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The heart of a remote part

14 Jun 2005

Caernarfon shouldn’t really exist. Although still dominated by a castle built in 1283, the town has an impermanent feel. It was designated for destruction during the Restoration. During the Civil War, the stronghold changed hands three times and was considered a general magnet for any trouble that was going. Charles II decided that the “castle and town wall of our town of Caernarvon [sic]” should be demolished. For some unknown reason, his dictate was ignored. Its reputation for aggravation was allowed to live on, and still lingers in neighbouring towns.

Less refined than the nearby university town of Bangor, less beautiful than Porthmadog and less dramatic than its sister castle town of Conwy, Caernarfon is the ugly sister of North Wales. One can follow the A55 from Chester to Holyhead as it picks its way between Snowdonia and the Irish Sea and miss the single signpost to it. Even its champions are aware of Caernarfon’s limitations. In his book, Caernarfon: The Town’s Story (available for purchase in the town’s tourist office), the local historian Michael Senior admits that, “Caernarfon is not on the way to anywhere.”

In 1974 the town lost status and administrative jobs when Welsh councils were reorganised along regional lines. In 1980, a nearby factory, which employed 600 in the manufacture of car interiors, was closed. Another has laid off a similar number of workers since then. Cwmni Tref was established by the town council as an independent town development trust in 1992. As the town’s buildings became neglected, it refurbished over 20 vacant properties in the town, which are now occupied by commercial tenants. After devolution and with S4C, the Welsh language version of Channel 4 fully established in Wales, the chief executive at Cwmni Tref, Gwyn Davies realised that there were several disparate cultural and artistic bodies in North Wales who would benefit from being located in the same space.

Looking down from the hill above Victoria Dock at the metal panel cladding and slate of the Galeri Caernarfon roof, it appears as if Richard Murphy Architects has designed a building that is utilitarian rather than aesthetic in purpose. The Galeri looks like a warehouse: not a conversion, but a new build. Down by the dock one can see that it is artfully clad in timber; but it is traversed with galvanised steel gantries, and looks like a place where things are made rather than art displayed. It is built like one too – steel frame with fabricated trusses. Timber aside, it doesn’t look very Murphy.

It doesn’t even have a Murphy location. It apparently makes little attempt to intervene into the historic fabric of old Caernarfon, which looks in on itself within city walls some 500metres to the west of the Galeri. Murphy’s previous art spaces, such as the Tolbooth in Stirling or the Eastgate in Peebles, have been veritable essays in intervention. It even runs perpendicular to the adjacent warehouse buildings, which it makes vague reference too. The Galeri sits on Victoria Dock, built in the 1870s for the transport of slate, looking out on to the Menai Straits and the boats that don’t come anymore.

In fact, RMA were initially asked to look at a quainter niche site off the town square, overlooking the more pastoral and less dramatic waterway of the River Seoint. This would have been a bit more Murphy – a modern intervention into the fabric of a historical town. You can’t shove an arts centre in any old corner, however, and the wider area outwith the medieval old town was selected. “The brief was for 22 office units. We put them in two rows and the form quickly emerged. In addition there were two warehouses adjacent,” said, project architect, James Mason. The solid massive form also addresses the volume of the dock itself and a local clientele not known for their appreciation of the fussy.

The building is essentially a box of 23 units, the majority of which are 4.7metres in length, which run the length of the north-westerly and south-easterly walls on two levels. The walls facing the atrium are glass, meaning the activity within is visible not just to members of the public who enter the building but also to other users on the opposite side. The width of the circulation space, however, and the cool timber ceilings give some sense of seclusion. Each unit is largely the same although the full-length external windows are on alternate sides of the room. Double sized rehearsal spaces bookend the rows of smaller units. The Wales Screen Commission, Canolfan Gerdd William Mathias, a charitable organisation dedicated to enhancing musical talent and Tinopolis, a media production company. They are all tenants of the now full facility, which employs around 80 individuals.

