The Wales Millennium Centre (WMC) is a 37,000m² world-class opera house and performing arts centre in Cardiff, UK. Construction of the building began in February 2002, which consists of a 1,900-seat lyric theatre, a studio theatre seating 250 people, a dance studio, a main concourse suitable for live performances, rehearsal halls, recording studios as well as bars, cafes, restaurants and shops.
The WMC also incorporates residential accommodation for 150 members of the Urdd Gobaith Cymru, one of Europe’s leading youth organisations, as well as being the new ‘home’ for six leading Welsh cultural organisations – Welsh National Opera, Diversions Dance Company of Wales, Touch Trust, Academi, T-Cerdd “Music Centre” and Hijinx Theatre Company.
Phase one of the project was completed in November 2008 while phase two was completed in January 2009.
The WMC cost £106.2m. The National Lottery Millennium Fund contributed £31.7m to the project and another £37m came from the National Assembly of Wales.
A further £10.4m was donated by the Arts Council of Wales (a lottery-funded organisation) and a private investor, London-based South African businessman Donald Gordon, boosted the funds by donating £20m to be shared equally between the Royal Opera House in London and the WMC. A major sponsorship agreement between the WMC and the Principality Building Society (the most significant single arts donation the Society had ever undertaken) provided the remaining funds for the project.
Phase one of the WMC was designed by architect Jonathan Adams of Capita Architecture (formerly called CapitaPercy Thomas). Architects Tim Green and Keith Vince of Capita Architecture designed phase two.
Sir Robert McAlpine was appointed as the main contractor, with Arup as the structural and service engineers. Carr and Angier was the theatre consultant and Arup Acoustics was the acoustician. The project cost manager was Bucknall and Austin.
Further contractors / suppliers include: Stent (deep piled foundations), Swansea Institute (architectural glass), GH James Cyf (stone mason), Rimex (textured stainless steel), Alfred McAlpine (slate), Coed Cymru (wood), Ann Catrin Evans (designed bronze door handles and door ‘push plates’), Amber Hiscott (etchings on glass walls). Finally, the inscription on the outside of the building was written by Gwyneth Lewis, a popular Welsh poet.
Part of the architect’s brief at the outset of the project was to design a building that expresses ‘Welshness’ with a profile as instantly recognisable as that of its Australian counterpart, the Sydney Opera House.
Inspiration for the building came from the environment, as well as the cultural and social traditions of Wales. Choosing not to follow the glass curtain style found in contemporary British architecture, the WMC was modelled on the great solid, stratified land forms seen throughout Wales. This was the preferred option as the harsh weather conditions experienced along the South Wales coast (the WMC is located only metres from the sea) had to be taken into account.
WMC building exterior
The building exterior is dominated by walls built of waste slate, collected from the many quarries throughout Wales, laid in coloured ‘strata’ depicting the different stone layers seen in sea cliffs; naturally-occurring purple slate came from a quarry in Penryn, the blue from Cwt-y-Bugail, green from Nantlle, grey from Llechwedd, and the black slate from the Corris Quarry in mid-west Wales. An important industry within Wales for centuries, Welsh slate has changed the landscape of North Wales forever, and is important to Welsh heritage.
The walls were built by stone and walling specialists, GH James Cyf, whose usual work consists of building and repairing the dry stone slate walls bordering the roads in North Wales. In total, 2,500t of slate was laid by the company at the WMC; although mortar had to be used, it was black in colour to disguise it, in order for the final walls to resemble the look of stone laid dry.
Some slates were used with natural pillared faces and some with sawn faces, to give contrasting textures. In some places, the bands of slate are separated by glass, letting daylight into the building. This 15cm-thick glass was cut and installed by the Architectural Glass Department at Swansea Institute.
Until the new Welsh Assembly building opened, the WMC was the only building in Cardiff Bay to incorporate slate in its design.
Above the layered slate walls of the WMC is the main auditorium roof. The steel industry was once a major employer in Wales, which is why it was decided to use champagne-coloured textured stainless steel for the shell ‘dome’ of the lyric theatre. The architect decided against using copper and aluminium because they would both change colour with weathering.
On the front of the WMC, cut directly into the steel façade in large Celtic lettering, is the inscription “CREU GWIR GWYDR O FFWRNAIS AWEN,” which translated into English means “Truth is as clear as glass forged in the flames of inspiration.” The inspiration for this came from the forging of the metal roof and the glass from which each letter is made. Each letter stands over 2m tall and is a window for those inside the WMC overlooking Cardiff Bay.
There is also an English inscription: “IN THESE STONES HORIZONS SING.” The strata of the slate walls reminded Gwyneth Lewis, the author of the inscriptions, of the horizons seen just beyond Penarth Head in South Wales. She also felt that the stones would “literally be singing” once the building opened.
The main entrance to the WMC is directly beneath the inscription. The foyer contains a reception counter, which is approximately 30m in length. It is a large open space, very contemporary in form. The west and south main entrances lead in to the concourse (ground floor – level 0) and ticket counter, which provides access to the foyers and bars, the auditorium and function rooms, the gallery, the Ty Cerdd and Touch Trust spaces as well as the retail units and restaurants that surround it. Access for audiences to levels 1-5 can be found from the foyer.
There are nine function rooms located on levels 2 and 3, for corporate hospitality, seminars and meetings.
The majority of space within the WMC is ‘back-of-house’ with access denied to the general public, e.g. production and rehearsal rooms. The auditorium can be accessed at five main levels. These floors are connected by wide, suspended flights of stairs that join with oriel balconies faced with bands of variegated hardwood lining the outer walls, which were provided by Coed Cymru, an organisation that promotes sustainable husbandry of native hardwoods.
The WMC is one of the first ‘new generation’ theatres that has its long longitudinal walls articulated with audience ‘boxes’, providing a sense of proximity between performers and the audience.
Arup Acoustics, tasked with creating acoustic excellence for the WMC, adopted a flexible solution that catered for a range of performing genres. This was achieved through moveable surfaces that can be sound reflecting, sound absorbing or acoustically transparent, to enable the desired orchestral balance and playing conditions.
The auditorium is also acoustically protected on all sides, preventing the transmission of noise from within the venue, as well as disturbance from air and ground-borne noise.
Phase one of WMC involved the construction of a 1,900-seat Donald Gordon theatre, 250-seat Western Studio theatre, six function rooms, a hostel, performance and teaching space, restaurants and coffee shops. The construction began in February 2002 and the building was officially inaugurated with opening ceremonies on 26-28 November 2004.
Phase two included a 350-seat BBC Hoddinott Hall, the interior of which resembles a Welsh chapel while its exterior continues the theme of phase one. A concert hall was supposed to be included as part of the second phrase, however this was scrapped.