The Second World War left Wales’s two largest ports, Swansea and Cardiff, badly mauled as a result of air raids: important buildings were destroyed or damaged and the configuration of Swansea was altered permanently. Along the coast and elsewhere, wartime structures that were no longer needed survived like beached whales. Despite the scattered physical evidence of the war, its political, economic and social legacies, together with those of the 1930s, were profound, affecting communities, their ways of life and their environment throughout Wales. The Royal Commission has recorded significant elements of this extraordinary transformation within its own lifetime as an organisation.
One radical change in the post-war period was the increasing awareness of conservation. People became more conscious of, and curious about, the meaning of their surroundings, and this extended to subjects not conventionally regarded as of historical importance: from the 1960s onwards an enthusiastic and knowledgeable community of industrial archaeologists recorded the remains of vanished and vanishing industries, from slate and coal to copper and lead. The Royal Commission was in the vanguard of this work, not least in recovering Swansea’s early industrial landscape, hidden by layers of subsequent development, and in charting the development of Wales’s canals. Historic parks and gardens were rediscovered and increasingly valued, their study being promoted by the Welsh Historic Gardens Trust and Cadw among others. All over Wales, civic societies, local history groups and special interest organisations increasingly took an interest in the past and argued for the conservation of historic buildings and sites.
Concerns about the consequences of the decline of organised religion highlighted the need to record threatened or redundant churches and chapels and fight for their protection. Retrospectively, the nineteenth-century religious buildings of Wales, and more particularly chapels, began to be perceived as a kind of national architecture.
It is important to emphasise the economic and social diversity of Wales, which produced variations in the pace and type of change – the experience of large conurbations of the south was not the same as that of country towns, and coastal areas fared differently from the rural heartland. In north Wales, the slate quarries had long been in decline, a process that continued after the war.
Around the coasts, the fishing industry and ports contracted with the results that docks were closed and fleets decreased to just a few boats. In rural areas, depopulation and the decline of agriculture were often accompanied by the disappearance of small farms. In upland Wales the Forestry Commission expanded its programme of tree planting with an enormous impact on historic landscapes – with the felling of mature plantations, historic settlements and structures unseen for half a century have since reappeared and been recorded. From the 1990s onwards wind farms began to be increasingly common visual symbols of the changing energy economy, both on land and off shore.
The industrialised south, especially the coal and steel towns, dominated the rest of Wales in terms of population, and it saw the most massive changes of all.
Many communities of nineteenth-century origin depended on traditional heavy industries that were vulnerable in the post-war economic climate industries. Industrial reorganisation through nationalisation restructured ‘King Coal’ in 1947 and the steel industry in the early 1950s, but these sectors were still vulnerable. Despite all efforts, Ebbw Vale’s steelworks closed in 1975-6, to be followed by East Moors in Cardiff in 1978. There were successive phases of closure of coal mines from 1947 onwards. When the giant Penallta colliery was shut in 1992 only three pits out of hundreds remained in south Wales – the last, Tower Colliery, succumbed in 2007. The giant coal spoil tips had remained prominent features of the landscape in many a southern valley, but in 1966 the Aberfan disaster, in which a school was overwhelmed with the loss of 144 lives, resulted in extensive clearance.
The only growth of coal mining was in opencast operations, which began in Wales to support the war effort and became commonplace around the rims of the coalfields from the 1950s onwards, altering whole landscapes and their human environment permanently. In 2006 what is described as ‘the largest coal mining opencast operation in Europe’ was given the go-ahead at Ffos-y-Fran, on the eastern edge of Merthyr Tydfil’s bowl of hills.
The economy of south Wales was restructured as heavy industry gave way to manufacturing, but some of the successor industries also declined. The most notable example was the Dunlop Semtex factory at Brynmawr, which closed down in 1982 and became Britain’s first post-war building to be listed. A monument to social and architectural innovation, the factory was demolished after continued failure to find appropriate reuses.
Technological change radically altered many industries and made specialist processes obsolete. At Gwasg Gee, the oldest press in Wales, new technology rendered a range of specialised buildings redundant. In tele-communications, the exchanges that had enlarged as the numbers of subscribers increased became obsolete: the banks of redundant selectors recorded at Shotton before decommissioning, looking quaintly archaic but only thirty years old, are a striking example of the shrinking effect of digital technology. The masts at Criggion radio station were demolished in 2003 after over fifty years of service from the end of the Second World War through the Cold War and beyond.
Infrastructure and the public sector, broadly defined, mushroomed in the period after the war. The railways fell under the ‘Beeching axe’ from 1963, but road communications were revolutionised, symbolised by dual carriageways in north and south and the two successive Severn bridges.
