GFA Staff Social – a night at the Alchemist!

Last Friday, some of the team at Gaunt Francis decided it was time for another work social, and so we thought we’d check out the new restaurant that had recently opened in Cardiff – The Alchemist. It was an easy decision as the majority of us are real foodies and were keen to try their very theatrical cocktails!

We had a lot of fun – we received a warm welcome by the staff and were seated to our tables where we enjoyed an array of tasty food – with plenty of options to cater for all sorts of dietary requirements. The cocktails were weird and wonderful – like nothing we’d ever seen before! Some contained dry ice, jelly, white chocolate cream foam, and one was even topped with a giant kale leaf!

It’s great to really get to know one another in a relaxed and fun environment – but most importantly it is also a really good chance for the newest members of the team to get to know some of the others at Gaunt Francis over food and drink. There will certainly be more fun work socials later this year!

Gaunt Francis I.T manager – the next Bruce Lee?

At Gaunt Francis we take a great interest in our staff’s extracurricular activities; it’s a great way to connect with each other and let them know we appreciate and support them. Our I.T Manager, Simon Dodd, has been training in Shotokan Karate for an incredible 22 years!

Simon is currently black belt 4th Dan (Yondan), or in simple terms – he’s pretty damn talented –  and has been a club instructor in St. Athan for the last 11 years. His interest in the martial arts developed at the age of 8 when Simon and his friend were bullied in school, and so he wanted to learn self defence and gain confidence – not to mention his role model was the legend that is Bruce Lee! After trying out all sorts of martial arts such as Muay Thai, Tae Kwon Do, Kick Boxing, Judo and Jujtsu, Simon soon realised that Karate was the one for him and he has been fortunate to train with many famous instructors over the years, including Dave Hazard and Wayne Otto.

simon 1

The Welsh Karate Organisation is run by Paul Watson along with other instructors – all of whom are volunteers. Simon first volunteered and coached as a teenager and got his coaching certificate at 18 years of age; he has been running classes for the past 11 years in St. Athan. In fact, this club is the first club in the Vale of Glamorgan and first martial arts club in Wales to receive a Silver insport Disability Award – a major achievement!

Although not the most important thing for Simon, he was a great competitor and competed at a national level – he even made it onto the Welsh Squad. He soon left and retired from competition around 7 years ago, however is now slowly moving back into competition to support some of his students who have recently shown an interest.

simon all

Over the last few years, Simon had hoped to pursue an academic career using martial arts as the focal point, to get a PhD scholarship and to try to bring martial arts to a greater recognition in the UK – but sadly being unsuccessful with the funding has meant that Simon hasn’t been able to pursue his ultimate goal.

Despite this, Simon has had some great success; his undergraduate thesis was published at Cardiff Met University which won an award, and his Masters thesis was published in an international journal, which was translated into several European languages. This soon led to an invitation to an international martial arts conference in Portugal where Simon presented his work. Simon has also written the foreword to a martial arts book and hopes to be writing a chapter in an academic publication later this year.

Here is Simon in action:

The GFA monthly CRIT Meeting


Samples and Booklets laid out ready for the CRIT meeting

Once a month in the Gaunt Francis office, a CRIT meeting is held for all of our staff to attend, which sees a member of staff present to the rest of the team about one of the current projects they are working on. It is a great chance for everyone to see what others are involved in, as well as to provide some useful feedback. This week’s CRIT meeting was slightly different, but just as interesting!

This week, our Part III Architectural Assistant, Bianca Dumea, gave a presentation on luxury Italian glass items fashioned by J&J, an Italian company and brand of beautiful, high class and bespoke collections. During her trip to Italy earlier this summer, Bianca visited the factories of J&J, which she found incredibly fascinating and decided to share this interesting topic with the rest of the GFA team.


Samples of the stunning glass collection by J&J

Her presentation began with a short history of glass, going on to explain how glass was discovered in 2500 BC, and is one of the oldest forms of sculpture in the world. Man-made glass is made out of ordinary materials, sand being the main ingredient. The use of glass was first developed in the Middle East to decorate beads and small vessels, and was later used in Egypt and Asia to make decorative valuables. Today, Italy -among other countries – is considered most famous for its glass craftsmanship and design. These techniques even migrated to America where they further customised their design and process – such as global brand Tiffany & Co. Needless to say, glass today is used everywhere.


