18 January 2011

Opportunity Lost in High Street, Cardiff

High Street, Cardiff

Cardiff has had its own little urban renaissance lately courtesy, bizarrely you may think, of the new St David’s 2 retail development. Although this huge behemoth of an internal shopping mall may well be one of the last of its kind in the UK (it already feels outdated when compared with open street-type developments like Liverpool 1 and Cabot Circus in Bristol), it has provided at least one welcome benefit – an abrupt and discernable “raising of the bar” in terms of what Cardiffians experience as quality urban realm.

The upgrade of the Hayes from the new Central Library to Queen Street is a bold, minimal and stylish intervention and deserves praise for the quality of materials, workmanship and layout. It seems that the design aspirations have been matched by the outcome and that rare combination should be recognised with appropriate praise.

The danger of course was that other parts of Cardiff would start to look decidedly tatty in comparison. However, it has been interesting to see just how far the Section 106 (as I presume that is where the bulk of funding has come from) money has stretched, with sections of Charles Street and Park Place having subtle facelifts too, not to mention upgrades around Churchill Way and along Bute Terrace.

Of course, these improvements were always going to leave Queen Street as a visual problem – the busy floor layout and excessive clutter now looks very clumsy and provincial compared with the Hayes – but this work was carried out relatively recently, so I suppose we are stuck with it and its surface that becomes unexpectedly slippery in the gentle drizzle that occasionally falls here.

So, the unfortunate legacy of Queen Street aside, the bar has been raised and the patient citizens of Cardiff have had their eyes opened a little wider to the possibilities of strong urban design. You would have hoped therefore that the Council might have sensed the zeitgeist and taken advantage of the newly enhanced aesthetic sensibilities of its population. Tragically however, a once in a generation opportunity has been well and truly squandered with a dreadful intervention in the High Street.

There are clearly many technical and economic constraints - this was obviously not going to be a straightforward pedestrianisation exercise. So why then go for the trendy idea of shared surface, only to have to compromise under the inevitable (and genuine) criticism of the local disabled user group? The white line delineating a central carriageway is horrible and spoils what is otherwise a very reasonable and high quality choice of materials. But the real icing on the cake is all the “stuff” above ground. For instance, one wonders how much of St Mary Street could have been similarly improved, if the money spent on several hundred cast iron bollards now gracing the view (and without discernable purpose) had been saved.

Our eyes have become so accustomed to this sort of visual mess in our urban spaces that it actually takes an effort of will to see it. What level of processing power must our brains have to devote to filtering out this chaos? Our brains constantly undertake real-time special effects wizadry worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. But once you’ve seen it, the trick is lost and you suddenly can’t ignore it - it becomes all the more real; bollards, lampposts (just horrible) signs etc…indeed you can barely see the Castle through it all.

Did the designers not see the restraint in the design of the Hayes? Were they deaf to the voice of Mies imploring “less is more”? The council want to persuade us that Cardiff aspires to be a European Capital City of world stature. Clearly, that is ridiculous and a distraction - it doesn’t need to be. It is perfectly suited to being a small scale regional administrative centre; it is compact, green and with friendly and welcoming people. But those people deserve urban quality as fine as anywhere else; after all, the cat is out of the bag now and we’ve all seen how it can be done in the Hayes. You don’t get many goes at a redesign of a street in a place like this. That is the real tragedy.

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