much natural light giving an airy, open feeling but also meaning few electric lights are needed. The building is sustainable in other ways too, utilizing ground source heat pumps to cut energy bills and rainwater harvesting for washing windows and flushing lavatories.
Opened on St David's Day 2006, almost ten years after the Welsh Assembly was brought into existence by the narrowest of referendum margins, at around £70 million the Senedd cost considerably more to build than was first estimated but looks fit to serve Wales for many years to come.
This is a most exceptional place: the remains of a Roman castle and an 18C mansion were transformed into a Victorian home like no other. Opulence and ingenuity come to mind in seeing what was done from 1869 and for the next sixteen years by architect William Burges and his patron, the 3rd Marquess of Bute.
Spectacular results came from their combined scholarship and from the immense wealth of the Scottish aristocrat whose family, by marriage, had come to own 22,000 acres of land in Glamorgan. Following Lord Bute’s marriage in 1872, the Marchioness also became much involved in the redesign.
We see in this place the use of learned references and craftsmanship of a high order, directed, for the most part, at creating living spaces – smoking rooms, bedrooms, a small dining room, a nursery and other accommodation. Although there came a grand banqueting hall and a fine library, much was created on a relatively modest spatial scale. Into these rooms, an architect with a knowledge of design in glass, pottery, brass and iron introduced intense decorative patterns, a mass of colour on plaster and tiles set off in many areas with gold leaf. The wall decoration is combined everywhere with ornamental fittings, with superb woodwork, and appropriate images and sculptures taken from the Bible, from legends, from ancient and medieval history and other sources, not least the animal kingdom. (Parrots appear frequently, like a signature).
With all this, room decoration could have been overwhelming; rather, it is stimulating. There are appropriate messages to be found in most rooms, often quite explicit by quotations incised in stonework or written on the tiling – but you need access to an interpretation of Latin or Greek or other ancient language. Burges’s first work at the Castle was the Clock Tower, providing accommodation for the, then, bachelor Marquess and here, in the ‘winter’ smoking room, we find an apt quote from Virgil: ‘Love conquers all things; let us too surrender to love.’ And in the day nursery more extensive work followed the Marquess’s marriage. We find tile work illustrating the heroes and heroines of children’s literature, including the Invisible Prince in which the subject of the tale may be seen only when the tiles are carefully scrutinised: a nice bit of fun.
To summarise a tour of Cardiff Castle, it is helpful, however briefly, to consider the architect and his patron.
William Burges (1827 – 1881) strove to escape the effects in art of industrialisation and to avoid classicism. He had a private income and was able to travel widely, spending eighteen months abroad in his younger days to develop his knowledge and skills. ‘He escaped into a world of fantasy’ – comments J. Mordaunt Crook, a most distinguished art historian of our time and the author of a major study of Burges. Before he worked on the castle the architect had gathered around him a group of artists and craftsmen of the highest skills and he supervised all their efforts and his own designs with exceptional care.
His fees were high. But high fees would have been no problem for the 3rd Marquess of Bute (1847 – 1900). He inherited his titles before he was one year old together with an income of £300,000 a year. Shy and withdrawn as a youth he developed into a formidable scholar, conversant in ancient languages and in archaeology, among other subjects. He learnt to speak Welsh. In 1891 he became the Rector of St. Andrews, a post he held for five years. Devout, he converted to the Roman Catholic Church while at Oxford. Socially he was progressive, opposed to blood sports and supporting the education of women. Married in 1872, he enjoyed a loving relationship with the Marchioness; with their four children they were a happy family.
The Marquess was able to control a huge fortune thanks to the business acumen of his father who, at some risk, invested a lot in developing the Cardiff docks. It worked, enabling the export of Welsh coal worldwide on a massive scale, making an already very rich family even richer.
Finally, J. Mordaunt Crook’s observation on the rooms at Cardiff Castle: ‘ three dimensional passports to fairy kingdoms and realms of gold’.
The Welsh College of Music and Drama
After leaving Cardiff Castle, it was a short ride to our next stop. Our excellent guide gave us a very quick tour as the visit was curtailed by the examinations taking place.
We learned that although the building appears to be a single structure it is in fact three separate buildings. The performance spaces have been conceived separately and united under a single floating roof. The drama building forms a new façade on North Road while the chamber recital hall, clad with a timber screen consisting of light-coloured cedar wood slats, sits amongst Bute Park’s mature trees. Stone and timber have been used to create a sequence of inviting and agreeable interior spaces.
The new entrance to the college opens out onto Bute Park and a treble height arcade forms a new spine between the new and old accommodation, linking both elements, functioning as exhibition space for a range of creative and artistic work. The gallery also creates a natural stack effect which ventilates the public spaces.
We were in and out in 30 minutes - all left feeling that we would need to return and see more at our leisure.
Gloucester Services M5 Northbound
This was not so much a service station, more a destination in its own right. It is a beautiful building using local stone, nestling in the landscape under a grass roof supported by exposed timber beams.
The owners see themselves as a food business; selling food in their café and the farmshop where they showcase producers from around the county.
Those of us that saw it will make a point of stopping there whenever we pass that way. If you haven’t seen it then you should make a point of doing so.
A fitting end to an interesting and varied three days.