Beautiful gold glass

Bianca went on to talk about J&J and their approach – “We refine and create high-value models through our craftsmanship and Italian design”. J&J was founded in 1985 and specialises in the production of stained glass and products that are characterised by the exclusivity and originality of their features. From mirrors and vases to living and bathroom furniture – just about anything can be made from glass. With the growth in production volume, J&J has become an affirmed leader in the production of Murano glass. Today, the J&J brand is synonymous with quality, elegance and traditions.


Individual Swarovski crystals are delicately placed onto the glass

The presentation also covered interesting facts about the process of producing the items, in which they use the ‘Muranese’ technique – a hybrid between Artigianale & Industrial  manufacturing and machinery; this involves high pressure water-jet cuts and washing, manual smoothing, fusion in 800°C ovens, using a spray room, and drying and assembling. The production time is around 10 days for orders out of their catalogue and 25 days for customised orders – this alone tells you how complex and intricate the process is in creating these incredible pieces.

Bianca was kind enough to bring in and display some beautiful samples of different types of textures and designs of glass for the team to see in the flesh. It was like nothing we’d ever seen before! Here are just some of the beautiful creations J&J have produced:

The J&J brand is signature of high class collections that give each home an allure of sophistication and luxury. Take a look at some of their work here:

Gaunt Francis Architect contributes to Academic Publications

We are thrilled that one of our very talented Architectural Assistant’s, Dr Charles Drozynski, is contributing to a number of academic publications, due for release next year.


Along with his busy work load, Charles will be contributing to a number of academic books –  two of which will come in the form of edited books and one that Charles is co-editor of. The latter is entitled Civic spaces and Desire and is a project that has been put together by Charles, Diana Beljaars and Alicia Nahmad-Vasquez. The three have signed a contract with global publisher Routledge and the publication is planned to be released by the end of 2019.

The inspiration for this book came from a symposium organised at Cardiff University last year –  ‘Spaces of Desire’ was a conference of prominent academics from around the World including continental Europe, Australia and the UK. The project aims to explore the spatial representation of Philosophy through the intersection of Architecture and Geography. The core concept of the book is a Dleuzo-Guattarian definition of the production of Desire in an Ethical context of a civic debate.

In addition to this, Charles is writing a chapter on nostalgia in a post-Soviet context for a book edited by Professor Dak Kopec. Kopec is an Associate Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and is an award-winning author. The subject of departure for the chapter is a particular reading of the writing by French Philosopher and Historian Michel Foucault and his theories on the role of bio-politics in the formation and re-formation of knowledge.

Charles has other publications in mind and all his research initiatives were, and are, intended to be lead by post-linguistic writing.

Charles is a Doctor of Architecture with academic relations with Universities in Australia, America and the UK. Alongside his work at Gaunt Francis, Charles is also engaged with teaching and researching at the Welsh School of Architecture and Kent School of Architecture. His previous work includes a research-post where he investigated the public perception and architectural integration of technologies with potential capacity to reduce energy consumption.


The Life of International Architects in Cardiff

Here at Gaunt Francis, we are fortunate enough to have a fantastic team of architects who come from all over the world – from across the Atlantic in North America to all the way Down Under. Each of them bring completely different things to the table. Creativity and new insights thrive in environments where people have different ideas and perspectives, which is what makes diversity so important among a team, and we really embrace that.


Cardiff Castle

For some of our Architects, life in Wales is some-what different to where they’ve grown up in terms of culture, people and architecture, and they’ve had to become accustomed to the Welsh way of life. Here’s what some of them had to say about their life in Cardiff.

Stephanie, from Germany explains: “I came to visit some friends here and fell in love with the place. There was also a serious lack of work opportunities back home, so I decided to take the plunge and go for it. Cardiff is incredibly green and has a seafront. I love the vibe, the people, the closeness to the water which has always been important to me. Cardiff is big enough to have the city feel but also the closer knit communities within their different districts. I love going for walks around Cardiff Bay and meeting friends in all the different types of coffee places – there are tonnes! I love all the places along the coast. Wales has such an amazing coastline and a lot of other small quirky places that are definitely worth visiting.

