Monday, 4 August 2025

The Lozenge-Shaped City

Cardiff - what sort of city is this?  Where does it come from?  How does it progress?

The first volume of Real Cardiff appeared from Seren Books in 2002 and went into at least two reprints.  Real Cardiff Two  - The Greater City followed in 2004 and Real Cardiff Three - The Changing City appeared in 2009.  The author Peter Finch is currently working on a fourth volume.

I’m in the lozenge-shaped city again. Water south, hills north. A city of rhomboid sprawl.   Where else would I be? I’m standing on the B4487 in bright early-morning sunlight. Traffic low. Birds in inner-city twitter. This was the Via Julia Maritima once, the paved Roman route west. A thousand years on it was the stage coach route to London. Full of ruts and mud. Then it was the hard-topped A48, when A roads meant something. Newport Road when I was a kid.  Still is.  The displaced and dispirited walk down it now.  Heading east, for City Road, for Clifton Street, for Broadway.  East for Broadway.  It’s sounds  like a musical but it’s never that. 

Right across the city apartments have risen like corn.  There are blocks towering whichever way you look.  The classy, the serviceable and the cramped rattled together in a florid rush of windows stacked like the sixties revisited.  Arriving now are block upon block of new student rentals gusted into place to provide accommodation for attendees at Cardiff’s constantly expanding universities. There are four now.  They fill the city with learning.  Their support apartments infest the south of the city like teeth.  New blocks have appeared on the site of the old art college, surrounding the Adamsdown fire station, facing down the Castle, and circling the back of Queen Street in spaces formerly occupied by banks, accountants and solicitors. Their occupants fill the clubs and bars and make the city bounce.

Altolusso, Bute Terrace, Cardiff - 23 floors.  Photo: P Finch

Down the years there have been many visions for this place in which Cardiffians live. Plans for the port to take ocean liners. For the rich to sail for America from Tiger Bay rather than Southampton or London or Liverpool. Passengers would arrive by Great Western. There would have been grand hotels, piers and custom sheds and deep-water berths, but the Severn’s giant tidefall defeated them all.  

When the Second World War came bombs hit the docks and there was a dangerous scattering across the suburbs but nothing like the devastation that visited Bristol or Swansea or London. Those flattened places were first in line for rebuild. They got the Brutalism and the concrete early. Cardiff, with its drab and dismal streets, slumbered on. Plans for reconstruction, when they came, embraced the spirit of the age. There would be city centre high rise linked by urban motorway. Roads would dominate, flying in on elevated concrete platforms. The city would resemble Metropolis. You wouldn’t live here, you’d come here.  The centre would stretch north as far as Maindy. Cars stacked in giant parks. Pedestrian walkways woven among them like raffia. This was Buchanan’s plan of 1964. Cardiff couldn’t afford it. Only the outer distributor roads were built along with some of the centre car parks. 

Buchanan’s successor was Ravenseft’s Centreplan of 1970. More centre high-rise linked by first floor pedestrian decks. Conference centres, offices, malls, concert halls, shops.  Everything in the old centre lattened to make way. The 1973 property crash saw that one off.

What Cardiff actually ended up with was piecemeal redevelopment. Smaller scale. One block at a time. St David’s Hall. The pedestrianisation of Queen Street. The opening of the St David’s Shopping Centre. The bus station redesigned and made more welcoming. The entrance-way to the city from Cardiff Central Rail Station cleared. Trees planted. A new library on Bridge Street. On the site of the old open market and the bend in the Glamorgan canal the arrival of the prestigious Holiday Inn. The building by Brent Walker of the city’s own World Trade Centre at the back of Mary Ann Street (now known as the Motorpoint Area, ticketed by Ticketmaster, home to trade shows, wrestling and concerts by Bob Dylan, Michael McIntyre, Harry Enfield, Duran Duran and the Vaccines).   

By the time  the new Cardiff unitary authority was created in 1996, with Russell Goodway in charge, the boom was well underway. Cardiff, the newest European Capital. Cardiff, the world’s youngest city. Cardiff reborn, rebuilt, rebranded. Come for the glass and the grass.  City of malls and parks. Cardiff with a Bay. City of opportunity and joy. A smogless place of life and light. And come they did. The European Summit in 1997. The Bay’s Mermaid Quay in 1998. The Rugby World Cup at the new Millennium Stadium in 1999. The National Assembly the same year. Fireworks everywhere. The MacDonald Holland Hotel created in the former Hodge Building, Cardiff’s first high-rise, in 2004. The Parc Plaza in 2005. The Altolusso apartments on Bute Terrace, centrepiece of Torchwood’s opening credits, in 2005.  This was boosterism. Sell the city, turn the place from manufacture to call centre, from exporter to destination. From heavy industrial to financial screen spinner. Come here to make your decisions. Cardiff media city. Cardiff centre for international sports. For opera and the arts. Visit to get pissed. More vertical drinkeries per acre than anywhere else in the western UK

The Stadium as a plane.  Photo: P Finch

City centre living began to return  in 2003 when Fanum House, the former AA headquarters on the corner of Queen Street and Station Terrace was renamed The Aspect and its floors sold as apartments with a view (the railtracks and the prison actually). Immediate access to all the shopping you could ever need. Greggs opened a sandwich shop below. 

The centre flourishes. Come here on a match-day to see it at its peak. Street theatre, music, men on tightropes playing violins, Roma bands with clarinet and double bass, student duos with bright guitars, the Red Choir – some of them sitting now – still ushering in freedom outside the covered market, Chinese selling me my name bent in wire, Ninjah in bling and Sgt Pepper Jacket beating rhythm on the street furniture. The Big Issue seller with his dog in costume. The Coptic Christians. The Gaza protestors. The shaved heads of the Hari Krishnas weaving through the crowd. More vibrant life on Queen Street than at any previous time in its history. 

St David’s 2 – the comprehensive redevelopment of those parts of the centre unscathed by previous interventions - hit the concrete mixers in 2004. Not only were the broken wrecks beyond Hills Street and all final centre traces of Victorian Cardiff to be wiped but much of Cardiff’s seventies restructuring along Bridge Street and the Hayes would go too. Twenty-five years was as long as Iceland and the new library lasted. St David’s, because he is our patron saint and a Welsh symbol the world will recognise. St David’s, to be filled with “garden architecture and animated facades, storytelling public art and a ‘portrait gallery of Welsh achievement within the Mall’ in an imitation of the City Hall statuary”. Cardiff, city of new height. Capital of Wales. Darling of the valleys. Principal shopping magnet for all of western Britain.  

Hoarding, Central Cardiff.  Photo: P Finch

Back on Newport Road, and despite the demolition of that star of the Cardiff accommodation firmament, The Blue Dragon Hotel,  it is mostly as if the fifties are still with us. Victorian three-storey housing constantly in need of a repaint. Bed and breakfast vacancies. Hopeful signs saying that Construction Workers are Welcome. En-suite at no extra charge. Chip shop at the end of Broadway selling Clarks pies. Someone removing their front wall so that they can park their car in their front garden. Two men erecting a wooden cover for their multiplying  wheelie bins.  Couple of kids on skateboards. Woman smoking. Man on a bike, no helmet.  Cardiff as it was, still is.