Waving and shouting: Richard Rogers’ National Assembly for Wales.

Size really doesn’t matter in architecture. You can get monumental small buildings and pathetically underwhelming huge ones. It all comes down to scale, to proportion, and to attitude. Take the new National Assembly for Wales building in Cardiff by Richard Rogers. It has to look and feel important. Yet the Assembly, with just 60 members, is in the district-council category, size-wise. What’s an architect to do?

Rogers and his fellow director Ivan Harbour know all the tricks when it comes to getting noticed in a crowd. They have designed the Assembly so that it effectively stands on a chair, shouting, while waving its arms about. Hello, hello! It’s me! Yes, over here! Just next to the big opera house! Come on over, why don’t you?

This is in Cardiff Bay, the Welsh capital’s docklands quarter. The Bay is one of those seemingly endless regeneration projects that, so far, has never quite felt like a real place. Despite the arrival of an interactive museum, posh waterfront hotel, many shops, restaurants and office blocks, lots of expensively landscaped public open space, the vast and idiosyncratic opera house by Jonathan Adams known as the Millennium Centre, lashings of so-so public art, and a massive barrage that has turned the salty tidal mudflats of the Bay into a freshwater lagoon, Cardiff Bay still feels a bit of a ghost town. One little shuttle bus runs down there from the station. Not many people get on it.

However, I’ll grant you that the place is a lot more populous than it was before the opera house arrived. There’s even a slight sense of activity there on a chilly Monday lunchtime, which is a tough call at the best of times. And the Welsh Assembly has finally filled the remaining big hole at the centre of it all, by the Pierhead. From the lagoon or the waterfront promenade, it works just fine, a temple gleaming high on its slate acropolis, the billowing timber-clad soffit of its projecting roof offering welcome and shelter. From inside, where it steps up in broad terraces, it wide-frames the view out across the bay. The capture of that immense sky and gleaming water is quite something.

There is only one problem with all this. It looks away from Cardiff and from Wales, via Penarth across the bay. It does not feel engaged with the city or the nation at all. It is gazing out of the window when it should be getting on with some work. You can’t see it at all as you approach from the city centre, because it is hidden behind (and connected to) the dull office block that is the interim home of the Assembly. It turns its back, then. It is quite dauntingly single-aspect.

But don’t get the impression that I dislike the building. Like so much of Rogers’ work, it is a romantic vision, brought to fruition against considerable odds. I won’t bore you with the troubled history of the project – frankly, it’s nothing compared to its big-spending, Stirling Prize-winning cousin in Scotland. This came in officially at £41m, and is supposed to be designed to last a century. It is also designed to be bomb-proof, which explains why Rogers’ original sketches of a delicate glass box nestling beneath that virtuoso roof have translated, post 9/11, into a massive glazed latticework of steel. So what is it – a metaphor of transparent government, or some kind of cage? Transparency is an over-rated architectural virtue in my view, but it can be breathtaking, and this kind of architecture depends on it. Luckily, then, the glass – which is the costly low-iron totally clear kind, with no greenish tinge – just about wins out over its framing. It helps that 98 per cent of your attention is drawn to the roof.

If rough slate, smooth concrete, steel, glass and timber are the main materials of the Welsh Assembly, then the greatest effect is given by the Western Red cedar of the undulating roof. Essentially a series of shallow domes, it ripples its way out to sea, passing through the front façade out into the open just as the slate paving does. The timber will discolour much more quickly out there than it does inside, which may reduce the impact of this inside-outside game. Structurally, the roof is is a strong, rigid steel affair. Visually, clad in those thin strips of cedar, it looks like a bit of origami waiting to blow away in the next gale. At the heart of the building, though, the roof morphs into something else. It comes cascading down into the centre of the upper public terrace level and plunges through the floor towards the Assembly’s debating chamber below.

This is the “wind funnel” that both ventilates and helps to daylight the chamber. It is part of the building’s impressive overall low-energy strategy – it should certainly be cheap to run – but in truth the same practical end could have been achieved by other, less flamboyant, means. It is a big architectural gesture that gives the circular debating chamber a lofty dome, lined inside with aluminium tubes and with a glittering light-reflector at its apex. Like any dome, it imparts a sense of importance to what happens beneath it. The circular layout of the chamber and its seating – this is not an oppositional layout, like Westminster – concentrates the energy still further. Decisions made in such a place should not, the architecture is saying, be taken lightly. And once made, they should carry authority. Here’s hoping.

A lot of the building is open to the public, and these spaces feel much better than the gloomy caverns of Enric Miralles’ Scottish Parliament at Holyrood. The public gallery over the chamber was originally meant to be open, but again, security jitters mean that it is now glazed-in. Around the chamber at the lower level, things become more private. Here you get the committee and media rooms, and the all-important members’ bar, with a bolt-hole into the chamber placed handily right next to it. The interiors throughout feel more than a little Scandinavian-modern, with good classic furniture by Arne Jacobsen. As for the purpose-made fittings, it’s a shame that the curving banks of Welsh-oak desks in the debating chamber have already split in several places, presumably as the wood dries out.

This is meant to be a new kind of accessible government building, and – apart from that little philosophical problem of facing the wrong way – it does pretty well. If democracy fails, this waterfront pavilion would make an excellent theatre-in-the round, surrounded by lavish lobbies and saloons. And it does one thing that its opposite number at Holyrood never managed, for all its controversy and cost. It makes an instantly-recognisable backdrop on your TV screen.

The National Assembly for Wales: www.wales.gov.uk
Richard Rogers Partnership: www.rrp.co.uk

Text and photos © Hugh Pearman. First published in The Sunday Times, London, on December 18 2005, as “It fits the bill”.