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To music, art and Welsh pride

A new arts and entertainment venue, affectionately called 'the Armadillo,' is part of Cardiff Bay's revitalization project.

December 19, 2004|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

Cardiff, Wales — Open a scant month, the long-awaited Wales Millennium Centre on wide, flat Cardiff Bay, has already been nicknamed "the Armadillo" by the cheeky Welsh.

It's their answer to the Sydney Opera House in Australia, a grand new stage for the "Land of Song," built of everything Welsh: lovely pale hardwoods, slate from quarries in the north, stainless steel made in Pontypool, glass designed in Swansea. Its facade bears a massive legend in English and Welsh, written by poet Gwyneth Lewis: "In these stones horizons sing."

The centerpiece is a 1,900-seat auditorium with acoustics suitable for musical comedy, opera and orchestral music. Adjoining rehearsal halls, a recording studio and an intimate 250-seat theater are intended to make the center a bustling workplace of the fine and performing arts.

I was there in late November for the unveiling of the center. The festivities, attended by Queen Elizabeth II, were largely dedicated to the native performers of Wales, a small country that has given great gifts to the art of the Western world. Singer Bryn Terfel, actress Sian Phillips and the Welsh National Opera were on hand, and there was a big Welsh hymn sing-along in the courtyard, followed by colorful fireworks.

In coming months, the Millennium Centre will host international stars and productions in an effort to establish itself as one of the major arts and entertainment venues in Britain.

Cardiff, in southeastern Wales, where the River Taff meets the sea, was the inevitable location for the new center. This is a young city that was selected as the capital about 50 years ago and has been home to the Welsh national assembly since 1999.

Its downtown, a warren of Victorian shopping arcades and interconnecting modern malls, hugs the stalwart south wall of Castle Cardiff and one long side of Millennium Stadium, opened in 1999 as a showcase for the Welsh Rugby Union.

But these days, the city's formerly dowdy waterfront, about a 30-minute walk south of downtown, is drawing crowds from the center, thanks to a redevelopment scheme not unlike Baltimore's Inner Harbor, and an engineering project that turned unlovely Cardiff mudflats into a freshwater lake. The linchpins of the revitalized area are the rising new national assembly building; luxurious St. David's Hotel and Spa, which has the profile of a cruise ship; and the Wales Millennium Centre, ready for audiences after 25 years of gestation.

One might ask what held up the opening. That's a story in itself, complicated by populist Welsh resistance to anything with elitist overtones, such as avant-garde architecture.

A competition was launched for a design as iconic as that of the Sydney Opera House. Acclaimed Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid won with a startlingly modernistic plan.

But a conservative home press rallied opposition to her entry, resulting in its abandonment and further delay. Ultimately, Britain-based Percy Thomas Architects undertook the design of the Wales Millennium Centre, which looks, to my mind, more like a snail than an armadillo.

No matter. Long may it ring with the sound of Welsh voices.

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