Architect Jonathan Adams, of Caerleon, talks to JEN MILLS about working on one of his biggest projects - the Millennium Centre in Cardiff.
I MOVED back from London to Wales in 1998.
I’d been in a quite sharp-end, very fashionable, very avant-garde practice in London.
You realise after a while that a lot of it is about image and personalities and hype to some extent, and it’s very London focused.
I wanted to do something that meant something to ordinary folks. In the Millennium Centre that’s what I was trying to do, and the project has succeeded in that way far more than I had hoped.
I’ve been told it looks like a bicycle helmet and it sort of does. Occasionally people say that it looks like a computer mouse and I say OK, yeah, I can see that.
Thinking of subconscious influences, who knows?
It doesn’t bother me when people call it an armadillo – I’m kind of curious, because it doesn’t really look anything like one. When I first saw it being referred to as an armadillo I was amazed, I thought they were looking at a picture of a different building.
I live near Pillmawr Road in Caerleon with my wife, Hazel, and my children, Harri, 17, and Lowri, 14, who are both still at the comprehensive.
My own house is pretty ordinary to be honest. I think if you want to make lots of money you need to be more interested in being an entrepreneur than exploring what’s possible in architecture, it’s one or the other. I have to limit myself to modest interventions in existing houses.
In Caerleon I think we need to make much more of the Roman stuff that’s in the town.
When I was younger, one of the really eye-opening experiences was when they rebuilt the Globe Theatre. Lots of architects were quite snooty about that – not very modern, all a bit silly rebuilding this old building. The emphasis was always on making things futuristic.
I think rebuilding the Roman buildings would be a fantastic thing to do. Supposing you built a Roman baths you could actually use as a leisure facility for people who live in the town but which also worked as a tourist attraction because it was an authentically rebuilt Roman bathhouse? That would be really amazing.
One thing in Caerleon I look on with a bit of envy I suppose is the Celtic Manor.
The first kind of holiday job I had, in 1980, after I’d been a student for one year in Cardiff was with a small architectural firm in Newport, near Gold Tops.
While I was working there they had this inquiry from Canada. The boss there didn’t tell me much about it.
Anyway, it turned out it related to the Lydia Beynon Maternity Hospital, a kind of Edwardian maternity hospital which had closed down near the Coldra roundabout. Someone had bought the hospital and wanted to turn it into a motel.
We did a proposal and my own contribution was to do the layout of the car park.
Of course, the client was Terry Matthews, who nobody had heard of then, and that became the Celtic Manor.
It’s a phenomenon now, that’s all you can call it. You look on it as an architect and think I’d love to contribute to that in some way.
No one has ever made any inquiries of that kind – if that happens in the future that would be great.
I was actually born in Bristol in 1961 although I have very few memories of that.
Both my parents are from coal mining families in the Valleys and they both got involved in teaching, both got jobs in Bristol and that’s why I was born there.
One of the few memories I have is of going to visit the shed where Concorde was being built and seeing this wooden model of it – such an odd thing to remember but it did really happen.
We moved to Caerleon in the mid-60s and first lived up on the top of Lodge Hill.
I remember going to the school on Lodge Hill when that first opened, then I went to the comprehensive.
I ended up choosing to study architecture at university almost by accident really.
I went down to our careers evening with my father.
There was a very bored looking chap with a brown suit on with leaflets in from of him on the desk. He told us nobody had been to see him all evening, and he was an architect.
He was saying: “Oh, this is a very difficult thing. Tough grades” and sort of emphasised how difficult it would be. That seemed to fire up my father.
At school I was good at art. I was very compliant with rules and regulations, although I think myself and my brother had the first proper rock band to be formed at Caerleon Comp.
I played the drums. My brother was older than me so I wasn’t allowed to do anything that put me in the spotlight.
We may have been the first but we were probably also one of the worst.
After leaving school, I went to Cardiff University.
The training we had in those days was a bit pragmatic. It was much more about technical competence than about doing anything more inventive or original or exploring ideas.
There were very few jobs around but I was lucky enough to get a job at the Greater London Council. It was very much the twilight years of the GLC.
Within a year or two of me being there it had been closed down by Margaret Thatcher’s government.
At that time, in the early 80s, half of the architectural profession was employed in the public sector and it was in the public sector that the most innovative work was being done.
I was lucky enough to get a place at the Architectural Association in Bedford Square.
My first tutor was Will Alsop and he went from teaching me in my first year there to basically picking me up and wanting me to work in his studio.
I stayed with him for the next 13 or 14 years.
In London I enjoyed working on a tube station on the Jubilee Line, the one right next to the Millennium Dome. But when we designed it nobody knew that the Millennium Dome was going to be built there.
We found they changed it quite a bit to cope with a much bigger number of people.
We had platforms people would walk along, suspended from the ceiling of the station.
They made them twice the size and once they did that you couldn’t see the point of it – a bit of a disappointment really.
I met my wife Hazel when I was working in London in the late 1980s. She’d just come back from living and working in Paris so she was very exotic.
We had just had our first child, Harri, when we moved to Wales.
I was 36 or 37 when I first started working on the Millennium Centre. The people involved were looking for new ideas – it was just good fortune I arrived at the right time.
I wanted it to have some sort of mountain-like shape.
The traditional thing with opera houses is they have this fly-tower directly above the stage. Scenery flies up into this tower and it’s held there. It’s always the biggest bit of the building.
For this building, because you could see it from so many directions, I didn’t want it to be just a big lump that poked up in the middle.
It was important we involved North Wales. I knew there was slate lying there and nobody was using it.
On the face of it you should be able to just take a big truck up there and bring it down – if only life was that easy.
I’ve always regretted I never learned to speak Welsh. You sort of feel, as a Welsh person interested in Welsh things, that it’s a missing piece of the jigsaw. It would have been useful to have had the insight from being able to understand the language.
* Jonathan Adams has also designed buildings including the Sherman Cymru Theatre, the WJEC building in Cardiff and the Tremourgh campus of Falmouth University.