‘An outstanding example of inter-war architecture, which has survived almost unaltered’. This opening quotation from Pevsner’s The Buildings of Wales, Glamorgan, astutely describes one of the last great Modernist landmarks left in Wales. Indeed, it is the finest Modernist sanitorium to which Britain can lay claim. [Click for images of the front elevation, southwards and for a site plan]. The sanitorium is a building type that reflects the Modern Movement par excellence and highlights the era’s strong regard for the health benefits of light and air and their capacity to cure. Sully sits amongst a host of contemporaneous examples, whether by Aalto at Paimio, Bijvoet and Duiker at Sonnenstraal or Gardella in Northern Italy.
Built between the years of 1932-36 by William Pite, Son and Fairweather,
following their success in an open competition in 1931 to design the building, Sully Hospital was in later years used as a psychiatric hospital, and was vacated a year or so ago. It was constructed specifically to house tuberculosis sufferers, whose cure required the maximum of light and air; hence the choice of the site at Sully, which is close to the sea, located on the clifftops overlooking the Bristol Channel. Its concrete frame, pioneered during this period, allowed for large expanses of glazing, hitherto structurally impossible, which opened to let in the sea breezes. Sully’s south facing wards constitute the most impressive part of the design, and form two Vs towards the sea; their oblique facades are glazed to allow in sunlight and air for the patients. Importantly, the V-shaped plan cleverly shelters the outdoor clifftop grounds, allowing patients to take fresh air without the chill of the wind. The expansive use of glazing is carried through into the cylindrical stair towers, typical of this period, which are lit by full-height windows.
The hospital is listed at Grade II, yet this does little to reassure its admirers that the building is safe from meddling hands. The saga at Brynmawr is only too recent. The Brynmawr rubber factory, which was one of the first post-war buildings to be listed in Britain, met its beleaguered fate last year after a stay of execution in 1995. Considered an architectural masterpiece, its Grade II* status was finally not enough to save it from demolition. In an effort to stop history repeating itself, the residents of Wales seem determined to fight harder for one of their country’s few remaining gems. Wales is not blessed with a wealth of great architectural icons, so people in Wales are keen to highlight the plight of this case.
Empty at the moment, and yet to find a new use, the Home Office is now looking to house 750 asylum seekers within the hospital until 2003. Opposition to the plans is rife, intensified by the secretive handling of this case by the Home Office, which has never mentioned its listed status. Wales received a great deal of criticism over the demolition of Brynmawr, being attacked for its lack of regard for its cultural heritage, as well as for a lack of imagination. This time the tables have turned: people in Wales are desperately campaigning to save an important building, yet Whitehall seems set to contravene. The major worry among those in Wales is that a change of use would mean that the building would be altered, and that using the centre for asylum seekers could lead to its integrity being compromised. They fear that, if the Home Office succeeds, instead of there being a continuing search for an appropriate use for the building, the changes and condition of the building could lead to no one taking the hospital on afterwards, and thus lead to its demolition.
Campaigners are concerned that changes may happen ‘behind their backs’, or worse, that this case is a foregone conclusion, given that the Home Office are the propagators. It is not uncommon for the views of amenity groups like ourselves to be passed over or ‘forgotten’. In special circumstances, the government seem able to over-rule on listed cases, which perhaps is unsurprising given that the local and county councils were unaware, until recently, that the building was even listed. Surprise has been expressed that the hospital’s plight is little-known outside Wales. The only press the case has received thus far is a short mention in Building Design last year, in an article confirming that the bulldozing of Brynmawr had begun. Perhaps this report will help spread the vital word and will be recognised as an effort to retain this Welsh landmark in its glory, and preserve the heritage of Wales.