When I first moved here I found the lingo and being called ‘love’ everywhere you go took some getting used to, as well as different rules and regulations. There are a few things that I do miss back home which you sadly can’t get here – like German bakeries and the choices of fresh bread and pastries. The architecture here is one of my big bug bears – I really don’t like these typical residential communities built by one contractor and how every single new ‘community’ looks the same as the previous one. We have far more variety back home and private houses rarely look one like the other. There are many other differences between my hometown and Cardiff – for one, my hometown only has around 30,000 inhabitants and the surrounding area is a lot more rural. In terms of culture, we have a wide range of Italians, Turkish, former Yugoslavian and Russian people, whereas in Cardiff there is much bigger Asian population. I would say the best moment of my time here is the amazing people that I’ve met and made such great friends- spending time with them all and my beautiful girls is the best thing ever.”

Miranda, from Texas says, “After many years of living in different countries, my husband got a great job at Cardiff University and we’ve been here ever since. What I really love here is the friendliness of the people, all the green space and the nearness of the sea and the mountains. However, if there was one thing that I really miss back in Texas I’d have to say proper Mexican food! There are an awful lot of cultural difference between Cardiff and back home; I find that Cardiff is much more walk-able than the US. I rarely use our car and get to most places by bike or on foot, which is much better for the environment and me. In terms of architectural differences, housing in the UK is much more dense, gardens are small and sharing a party-wall with your neighbours is normal. I had to get used to hearing people next door, but I think it does make for a more tightly-knit community. Living in Wales, I think it is important to learn the language of the country you live in, and so my understanding  of the Welsh language is fairly good as I’ve taken courses up to intermediate level and my children attend welsh-medium schools.”


Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay

Irene, from Milan says, “I decided to move to the UK because I wanted to gain more work experience and after having lived in Austria and Italy I decided to take a chance and go for it. When I chose to move to the UK I felt that Cardiff was the best option for me – it’s quite a small city therefore easy to get around by foot or by bike. I also love living by the sea, and London and Bristol are only a train ride away. Cardiff offers such a great quality of life and I absolutely love living here. It’s a wonderful city if you love nature – like myself. There are lots of parks, mountains nearby and we’re right by the coast. There is so much going on here and the cost of living in relatively low compared to bigger cities like London or Bristol. I’d say my favourite thing to do is going to the Brecon Beacons and the Glamorgan coast – it’s just beautiful.

When I moved here it took a while to get used to driving on the other side of the road! I miss my family a lot as well as proper Italian food. I also miss a really warm summer and the Mediterranean Sea. There’s a real cultural difference between here and my hometown back in Italy – just the way of life, the food, the people, the buildings, and certainly the weather. Saying that, the weather recently has been fantastic as I’ve mostly spent it at the seaside with friends and I’ve loved every minute of it. Wales is such a beautiful country and there are still so many places that I want to visit – especially Snowdonia and Pembrokeshire. ”

Max, from Sydney says, “The main draw to the UK was fulfilling my long term goal of experiencing living in another country. Also, lots of my friends had moved over here after university; other reasons included my sister and my partner both living in the UK. I was particularly drawn to Cardiff because after living in London for some time I really wanted a change of pace and to broaden my experience. My partner is from Wales and works here, so this setup is more convenient for the both of us. Cardiff has a much better quality of life than London and it has a real connection to the outdoors. I love the friendly attitude of the Welsh – it reminds me of the Australian attitude – not just the swearing, drinking and rugby prowess! There are so many great things to do in this beautiful city; for one I enjoy going to the parks and gardens around Cardiff. It’s such a green and pretty city. Seeing all the baby goslings at Roath Lake in the Spring is definitely one of my favourite things. It’s also really well connected, so activities in Wales and England are easily accessible.

Although I love living in Cardiff, I found the hardest change was moving away from my friends in London – that and fitting all my pot plant in the car during the move! Consistent good weather, smaller seagulls and proper mangoes are also just a few things that I miss from back home. There are actually a lot of similarities between Cardiff and Sydney in terms of pace and attitude, but Sydney is perhaps more fashion/body/fitness conscious. Wales is truly a stunning country, in particular Pembrokeshire – it’s where my partner’s family home is and there are fantastic beaches and dog walks. Being from New South Wales, visiting the ‘old’ South Wales coastline reminds me of home.”


