When you arrive by train to Manchester’s main station - Piccadilly - you walk along the platform and past the buffers and barriers onto the station’s main concourse and straight through to the front of the station. A long, slow gradient leads the road down from the entrance towards the city’s centre at Piccadilly Gardens.

If you keep walking straight on through this wide open public space, you reach Market Street, a pedestrianised shopping high street whose gentle slope leads you down to the Arndale - the city’s busy central shopping centre.

At the end of Market Street you reach the Royal Exchange, now home to a contemporary theatre, but originally home to the booming cotton traders who originally built the city. If you turn right at the end of Market Street you walk past the location of the IRA bombing and reach the Cathedral Gardens, traditionally home of loitering emos, but more recently home of England’s National Football Museum.

The museum is housed in a huge glass and steel building. Approaching it from this direction, it looks like a narrow column of glass, whose seven storey frontage gently slopes down on either side away from you to eventually reach ground level.

Built as part of the re-generation of the city centre after the 1996 bombing which injured more than 200 people, it’s seen as symbolic of the city’s rapid economic growth as a result of this rebuilding project.

The National Wales: Manchester's National Football Museum is housed in the former Urbis building. Designed by architect Ian Simpson. Photo: David Dixon CC BY-SA 2.0Manchester's National Football Museum is housed in the former Urbis building. Designed by architect Ian Simpson. Photo: David Dixon CC BY-SA 2.0

 

The architect Ian Simpson’s buildings are abundant throughout Manchester city centre, the leitmotifs of his design are the visual language of Manchester since the bombing.

Perhaps the most iconic of his buildings is Beetham Tower, which houses the Hilton hotel. Simpson himself occupies the top two floors - having had 30 olive trees delivered to his garden by helicopter so that he can enjoy the shade while looking down upon the city he created, and even enjoying views as far as Eryri.

Whether through accident or design, the plan of the city in Manchester naturally guides visitors from their point of arrival to the centre where people can spend money in shops, bars and restaurants and the buildings each work together to tell the story of the city.

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When a visitor comes out of Cardiff Central train station, a beautiful building in its own right, they come out onto Central Square - the newly developed, vast, concrete expanse with absolutely no features, no greenery and zero invitation for people to use it. It is hostile to human interaction beyond transience. Crossing the Sahara is more visually interesting than crossing Central Square.

Although the urban area of Manchester is much bigger, its city council covers a population area not much bigger than Cardiff’s. Both saw massive growth in the mid-nineteenth century and subsequently the same issues through deindustrialization.

The National Wales: The Betty Campbell statue. Photo: Glenn EdwardsThe Betty Campbell statue. Photo: Glenn Edwards

 

BBC Wales’s new home is a beautiful building, but it’s an obstacle between visitors and the city. It dominates your view as you exit the train station, and unless you know to sneak down the little alley to the right of it, there’s no visual cue for visitors about which way to go to the city centre.

Sneaking down this alleyway, you reach the statue of Betty Campbell, one of the best things to appear in Cardiff over the last twenty years, celebrating one of her most brilliant people, and it’s hidden away from visitors, as if the city’s almost ashamed of it.

The statue’s home, right outside the UK Government building, is a mindless concession by the city’s planners to Westminster, a doffing of the cap. It allows the power of a Cardiff icon to be co-opted by the British state, but for what in return?

Why isn’t it in Central Square?

St Mary Street has long been the city’s home for restaurants and bars, but reaching it on foot from Cardiff Central is a nightmare. Even walking to the stadium involves negotiating unattractive rabbit warren streets.

Demolishing the old bus station and buildings in front of Cardiff Central was an opportunity for Cardiff Council to rebuild from scratch and to make the experience for visitors elegant and simple. As a recent visitor to the city I can categorically say that they’ve failed in this regard.

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Manchester benefits from the fact that its industrial centre became its modern commercial centre - most of the beautiful old buildings in the city centre were formerly cotton warehouses. Cardiff has a huge issue of geography because its industrial centre in the bay isn’t connected to its commercial centre.

Development of the old Brains brewery site, halfway between these two historic centres, is crucial in building a bridge between them and has the potential to stop the city’s two centres of gravity from competing with each other.

So it comes as no surprise that the council has decided to grant permission for an over-sized development here at Central Quay, with hundreds of flats in nondescript tower blocks which visually swallow the historical legacy that makes the area so attractive in the first place.

 

The National Wales: The 43 metre high 19th century brewery chimney will be retained in Cardiff's news Central Quay development.The 43 metre high 19th century brewery chimney will be retained in Cardiff's news Central Quay development.

Instead of creating a regulating line that flows from one end of the city to the other, this lump creates another mass of gravity to compete with the two that already exist in Cardiff.

The Central Quay project is indicative of Cardiff’s approach to planning, where the focus is myopic - on individual projects and not on the value they deliver to the wider area, or their contribution to the story that the city tells.

Another tragic symbol of this short-sightedness by generations of the city’s planners is the Golden Cross pub. It’s protected by its listed status, but everything adjacent to it is demolished, leaving it orphaned from any context. The only story this lonely building tells is one of failed city planning. 

The National Wales: The Golden Cross pub. Photo: Reading Tom (Creative Comms)The Golden Cross pub. Photo: Reading Tom (Creative Comms)

 

When councillors talk of the over-sized Central Quay being exciting simply because it “broadens the sky line”, it calls into question what they think the purpose of a city is.

Buildings, roads, plazas, pubs, restaurants, pathways - cities - exist because of people. They are functional elements within an area of dense population.

If the council is ignoring people on how they use the area, as they appear to be doing with the Queer Emporium - an absolutely crucial and unique space within the city - it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they are making decisions on projects based on the buildings themselves and not on how people will engage with them.

What is the visual language of Cardiff? What story does its architecture tell? As a visitor, all I saw was context-free monoliths fighting each other for attention.

Does the council want to “broaden the skyline” so that the city looks good on a postcard, or does it want to create spaces where people can enjoy themselves and engage with history, so that they can love the city that they call home?

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