How the Senedd Imagines Welshness, by Taylor Sawyer*


This post is a shortened version of the paper presented by Taylor Sawyer at our Utopian Urban Futures conference on 27-28 June 2016.

[The facts and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and have not been verified or endorsed by the project team in any way]

In March 2016 the Senedd, home of the Welsh National Assembly, celebrated its tenth birthday. During its decade of existence, the Senedd has housed four of the five devolved government administrations and welcomed over one million visitors, including hundreds of school group tours. Designed by Richard Rogers, nominated for the 2006 Stirling Prize, earning an “Excellent” certification by BREEAM, and winning various awards, the Senedd is a truly tremendous work.

National government buildings, such as the Senedd, express messages about the culture from which they emerged, via their external and internal design, art pieces, organization, and materials. These messages ultimately become bound up in the construction of national identity. Of course, the Welsh nation and Welshness existed long before its devolved government and the Senedd building. For this reason its planners were faced with the unusual task of integrating existing myths and values into the landmark building; in doing this, they were also given the opportunity to select and highlight – and to ignore and suppress – particular aspects of Welshness.

In an examination of the Senedd website, newspaper interviews with those involved in the design and construction process, and government leaflets and publications online and inside the Senedd, one sees a clear national narrative presented by the building and its interlocutors. Whether or not the average Welsh person identifies with this narrative, the Senedd has woven a particular story about Welsh democracy and about Welshness, and that story will be reproduced in the minds of Senedd visitors for generations to come.

Gather Round the Village Tree

I come to the Utopian Cities community with a background in public policy and nationalism studies, my interests lying at the uncomfortable junction of quotidian life and identity construction. Thus what draws me to the Senedd are questions about how nationalism influences architecture, and what architecture reveals about a nation and its identity.

During a recent visit to the Senedd, I was the beneficiary of what I can only describe as spontaneous fact outbreaks by one especially energetic member of staff. From this charming individual I learned that traditional Welsh village meetings took place below the largest tree, where community leaders would gather to discuss important matters, and where community members could circle around to listen in and add their concerns and commentary—a tradition that allegedly inspired the circular shape of the main chamber and the focal, indeed massive and tree-like, feature of the building.

Whether or not this tale is true, or if it inspired a part of the building design, I cannot say, but it doesn’t matter. What matters here is that I now have in my head an image of how Welsh communities once gathered and made decisions, and of how that history has been woven into the present. This information is being disseminated over and over again to visitors and we, Welsh and not-Welsh, feel we know something about the Welsh as a collective group with distinct traditions. This is not to say that Wales is a place void of rich heritage – I would argue quite the contrary – but that the Senedd has, quite naturally, involved itself in the production of Welshness.

Forged in Cardiff Bay

It is impossible to say how many have heard this story of the village tree, so we must direct ourselves to other more widely available resources. The research I presented at the 2016 Utopian Urban Future Conference reviewed websites, booklets, news, and academic pieces illuminating choices about and language surrounding the original design criteria, location selected, materials used, and symbolism in the architecture of the Senedd and the Scottish Parliament Building (the Scottish case has been excluded from this post for the sake of brevity, but revealed similar data).

After Westminster passed the devolution acts of 1998 Wales began planning the construction of the Senedd—a building to be not just the home of Wale’s new government ministers, but also to be a symbolic structure that would communicate a particular vision of culture and society. From the very beginning of the planning process, two central interests were put on the table: the Senedd was to 1) communicate a spirit of “new democracy” and to 2) integrate and compliment the local landscape. They meaningfully chose to place the Senedd in Cardiff Bay’s former docklands, next to the historic Pierhead—a building which housed the Bute Docks Company’s offices (renamed the Cardiff Railway Company), a space that “helped Wales forge its identity ‘through water and fire’ in the late nineteenth century.” 1

The four main materials a visitor to the Senedd would see are wood, slate, glass, and steel. As much as possible, local materials, namely wood and slate (from Cwt-y-Bugail and Penrhyn quarries) were used. These materials were used to design spaces of openness and transparency, and to incorporate nature imagery into the building. One of the main features of the Senedd is its undulating wooden roof, meant to reflect the movement of waves. The circular debating chamber is designed to promote cooperation and participation, while minimizing confrontation and division. Sound-reduction panels double as art pieces, with abstract colour patterns intended to represent both the outpouring of supressed Welsh identity and the geological richness of Welsh land. These are just some examples of how the Senedd, a functional space meant to house government ministers, was co-opted into simultaneously acting as a portrait of Welshness.

Sustainable and Civic Wales

Nationalism, assumed to be a modern phenomenon and one imposed on society by cultural elites, relies on images and symbols to create an imagined, sovereign unit of people. In this case, those involved in the production and marketing of the Senedd are the cultural elites. What, then, is imagined about Wales via the Senedd?

The early-stated goals to express “new democracy” and to emphasise landscape come through in interesting ways. Bringing “new democracy” into the design involved crafting transparent, airy, and open spaces – this speaks about the civic nature of Welsh nationalism. Civic nationalism has inclusion, freedom, and tolerance at its core. Designing spaces that are literally transparent and accessible, in order to embody the values of “new democracy,” makes evident that cultural elites involved sought to underscore the civic nature of Welsh nationalism.

In the Senedd, Welshness is attached to nature and landscape via materials and symbolism. This idea also comes through in the heavy emphasis placed on displaying the sustainable qualities of the building: attached to symbolic representations of nature, there is repeated mentioning of sustainable practices. At once, we see Welshness rooted in nature and sustainability attached to the preservation of that identity symbol. This interlacing reads – to be Welsh is to be attached to the land and sea… and to be sustainability-minded.

Thus, we end with the notion that the Senedd is much more than just a home for the Welsh Assembly, that it embodies a particular story of Welshness. This is one generated in the minds of those involved in designing and promoting the Senedd – likely with a certain amount of reference made to the past. What emerges is a narrative of deep attachment to nature, one linked by the Senedd to a sustainable agenda, and of “new democracy,” a theme highlighting civic nationalism.

1 National Assembly for Wales. (2013). National Assembly for Wales. National Assembly for Wales Commission: Cardiff.

*Taylor Sawyer is an MSc student of Nationalism Studies in the Social and Political Sciences Department at the University of Edinburgh.

Text and Images by Taylor Swayer © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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