Redefining Heritage? Recording Modern Wales

What springs to mind when you think of a ‘historic building’? Castles, medieval churches, timber-framed houses? Maybe nineteenth-century industrial complexes, nonconformist chapels and Victorian mansions? The chances are that post-war theatres, civic centres or schools are not the first buildings that most people think of, or would consider as being ‘of historic interest’ at all!

The twentieth century in Wales was one of major economic, social, political, technological, religious, and cultural change, and the built environment had to change and diversify drastically over the course of 100 years in response to this. These buildings and planned landscapes have equally shaped our lives from our day-to-day experiences of transport, work, home and leisure to landmark civic and political structures.

The twentieth-century heritage, particularly of the post-war period, is increasingly under threat of demolition and redevelopment and we need to think urgently about what this means for Wales’s heritage. It is important that disappearing buildings and landscapes from this period are recorded for future understanding alongside those of earlier periods, but we also want to recognise and celebrate the achievements of twentieth-century developments in design, architecture and technological innovation and ensure that its importance as the latest chapter in our long history can be understood and appreciated. While some of these buildings, because of their scale, materials or complex history, may not always be easy to love at first sight, they play a vital role as a visible marker of our society’s more recent past.

To this end the Royal Commission is recording C20 heritage at risk and formulating strategic programmes of thematic research to take forward. We have also been involved in the formation of C20 Cymru; the Twentieth Century Society in Wales and are looking forward to co-ordinating the twentieth century period for the forthcoming revision of the Research Framework for the Archaeology of Wales.

Case Studies:

BBC Broadcasting House, Llandaff

The first permanent home for Welsh language broadcasting and described as ‘among the finest (post-war buildings) in a modernist idiom in Wales’, BBC Broadcasting House was the product of the largest and most successful architectural practice in Wales, the Percy Thomas Partnership. Designed by Ivor Dale Owen, a Merthyr Tydfil native who was trained and influenced by the likes of Walter Gropius, the main façade combines a subtle range of forms and materials that allows each element; admin block, sound studio, television studios, canteen; to be visually identified. To the rear of the complex sits the original external set for the Welsh language drama ‘Pobl-y-Cwm’, the BBC’s longest running soap-opera.

In 2019 BBC Wales moved to their new offices at Central Square, Cardiff. Despite both its architectural and cultural significance, the complex was not deemed to be listable and will soon make way for a housing scheme.

Cantonian High School & Fitzalan High School, Cardiff

Education was overhauled after the Second World War; the 1944 Education Act created a stronger distinction between primary and secondary education, abolished fees for state secondary schools, opening them up to working class children, and created the first comprehensive schools. New schools were required to accommodate increasing birth rates, while others replaced those damaged during city bombing raids, and the opportunity was taken to use innovative construction techniques that improved the speed and costs of construction as well as providing enhanced conditions for learning.

Fitzalan Municipal Secondary School, Adamstown, was heavily damaged during the blitz of March 1941. Renamed as the Fitzalan Technical High School in 1953, its present site at Leckwith was acquired and the school opened in March 1964. Cantonian Municipal Secondary School opened in October 1907 at Market Road, Canton. Again, the complex was destroyed by the bombing raids of early 1941 and, although temporarily repaired, a new site at Fairwater was acquired and Cantonian High School opened on the present site in September 1962.

Both schools are important examples of curtain wall construction typical of school building in this period, the light steel frames allowing large windows for classrooms located either side of a central corridor with staircases to each end. Both are currently having new school complexes built under the Welsh Governments Education for the 21st Century scheme, after which the existing schools will be demolished.

Pembrokeshire County library, Haverfordwest

Public libraries, as important places of free and accessible education for adults and schoolchildren alike, were highlighted by a number of post-war studies including the Education Act of 1944, the Ministry of Education report ‘The structure of the public library service in England and Wales’ and The Robbins and Newson Reports on Education of 1964. The Public Libraries and Museums Act, also of 1964, made it a statutory duty for local authorities to provide a library service that was ‘comprehensive and efficient’ as well as encouraging cultural activities within communities.

The Pembrokeshire County Library of 1967-69, designed by Pembrokeshire county architect, Gilbert Ray, was part of the subsequent programme of building. Externally the facade is dominated by a sculpture by artist David Tinker designed to represent the pages of open books, the last of his Fibonacci Sequence inspired series, while the interior is characterised by large, well-lit, open plan spaces. To the left, a round theatre is curtained by a curved stone wall, the slit lights evoking a sense of the origin of this medieval town.

The function of the building was replaced by the Glan-yr-afon cultural centre built in 2018, and the building is currently for sale.

Coleg Harlech

Coleg Harlech is a complex of contrasting twentieth-century parts, which as a whole came to embody the best of adult education in Wales as the college of ‘second chances’. Originating as an Arts and Crafts house of 1910 built by Scottish architect, George Walton, for Kodak Managing Director, George Davison, in 1927 it was purchased through the intervention of Thomas Jones for use as an adult education college. With a slow but steady start, students themselves worked to clear ground for the construction of their new library designed by Moses Griffiths in 1939. In 1969 the first dedicated hall of residence opened; a 12-storey tower complete with a commissioned sculpture by Jonah Jones ‘Y Bont’. In 1974 Theatr Harlech (Theatr Arduddwy) opened on the site of the former music hall destroyed by fire in 1968; the £350,000 fundraised towards the cost of which was testament to the place Coleg Harlech held in the hearts of the people of Wales.

Closed in 2017, the complex has passed into private hands and is waiting its own ‘second chance’ of a new use.

