It feels like a million miles from the labyrinthine Holyrood. Lord Rogers’ Welsh assembly is all about transparency: in fact, it’s mostly a canopy open to Cardiff Bay
How does the nearly completed £67m Welsh assembly building in Cardiff compare with its Scottish counterpart, the parliament building in Edinburgh? The answer is hardly at all. Whereas Enric Miralles presented the Scots with an intoxicating jumble of forms and spaces, Richard Rogers Partnership has given the Welsh little more than a large undulating timber canopy. Below the canopy is thin air, most of which serves as a spacious public concourse. Surrounded on all sides by glass walls, the concourse is resplendent in its transparency, which finance minister Sue Essex praises as being “in keeping with the assembly government’s desire to involve the public in open government”.
The three-storey building is curiously upside-down in its configuration. Whereas the visiting public is offered pride of place in the two upper levels, the assembly members must busy themselves in the lowest floor. The main debating chamber plus several committee and meeting rooms are in the basement beneath the raised floor of the public concourse. The building’s ubiquitous transparency comes to their rescue, as all these spaces draw daylight either directly through rooflights or indirectly through narrow courtyards sunk into the concourse.
The main debating chamber is anything but a glorious auditorium like Miralles’ effort. In fact, it is a compact, upright bottle-shaped space. High above the circular chamber, a steeply sloping ceiling curves inwards like the neck of a bottle, which bursts through the public concourse and roof canopy to terminate in a circular rooflight. Instead of a cork, the bottleneck contains an inverted mirrored cone that reflects daylight into the chamber below, and above it a wind cowl with aluminium Crest creates natural ventilation.
Viewed from outside, the undulating timber roof canopy takes precedence. As project architect John Lowe explains: “When we designed our competition entry in 1998, we noticed that the site had two dominant elements – the water of Cardiff Bay and the sky. So we repeated waves and clouds in the dished effect of the roof canopy.”
Sadly, Rogers’ delicate pavilion has succumbed to the unrelenting urban chaos that is the Cardiff Bay development zone. Huge hulking buildings, all in clashing forms, orientations and materials, crowd round it like bully boys, with the largest being the metal-helmeted bruiser of the Welsh Millennium Centre next door.
Paradoxically, it is only inside the building that its Urban Design concept comes to life. The public concourse faces out without obstruction to the bay and the sky, and overhead the undulating roof canopy stretches out further in the same direction. In summer, sunlight reflects off the water to bathe the slatted timber ceiling in dappled golden light.
Could the transparency of Rogers’ building go on to radiate democracy in Wales? Well, it certainly won’t lose its public visitors, as Miralles’ labyrinth does.