Industrial ideals of our fathers

The Brynmawr Rubber Factory in Ebbw Vale is a masterpiece of Modernism. The first post-war building to get legal protection, it is now under threat of demolition.
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The Independent Culture
Before war broke out in 1939, 82 per cent of adult men in Ebbw Vale were unemployed. There had been a few small riots, but nothing to disturb the sleep of Westminster politicians. After all, the valleys of south Wales had done their job over the preceeding century, producing coal and, lately, steel in vast quantities and in exchange for pitiful wages, TB, silicosis and pneumonia.

This dismal history did not stop the young men of Ebbw Vale from fighting for the land of their fathers. In 1946, they were finally offered something special in return for their labours - the Brynmawr Rubber Factory. Some reward, you might think. But it was.

The Brynmawr Rubber Factory, set up by the Brimsdown Rubber company and paid for by Clement Attlee's Labour government, was among the most humane, ennobling, democratic and beautiful factories built anywhere in the world. Designed by a team of idealistic young architects, Architects Co-Partnership (ACP), and engineered by Ove Arup & Partners, this extraordinary ode to new materials and ways of co-operative working must have seemed like a visitation from Planet Mars.

Sited proudly at the head of the valleys, the Brynmawr Rubber Factory was a vision of a new world, a new deal for the working men and women of Ebbw Vale. Workers and management entered this great domed concrete sculpture through one and the same door. They ate together in the same bright canteen. Here, at last, was a factory where all men and women were treated as equals even if their earnings were graded and they represented different industrial skills.

The factory represented the ideals of the Welfare State. Ill thought- out at first - Brimsdown Rubber went bust within a year - the factory was taken over by Dunlop which made a go of it until moving elsewhere in 1982. The problem with Brynmawr was its location: the factory was built there for political and idealistic reasons rather than for convenience. In hindsight, its closure seemed inevitable. For the past 14 years this masterpiece has lain empty. It would have been demolished to make way for a banal housing and retail development in the mid-Eighties, but something extraordinary happened: the factory was listed Grade II* in 1986, the first post-war building in Britain to be afforded the protection of law.

Ten years on, in spite of a number of more or less realistic proposals for re-using it (sports centre, cultural centre, museum, ballroom dancing venue), the factory remains empty, and is now, despite its listed building status, under threat.

Blaenau Gwent Borough Council, the local authority, is only too keen to see the factory go. In fact, an application to demolish it was approved by the council in the autumn. The same meeting approved an outline planning application to replace the listed building with a lacklustre "industrial, commercial and residential" scheme. The consortium of three local businesses putting forward the case for redevelopment (one of the firms is a demolition contractor) has an option to buy the factory and land. This expires on Sunday. Clearly there is a case for getting a move on with demolition.

Not so fast. William Hague, Secretary of State for Wales, can yet "call in" the planning application and decide to maintain the building's listed status and save it from destruction. As yet, he has chosen not to, despite encouragement from, among others, Cadw, the Welsh heritage agency, the Twentieth Century Society, DoCoMoMo UK (the documentation and conservation of the Modern Movement, an international pressure group), Save Britain's Heritage, the Ancient Monuments Society and the Royal Commission on Ancient Historic Monuments of Wales.

Not that Brynmawr is an ancient monument. But nor is wanting to save it for the principality a case of a conservation too far. The Brynmawr Rubber Factory is an important building, a beautiful building and one that could have a delightful and profitable future.

William Hague would be unwise to attach his name to the demolition of this 20th-century masterpiece in a Labour stronghold where the bad days of the Great Depression are still associated with Conservative governments. Coming after the debacle over the proposed Cardiff Bay Opera House (a brilliant design by Zaha Hadid), the Brynmawr affair is helping to reinforce the prejudices of those who cannot help feeling that, in the upper echelons of power, architecture is considered a waste of time.

The Brynmawr Rubber Factory is one of the few Modern masterpieces in Wales; on this score alone it would be sad to lose it. If the consortium keen to redevelop the site does buy it, even if Mr Hague saves it from destruction, it may well be able to sell it on to a body that wants to make a go of this monument to industrial civilisation.

ACP has worked up a scheme that would see the factory transformed into a giant regional sports centre. A fast new road linking Brynmawr with Swansea is due to open before 2000 and so the idea is far from mere wishful thinking.

"As the factory is a part of this company's heritage," says Lloyd Stratton, chairman of ACP, "we wanted to enter the fray ourselves. For us, maintaining the Brynmawr Rubber Factory is not simply an exercise in self-indulgence. It presents a major challenge of Modern Movement architectural conservation through finding new uses and design concepts. The level of public interest and support shown from conservation groups marks a revival in the fortunes of Modern Movement architecture and validates, yet again, all those ideals for which our practice has become synonymous."

ACP imagines people from a wide catchment area coming to swim and to play sports here. The idea of swimming in warm water under the poetic domes of the factory is inspiring. Because the original ACP team designed the factory along modular lines, it can quite easily be parcelled into self-contained areas for particular sports. If a dry-ski slope and other sports facilities were added outside the building, its popularity could well be assured, even though a new sports and leisure centre, on a much less ambitious scale, has been built nearby.

Alan Powers, secretary of the Twentieth Century Society and son of the late Michael Powers, one of the ACP architects who designed and built the radical factory between 1946 and 1951, would prefer what might be known as the Brynmawr Centre to become a palace of accessible culture.

"The amount of covered space here [207,000sq ft] is enormous," says Powers, "and a local planning authority is unlikely to allow so much on this site again. On this basis alone demolition would be folly. Demolition itself will cost at least pounds 1m and I doubt if local land values could ever justify this cost, so politically acceptable local redevelopment plans would never be particularly lucrative.

"What could make financial sense," Powers adds, "is the lottery. A bid to make effective use of Millennium money here could be the saviour of Brynmawr. I know there are many other deserving causes, but this is an exceptional building by any standards. This was state provision, unfashionable now, of course, of the very highest order."

Powers points out that Brynmawr is the British equivalent, in quality and spirit, if not in scale, of Roosevelt's TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority), the great American social construction of the Thirties. In Britain, its type was as rare as a fritillary and deserves to be valued, if not by our generation, by those yet to come who may turn their backs on the values engendered in the body social and politic over the past 17 years.

Brynmawr's fate hangs in the balance this week. It does have important friends, among them Norman Griffiths, Mayor of Brynmawr; Glenys Kinnock, the local MEP; Neil Kinnock, Member of the European Commission; the major local and national conservation bodies and anyone who has come this way over the past 45 years (including Frank Lloyd Wright, who made a special trip to see it) and realised how there was once a way forward, together, for management and workers, democracy and the high art of architecture. Let's hope that Wales holds on to its architectural heritage.