Tenby, West Wales

Alejandro, from Spain expressed: ” There are a few reasons why I decided to come to the UK, but it was mainly because young architects have a really hard time finding a job in Spain. I hadn’t really thought about where I wanted to live in the UK, but my girlfriend found a job here in Cardiff and I was pleasantly surprised how great this city is. I love the size of the city, I love how well-connected it is to other places and how close everything is – getting to work is easy and takes no time at all! That would be completely different if I lived in a big city like London. I really enjoy wandering around the city and exploring new places, whether it be a church, a street, a park, or a museum. I also love going to the cinema here, it’s a lot cheaper than in Malaga. Living in Wales is great but when I first moved over, I found the language barrier a struggle but I have really improved since. I even managed to learn some Welsh: ‘Bore da, nos da, croeso, diolch…’ That´s it! I also found it hard to adjust to life without having my friends and family around me. The weather was also a big adjustment for me! There are just so many cultural differences but the biggest shock for me was the food. In Malaga I find there is more variety with certain foods compared to here. In terms of architecture there are also many differences – the colours, shapes, church buildings, castles, green zones – all of this is completely new to me and I really like it but really love and miss the Andalusian architecture. I often picture those beautiful whitewash houses with small windows, clay roof tiles and a patio. The streets in the city centre are amazing; houses are randomly placed which created irregular streets. For me, Malaga is the most amazing place to spend time exploring and discovering new and wonderful places. I want to spend more time exploring Wales and the UK. At the moment my favourite places to visit are Caerphilly Castle, Caenarfon and Snowdonia. Next on my list is the Brecon Beacons!”

Lastly, Bianca from Romania expresses, “What drew me to the UK was the higher education system. The Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University is a fantastic school and is the the only University in the UK that offered a 5-year course with a year in industry. Cardiff is such a vibrant and picturesque city and I absolutely love exploring both the urban and natural settings. The UK is very culturally different to my hometown and so I found small things like the weather and the food a bit of a shock when I first arrived, and this took some time to adjust to. Being away from Romania makes me think about all of those things I often miss back home; I miss the unique land forms of Romania, especially the Carpathian Mountains and the hidden, idyllic skiing and spa resorts. I also miss one of my favourite open-air museums – the ASTRA Museum of Folkloric Traditional Civilisation, as well as the Neo-Renaissance Peles Castle. The list goes on! Having said that Wales really does have some beautiful places to offer -Tenby in West Wales is just one of the many wonderful towns to visit here and I’m lucky to call this place home”.

*Images courtesy of Pixabay*

GFA team visit Welsh School of Architecture student exhibition

Every year, the Welsh School of Architecture holds a Summer exhibition to celebrate their students’ creations as well as their professional relationships with architectural practices across the country.

This week, the GFA Lakes by Yoo delivery team visited the exhibition to view some of the work produced by the very talented  BSc, MArch, MAUD, MAAD and PhD students. Some of this years’ themes included Shadow Making in Architecture, Infrastructure Urbanism, Materials & Place, Craft, Refugees and Healthy Communities. Here are just some of the brilliant works:

Images of individual students’ work courtesy of the WSA, all work is on public display at the Bute Building, Cathays park, Cardiff.

Gaunt Francis joins Audley Group for update on Mayfield Concept


River Thames, London

We were delighted to join our colleagues at Audley Group for their update on the new Mayfield brand at The Building Centre on Store Street in London on Thursday.

Our Director, Toby Adam and Associate, Chris Jefford, who lead the GFA Mayfield team, were at the presentation hosted by Nick Sanderson, CEO of Audley Group.


Model of London at the Building Centre.

Nick began by reminding everyone of the history of Audley Group, and the villages that have been created under the Audley brand, many of which have been designed by GFA. Audley is a high-end product, with an enviable reputation for the quality of the interiors and communal spaces, as well as the quality of service. Audley Group intend to bring these qualities to a wider audience a more affordable level via the Mayfield concept. They will do this by providing slightly smaller apartments, and by doubling the number of units on a site from the typical Audley village of around 125, to 250. This will allow Mayfield to charge a lower monthly management fee, opening up this new vision of retirement living to whole new market.

