Friday, June 21, 2019

The making of the modern city

Britain's Most Historic Towns might be typical glossy made-for-TV history - oversimplified grand narrative, big-name presenter (Alice Roberts), slo-mo panning shots, stirring music - but I did find the recent episode on Cardiff illuminating, not least because it prompted me to a greater appreciation of the immediate environs of my workplace. In a city lacking in much of real architectural interest or appeal, the civic centre is undeniably impressive - deliberately planned in a grid pattern and developed to project Cardiff's wealth and stature in a style so American as to earn comparisons with Chicago.

However, the programme didn't merely dwell on the great and the good, on those who profited during the boom years (though Roberts did of course visit the Coal Exchange - million-pound cheques and all - and dressed up as an Edwardian lady of leisure at Dyffryn). There was a recognition that Cardiff's prosperity and expansion was built on coal and therefore on the back-breaking, dangerous labour of the Valleys miners. Equally welcome was the acknowledgement that the city's status as a hub for international trade made Tiger Bay one of the first truly multicultural communities in the UK. As such, the episode was a reminder not only of what was gained as a result of the Edwardian expansion but also what has since been lost, in the wake of the razing of most of Butetown and the creation of Cardiff Bay - a subject worthy of a documentary all of its own.

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