Improved roads have provided the fundamental networks for massive suburban development, new and expanded towns like Cwmbran and Newtown, and retail parks and ‘enterprise zones’ on the outskirts of towns and in rural areas. The gas pipe-line constructed across south Wales in the first decade of the twenty-first century, for 197 miles from Milford Haven to Gloucestershire, was perhaps the most ambitious British development for the transport of fuel since the canals were built to carry coal in the Industrial Revolution. It attracted criticism from nearby communities but provided a remarkable opportunity to discover and record historic sites.
The collectivist social traditions of the industrial areas had long found expression in workingmen’s clubs and institutes that combined education, leisure and politics in remarkable ways. A few such buildings were built after the war, but they were severely depleted as a result of the loss of the traditional industries and the all-pervading changes in personal life brought about by the motor car and the television. Friendly societies formed an older and broader collectivist bedrock to industrial and rural communities, providing unemployment and sickness benefits and a decent burial, but they declined with the growth of the post-war welfare state. Generally, friendly societies met in public houses – one of the last meeting-rooms was recorded by the Royal Commission at The Fountain Inn in Troedrhiwgwair, Monmouthshire.
Increasing public provision, especially in health and education, created opportunities to enhance the social environment. As grammar schools gradually disappeared from the 1960s onwards, large new comprehensives, further education colleges and expanding universities transformed the world of education. Many town and cottage hospitals, some in former workhouse buildings, were replaced by purpose-built hospitals and health centres. However, the emptying of the mental-health hospitals was among the most dramatic post-war changes in public health, leading to the closure of all the historic asylums.
Some major national bodies were brought to Wales through a United Kingdom-wide process of regional planning and government investment, among them the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to Swansea and the Royal Mint to Llantrisant. Nuclear power stations were built at Wylfa and Trawsfynydd in the north.
Immediately after the war, ‘prefabs’ were built to answer the housing shortage, and these were followed by extensive development of council housing estates and occasional high-rise blocks. Slum clearance driven by modernisation and concern for welfare could lead to the destruction of historic buildings: the demolition of slums in Abergavenny was accompanied by an early exercise in the emergency recording of Tudor and Stuart buildings (the results of which are preserved in the Thacker collection in the National Monuments Record).
By the 1960s, the rise in prosperity was accompanied by extensive new private housing estates and modernisation of Victorian terraces. Twentieth-century planners and architects often replaced decayed or redundant buildings in haste with structures that sometimes proved surprisingly transitory – ‘modernism’ in twentieth-century architecture involved a self-conscious break with the past, in function and materials as much as in image. So it is not surprising that the most daringly unconventional buildings were also those most likely to have a short life-span, or to cost the most to maintain. Changes in fashion left some buildings hailed as landmarks in their day friendless and vulnerable when they lost favour with a new generation.
One of the most momentous changes of the post-war period was administrative: the sweeping away in 1974 of the Welsh shire system that had existed since the reign of Henry VIII. The new counties were themselves replaced by twenty-two unitary authorities in 1996. These changes in local government led to the redundancy of many municipal buildings.
The effects of the reorganisation of the court service, especially the 1971 abolition of the quarter sessions and assizes, was perhaps not as profound in Wales as in England – and several crown courts still function in historic buildings, notably at Carmarthen – but some magistrates’ courts became disused. On the other hand, local government reorganisation led to a crop of new civic buildings, though in most cases they lacked architectural distinction.
Small cottages as well as substantial farmhouses were at risk in these decades of rapid and extensive change, particularly in north and west Wales, partly from dereliction and partly from unsympathetic development. However, the main category of vernacular buildings most at risk was traditional farm buildings, as they were both the most numerous and the least protected. Eurwyn Wiliam’s overview of The Historical Farm Buildings of Wales (1986) showed that farm buildings could conform to highly localised types and their building chronologies were not well understood. These buildings have become redundant because of both farm amalgamation and their declining usefulness for modern practices – whole farmsteads (farmhouse as well as farm buildings) have become derelict through amalgamation, especially in the uplands. In the more prosperous lowland areas, particularly Monmouthshire, the Vale of Glamorgan and parts of north-east Wales, farmsteads have been the nodes for new residential development in the countryside.
At the other end of the spectrum, many mansions of landowners and industrialists continued their decline after the Second World War, vanishing behind a sea of rhododendrons, eventually becoming irretrievably ruined, as Thomas Lloyd documented in The Lost Houses of Wales (1986).