Shire Hall, Mold

The need for a new County Hall for Flintshire, replacing the nineteenth-century County Hall in the centre of Mold, was identified in the 1930s. It was not until 1966 however, that county architect, Robert W Harvey, started on the grand scheme of Shire Hall, overlooking the town from an elevated position to the north. Originally a courtyard block of four sections, the complex was expanded to encompass a further three large blocks after the 1972 Local Government Act which reformed Flintshire and Denbighshire into the new county of Clwyd. In 1996 the building reverted to Flintshire County Council; after the relocation of a number of departments, the three extension blocks were demolished in May 2020 while the future of the original courtyard remains uncertain.

Costing over £800,000, with a further £65,000 spent on fixtures and fittings, it is generally acknowledged as heavily influenced by the 1960 American Embassy in London by Finnish architect, Eero Saarinen, a building described as combining ‘technical ingenuity with decorative flair’.

Wrexham Police Station, Bodhyfryd

Wrexham Police Station was built between 1973 and 1975, designed by assistant architect, Stuart Brown, in conjunction with county architect, Eric Langford Lewis, as the Head Quarters for North Wales Police. Built of reinforced concrete, the site was dominated by the striking eight-storey central tower, cantilevered out from a concrete ‘stalk’ containing the stair and lift shafts. This 142ft structure contained the main offices and briefing and interview rooms, as well as highly specialised accommodation for the Special Branch.

It was an unashamedly towering monument to Brutalist architecture that many found hard to like, though recognised by many others as an exemplar of slab and podium construction and an integral part of a wider post-war scheme at Bodhyfryd including the Memorial Hall, law courts and swimming baths. The doors to this striking building were closed in January 2019 due to relocation of North Wales Police to a new HQ. The demolition took place in November 2020 with an emotional good-bye for many via a live web-stream.

Cwmbran

Cwmbran is a unique Welsh settlement, being the only one of the eleven Mark I generation New Towns to be built in Wales. Designated in 1949 on a valley site ‘a good deal more attractive than the committee imagined’, the 1951 Master Plan provided a model for a new way of living, where work and home life was balanced, commuting time minimised but the opportunities for green spaces, leisure and community activity were plentiful and accessible to all.

The Cwmbran Development Corporation utilised innovative methods of construction design and planning; the central town centre providing exciting shopping, leisure and civic experiences was surrounded by a network of ‘neighbourhood units’. In each of these, communities of no more than 5,000 people were created around grouping of local shops, school, community halls, and adult education centres, all within walking distance of people’s homes. New construction techniques and innovative design were combined with Parker Morris standards to create lighter, airier, modern homes.  Swathes of open parks between the neighbourhoods were supplemented by ‘greens’, ‘todlots’ (play parks for young children), and more formal leisure facilities offering ‘room to breathe’ and ‘green spaces buzzing with activity’.

A characterisation study carried out by the Royal Commission, to be published in 2021, will help protect the special nature of Cwmbran, identifying key assets for retention and helping to ensure future development mirrors the history of modernity and innovation of the last 70 years.

Rhyl Sun Centre

Rhyl Sun Centre was an iconic symbol of the tourism and leisure industry of the ‘north Wales Riviera’ and held a very special place in the hearts of generations of people who holidayed or grew up in north Wales. Opened in 1980 and costing £4.25m, the ‘tropical village’, boasted three pools with 13,000 sq ft of water and including Europe’s first indoor surfing pool, an artificial indoor-rain system, sandy beaches and sunbeds, numerous cafes and even a mono-rail system. Evening entertainment included discos and theme nights. Such was its fame it had prime time advertising slots during ITV’s ‘Roland Rat’ programme and hosted a 13-week run of the Rod and Emu show. 

By 1985 it was attracting 500,000 visitors a year but after the complex was sold by Denbighshire County Council to a private company, decline in tourism and the costs of heating a large, single-skin ‘Fosteresque glazed shed’ led to its closure in 2016, and subsequent demolition. It has been replaced by the SC2 waterpark.

Caernarfonshire Technical College, Bangor

The 1944 Education Act also allowed for the expansion of further education in the form of Technical Colleges and Colleges of Further Education. Caernarfonshire Technical College opened in September 1957, replacing an earlier college of 1947. Designed by the County Architect Westbury Lloyd Jones in conjunction with deputy architect T Summers Davies, the building responded thoughtfully to its elevated residential location.

The complex utilised the sloping site to ensure the bulk of the workshop range was masked from view, the prominent element of the roof line raised above the ordinary with the use of a series of undulating Truscanoid panels whose gentle curves mirrored the hills to the distance. The historic importance of the north-west Wales slate industry to the town was combined with the technical skills taught by the College in an exquisite slate mural engraved with depictions of ‘tools of the trades’.

Subsequently absorbed into Coleg Menai, the site was closed in 2019, with the workshop block demolished in advance of redevelopment. 

We need your help!

In studying the built heritage of the 20th century we realise that we have a unique opportunity to engage with people about the memories and experiences of those involved in their planning, design and construction, and the people and communities for whom they were built. If you have information that you would like to share with us about these, or other 20th century buildings, be this in the form of photographs, drawings etc., or memories, please contact us at: helen.rowe@rcahmw.gov.uk

Susan Fielding, Uwch Ymchwilydd (Adeiladau Hanesdyddol) | Senior Investigator (Historic Buildings

Links:

20th Century Society

20th Century Society in Wales

The Modernist Society

Documenting and Conserving the Modern Movement

03/24/2021

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