Architecture: A Welsh lesson for Mr Gummer: Those responsible for today's infrastructure should look for inspiration to the Edwardian waterworks of the Elan Valley, where they will find beauty and reliability in harmony, says Jonathan Glancey

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The Independent Culture
I remember the first time I visited the great baroque dams of the Elan Valley in mid-Wales. The magnificence of their architecture and setting took me completely by surprise. It was as if Wren's greatest pupils, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh had been commissioned to design waterworks on the scale of the great French revolutionary fantasist Etienne-Louis Boullee.

It was like a romantic 18th-century essay titled something like 'On the Nature of the Sublime' translated into three herculean dimensions. The silence of the valley was equally awe-inspiring. It was broken only by the cries of sheep and, at unexpected moments by the thunder of water cascading, full-flow over the rusticated granite walls of the dams and crashing down to the River Elan 120ft below.

I had never, in this island, seen architecture, engineering, the elements and nature in such harmony. Yet, for most of the year, this valley remains unvisited - the snow last week would have frightened you off - and its unrivalled waterworks keep on performing as robustly and as reliably as they have done for the past 90 years.

I returned to the Elan Valley in driving sleet and snow a few days ago because I wanted to remind myself of how great public architecture and engineering and wise public investment in public works can create an infrastructure on which we can rely even when it is out of sight and out of mind; one, too, of which we can be proud.

Last week John Selwyn Gummer chastised us for moaning about the state of London's crumbling infrastructure. He told Londoners that he wanted them to have a say in the running of their city (decent of him), while denying them the right to a democratically elected city government. Two days later, the antique power supply of the London Underground refused to move trains and 20,000 people were trapped for hours in tunnels without light.

Great cities need great infrastructure; it must be designed and built to the very highest standards and it must endure. You cannot flirt with cities. They require loyalty from those charged with running them. They must employ the best architects, designers, engineers and builders money can buy.

Commission on the cheap and trains will stop and the water dry up. It is especially at this time of year when nature is at its fiercest, and when the government ritually cuts public spending, that we fall back on the legacy of our Victorian and Edwardian forebears. We cannot do so for ever.

Birmingham would certainly dry up without the Elan Valley. The city's massive investment ( pounds 6.6m between 1894- 1904) has repaid itself countless times. The dams are unlikely to flag or fail in the near future. The cavalry charge of water that thunders from here to Birmingham, 74 miles away, cannot be halted as long as 70 inches of rain, sleet and snow continue to fall each year in this Welsh wilderness.

It is true that Welsh sensibilities might still be offended by the fact that their countryside keeps Birmingham's palate wet, but there is always a way of paying the country back in grants; and, in any case, the Elan Valley is one of the wonders of the world. I would happily trade in the fabulous Pyramids of Giza or the Taj Mahal for Craig Goch and Pen-y-garreg dams.

Curiously, this great feat of architectural engineering and landscaping remains unsung in books, periodicals and architectural guides. The Powys volume of Pevsner's Buildings of England dismisses the dams and their attendant buildings in a few highly compressed entries.

Yet since the scheme was opened - by King Edward VII - it has, in summer months, been a popular haunt of daytrippers and walkers, for trout fishers and those with a taste for the sublime.

Before being brought into the service of Joseph Chamberlain's Birmingham, the Elan Valley supported some 200 shepherds and lead miners. Shelley was the valley's one famous resident and at times of drought the garden walls of his cottage can still be seen (the poet and his home both met death by water). The present population remains around 200 (shepherds and hydraulic engineers); these and a 45,000- strong chorus of sheep.

The Elan Valley was dammed by the Birmingham City engineers James Mansergh and J M Gray after the passing of the controversial Birmingham Corporation Water Act of 1892. In selecting the Elan Valley, Mansergh wrote: 'It would be difficult to find on this island a place where more than 70 square miles could be taken for a public purpose with dispossessing many more people and destroying many more homes.' Mansergh and his team of young engineers first built a model village - it is still here - for their 1,000-strong workforce.

The rivers they then dammed were the Elan and its tributary, the Claerwen. Naturally, these flow down from the hills to join the Wye, which reaches the sea via Severn; artificially, they flow through culverts, tubes, aqueducts and tunnels to Birmingham and discharge into the North Sea by way of Tame, Trent and Humber.

The dams are approached from the village of Rhayader by a scenic route that leads first to the turbine houses that flank the Elan at its lowest point. From here, you reach the 610-ft Caban Coch dam, a simple, yet heroic structure of rugged granite. Crossing a sweeping arched viaduct further upstream at Garreg-Ddu you pass a copper-domed pump-house that would grace the grounds of Castle Howard as surely as Hawksmoor's colonnaded mausoleum.

A further two and half miles and Pen-y- garreg dam comes into view, straddled across a deep, romantic chasm. This baroque castle in the sky might easily be a design by Vanbrugh. The valve-tower that crowns its broad shoulders resembles a knight's helmet (in fact, it controls the overflow of water to the reservoir below and is reached through a spectacular gallery - not open to the public - lit on its downstream face through operatic curtains of ice and water).

Beyond is the highest of the dams, Craig Goch, a beautiful curve of arcaded stone, 513ft wide and 120ft deep. A road, often blocked by wandering sheep, leads across the crest of the dam. Like Pen-y-garreg, it is crowned with a baroque helmet crafted in granite. The dam's reservoir extends a further two miles up into the hills and, beyond that, the river is left to its natural course four miles from its mountain source.

It seems extraordinary that such a brutally disfigured city as Birmingham - it is changing slowly for the better - should be be provided with its life-blood by such vision, idealism and sheer beauty. The Elan Valley scheme broods silently in the Welsh hills, reminding us of how great public works will outlast any politician unwise enough to cut them down to size. How right Joseph Chamberlain was to want the very best for what was then the workshop of the world. The architecture of the Elan Valley dams, alone, are the best buildings Birmingham has to offer, then and now.

But what the valley and its great waterworks represents today is more important than architecture alone. If you want a public infrastructure to work as faultlessly and as humanly as possible, to endure and even to be a thing of beauty, you simply cannot do it on the cheap. Nor can you do it without enlightened civic government. Raise a glass of Welsh hill water to Joseph Chamberlain, the Victorian burghers of Birmingham, the city's engineers and the dream of noble public works at a time of cost-cutting and mean-mindedness.

(Photograph omitted)

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