Who Said Self-Rule Would Be Easy?

By Dana Rubin

If things had gone according to plan, Cardiff Bay would now be the site of an architectural masterpiece: the National Assembly for Wales, designed by world-famous architect Richard Rogers. But on a recent blustery day, what a visitor found was--well, a big hole in the ground.

Therein lies a tale of frustrated nationalist ambition and pride. The Assembly building was meant to give the Welsh a bright symbol of their newly gained political powers, as well as furthering the renovation of a gritty Cardiff neighborhood. Instead, the project has given Wales its first nasty lesson in the perils of self-government.

When Wales announced plans for its National Assembly chambers in 1998, it was considered such a plum job that more than 50 architects expressed interest in designing it. After Rogers won the competition, work got under way last March. But in July, the Assembly abruptly fired the London-based Richard Rogers Partnership, complaining that costs were spinning out of control. The original $39 million estimate had mushroomed to more than $68 million. "It's a big setback," laments Ron Davies, a Welsh politician who campaigned ceaselessly for devolution--the right to be partially governed by an assembly with powers over such realms as economic development, education, health, and housing, which the Welsh voted for in 1997.

For an underdog place like Wales, the symbolic weight of the new building can hardly be overstated. Although it's officially a separate country, Wales had not governed itself for seven centuries, and its economy, based on mining, declined sharply after World War I. Devolution advocates hoped more local control would help accelerate a pickup that began in the 1980s.

Cardiff Bay, too, was desperately in need of renewal. With the decline of the shipbuilding and seafaring trade, the waterfront had fallen into disuse. Inspired by the rejuvenation of Baltimore harbor in the 1980s, Cardiff's civic leaders used incentives to lure office buildings, a luxury hotel, and a slew of restaurants. But with swaths of land still vacant, the area has a forlorn look.

For a while, Rogers seemed like the ideal white knight. His firm designed such visually arresting buildings as the Centre Pompidou in Paris (with Renzo Piano) and the Lloyds Building in London. A self-styled philosopher of the modern city, Rogers proselytizes for high-tech architecture as a catalyst for urban renewal. When his design, featuring a giant undulating roof and a building sheathed in transparent glass, was chosen unanimously in October, 1998, it was a sign, Davies explains, "that we as a country were big enough to do this."

But the project was slow getting up to speed. During the spring of 2000, Welsh First Secretary Rhodri Morgan suspended work temporarily in order to review costs. By the following autumn, fresh concerns about costs had cropped up, and Welsh Finance Minister Edwina Hart became nervous. A series of meetings with Rogers' team did not allay her concerns, and in July, she announced she had fired Rogers from the project. An outraged Rogers blamed the mess on "the horrific incompetence" of the Welsh project managers.

Talks between the two sides floundered, and by September, the Assembly was calling for new bids. But with work already begun, observers say few architects may be willing to step into the breach. Hart denies that, saying a number are interested, and her office is drafting a formal invitation for bids. Insiders say a compromise could be at hand: Rogers' firm has expressed interest in acting as a consultant for a bid tendered by a large construction company. Since the summer, his firm has declined to comment publicly. Meanwhile, the Assembly is meeting in improvised quarters that the English press has taken delight in mocking.

Standing by the shoreline, Davies looks fatigued by the impasse. The Assembly building fiasco highlights how much remains to be done to create the new Wales. "It will come. I have no doubt about that," he says with a shrug. "It's just going to take a lot longer than we thought."

Rubin is a London-based freelancer who frequently visits Wales

Edited by Harry Maurer

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