ARCO (Associated Retirement Community Operators) Executive Director, Michael Voges was on hand to offer an overview of the retirement living industry in the UK, compared to other more mature markets such as South Africa and Australia. He gave a detailed insight into the demographics and the scale of the challenge in providing housing and care for the older generation, but also noted that this generation are mostly homeowners with a sizeable asset which could offer the solution for providing an independent lifestyle with care on demand in your own home.


Joh Nettleton, Land Director at Audley Group, presents the latest imagery of the GFA designed Mayfield Watford, which was granted planning consent recently.

Audley Group Land Director, John Nettleton, then highlighted the new GFA designed Mayfield scheme at Watford, the first Mayfield project to have been granted planning permission to date. John described the investment opportunities, the funding vehicles and the planning advantages of having a C2 use on a masterplan, reminding those present that Audley and Mayfield make compelling and persuasive partners in land development. John noted that Retirement Living with care is a beneficial planning use and helps local authorities meet their plan obligations for providing specialist housing as well as freeing up family housing that is under-occupied.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Concrete Capital – London Festival of Architecture 2018

The London Festival of Architecture (LFA) is Europe’s largest annual Architecture festival. It celebrates the importance of Architecture and Design in London and features an array of public events including exhibitions, talks and debates, tours, film screenings, and family activities – the vast majority of which are free. This year’s festival takes place across the city from 1st -30th June 2018 which aims to explore the theme of ‘identity’.

The LFA was founded in 2004 by former director Peter Murray. During the first 4 years, the festival was held only once every two years, but after growing popularity, it has since taken place on an annual basis. The festival attracts hundreds of thousands of people every year with a global media audience of several million.

Concrete Capital 03.jpg

‘Concrete Capital’. Photo by Gaunt Francis Architect Kimberley Harris.

One of the events, ‘Concrete Capital’, took place on 6th June 2018 and was organised by Architecture and Design practice SODA Studio.  Concrete has often been described as ‘brutal’ or ‘inhumane’, but is now celebrated for its beauty and its role in the bold designs that have shaped London’s architecture. The focus of the event was a guided tour of the recently refurbished Silver Building into Artists’ Studios. The evening also included refreshments, film screenings, and talks which explored the Capital’s identity, which SODA describes as a “much-maligned building material”. Our very own Kimberley Harris partook in the evening’s event and presented some of her Architectural Photography work.

Kim was previously tutored by architect and academic Professor Peter Salter at the Welsh School of Architecture, as part of her Masters. Salter worked for renowned British Architects, Alison and Peter Smithson in the early 1980’s. Kim’s passion for Post-War Architecture developed after working alongside Salter and researching his career. In her previous employment, Kim worked on a number of social housing refurbishment works for Cardiff Council, and started researching Estate Redevelopment projects elsewhere; during this process, she became a campaigner for the recognition of the 1960’s housing as important work.

As a keen amateur photographer, Kim often posted many images of Brutalist Architecture on her social media pages. After her blog audience started to rapidly increase, she soon realised it was time to explore professional Photography and decided to undertake Photography courses at Ffotogallery accredited by Cardiff Metropolitan University.


Architects Alison and Peter Smithson. Image part of the Smithson’s family collection.

Author Christopher Beanland, who chaired the evening’s talks, was aware of Kim’s work via her social media accounts; she was soon approached by event organiser Rob Feihn to be a participant. During her talk, Kim briefly touched on the period of Architecture between 1950 and 1970, also known as the ‘Golden Age’. She went on to discuss Robin Hood Gardens – a residential estate in Poplar, London, designed in the late 1960’s by Architects Alison and Peter Smithson. The Smithson’s were chosen to produce plans for this new housing because of their international reputation following the publication of a series of essays on Urbanism. Robin Hood Gardens presented a real opportunity to put their theatrical work into practice.

Kim spoke of the site’s layout and how by the building’s completion in 1972, it had become internationally recognised with the Smithson’s now the leading protagonists of ‘New Brutalism’ – the most important British Contribution to the world of Architecture in the 20th Century. Robin Hood Gardens provided 214 homes in the form of Maisonettes and Ground Floor flats; the interiors strategically arranged to overcome acoustic problems generated by a constrained site, bound on three sides by major roads. Bedrooms face into a central green space or ‘stress free zone’ to avoid night-time disturbance, kitchens centrally located to face both onto the green space and raised access walkways or ‘streets in the sky’.



