It is a unique challenge for an architect to be under the spotlight of public opinion and the maelstrom of political debate that surrounds the design of a government building. Creating the Senedd (the National Assembly for Wales) in Cardiff was a once in a lifetime experience for myself and everyone involved at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP).
For architects, a political body as a client is a peculiar beast. In the UK, architecture is rarely a politician’s pastime. The journey to deliver the Senedd saw numerous elected officials come and go, but we eventually arrived at a handful of members from different parties, together with seasoned civil servants, whose common ground was a love of architecture. It was this team that made the Senedd happen and it is a team like this – with a passion for the built environment – that is critical to the success of any public project.
Accompanying the design brief for the Senedd was a short foreword by Callaghan that stated the ambitions of Wales as a country and how they hoped this might be reflected in the new seat of government:
“This competition offers the architectural profession the opportunity to express a concept of what form should be assumed by a democratic Assembly listening to and leading a small democratic nation as we enter the next millennium … We would dare to hope that it will become a visible symbol, recognised and respected throughout the world, whenever the name of Wales is used.”
The pressure of expectation from Callaghan’s short piece, combined with a site of relatively few physical constraints, produced an unusual situation that, on first sight, might have favoured symbols and emblems over context and place.
It was clear that, given the very public airing of the Welsh appetite for devolution (demonstrated through the ballot box in the successful Welsh devolution referendum in 1997), coupled with the subsequent argument over which city would host the new assembly, the architecture would require a response that encouraged participation and make a gesture that extended beyond the site. These unique conditions for RSHP’s most public building since the Centre Pompidou in Paris (1977) became the catalyst for a design that would deliver a distinctive seat of government for Wales.
We chose to define the building as a strict response to two fundamental questions: how could we place it on the site to suggest that the connection between building and land was without boundary? And how could we organise the public and private space to encourage participation between the elected body and the public electorate?
Our answer was to look beyond the initially mundane site and outwards to the sea, to the rest of the country and to the world beyond. We envisaged the site as an extension of the body of water, not a boundary to it. The building’s concept was deceptively simple: a single, flowing public space, stretching from the water’s edge over the space for the elected body, enabling a broad interface between the two and encouraging public engagement in a political space. The building would be anchored, internally, to its site and would also be outward-looking. A canopy floating over the public space would give an indeterminate edge to the enclosure, belying the small scale of the building among its neighbours and extending its influence to the water’s edge. A strong concept, we believed, for the expected ride ahead.