The case of Cefn Mably, once one of the greatest south Wales houses, is remarkable. It managed to survive despite sale, adaptation as a hospital, and a disastrous fire. The gutted house was rescued and converted to exclusive apartments (with Michael Davies as architect) alongside a scheme of parkland development. Only a few miles away, Ruperra Castle remains an example of the challenges of bringing back a great house and its setting from decades of abandonment.
The plight of the large urban houses of the industrialists, entrepreneurs and prosperous professional middle class in the later twentieth century was also serious. These houses were often built on the peripheries of towns in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries but were engulfed by later housing and became prime sites for redevelopment or conversion. They were often built from excellent materials with lavish and sometimes idiosyncratic decoration. Stelvio House in Newport, the home of a maritime entrepreneur, was partly demolished despite listed status. A successful prosecution was brought against the owners for unlawful demolition.
The processes affecting appreciation and use of modernist buildings are various, and ideas and fashions have changed. The architectural confection of Clough Williams-Ellis at Portmeirion is increasingly perceived as an idiosyncratic masterpiece. Aversion to reinforced concrete, together with structural changes in the holiday business, led to the demise of Pwllheli holiday camp. On the other hand, Sully Hospital near Barry, an exceptional expression of a modernist aesthetic dating from l932-6, was built more conventionally of rendered brick, so that after it went out of use as a hospital in the 1990s it found a new, domestic use.
Such threats have alerted the Royal Commission to the need to record the most significant and adventurous buildings of the recent past before they are lost or disfigured. Sites range from the Dupont nylon factory near Pontypool to an unaltered group of ‘brutalist’ houses in Dinas Powys near Cardiff and Bettws High School at Newport. This concrete and glass modular-planned comprehensive school rose in three tiers from a lakeside setting. Designed by Evans & Shalev, it was built as recently as 1969-72. It was photographed in 2008 before its proposed demolition.
In Cardiff, the Empire Pool and Cardiff Arms Park were stylish public buildings characteristic of the optimistic post-war world. The Empire Pool opened in 1958 and marked Cardiff’s new status since 1955 as the capital. It was a welcoming building and, for many, the conspicuous investment in sport and leisure represented an end to post-war austerity. It was the first modernist public building in the city. The design by the city architects’ department caught the Festival of Britain mood and was influenced directly or indirectly by some early twentieth-century continental buildings, notably the 1908 AEG turbine factory in Berlin. Generous well-stairs at each end of the glazed foyer took visitors to the first-floor changing rooms, and on the second floor there was a café with parquet floors and chromium embellishments. At ground-floor level there were rather mysterious Turkish and other baths. The 50-metre pool was flanked by tiered seats with a capacity for 1,772 spectators, exceeding that of most entertainment venues then available.
The Arms Park stood north of the Empire Pool and was slightly later. Construction began in 1967 and was a resolutely Welsh affair. The stadium was designed by Cardiff architects Osborne V. Webb and Partners and was built by Welsh engineers and contractors using material largely from the reconstructed post-war industries of south Wales. The design was extraordinarily successful, with the ‘predatory’ concrete frame tantalisingly glimpsed from different points in the city and fully revealed from the River Taff. It is rare that a concrete-framed structure becomes a much-loved building, but this ‘temple of sport’ was hallowed by the golden era of Welsh rugby in the 1970s.
As sports historians have pointed out, success on the rugby field mirrored the success of the Welsh economy. Both the Empire Pool and Cardiff Arms Park were much-loved buildings, partly because they were well designed, and partly because the public – especially those growing up in the ’60s and ’70s felt that they had ownership of them and (by extension) of the city centre. Neither was listed, but both were photographed as part of the Royal Commission’s emergency recording programme before demolition in 1998 to make way for the Millennium Stadium – which is admired but not yet loved.
A major aspect of urban policy from 1987 was the re-development of Cardiff’s docklands through the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation. A new administrative capital on the waterfront took taking shape at the beginning of the new century, where the permanently flooded bay forms the back-drop to the Senedd building of the National Assembly for Wales and the Wales Millennium Centre – both expressing aspects of Welsh heritage in design and materials.
Hindsight will tell the extent to which these buildings each captures the popular and professional imagination, but there is growing interest in Wales’s architectural heritage generally and recognition of its richness and diversity. Increasingly, the vernacular building tradition of the countryside seems particularly inspirational. The early tradition in timber attracts those who are interested in developing sustainable buildings. For others, the stone-building tradition, especially the massive masonry of Snowdonia, expresses ideas of cultural continuity, resilience and sympathy with the landscape. As the inscription on the Millennium Centre says: ‘In these stones horizons sing’.