Monmouth House Cwmbran 1967 by Gordon Redfern
Cladding to lift tower by William Mitchell
Situated in the Fairwater Shopping Centre:
Built between 1963 and 1967, the centre comprised 18 shops, a childrens playground, public toilets, a health and dental centre, and a combined public house and community centre. The unit centre was designed by Chief Architect of the CDC, Gordon Redfern, and was architecturally the most innovative and ambitious unit centre within Cwmbran New Town. To combat the exposed nature of the site together with the ‘high rainfall, mists and variable winds’ prevalent in the area, Gordon Redfern designed an enclosed, high-sided space that would physically and mentally shield shoppers during their visits. This protective environment extended to creating a central play area that could be viewed from the shops, allowing a more enjoyable experience for children. Four different shops types were provided on increasing floor footage for facilities ranging from barbers to grocery shop, all with storage to the first floor and eight, on the south-west side, with a two-bedroom maisonette above. To enhance the architectural impact of the scheme, Redfern created each unit on an hexagonal plan despite the inefficiences in floor space usage and additional costs in creating the fixtures and fittings. The CDC also fitted out each of the uits to a customised requirement – for example the Post Office unit was pre-fitted with a telephone booth, posting box, stamp machine and half-glazed panel for advertising services.
The structural engineers were Ove Arup & Partners, the builders were Gee, Walker & Slater. Construction costs for the scheme were estimated at £214,106. The unit centre was opened 12 September 1967, shared with the opening of Monmouth House, both undertaken by Rt. Hon. James Callaghan, M.P. A scathing article written the following month by architectural critic Ian Nairn dismissed the design as a ‘kind of in-turned medieval village … an oasis of picturesqueness in a desert of statistical units’ designed for, rather than with, the inhabitants and therefore destined for commercial failure.
In 1949, the then Minister for Town and Country Planning, John Silken, designated an area of 31,000 acres surrounding the village of Cwmbran to be the first new town in Wales. Unlike the first generation new towns, the aim of Cwmbran was to provide housing and a range of facilities for those employed in existing industry but who lived in poor housing in the neighbouring valleys.
A master plan was implemented to achieve the objective for the town. However, as the town developed, the projected size of the town had to increase and many of the plans ideals were diluted as the Southwest expansion area was approved in 1977.
In fact, due to the planned nature of Cwmbran, there now exists few opportunities for new development within the town. This has meant intense development pressure on the outskirts of Cwmbran from house builders and developers.
On the day of my visit the centre was busy with happy shoppers happily shopping – there were major works underway in line with the town’s new plans.
Cwmbran has also prospered from having a vibrant retail core. The Shopping Centre has a fully pedestrianised, multi purpose centre with covered shopping malls. There are over 170 retail outlets covering a total area of 700.000 sq. ft, including a number of popular high street retailers, restaurants, a theatre and cinema. Accordingly, the town is now considered to be a sub regional centre, and the intention is that this retail focus will be increased by regeneration of the eastern side of the town.
Now 50 years on parts of the town are in need of renovation. Through various public and private partnerships the aim of the Cwmbran Project Team is to set out a 15 year strategy for the regeneration and development of the new town, and begin its implementation.
My primary interest concerned the public art in Monmouth Square – William Mitchell’s concrete clad lift shaft.
There is a water feature currently off limits and without the water that would elevate the feature to a fully functioning feature.
Plans proposed in 2018 could may herald the demise of this important public work of art.
Plans to level the water gardens in Monmouth Square at the Cwmbran Centre will be reviewed by Torfaen council’s planning committee.
The proposal also includes a modern café with a glazed front, the development of an events space to house farmers markets and street theatre and a green area.
Rebecca McAndrew, Torfaen council’s principal planning officer, said in the report that the water feature would be filled in and flattened as part of “an ongoing renovation programme”.
The application states that the area has a ‘weary and dated appearance’ and do not meet disability access requirements.
According to the report, the water gardens last flowed 13 years ago and its demolition would lead to further improvements at Wales’ second largest shopping centre.
The Water Gardens were designed by the CDC Chief Architect Gordon Redfern as a key visual and recreational element of the Town Centre. His focus was on combining different textures in the form of hard landscaping and planting, with the sense of movement and sound created by running water. At the upper end a pool, containing an artwork created from Pilkington Glass, was fed by a horizontal water jet which was in turn led by a small ‘canal’ to the lower, sunken garden. With water cascading down the southern retaining wall, consisted of moulded concrete sporting abstract geometric form, and variety of trees and shrubs, this formed an area for busy shoppers and families to relax and socialise.
Close by, by way of light relief is a concrete screen wall with an almost watery wavy relief!
Here’s hoping that this cavalcade of concrete delights survives the planners’ and developers’ dreams.