Swansea's Civic Centre has been given a facelift, on paper at least.

Cardiff University architecture student Rhiannon Thomas has reimagined what the much-maligned seafront building could look like in the future, and in doing so, how it could be saved from demolition.

The 25-year-old began looking at the site as part of her masters degree in architecture. Within a unit studying under the guidance of Professor Oriel Prizeman, Rhiannon concentrated her attention on unloved post-war buildings, which don’t count as heritage architecture and which are likely to be knocked down as a result.

Her task was to use her creative powers to save the buildings and imagine new futures for them. Designs were focused on structures such as shopping centres and car parks.

While working from home during the pandemic, the students were encouraged by Professor Prizeman to choose a building near to where they lived.

A resident of Swansea, Rhiannon chose the civic centre, a building which splits opinions and is often described as an eyesore.

The National Wales: Rhiannon's reimagined Swansea Civic Centre.Rhiannon's reimagined Swansea Civic Centre.

“It is a very interesting building to study because it’s one that’s in danger of being demolished in the future,” says Rhiannon. “I started to imagine what could be achieved for Swansea with the resources that it has. And I realised that the city’s greatest resource is its landscape because that’s what makes it different to every other city in the UK.

“But what’s incredible is that when you’re in the city centre you just wouldn’t know it. When you get off at the train station in the middle of town, you have no idea how beautiful the landscape around Swansea Bay is.

“So rather than demolish and change the architecture completely I began planning the design in a more sustainable way, taking the landscape into account.

“That is the sort of thing that would bring value to the city centre rather than a new mixed-use development, which would not only cost a lot more but would have a heavy carbon footprint.

“The current building is only 40 years old and when the original architects designed it, it made use of the views and responded to the site. It was an appropriate building for the area and it still is. The thing is though, as a society, we’re no longer interested in that Brutalist aesthetic.”

READ MORE: Let's protect our built heritage to curb carbon emissions

The Swansea Civic Centre structure was originally designed by county architect J Webb alongside project architect CW Quick.

It was built in two phases between 1979 and 1984, and served as the headquarters for the West Glamorgan County Council. Following local government reorganisation in 1996, it was transferred to the new City and County of Swansea.

Instantly recognisable to those travelling past on Oystermouth Road, the four and five-storey building is concrete-framed and is faced with white flint aggregate panels.

The council chamber extends outwards above the entrance, while the city’s library is also housed within.

The C20 Society, which campaigns to protect 20th century buildings and design, says it is “strongly opposed to the demolition” of Swansea Civic Centre and has submitted an application to have the building listed at Grade II. In May this year, the charity included it in its top 10 buildings at risk list.

“The council should consider saving this building,” argues Rhiannon. “After the war, society understandably went on a mass building spree. But I think it’s now time for us to slow down and to think a bit more imaginatively about the buildings that already exist. We simply cannot keep progressing at the rate that we are. With dwindling resources, we need to be a bit more careful with what we have.

“A concrete specialist who came to talk to us architecture students actually looked at the condition of Swansea Civic Centre and estimated that the building has between 50 and 100 years of life left.

“That concrete shell is strong but it’s also flexible in the sense that you can put anything inside it. If you gut it, the exterior structure is there and so the floor plan can be almost anything you want. You just need to think creatively.”

Perhaps the biggest thing that threatens the site is not the bulldozer but climate change.

Last week, maps and research released by Climate Central showed the impact rising sea levels could have on coastal areas such as Swansea.

By 2050, much of the city is predicted to be under water unless global temperature increases are kept below 2C.

Many other parts of the Welsh coastline were also warned to be under threat from the sea, from Newport to the Dee estuary.

The Climate Central forecast followed the UN’s IPCC report which outlined the dangers of failing to tackle climate change.

“It’s not really a smart idea to be undergoing a massive redevelopment of a site that’s predicted to be under water within 30 years,” says Rhiannon. “We’ll probably be seeing big sea walls in many locations across the country by that point through necessity. But when I was doing my own drawings, I looked at a more eco system-based approach to the flood protection of the site.

“So you can see from my design that the exterior has been completely re-wilded.

“I have included an intertidal zone with a salt marsh flood plain and a new estuary. The building would sit within that.

“I think that authorities everywhere will have to start thinking along these lines now in order to protect the coastline in the future. There is so much coastal erosion going on already and we need new approaches to this issue.”

Several different ideas for the plot have been mooted over the years and the building’s future continues to hang in the balance.

In mid-July, the council agreed to appoint a development partner in order to move forward with commercial, residential and leisure space in seven sites across the city, which included the civic centre. At the meeting, Swansea’s Labour cabinet approved an outline 20-year umbrella agreement with a so far unknown company.

Plans under the ‘Shaping Swansea’ project would see the council offices moved to a new public sector hub elsewhere.

The building would be demolished and the plot would be transformed into a new residential mixed-use development.

Some of the other sites earmarked for redevelopment include the former St Thomas railway station, the Oxford Street car park and land at Swansea marina behind the former observatory.

Any future re-development would be subject to cabinet approval and planning permission.

The National Wales: Swansea Civic Centre as it looks today. Picture: icreate.co.ukSwansea Civic Centre as it looks today. Picture: icreate.co.uk

Rhiannon insists it’s time to break the cycle of demolition and renewal and thinks the council should be looking at the entire city differently: “They keep changing their minds about this building and going back and forth with it. A number of different ideas have been thrown around over the years.

“About five years ago they were talking about turning it into an aquarium, while there was also talk about turning it into a hotel. But what my thesis argues is that there are factors other than the economic ones which should be taken into account with Swansea Civic Centre.

“At the start of this year, I was convinced that it was going to be demolished. But the more that I have chatted to people, I have started to realise that maybe it can be saved.

“I think the efforts of the C20 Society will make a difference. And also, when I talked to people who worked inside the building at the moment, they wanted it to be saved rather than knocked down.

“If it did get demolished, it would be a very sad day indeed for Swansea.”

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