ONE of Wales’ foremost architects says we should be prioritising the retrofitting of public buildings instead of demolishing and replacing them.

Professor Oriel Prizeman from Cardiff University is a specialist in sustainable conservation architecture. She believes developers should be challenged to reimagine alternative uses for our buildings and public spaces instead of opting for demolition and renewal.

A fortnight ago, plans were revealed to demolish the Queens Arcade shopping centre in Cardiff city centre to redevelop the site. It’s the latest in a series of extensive demolitions and redevelopments across the capital city. The 150,000sq ft centre opened in 1994 but many units are currently unoccupied. The draft application proposals see the centre entirely redeveloped, including the creation of a new open street that would link Working Street, Queen Street and St David’s Centre.

“You can walk into Queens Arcade and say that because there are so few tenants, it looks really dismal at the moment,” says Professor Prizeman. “However, could we not perhaps reimagine how that retail space might work without the need for extensive demolition and redevelopment? Obviously retail on the high street altogether is completely changing, not just due to the pandemic but also because of internet shopping habits and so forth.

“However, several of my own students have done projects which concentrate on shopping centres and redesigning them for alternative uses. It’s not unviable.

“Often, developers are not thinking imaginatively about how older buildings might be used. But if you look at cities which have quite significant heritage protection, where it’s more difficult to demolish and replace buildings, you’ll see that people occupy the most humble and simple buildings and they’re still worth an absolute fortune.

“You can buy a stable in Knightsbridge and it’ll be £5m but the same building in parts of Wales would cost £4,000, and they’re practically identical buildings.

“It’s often not about the building but about the context, and the economic context more broadly.

“I think developers should be challenged to ask whether their plans are really necessary. The Library of Birmingham is a good example. That building was demolished and renewed three times in one century and it is quite hard to see that there was any need to do that.”

The National Wales: Professor Oriel Prizeman.Professor Oriel Prizeman.

Professor Prizeman’s own research focus in recent years has been on Carnegie libraries. These were libraries that were founded with money donated by the Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. More than 2,500 libraries were built worldwide between 1883 and 1929, including 24 across Wales. They featured large windows six to seven feet above the floor, high ceilings and a centrally located librarian’s desk.

A large number of Carnegie libraries are still being used as they were originally intended but some have been adapted for alternative uses. The Rhyl library is now part of the town hall and is used for the registration of births, deaths and marriages. The Llandrindod library in Powys houses a museum, while in Church Village near Pontypridd, the library is now used as the parish hall.

“These were the first hugely standardised buildings with transatlantic standards which were built,” says Professor Prizeman. “I’ve plotted all the current energy use of those buildings in the UK, where 660 in total were originally built. You can see they really perform in energy terms even though they’re single glazed and they don’t have optimum heating. And they perform in energy terms just as well as buildings of modern standards and in some cases, surprisingly, they actually exceed them.

“This in itself casts quite a bad light on a lot of more recently built public buildings. And considering this, we have to have a more concentrated and critical eye on our immediate path if we’re going to be able to work in a resourceful way going forward with our public buildings. It does take more work in terms of thinking about how to adapt things architecturally. But it’s time well spent.”

One of the finest examples of retrofitting a public building can be seen in Wrexham, according to Professor Prizeman. Ty Pawb was once a market hall and multi-storey car park, originally built in the 1990s from brick and concrete. It had become tired and was becoming economically unviable. Meanwhile, the council needed to move Oriel Wrecsam, the former Wrexham Arts Centre, to a new location.

Architects Featherstone Young reimagined the space to accommodate new facilities, including art galleries, market stalls, performance spaces, a learning centre, as well as cafes and bars. There are also studios and meeting rooms for artists, freelancers and gallery staff.

Ty Pawb opened in 2018 and won many accolades, including the National Eisteddfod of Wales Gold Medal of Architecture 2019 and also the Architect’s Journal prize for ‘Retrofit of the Year & Cultural Building under £5m’.

The National Wales: Ty Pawb in Wrexham.Ty Pawb in Wrexham.

“Ty Pawb really is an excellent project,” says Professor Prizeman. “To completely reimagine such a dreary space into something which is vibrant and innovative is very impressive. It goes to show that new isn’t necessarily better and that often there is more excitement to be had in imaginative conversions and re-presentations of old buildings.

“A retrofitting project such as this also upturns the way in which people have to think about design - you have to think about the building being the thing that exists as opposed to you being the person with the intention that exists. That means taking a slightly more passive role. And a lot of buildings such as these are not buildings which you would instinctively have much admiration for. But we must recognise that throwing them away is not the answer.

“There’s a strong cultural heritage we have in terms of thinking if something’s engineered, like a car, that if we buy a new, more efficient car, it’s going to be better than the old, inefficient car we’ve already got. And yes, there may be some logic to that with cars in terms of them being recycled and so on. But in terms of buildings, it doesn’t work like that at all.

“I think government-led initiatives which talk constantly about renewal as a sort of innovation is something we have to be guarded against and instead we have to push for the re-inhabitation of buildings which are from our quite recent past.

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“Somehow we’re excruciated by what our parents’ generation did. They’ve traced it in literature and it’s also the case in fashion. In architecture we very obviously are repelled by the things that perhaps tainted our memories as children. And then we begin to love the things that belonged to our grandparents or great grandparents generation. I think that what we have to do, however, is to learn to accept our recent past.”

Professor Prizeman runs the MSc in sustainable building conservation at the Welsh School of Architecture. She also teaches units to general architecture students on the same subject. She believes giving children better opportunities to learn about design is vital: “I think schoolchildren would be greatly equipped by being encouraged to learn more about their recent past in order to understand why it was that people did things in a certain way.

“We could all do with better understanding that it wasn’t that people were bad or good, but were simply doing the best with what they had.

“Post-war building is by definition, cheap, because people didn’t have the resources, so it should be admired for its ingenuity rather than being labelled as being merely cheap.

“We have all quite a limited education in that way. But I have colleagues within the Welsh School of Architecture at Cardiff who are working hard to promote architecture and design within the Welsh Baccalaureate, which is promising for the future.

“There are other programmes trying to encourage children generally to become more attuned to the built environment which surrounds them.

“And I’d like to say this isn’t just about architects or architecture. Everyone at some point is involved in shaping their built environment, or deciding what is or isn’t the right way to live. Whether you switch on your heater or put on a jumper… that’s an environmental decision that’s immediately related to the room you’re in.

“Merely thinking the only thing we can do is to make buildings idiot proof is not the most important thing. What we need to do is to make people more sensitive to their built environments.”

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