Wales is perhaps a lesser known country in Europe, but the history of the architecture there is a story worth telling. Let’s take a look at Welsh architecture, spanning from the 14th century until present day, and some of the most striking buildings there.
There is little evidence for domestic architecture in Wales that predates the 14th century. The earliest domestic buildings are the stone tower houses, which may date back to about 1400, and various partially fortified first-floor hall houses such as Candleston Castle and Eastington at Rhoscrowther in Pembrokeshire. Most of the Welsh examples are in the southern coastal border area of Wales and particularly in Pembrokeshire. So far no Welsh timber-framed houses can be securely dated to before 1400, but the description by the poet Iolo Goch of Owain Glyndŵr’s house at Sycharth shows that houses with timber cruck framing were being built well before this date. It has been suggested that the devastation caused following Owain Glyndŵr’s revolt may have caused the destruction of many earlier timber-framed houses in the Welsh Marches.
Early Architectural History
The roots of the Welsh nation lie in the political and cultural changes brought about by the emergence of what’s come to be known as Anglo-Saxon England. Wales was formed from the population in the western peninsula that was not subsumed by the rise of Anglo-Saxon culture and polities. There are a variety of types of building that emerged from Wales in its earliest days of settlement. Welsh tower houses, most of them built between the early 14th and 15th centuries, were rectangular structures, consisting of two or more storeys, and are closely related to those in Ireland and Scotland. Apart from tower houses, there are a number of stone-built first floor hall buildings, where the hall is mounted over an undercroft. These include Owain Glyndŵr’s Parliament House in Machynlleth. Most examples are found in southern Wales with a cluster of buildings in Pembrokeshire. From the later part of the 15th century, some of the Welsh castles underwent a transformation into grand houses. Some of these such as Chirk Castle and Powis Castle have remained as houses, but others such as Raglan Castle in Monmouthshire and Carew Castle in Pembrokeshire are ruins which can provide some idea of their grandeur. Timber-framed houses in Wales are concentrated particularly in the historic counties of Montgomeryshire and Denbighshire and mainly in areas which lack good building stone but have an abundance of ancient woodland that provided the timber for construction. The Welsh Poets often provide good descriptions of these early houses from the 14th century onwards, when praising their patrons. Aisled-framed hall houses have one or more rows of interior posts. These interior posts typically carry more structural load than the posts in the exterior walls. Aisled Hall houses are early in the sequence of timber-framed houses and were high status dwellings. In his study of these houses Peter Smith recorded 20 examples of this construction, mainly in NE Wales and particularly in Denbighshire.
The Vernacular Architecture Group currently has records of 1002 historic cruck framed buildings in Wales. The earliest cruck framed house to be dated so far is Hafodygarreg at Erwood in Breconshire, which has a date of 1402. These cruck buildings are part of the Hall-house tradition with central fireplaces and the smoke escaping through vents in the roof. Some of the cruck framed houses were extended by adding wings, providing an H-shaped layout. around 1550 a great change occurred in Welsh House building. While the earlier Medieval traditions of constructing with crucks and timber framing continued, many new features start to appear in domestic architecture. Chimneys start to be inserted into the halls of houses instead of the open fireplaces and chimney stacks may either be built on the gable ends of houses or as lateral chimneys on the side walls. At the same time timber framed and stone houses start to be built with one and even more storeys. Box framing starts to supplant the older timber framing with crucks and in order to gain more floor space at the upper levels these floors were jettied out from the building line. Fox and Raglan considered that in Monmouthshire, the building of “Sub-Medieval” houses continued until around 1620. Finally, there is a kind of house called a long house, with cattle being accommodated at one end and humans at the other, and a passageway between the two parts. This type of farmhouse was once common in mid- and south Wales. This was the description of a house where both people and beasts were housed together under the same roof, as portrayed in the Medieval Welsh poem the Dream of Rhonabwy. Peate thought that the Welsh Longhouse had had a long history and that it occurred in all parts of Wales.
