When Cardiff University's architecture school had the chance to expand its space, BDP introduced light rooms and gathering spaces to make Cathays Park's Bute Building a better, more sociable, place to be
There is a singularity to Cathays Park in Cardiff, the neo-classical buildings’ stately pacing along broad avenues, a civic centre in Portland stone that mutates slowly into the more piecemeal campus of Cardiff University. Standing at the front of the determinedly symmetrical frontage of the Bute Building, which has been the home of the Welsh School of Architecture for 100 years, it is hard to imagine the complexity within the rational logic of the square plan. BDP’s £9.7 million refurbishment has gone some of the way to making the building more navigable, giving it a heart where its users can gather.
A move off campus by the journalism school freed up the lower ground floor of the building it shared with the school of architecture. It was an opportunity to rethink the Bute Building, with the aim of growing student numbers for the school and taking advantage of the university’s wider £600 million investment plan. Head of school Juliet Davis is clear on the aspiration to build the school as one community, under one roof. The school’s emphasis is on research-informed teaching and keeping people in the studio, even researchers. And that's demanding on space, at least it was pre-pandemic when the project kicked off in 2018.
The grade II-listed 1916 Bute Building was one of the earliest by designed by Sir Percy Thomas (along with Ivor Jones). Thomas was architect of many Welsh public buildings as well as an RIBA Royal Gold Medallist, and RIBA president twice. But over the years the perimeter block with its central assembly hall protruding into the central courtyard/quadrangle got infilled with a small (rather mean) tower, and top-lit workshops in the remaining light wells. The circulation didn’t fit the new plan and level changes (between 14 levels) were fiddly. And the assembly hall had been chopped up into problematic lecture theatre, library and dingy café.
The brief was loose and aspirational, explains BDP’s Nick Durham: ‘There was not a room schedule.’ This is the first Welsh project of BDP's office in the city. Naturally, there was some blue sky thinking, stripping out the additions and adding a British Museum style roof were perhaps the most fun. But with the budget set by an earlier feasibility study (without BDP) the strategy that was settled on was more modest.
But the old assembly hall was at the building's heart and has been opened up again to turn it into galleried halls for gatherings and the end of year show. Its delicately hung mezzanines also short-circuit some of the labyrinthine circulation with the addition of a little bridge joining two of the structures. This now becomes a simple light space, full of potential, the long windows and dimensions giving it something of the aura of a church.
Other moves have had to be very targeted. The building was touched as lightly as possible, with a clean language of modern interventions in birch ply panelling, furniture and joinery. You really notice this at the entrance, which makes good use of the low ceiling heights, new panelling and well-chosen furniture to create niches and cosy spaces that gives a sense of intimacy and belonging – very different from the entry to the University of Westminster or Central St Martins. The inhabiting – and creating – of intimate, leftover, spaces throughout the building was a deliberate design strategy. And a great improvement on tutorials in the corridor. Found materials were primarily left in place although some fragments of parquet were shifted to other areas to create a complete parquet floor rather than remaining as fragments.
Inevitably much effort went into getting cooling and ventilation right, adding ventilation towers to top floors and using the chimneys from the old boiler house for venting. The clever passive strategy that was designed into the building has been brought back into action with installation of high level fans, so that air coming in through ventilation bricks is warmed as it passes up and over the heating pipes. The basics of roof replacement and capping parapets avoid water getting into the building. Rooms edging the courtyard have changed from black box recording studios to light studios with exposed structure below the rooflights. There are many improved spaces, whether they are truly easy to navigate was not clear on a brief tour, but hopefully each cohort will soon find its familiar routes.
Taking in the university’s new buildings, FCB Studios’ lofty Centre for Student Life and Hawkins\Brown’s lush £40 million social science innovation centre, it is clear that the work at the Bute Building and student buildings are very much the poor cousin with hard won interventions stitched together. It felt a manifest injustice within the universities capital spend but in mitigation, it prepares architecture students for the real life of practice and the complexity of working with existing buildings. And head of school Davis is delighted with the result and how it all came together at the end of year show. ‘The school prides itself in building a better world,’ says Davis. ‘So re-use felt right for us. There are subtle ways of ensuring comfort while celebrating the grade II building.’
Read more about the design of schools of architecture and where the profession is educated fromManchester School of Art, to the University of Bath, Wolverhampton and Steven Holl’s addition at the Mackintosh