Architecture: Building a home for the word in the land of song: Swansea, 1995 City of Literature, promises an adventurous and enjoyable national centre

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The Independent Culture
THINK of Wales and words spring to mind. Millions of them. Tumbling from the pens of the nation's writers and the shelves of its bookshops and libraries. Wales has long been in love with words; its national literary festival, the Eisteddfod, is as famous as it is unpronounceable (to the English, at least), writes Jonathan Glancey.

Its greatest writers, Dylan Thomas prince among them, have rarely settled for one example of alliteration where two or three sound more resonant. Reciting Under Milk Wood is like popping a hallucinogenic drug: the words cease to have conventional meaning and become a sonorous shanty of sly, slip-sliding, sybaritic, see-saw sounds, more musical notes than plain words.

Small wonder then that the press release from the Guildhall, Swansea, announcing the choice of architects for the principality's National Literature Centre ('Ty Llen' in Welsh) suffers from a superfluity of words. The highly imaginative design by the architects Alsop & Stormer is described as 'a multi-million-pound national literature centre which will form part of a new cultural quarter in the city'; it will house such three-dimensional verbiage as a 'community resource provision' and a 'conference capability'. It will also be 'economical, accessible, energy-efficient and environmentally friendly'.

Stripped of this verbosity, the National Literature Centre promises to be one of the most adventurous and enjoyable new buildings in Britain. Paid for by a package of public funds - from local and national government, EC grants and the Foundation for Sport and the Arts - the building is to be built in two phases, the first of which is scheduled to open on St David's Day, 1 March 1995.

Alsop & Stormer won the commission in a competition. The judging committee had invited five British and American practices working in different styles, all of whom push forward the boundaries of design. The others were Branson Coates, Chassay Architects, Michael Graves (USA) and Stirling Wilford & Associates. Alsop & Stormer are working on the design with Mel Gooding as literary consultant, Jenny Coe on landscapes design and Ove Arup & Partners as structural engineers.

Perched high above a new public square near the Grand Theatre on spidery steel legs, the centre will be the most unusual modern building in Wales. Alsop & Stormer is known for stretching leading-edge architecture to its limits. Try to imagine how the architect's model (see picture) will translate into a practical public building and civic meeting place. Between the slender steel supports at ground level, there will be a 'writers' centre', a cafe and restaurant together with highly sculpted nooks and crannies designed to house temporary exhibitions.

When the weather is bad, great fabric screens sporting mythical Welsh beasts will drop from the frame of the floor above to keep wind and rain at bay. Daylight will filter down to this spacious undercroft through a giant fabric cone that climbs diagonally to reach the roof of the building.

A steel and glass tower at one end of the undercroft will take visitors up a serpentine ramp - off which the centre's bookshop will spiral up and down - to the Museum of the Word and City Library on the first floor. 'Deck' or 'wing' may be more appropriate than 'floor', as each of the centre's upper three levels has been designed as a steel platform, almost column-free and apparently floating with the barest means of support. Each level will feature walls of glass which will be shaded from glare by brightly coloured louvred screens hanging on the outside of the building.

The upper floors will expand the range of activities and lead up to a 'Garden of the Word' and a 'Story-telling Bush' where children, guided away from their computer screens, can revel in the magic of the spoken word.

In 1995 Swansea will be the Arts Council 'City of Literature'. It will need precious few words to explain why. Alsop & Stormer's National Centre for Literature will say it all.

(Photograph omitted)

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