Historic Welsh domes face demolition

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One of the most important and imposing pieces of 20th- century architecture in Britain is facing demolition in the next few days unless a private benefactor can be found to save it.

One of the most important and imposing pieces of 20th- century architecture in Britain is facing demolition in the next few days unless a private benefactor can be found to save it.

Bulldozers moved on to the Grade II listed site of Dunlop's Brynmawr Rubber Factory at Easter after the Welsh National Assembly and the Cadw, the Welsh heritage agency, handed over the iconic site to the developer, Maincourse, which is poised to build a retail and housing complex that will create more than 400 jobs in the high-unemployment zone at the head of the Gwent valley.

But the factory, with its nine concrete domes and vast single-span roof, is just a few miles from the town of Blaenavon, which is expecting a surge in tourism because of its designation as a World Heritage site.

The Dunlop factory's fate was sealed in 1996 when Blaenau Gwent County Council revoked its listed status to clear the way for the site's redevelopment. Its example highlights the threat that hangs over dozens of historically important industrial buildings, notably in the North and Midlands where English Heritage is trying to save hundreds of buildings from terminal ruin.

Richard Parnaby, an architectural historian, says that Welsh politicians and planners have committed a big blunder. "This was the first postwar building to be given listed building status in Britain. I was up there on Saturday and they've taken down all the buildings facing the lake. The domes are still there, but the contractors say they are going to knock them down by the end of this month."

Despite lengthy discussions with the factory's original architects and potential developers in the past, "the politicians and local authorities made a lot of strenuous noises, but were completely uninterested", he insists. "At the time when something could have been done, nobody was interested. Now it's too late."

Cadw said yesterday that the listing of the factory "reflected its architectural and historical significance, and the loss of such an important structure is a matter of regret. But listing is not a preservation order. The factory's status as a listed building ensured that options for its survival would be fully explored, and that is what happened." The writing-off of this structure has a doppelgänger: Fort Dunlop, Brynmawr's sister building in Birmingham, is being converted into a similar complex at a cost of £42m.

John Yates, an historic building inspector for the West Midlands, said: "The biggest threat is to big buildings because public bodies and funding agencies can usually only help the smaller historic ones to look after themselves. That means the dark, satanic mills in the North and the big coal mines are at risk."

Even high-profile "success stories" remain on a redevelopment knife-edge. "Take Chatterley Whitfield [Staffordshire], England's largest historic colliery," he added. "Is it safe? English Heritage is putting money into it but its future isn't secure until new uses are found for it. It looks like there will be more Dunlop factories unless there's determination, imagination and a certain amount of funding."

Mr Parnaby says the bulldozing of the Brynmawr Dunlop plant is part of a destructive ripple effect from the Thatcher years. He said: "Buildings in south Wales were knocked down in a great rush without any assessment of their historic or architectural value.Isn't it possible to keep the nine domes, or even one as a piece of sculpture? They're going to be knocked down to make way for a car park. Why can't cars park under them?"