Cwmni Tref’s financial jiggery-pokery will impress anyone that has tried to tick the boxes from one public funding body, let alone two. It sourced £1.2million worth of money from the Welsh European Union Funding Office, £3million from the Arts Council of Wales, £450,000 from the Welsh Development Agency, £337,000 from the Welsh Tourist Board, £2.4million from the Welsh National Assembly’s Local Regeneration Fund, and the land costing around £95,000 was gifted by the town council. From this mass of industrial and artistic funds, RMA’s building is a triumph of reconciliation. The factory form may arise from the office units but RMA have found an ingenious way of insisting on the buildings dual purpose.

The beautiful polished plaster wall forms the north-easterly wall of the atrium, and is the heart of the building. On the ground floor it conceals not just a gallery space but also a set of stairs that runs between it and the gallery up to the second floor. First, it creates a neat dialogue with the curved bar, redolent of the Tolbooth’s, on the opposite side of the atrium. Second, it breaks down the rigid geometry of steel columns and banisters. Most importantly, however, it provides a graceful reminder to all who enter that there is a performance space beyond. The curved wall does not relate directly to the oak-panelled rectangular performance space with its sprung floor in similar material, but it does gently remind the tenant or visitor that the building has a further purpose as a performance space.

The building as a whole delights in doubling-up. On Saturday mornings kid rush from the curved-lozenge caf... across the central floor area to the cinema. On Saturday evening their parents will gather in the central area, before they watch a play or drink from the bar, where last Friday workers from the adjacent units dissected the week. (The roof of the bar is a mezzanine level on the stairs to the first floor of units.) In the auditorium, the retractable curved cinema screen can be turned at 90 degrees to act as an acoustic shield for the solo performer or further raised for the concert performer, or stored for theatre performances. Mulitple usage is this buildings virtue, not its curse. The ticket office is also a reception. Unlike the rest of the units arrayed in a line behind, opposite and above, it is open. The assistant flips between her tasks of routing calls and selling tickets as easily as she flips between Welsh and English.

Not everything is perfect, of course. At the opening, the Galeri’s local patron and opera singer, Bryn Terfel said: “It is great that I have a theatre on my doorstep. I can ride here on my bike from Bontynewedd.” Cwmni Tref obviously doesn’t expect many to follow his example. Despite there being two large municipal car parks within five minutes walk, the client insisted that the Galeri have its own. Amidst the cars, it is hard to make out the subtle entrance, which sits at 90 degrees to the façade. On foot, one is naturally led around to the dockside.

Indeed the client’s insistence on parking was why RMA ran the building parallel to the dock rather than the adjacent warehouses. Instead of having a window on to the Menai Straits directly from the auditorium, in much the same way as the cinema in the Dundee Contemporary Arts looks out on to the Tay, a recessed stainless steel sheet was inserted at 90 degrees to cast in a reflected image of the view, periscope style. It isn’t very successful, although there is some consolation in the fact that Bryn Terfel will have plenty of room to park his bike.

In The Creativity Gap, his otherwise excellent critique of New Labour’s obsession with the “creative industries”, James Heartfield bemoans the number of arts centres being built in the UK. In a list of “simply commercial venues, pragmatically dressed up in an arts shell,” he makes specific mention of the Galeri. For Heartfield, it is a sign that “arts centres in this country have over-reached themselves. Supply has vastly outstripped demand.” Certainly there isn’t the need for a huge arts centre in Galeri Caernarfon, but then they haven’t built one.

Heartfield’s criticism of the Galeri is harsh given the town’s history of deprivation, and it doesn’t take into account the significance of the place for Welsh culture and language. Welsh is the town’s first tongue, and only Swansea has hosted the modern festival of song, or Eisteddfodd, more times. It is also the heart of a staunchly nationalist area. Since 1974 the constituency of Caernarfon has returned Plaid Cymru candidates with increasing majorities.

It is no coincidence that most of the tenants of the Galeri’s simple glass units are involved in the propagation of images of Wales, to itself or to foreigners. As Heartfield states, it is no doubt galling to more traditional sectors that the creative industries are receiving state handouts. However, in criticising the Galeri he doesn’t take into account the role of such industries in expressing a cultural self-awareness that has long been stifled in parts of the United Kingdom such as this small corner of Wales. The creative industries give expression to local language and customs when they have been deserted by mass industry. Richard Murphy’s subtle, clever design may yet prove to be one of his most successful historical interventions yet.

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