Cardiff castle front, as seen from Castle st.
Cardiff castle front, as seen from Castle st. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What makes a city? That was the question at the heart of Tuesday’s Cardiff Philosophy Cafe, at which Cardiff University Planning & Geography doctoral student Robert Croydon explored the origins and history of Cardiff itself through the lens of the concept of patronage. Throughout the complex story Robert told, we were asked to bear in mind the sometimes contradictory relationships between the intentions of those who pull the strings of planning and their outcomes. Robert drew attention first to unusual aspects of the history of the city in the period where most of the rest of Britain was making a transition from the feudal era proper, through the Reformation, to an era in which land owned by a military elite and the Church was redistributed. What was unusual about Cardiff was that this redistribution of land did not occur, and that feudalism effectively continued to reign until late in the Industrial Revolution.

The power of patronage over planning and architecture was exercised in the city primarily by the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Marquesses of Bute, the 2nd and 3rd Marquesses being responsible for building up the coal trade from the South Wales valleys, building Cardiff docks, and then under the 3rd Marquess overseeing the rapid expansion of the city in the latter decades of the 19th century. The 2nd Marquess was responsible both for leading efforts to put down the Merthyr Rising in 1831, and for ensuring that coal shipping moved from the Glamorganshire canal to Cardiff docks, thus giving him control over ┬áthe economic destiny of the city and indeed South Wales. He stopped the extension of the South Wales railway to Swansea, meaning that Cardiff would become South Wales’ major coal port.

Robert argued that patronage, as the example of the Butes shows, can only operate through wielding power, which in Max Weber‘s definition, means the capacity to coerce others to fall in line with one’s intentions, even when their interests would lead them elsewhere – but power which always has several aspects. It involves the capacity to deploy violence if necessary, but also economic power to buy influence and symbolic or cultural power to persuade others to change their beliefs. Power is exercised by patrons, Robert proposed, for reasons other than mere utility. Architecture is an expression of aesthetic, cultural and ideological motives as well as utilitarian ones. The influence exercised particularly by the 3rd Marquess of Bute over the expansion of Cardiff’s residential areas and its parks demonstrated in particular the influence of economic and cultural capital over planning, and the role of aesthetic intentions in shaping architectural legacies.

These legacies present a complex mixture of benign and malign outcomes. The 2nd Marquess’s ┬áchampioning of the railways saw Cardiff divided into north and south by the railway spines running from east to west, with the area south of the railway associated with the docks, and the area north seeing new residential expansion. Cardiff developed as a company town, like Bournville or Saltaire, only with aristocratic estates added by the 2nd and 3rd Marquesses that reproduced styles of architecture seen in visits to Italy and Austria and later exemplified the Victorian Gothic Revival style. From the initial waves of expansion, other patterns of building followed, creating suburbs outward. In many cases, as with Roath Park, commercial motives were masked under philanthropic ones. The granting of the marshy land for the park by the 3rd Marquess meant that the council had to provide services and infrastructure to the area, which led in turn to an increase in the value of the surrounding land and the building of new houses.

The legacy of the Butes thus presents a mixed picture, with subsequent actors trying to follow in the footsteps of the patrons who decisively shaped Cardiff’s transition from a village to a major port. As the development of Cardiff Bay showed, the absence of a dominating but also guiding vision for planning was keenly felt, with commercial contingencies filling in the gaps, resulting in a miss-mash of buildings. At the same time, the spatial problem of the relationship between the south and north of the city remains unresolved, with the Bay distant from the urban centre and without strong transport or architectural links to it. New patrons have entered the scene, leading to the commissioning of architectural landmarks like the Senedd. Nonetheless, these newer developments still wrestle with the legacy of the city’s 19th century patrons and their autocratic power.

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