Kim’s presentation also included a brief overview of redevelopment plans for the site. The Western Block was demolished in January this year. The Eastern Block remains inhabited to this day, however, is due to be demolished during the later phases of the Black Wall Reach regeneration proposals. The first phase of demolition, back in December 2017 signalled, for Kim amongst others, the last opportunity to photograph the building.

KH IMAGE 04.jpg

Robin Hood Gardens. Photo by Kimberley Harris.

Kim concluded her talk by explaining why concrete buildings are so distinctive in London today. She expressed: “In 1963 the ‘London Government Act’ sought to create a new body to cover the rapidly developing city replacing the London County Council.  ‘The Greater London Council’ was divided up into thirty-two administrative boroughs. In 1964 boroughs were granted responsibility for housing and jurisdiction over planning – a shift from county wide concerns to local issues. In my opinion, what really drove momentum in Post-War Architecture was the competition between Borough Architects departments.”

When I look at Brutalist Architecture, I’m often overcome by beauty, but it’s more than a simple appreciation of concrete’s materialism; it’s the reminder that the ethical ambitions of Architects working in the post-war period, to provide a decent quality of housing for everyone, were equally as important and very often outlive trends in aesthetic.”, says Kim.

To view more of Kim’s photography, check out her blog here:

Chalfont Dene Retirement Village wins double GOLD at WhatHouse? Awards!

captureThe WhatHouse? Awards is the most prestigious event for the UK’s home builders. Now in its 35th year, this year’s event took place in the Great Room of the Grosvenor House Hotel, in London’s Park Lane and around 1700 senior industry figures attended the ceremony (including host, William Hague, former MP, Foreign Secretary and Leader of the Conservative party) to celebrate the winners of 20 different categories, covering the wide spectrum of property types and companies in the home building industry. We were invited to attend as guests of Audley Retirement, as the architect of the near-completed Chalfont Dene Retirement Village.

Audley Chalfont Dene Village. Photographs by Alicia Field - 19.5.16

We were absolutely delighted to be presented with the Gold Award for Best Retirement Development; the winning Chalfont Dene Retirement Village in Buckinghamshire is the first scheme we have designed for Audley as a total new build. Many of our previous developments have retained significant historic properties, which we have been able to restore, adapt and extend. We weren’t afforded this luxury at Chalfont and as a result, we are even more elated that our Arts and Crafts, Lutyens inspired village has been not only recognised, but celebrated as the winning design in the 2016 Awards. Not only this, but we were thrilled that the village also won the Gold Award for Interior Design, members of our team at Gaunt Francis having worked closely in partnership with the interior designers for the scheme, Inside Design Co.


One of our directors, Gavin Birt of GFA, with Carol Gearing of Inside Design Co.

At completion, the village will have 84 luxury apartments; a mix of one, two and three bedrooms, designed as micro-communities in stable block clusters, with the grand house, The Audley Club, at its heart. The village will also boast a stylish bar, outside terrace and restaurant, fitness centre, indoor pool and landscaped gardens, including an ornamental lake- the rolling Chiltern hills in view.



WhatHouse judges described our design at Chalfont:

“Creating a brand new retirement village that has the feel of an established community is one of the secrets to Audley Chalfont Dene’s success… there’s not shortage of wow factor here or opulent furnishings that would enhance a top-class boutique hotel…”

The ageing population of the Chiltern region along with its countryside setting, makes the village at Chalfont Dene the ideal location for an Audley Care Community, and the Gaunt Francis designed Audley model is clearly differentiated from more traditional ways of providing care for the elderly, bringing luxury, dignity and avoiding institutionalisation.

Many thanks to Audley for inviting us to what was an exciting and entertaining evening at the WhatHouse? 2016 Awards ceremony, and we are extremely proud to have designed the double Gold Award winning retirement village.




Cultural Capital

In March of this year, our Managing Director, Alan Francis, supported the ambitions of Cardiff Council to make Cardiff a more ‘liveable’ city, in an open letter. Alan pointed out that whilst Cardiff has an enviable reputation as an excellent events city, this does have the drawback of attracting people only for the event itself. This in turn results in short stays in the city, rather than longer city-breaks, where a more meaningful engagement with what Cardiff has to offer could be made.



