The Civic Trust for Wales

Grand design?

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Article from The Civic Trust for Wales’s former Director, Dr Matthew Griffiths

Barry Central Estate (Bing)

The government’s intention is to get rid of the requirement for planning applications to be accompanied by design (and access) statements. It’s argued that too often developers have paid lip service to the requirement, and written their statements after, rather than before, they have ‘designed’ their projects. Sometimes, however, you see a failure of design quality that is so glaringly obvious that you wonder whether there is any device that can ensure that design quality is important to the developer. Still more so if it’s the local authority that is effectively commissioning its own building (albeit one vested in a community association).

Alexandra Gardens, showing former community hall

Barry’s Central Estate, set on the crest and slopes of the natural amphitheatre that overlooks its dock, with longer views to Barry Island, the channel and the Devon and Somerset coast, was built between the wars. It’s one of those public housing schemes that reflects genuine pride on the part of councillors and officials, and a desire that new homes should be good homes, and deserve a thoughtful setting. On the hill crest would be a small park, Alexandra Gardens, with boundary walling in a style ubiquitous in the town’s inter-war formal gardens, whether parks or proms. If you don’t know the area, then the Bing aerials give a good impression of everything but the relief. A formally laid out estate; set in tiers on the hillside, streets of semi-detached red-brick homes with generous gardens and open space; on the hill-top, a mixed development of red brick and render semis and several blocks of flats in the same style, facing the main road. There’s definitely a flavour of the garden village about the aesthetic.

Alexandra Gardens had a small community hall, put up in 1947; nothing special, well out of date, pitched zinc roof, single-storey, painted green, needing replacement. The new build would be dedicated to a much-loved local councillor, former leader of the council, and campaigner on equality issues and women’s causes, who died in office in 2012, Margaret Alexander.

I’m still bemused that a council that can get some things so absolutely right (I’m thinking of its regeneration work at Barry Island’s promenade) could have got this relatively simple replacement scheme so absolutely wrong. I can only assume that an obsession with cost and security overcame any other consideration. Anyway here’s the result: defensive architecture par excellence, a flat-roofed blockhouse whose main purpose seems to be to establish a killing zone for anyone or anything approaching uphill. A quarter of the cash came from regeneration funding.

New community cente, Alexandra Gardens, 2013

Community Centre, detail

For some reason, Jehu Project Services, who installed the building, acknowledged their responsibility. But the design was done in house by the Vale Council, who have no excuse. There is no reason why a simple, secure building has to be so ignorant either of its context or its impact on its surroundings.

 Matthew Griffiths

Note: the design and access statement is online here.  It deals with access and inclusivity issues and the limitations of the site. With reference to architectural design it states: ‘2.4. Using a demountable unit the architectural influence is minimal in comparison to the original construction method.’ Green was chosen as a reference to the previous building.

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