Saturday, 13 June 2009

Aberystwyth Arts Centre - The Anti-green

Aberystwyth Arts Centre has been featured here before, due to the fact that it keeps destroying green spaces for buildings, and does not consult with stakeholders (staff, students, visitors) about any of its plans.

The plaza in front of the Arts Centre - there is a subtle concrete theme here. Note the fenced-off 'La Scala' steps. The concrete eyesore that is 'La Scala' took five years to plan and construct 'one of the largest public arts commissioned in Wales' and it was finished in 2003. The steps have been closed off as derelict and unsafe for a significant time now. A waste of public money on an ugly, badly planned and shoddily-built project? Another example of the mess the Arts Centre's projects make? 
In a special post, CIN focuses on just two of the projects that earned it this reputation.

1: This week... the bulldozers and missed opportunities

Back in November CIN was informed that the Arts Centre planned to build on the last bit of green space on the Penglais Campus plaza. The green patch was between the Hugh Owen Library and the Arts Centre - see image below for how it appeared until this week.

It was the only natural green patch in a heavily-used central location of the University. The plaza is a gloomy place due to the unrelenting concrete. This patch of green was not much, but at least it was a break in the continuous buildings, and a popular place for people to sit on the low wall when having lunch or reading on nice days.
Despite this the Arts Centre wanted to build more office spaces and another dance room there, making the plaza even less attractive.

In November the Arts Centre and University were written to by a number of groups, and requested to consider an alternative: to enhance this area between the buildings with landscaping, trees, bushes and flowers, with seating at the edge. It would have made a huge difference to the appearance of the plaza, providing a breathing space amongst the sterility, as well as hiding some of the concrete ugliness of the nearby buildings.

The option declined by the Arts Centre: a green haven to break things up? [We have to admit that one of our supporters commented on this photo, saying "it did look as though a magical unicorn forest had sprung up in the middle of the arts centre"!]

Greening the plaza would have had a more beneficial effect on the appearance of one of the most heavily used areas of the campus than derelict monstrosities like the 'La Scala' steps. (And 'greening' does not mean sticking a few plants in pots!)

The appearance of the plaza could even impact on University recruitment and therefore finances - the plaza is very heavily used on Open Days when the University is trying to recruit new students. Having a nice natural area there would have made things appear much more attractive to the students (and perhaps more importantly, their parents!) who were considering Aberystwyth as a university. Whereas yet another slab of concrete would have the opposite effect. Likewise when students graduate and are looking for nice shots on the plaza for all the photos - having a green space there would no doubt be appreciated by the students and their families!

What was needed was for this to be a 'Breathing Place'. As the BBC site says:

"You know that bit of land you walk past every day and think someone should really clean that up and make it wonderful for all the wildlife and people round here. Now’s your chance to do it yourself. A Breathing Place could be almost anywhere: a corner of unused land at your children's school; waste-land at the end of your road; part of a local cemetery or park; the grounds of your village hall or community centre."
On 4th November 2008 we received support from both Aberystwyth Conservation Volunteers and the Aberystwyth branch of People & Planet. People & Planet made this official announcement:

"It would be great to see some more green areas in what is otherwise a concrete jungle. It's a shame that, for an institution with such an academic interest in the environment and conservation, Aberystwyth University has such little greenery at the heart of its main campus. We hope that the University reconsiders these plans, and puts environmental and aesthetic considerations at the heart of its plans for Penglais Campus."
However the Arts Centre didn't consult people who use the campus daily as to whether they would rather see the green area enhanced with trees and bushes as a community space; it also ignored the many objections, and this week started construction.

Architect's image of the new 'building' - does it look like a mad cardboard robot head to anyone else?

Who designed this monstrosity? The Arts Centre did not even use Welsh architects, they decided to use a Gloucestershire firm instead.

Note that the same week that the Arts Centre dug up the last green space on the plaza, the University's Weekly Email [June 10 2009 - emails viewable on the University web pages] has the following entry:
An international conference on performance, landscape and environment.
Aberystwyth University, 18-21 June 2009.
With the support of the Aberystwyth Arts Centre."

Irony intended? It is not the first time that the Arts Centre has shown its hypocrisy.

And another entry, this time from the University's Weekly Email for June 17th 2009:

"Wild Wood Day! Parc Natur Penglais Local Nature Reserve, Aberystwyth
Sat 20th June, 11am – 3pm
Come and find out more about what your local wood has to offer. The Arts Centre will be taking part along with other local groups and organisations in a fun day of varied woodland crafts and activities. Watch timber being turned; Guided Walks; Woodland Arts; Follow the nature trail; Build a bird box; Woodland craft demonstrations…and much more!"

The entry there ties in with the project below - read on to discover the irony.

2: October 08 - Aberystwyth Arts Centre cutting trees for 'eco'-cabins

Footpath closed.

Back in October '08 visitors to Brynamlwg, Aberystwyth University's staff and postgraduate club, couldn't help but notice the degradation of the view, and the inconvenience of having the footpath to the University closed because of the Arts Centre's latest expansion. The Brynamlwg club had been considered a relaxing haven in a fantastic building for some time, but the view from outside became that shown below (click images to enlarge).