Popular visitor destination in Cardiff- Cardiff Bay


In his letter, Alan highlighted two key improvements that could propel Cardiff into a different league in terms of quality- a proper international airport with direct transport connections to the inner city, and a cultural heart.

It is to be hoped that the renewed momentum at Cardiff Airport with a new Chair and the support of the Welsh Government will begin to bear fruit, which would mean at least the transport part of the jigsaw is slotting into place.

However, the question of a cultural heart is a different and potentially more challenging matter, and one where Cardiff’s success as a sporting venue is a double-edged sword. The most frequent and traditional major sporting events which come to Cardiff revolve around rugby. The Six Nations has become a global brand, and on one hand, the Six Nations rugby weekends are fantastic festivals of camaraderie, passion and entertainment which attract huge crowds to the city.


Crowds gather for sporting events on Westgate Street, Cardiff, outside the Principality Stadium

On the other hand though, this kind of event can become mistaken for Cardiff’s prevailing culture, overshadowing other potential reasons for visiting. Not only this, but there are only two or three such rugby weekends in a year, plus the occasional Ashes, or cricket event- what sustains the city for the rest of the year?

This is how a more rounded and considered approach to culture could pay dividends.

The so-called ‘Bilbao effect’ is an oft-quoted and frequently misunderstood phenomena. In essence, it refers to the case study of Bilbao- a medium sized, Basque, industrial port city in the north of Spain- which has managed to reinvent itself around the construction of a remarkable architectural centrepiece; the new Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry. Two decades after the similarly revitalising Pompidou Centre opened in Paris, the example of Bilbao shows how an imaginatively designed cultural heart commissioned by an energetic mayor can help turn a city around.


The Guggenheim Museum by Frank Gehry, in Bilbao, Spain.

A report in the Economist from 2013, noted that:

“Visitors’ spending in Bilbao in the first three years after the museum opened raised over €100m ($110m) in taxes for the regional government, enough to recoup the construction costs and leave something over”,

illustrating the financial benefits that such an investment in culture can bring. Unsurprisingly, the Economist report concluded that,

“Other cities without historic cultural centres now look to Bilbao as a model for what vision and imagination can achieve.”

It could be argued that Cardiff has some interesting advantages over a place like Bilbao when it comes to cultural re-invention. Firstly, Cardiff already attracts a significant number of tourist visitors. And secondly, Cardiff has its own internationally renowned art collection- the very thing that had to be ‘bussed-in’ by the Guggenheim to Bilbao in order to fill the halls of their shiny new museum.

The art collection of the National Museum of Wales, which owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the Davies sisters, is exceptional. Gwendoline and Margaret Davies were the granddaughters of the fabulously wealthy Welsh industrialist David Davies, and they collated one of the “great British art collections of the 20th century”, the entirety of which (a total of 260 works) was bequeathed to the National Museum of Wales. This outstanding collection, including impressionist masterpieces by Monet and romanticist works by Turner, forms the nucleus of the greater collection belonging to the museum. This really is Cardiff’s secret cultural weapon- the art gallery holding one of the greatest collections of art in the UK, hidden away on the first floor.


National Museum of Wales, Cardiff

Indeed, it is worth noting that the same Economist report that praised the regeneration of Bilbao admits that “the collection on display is modest”. And we are all too familiar with proposed projects elsewhere in the world, where the cultural heritage perhaps does not match the architectural ambition; stunning yet empty museums, such as the Ordos Art Gallery in China which owns no collections, and has nothing to display.

As Alan pointed out in his letter, our National Museum is first class, but it suffers because it is trying to be both a history museum and an art gallery, rather than giving both collections the space and independence they deserve. Here then, is the opportunity to position the second piece of the jigsaw- the cultural heart- mentioned in Alan’s letter. As he noted, in order for us to get the kind of city that may entice people to stay for more than one night, we need to:

a) Change the National Museum into the National Gallery of Art, displaying its remarkable collection to full effect;

b) Move the Natural History exhibits into a new National Gallery of Science in the city centre, or perhaps in the Bay;

c) Create a new National Museum of Contemporary Art in the city centre.

Whereas Bilbao needed an injection of cultural exhibits, Alan’s letter set out a manifesto for building on the cultural assets that Cardiff already has, to lift the city into a different league. Not only great for rugby and shopping, but a place which has historical and cultural depth and rewards a longer stay- something we like to think we knew already.