Head of Cardiff’s Welsh School of Architecture and Chair in Sustainable Design Professor Chris tweed (PhD 1989) writes about the new physical spaces that “will change the face of the University and city for generations.”
What do you remember from first arriving at university as a student? When I arrived in Cardiff to study at the Welsh School of Architecture I recall the distinguished, if rather stern, Neo-Greek classical facade of UWIST’s Main Building (now the University’s Bute Building) and the approach along the tree-lined King Edward VII Avenue. Those first impressions conjure up memories of an exciting but daunting time that will stay with me forever. After a few months, of course, the sombre facade of the Bute engendered fondness for a home from home, full of adventure, challenges and new friends. I imagine the same is true for students arriving today, even those staring at the shiny screens they hold an arm’s length away. From a student’s perspective, I’m sure place still matters.
Many years before, then the celebrated Welsh architect and former head of the Welsh School of Architecture, Professor Dewi Prys-Thomas, described his first encounter with Cathays Park having arrived from rural North Wales as:
‘The impact of that magical first impression is indelible … All these noble buildings shone in mellow harmonies of white.’
Those who have been privileged to sit through any of Dewi’s mesmeric lectures will hear these words delivered as a hoarse whisper punctuated by a dramatic pause — when he drew on his untipped Senior Service cigarette — before exhaling the dependent clause in a cloud of grey-blue smoke. The spellbound room would then resonate to the staccato click of his fingers, his cue for the technician at the back of the lecture room to advance to the next slide. Long before anyone talked about learning technologies, he relied on pure theatre, and nicotine.
What memories are we building for tomorrow’s students? It is reassuring to see the University understands how important physical places are to nurturing the inquiring minds of staff and students. This is underlined by a commitment to providing top class research and learning environments. Discovery needs to happen somewhere and the University is creating more spaces for those Eureka! moments in laboratories, libraries and lecture rooms with an ambitious programme of building. This will make a lasting contribution to the built environment in Cardiff and Wales. It will change the face of the University and the city for generations.
Cathays Park sets the bar high: it has been called a ‘mini-Washington’ with its collection of fine buildings, laid out along the tree-lined avenue, gathered around Alexandra Gardens (the perfect balm for exam-frayed nerves), and yet only five minutes’ walk from the city centre. The new Centre for Student Life will extend the ‘white city’ of the Park across Park Place to a site opposite the University’s Main Building and in front of the Students’ Union. Full planning permission was granted for this building in December 2016.
New spaces create new opportunities. Proximity nurtures collaboration. That is the rationale behind many of the new ventures the University is pushing forward. On the Innovation Campus, the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre, the Hadyn Ellis Building, and the Cardiff Business School Postgraduate Teaching Centre will be joined by two new centres of excellence, Innovation Central and the Translational Research Facility. Construction work on both is due for completion in 2018, with official openings in 2019. Innovation Central will be home to two facilities: the Innovation Centre designed to provide start-up companies with the resources and support to encourage growth, and the Social Science Research Park (SPARK) which aims to provide innovative and effective solutions to pressing, global, societal problems.
In the same year, a short walk from there will take you to the Schools of Computer Science and Mathematics co-located in a new building headed for the designers’ sketchpads, drawing boards and computer workstations later this year. This will result in a 10,000m2 centre of excellence to deliver innovative teaching and research and facilitate new synergies between the two schools.
A new library is also planned for the future, underlining the University’s commitment to creating physical places for people to come together to access the reliable information and knowledge that fuel creative imagination, critical analysis and crucial innovation. Technology may open new channels of information, but sharing physical space with each other encourages us to challenge and question the sources and provenance of knowledge in free and open debate, which is essential to the University’s role as the critic and conscience of society.
Despite the increasing level of online tuition, geographical place will always remain important for education. People will continue to be attracted to Cardiff: firstly, because of the ability to share space with others engaged in learning and discovery – fellow students – and face to face access to renowned academics; secondly, because the University’s investment will offer facilities that are not available elsewhere; and finally, because the city of Cardiff is one of the most liveable cities in Europe with a quality of life and affordability to rival the best in the UK.
The way we learn, the way we teach and the way we discover new knowledge are changing, but they all take place somewhere. And that somewhere will always be important. Its qualities will set the tone for our experiences and provide the backdrop for lives at a critical juncture in their development. The quality of its architecture is crucial to the success of the University and its reputation as a global institution. Perhaps even more so now that images are so easily shared around the world. Photographs of the estate are often the public face and first point of reference for future students. But the architecture will be more than the background to thousands of Instagram posts, or Dr Who sets, it will epitomise everything Cardiff University stands for. To succeed in this it must embody Vitruvius’ three requirements for good architecture: commodity, firmness and delight. Overlook the last of these and we have mere buildings. We owe it to those who choose to study and work at Cardiff to greet them with delight.
 As quoted in Hilling, John B. (2016). The History and Architecture of Cardiff Civic Centre: Black Gold, White City, University of Wales Press. p.95, from Dewi-Prys Thomas, ‘A Quiet Dignity … William Caroe and the Visual Presence’, in Gwyn Jones and Michael Quinn (eds.), Fountains of Praise: University College, Cardiff, 1883-1983, p.54