The Arts Centre decided to build eight stainless-steel clad buildings on a space that was woodland - obviously many trees had to go before these units could be built. The trees were thinned out so much that one could see right through them to the Arts Centre from the other side. Then the Arts Centre sought and got Welsh Assembly Government funding to build eight more units - which brings hypocrisy to mind when one reads ‘Woodlands for Wales’, the Welsh Assembly Government's Strategy for Trees and Woodland. In that the Minister for Rural Affairs stated:
"Trees and woods are dominant components of our landscapes and are vital for wildlife. [...] Woodlands can be havens for quiet enjoyment [...] places to watch wildlife or simply to relax and enjoy clean air."
So why fund projects that end up turning woodlands into scattered trees?

The Arts Centre was built on a greenfield site; expanded on one as extensions were built; and has now expanded into the woods. Where next?

Trees cut down with part-funding from the Arts Council for Wales. Shame on them for funding this. All the Welsh historical poets and bards who were inspired by nature are probably turning in their graves!

'Eco'-cabins - not very environmentally friendly when they are built by chopping down half of a wood.

The view from the Arts Centre.

Letter from the Cambrian News, Thu 20 Nov 08, p25.
Yes, that really was woodland before the Arts Centre and the Arts Council for Wales decided that their bacofoil eco-cabins would look better. In this article it said "the cladding on the creative arts business units reflects the surrounding colours" - but thanks to the fact that most of the wood has been cut down, the tinfoil cabins will only get the chance to reflect mud, not the woodland that used to be there.

The greenery to the right of the building were the woods that the Arts Centre have mostly chopped down now for their cooking-foil cabins.

Another view of the edge of the woods - as they used to be before being cut down by the Arts Centre.

In December 2008 The Cambrian News published an article on the bacofoil monstrosities at the back of the Arts Centre - click image below to enlarge. It is of interest that the Arts Centre Director did not mention the fact that the Arts Centre has plans to build even more units there. Perhaps it was a fact he would rather hide, since this scheme had proved to be so unpopular? In another example of the Arts Centre Director misleading people, the units had been described by the Arts Centre as 'eco-friendly'. Yet in this article the Director points out that these cabins use standard industry timber and insulation - not sustainably-forested timber or environmentally-friendly insulation. The 'eco-cabins' are a con, they are tinfoil monstrosities where a wood used to stand.

Coverage from the Cambrian News, Thu 4 Dec 08, page 4

Those responsible for this shameful project:
  • Welsh Assembly Government (funded the project)
  • Arts Council of Wales (funded the project)
  • Aberystwyth University (chose to develop the project)
  • Aberystwyth Arts Centre (chose to develop the project)
  • E Ll Hughes & Son (building)
  • Heatherwick Studios (architects) - "the decision was made early on not to spoil the woodland of the site proposed for the project" they said. Obviously they failed miserably in their objectives.
The biggest tragedy about the building of these horrible huts was that only 20 seconds' walk away is an empty field that used to house static homes, used by Aberystwyth University as overspill accomodation. As the photo below shows, the site was then just grass. The Arts Centre and University could have chosen to build here, where the huts could have been built at no detriment to the environment - then the area could have had trees and bushes planted to create an extension to the wood. Instead they chose to destroy a wood and turn it into just a group of desolate-looking trees surrounding sad constructions. Where is the sense in that? Why didn't the funders refuse funding until a better site was chosen that would not impact negatively on the natural environment? This is a perfect example of the short-sightedness of the funders and the Arts Centre / University.

On Thu 18 Dec 08 the Cambrian News ( p23) had an article on these cabins. It pointed out that one of the women using these 'pods' lives and works in London - so much for supporting Welsh arts...
"Ellie Rees studied at Central St Martin's College of Art and Design and Winchester School of Art. She currently lives and works in London and is an associate lecturer at Chelsea College of Art and Design and Central St Martin's."
It also included the depressing reminder that "£200,000 Welsh Assembly Government grant that was announced this month by Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones, which will enable additional studios to be built".


Alun said...

Yes, it's time the Art Centre, which is a fantastic place in so much of what it puts on, stopped pretending that the plaza is anything but a concrete wasteland, got rid of 'la scala' and that tower thing behind it and actually created a pleasant environment there.

Nwdls said...

That "natural" (hardly...) patch of green is pretty much permanently in the shade. I don't think landscaping wopuld have made that much difference.

Being green doesn't mean keeping hold of every tiny patch of weeds. It is a concrete environment, and that little patch made no difference at all to the overall feel of the place. I'm sure most people didn't even notice it was there.
Planting some trees in boxes on that plaza (like they have done on the cafe terrace) would make it a much nicer place.

I happen to think that the creative units are a fantastic asset for Aberystwyth, and once the surrounding trees grow back, it will be a very lovely place.

More pressing green issues for me would be the amount of cars that come in and out of the town. How many people who work in the Uni/Arts Centre/Library drive to work every day? Where are the incentives not to?

anon said...

Hi Nwdls,

To be fair, that patch is in the sun a lot. Even if it was shady there are thousands of species of plants that would have thrived there. With imagination and skill it could have been turned into a real eye-opener.

You are probably right that many people paid little attention to the patch. However that is partly the point - the area had the potential to be eye-catching as a green oasis. Plants in pots are like heavily processed food, the natural connection is weakened and they are not nearly as good.

Your point about cars is very good. Much more needs to be done in this area. I'm aware of some communication with the University as a whole on this issue - it took c.12 months to get the recent salary sacrifice bike scheme in place, and there is a long, long way to go. The only real answer is to set an example - cycle, and show people how convenient and healthy it is. We are currently working on a campaign to try and get Ceredigion County Council to work on a cycling booklet, which could open people's eyes up to the possibilities. There will be a post about that when we get going.

Diolch yn fawr!