The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

The Italian Touch

In the past our biggest Welsh case has been Brynmawr Rubber Factory (Architects’ Co-Partnership, 1945-51, Grade II*), the large-scale concrete industrial building, iconic for its strong sculptural forms, was the subject of one of our most ardent and sadly unsuccessful battles. This year my work has dealt with some very different and equally untypical Welsh buildings: one with a very Italian feel and the other by an Italian architect. Both sites show the high quality and versatility of twentieth century buildings in Wales.

Portmeirion was built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis from 1926-1970s and is now Grade II listed. It is an Italianate village set in Tremadog Bay and forms a spectacular environment of buildings built by Sir Clough himself or collected by him and reassembled there. Last summer a young and eager Health and Safety inspector decided that the village did not comply with the up to date regulations and plans were drafted to put up handrails in copious sensitive locations and demolish original balustrading in front of the hotel because it is supposedly too low. It does not comply with current regulations but has apparently served well for over half a century.

Our local contacts were essential in providing us with photographs and other useful information and we wrote letters of objection to the local authority, CADW and the owners. The press got involved as well and the story was front page news on the BBC news website for a day prompting calls from concerned visitors to Portmeirion from as far away as the USA. Thankfully, with our campaign formally backed by CADW common sense appears to have prevailed.

Another close call has been the church of Our Lady Star of the Sea, Bull Bay, Amlwch in Anglesey, Wales built by G Rinvolucri in the 1930s (research has not yet pinpointed the exact date) and Grade II* listed. The architect was Italian and came to Wales as a prisoner of war where he later married and settled down. He built several other churches there but the one in Amlwch is by far his best work. The church is now closed and there were standard concerns over the construction of the structural concrete elements. It was spotlisted only in 2000 and we are very concerned for its future.

Our Lady Star of the Sea is a rare and unique church. It maximises the use of concrete and stone for the building’s design with a highly individual interpretation of its seaside setting. The main body of the nave and sanctuary resembles an upside-down ship’s hull. The plinth is stuccoed white with porthole-shaped windows and forms the church hall. The section of this stressed concrete structure is parabolic and strikingly modern. It has structural ribs at intervals and between them delicate, almost filigree window bands. The entrance façade has a contrasting linear geometry with a monumental almost pyramidal aesthetic. The star-shaped oculus above the arched doorway is surrounded by a circle of blue mosaic. There was talk of having the building delisted to make way for demolition. We have written to all relevant organisations pressing for a full restoration of this unusual church and have just found out that the building will be repaired and reopened.

More good news from Wales is that we now have an active local contact who keeps us updated with interesting buildings at risk and also provides us with the essential photographs. We have been tipped off about plans to demolish the David Evans store in Swansea built in 1954 by Donald Macpherson. This handsome post-war building is to be replaced with a new shopping complex and we are assessing it further in order to determine if it is suitable to be put forward for listing. Without his efforts we would also not have been notified that the 1938 Burton’s store in Ceredigion was listed at Grade II at the beginning of this year. It too was under threat but put forward to CADW for listing by a member of the public and is now safe. We have two other English Burton’s stores on file but they are not listed and it is good to see a more thorough historical knowledge develop around these good Art Deco shops that were originally designed by the in-house architects department in an Art Deco style.

Then St Michael’s College Chapel is being considered for inclusion into the Llandaff Conservation Area, which we very much welcome as well. This excellent building built by George Pace from 1957-59 was only listed Grade II* last year in the light of plans to sell off and redevelop the college. Inclusion in the Conservation Area will increase the protection of the chapel and its setting and draw attention to its proximity to the Grade I listed Llandaff Cathedral that was restored and rebuilt by Pace from 1949-64.

Finally there may be changes in the air for CADW in general as the Assembly Government takes direct responsibility for it from July. We hope that this will be a positive step for an organisation that has come in for harsh criticism in the past.

Already a funding boost of £272,600 has been promised by the Culture Minister Alan Pugh to eleven historic buildings. This is a real positive indicator regarding the historic environment in Wales and we are pleased that a building of our period is one of the recipients. HS Goodhart-Rendel’s Church of the Holy Spirit in Ewloe, Flintshire built 1937-38 is to receive £30,000 towards essential repairs.

Eva Branscome