Architecture that hits the high notes

A nondescript Cardiff building is reborn as virtuoso modernism

Until a few weeks ago, few people in Cardiff even knew where the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama was.

It didn't help that this conservatoire was housed in a nondescript 1970s building on the eastern edge of the skinny canal that divides the college from Grade I listed Bute Park. Now, after a dazzling £22m extension, you couldn't miss the place if you tried.

A sharp-edged plastic roof oversails the college like the shimmering wing of a Jumbo jet, and the drum of its new concert hall suggests a vast, wooden-ribbed turbo-fan. Legendary Wagnerian soprano, Anne Evans, has just given a masterclass to students here. Comedian Rob Brydon is doing a turn this week .

It would be easy to dismiss the architecture as deliberately sensational and anti-contextual – just a bit of fun, as Brydon's catch-phrase has it. Just across North Road lie the civil limestone and concrete forms of the City Hall, Crown Court and University. How did the new building's lead designer, Jason Flanagan, come up with such a starkly contrasting form?

Short answer: he drew a super-crisp diagram which wrapped the ellipse of the new building around the northern and eastern edges of the existing college block: a cafe butted up against the end of the old building, a new free-standing segment containing the Burton theatre and practice rooms, and another housing the 450-seat Dora Stouzker recital hall. And the whole ensemble, including internal bridges and the "canyon" between the old building and the Burton theatre, covered by that giant aerofoil.

Flanagan and others at BFLS Architects previously worked for the king of the ultra-refined modernist diagram, Norman Foster. The college extension is a kit-of-parts in which the parts are specifically stand-offish. In Norm-land, it's not enough for form to have function; a building's different functional chunks must be quite distinct.

On a thin and difficult site, Flanagan has unquestionably turned his diagram into a building that performs, generating an atmosphere that can only be described as happening. It helped that he has a profound personal interest in music, acoustics and performance. Rather less predictable, from a practice that recently completed the controversial Stratus tower at London's Elephant and Castle, is the superbly crafted recital hall.

It's comparable in size to the mod-classical auditorium at King's Place, London. Here, the eye is teased away from the stage, towards a raised gallery of look-at-me columns. The college's recital hall is superior. Flanagan has encased its lower segment with coffered plywood walls that accentuate the auditorium's sloping lower volume, which rivets the gaze on the performers. There is a compelling sense of intensely concentrated performance. And the acoustic detailing, by Arup, produces a warmly articulated sound in the stalls which condenses into a drier precision in the gallery.

There's a similar atmosphere in the thoroughly luvvy-ish, purple painted Burton Theatre, though the glinting staves of silvery balcony rails jar. In a small theatrical space, why would actors want to see these when everything else is Stygian? Emlyn Williams' thriller, Darkness Falls, is the inaugural production. Let's hope it does fall.

The most significant aspect of the Coleg Brenhinol Cerdd a Drama Cymru is the big, two-storey high space between auditorium, theatre, and cafe. It is this void, with full height glazed facades facing both park and civic centre, that finally makes contextual and human sense of Jason Flanagan's virtuosic diagram. It has a great vibe, and outlook, an architectural machine that sings.

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power