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Friday18 August 2017

Amid all the drama, there’s a tragedy

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Cardiff’s course pioneered the idea of ’interior architecture’. Now it’s closing

You might have missed it amid all the drama last week. The Welsh Assembly has decided that the way to deal with higher education is to cut student numbers; as a consequence, Cardiff School of Art & Design has been commanded to shed about 400 places. Passed down the line, this means that departments will have to close, and among them will be interior architecture.

No one riots about interiors, but this is something of a tragedy. Cardiff was the first course to change its name from “interior design” to “interior architecture” around 20 years ago. It was ahead of the game: now there are some 18 courses in the subject. But the rebranding of interiors was about more than just a name: it was a reaction against the decorative aspects of interior design, and about a desire to be taken more seriously. The eating out, going out, being out revolution of the nineties created an appetite for tough public interiors, and the skills of the domestic decorator weren’t able to meet this demand.

But interior architecture also addresses an obvious problem in architecture. I’ve said it before, so I’ll say it again: buildings, if they are any good, will always outlive the purposes, the people, and the worlds for which they were made, and that leaves subsequent generations with a dilemma. Either we get rid of the old buildings we have inherited or we have to work out a way to reinhabit them. Given the resources used in making (and destroying) buildings, it’s a no-brainer. We all need interior architecture because, for most of us, altering architecture is what we do. For every starchitect with a Shard there are countless small practices working away on house extensions.

No shame in that. Some of the most provocative new architecture isn’t new at all. Carlo Scarpa might have led the way with his interventions into Venetian monuments in the fifties and sixties; but architectural alteration has come a long way since then. Recently I’ve been involved with Gillespie Kidd & Coia’s seminary at Cardross, near Glasgow. It’s a wreck, which successive schemes for redevelopment have failed to rescue. Now the public arts charity NVA proposes to reuse its ruins as ruins, using the methods of contemporary art to provoke local people into making a new and unpredictable future for the building.

Buildings like Cardross – and decisions about what to do with them – stimulate debate in a way that new buildings can’t. Their age or apparent obsolescence takes us beyond issues of immediate use and profit, forcing us to consider a longer perspective.

Interior architecture at Cardiff has played a crucial role in this new attitude to old buildings. It is ironic that the department was in the process of developing an RIBA-approved degree, focused on the remodelling of existing buildings.

Shame it’s not going to happen. Yet again, the interior has been treated as an additional extra. It’s not. It’s the part of a building whose flexibility allows it to survive from generation to generation – and, lest we forget, it’s the bit of architecture that people actually live in.

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