As we continue into the 16th century, new building techniques emerged. Box framing is a simple timber frame made of straight vertical and horizontal pieces with a common rafter roof. The term box frame is not well defined and has been used for any kind of framing other than cruck framing. The distinction presented here is the roof load is carried by the exterior walls. The timber framework, when exposed will be visible as squares or rectangles panels. and the houses will also show signs of bracing, particularly at the corners. Many of the Welsh houses have decorative features in the panels, such as quatrefoils and lozenge or herringbone deceptive woodwork. The panels may also be filled by Close studding. Box framing was used for the wings of earlier cruck or aisled timber-framed houses, but it was not until the mid-16th that it was used as the main construction form for free standing houses in the Sub-Medieval tradition. Then, from the same tradition, Timber Framing emerged. The timber-framed lobby entrance house emerged in the mid-16th century in Mid Wales. The majority of these houses occur in Montgomeryshire with outliers in Radnorshire and Denbighshire. The chimney in these houses is generally in the middle of the house. There is no cross passage, unlike the Longhouses and the Snowdonia Houses and instead the main doorway opens into a small lobby on the side of the fireplace. The chimney generally stands between the kitchen and the parlour. The key feature of these houses is the emphasis placed on the parlour, which takes the place of a hall. Many of these houses are earlier cruck framed hall houses, and some are box framed, which have had chimneys inserted and interior floors.
As you can probably tell, there are a large number of different types of buildings styles that evolved over time in Wales. The next is the Snowdonia House. These houses are typical of the Sub Medieval houses appearing in Wales in the earlier part the 16th century, which are a development from the Hall House. Characteristically Snowdonia Houses are now built on a vertical rather than horizontal plan with two or more storeys and lateral chimney stacks set against the end gables. Then, Renaissance architectural styles and influences start appearing in the eastern corners of Wales during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. In Glamorgan an early example of Renaissance alteration was made to the facade of the outer gatehouse of the now ruined Old Beaupre, near Cowbridge in 1580. The major houses built in the 16th and earlier 17th centuries are often difficult to classify on stylistic grounds. The Welsh families who built them often were less interested in the outside display of architectural features and more interested in the interior decoration, particularly elaborate plasterwork, painted walls and elaborately carved woodwork with armorials commemorating their family descent. Many of these houses such as Bodysgallen, which was started in 1620 and Mostyn Hall are an amalgamation of different styles of architecture over many years. The front is of 1631–1632. This is particularly interesting as an indication of certain class values, and where shows of wealth were important at the time in Wales. Architecture of the Georgian period in Wales may be considered to start with houses such as the recently restored Llanelly House. This was built in 1714 by Sir Thomas Stepney in Llanelli. These homes were characterized by the typical Palladian arrangement of a central block attached wings or flanking pavilions. in the 1700’s, there was also a Neoclassical revival, which came to north Wales mainly as a result of the influence of Samuel Wyatt. Greek Revival followed in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s: A house which bridged the gap between late Palladian forms and Neo-classism was Middleton Hall in Carmarthenshire, built for Sir William Paxton to the designs of S p. Cockerell between 1793 and 1795. During the earlier part of the 19th century, architecture in many parts of Wales came increasingly under the influence of a small group of Shrewsbury architects, who particularly developed the classical style throughout Wales.
During the same time period, Gothic Revival was having, well, a revival. In the 1780s there was another style evolving which sometimes is referred to as a ‘Folly Gothic’, houses which were intended as eye-catchers. Possibly the best example of this is Clytha Castle the work of architect and garden designer John Davenport. Another sub category of Gothic architecture, Castellated Gothic was a style that emerged in Wales following the Napoleonic Wars and has been little studied, although a considerable number of Country Houses were built in this style up to about 1870. It is largely derived from the earlier Castellated Gothic Mansions built Robert Adam in Scotland. In the 1830s the Castellated Gothic was developed further by Thomas Hopper, who had been responsible for the severe Romanesque revival Penrhyn Castle and the Shrewsbury architect Edward Haycock, Sr. at Margam Castle in Glamorgan which was built between 1830 and 1840. This was a more ornate and flamboyant form of Tudor Gothic with a massive central lantern tower, modelled on the 16th-century prospect tower at Melbury House in Dorset. In progression, like the rest of english speaking Europe, came Queen Anne Style. The Queen Anne style of British architecture refers to either the English Baroque architecture of the time of Queen Anne (who reigned from 1702 to 1714) or the British Queen Anne Revival form that became popular during the last quarter of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century.
For a short period at the start of the 16th century, Italian craftsmen introduced the art of highly fired Terracotta moulded brickwork and ornamental plaques into Tudor England. The use of terracotta was largely limited to Great Houses in Eastern England. Then in the 1830s and 1840s a number of architects started sourcing terracotta from the brickyards that were associated with coal mines in the West Midlands.One of the earliest architects to make use of this source was the Welsh architect Thomas Penson. Prompted by Queen Victoria’s Osbourne House, the Italianate style of architecture became popular in the second half of the 19th century. Features of this stye include belvedere towers and roofs with a shallow slope and wide eaves.Arts and Crafts architecture can be seen as an extension of the Tudorbethan Style in Wales. It is seen as starting c. 1887 under the influence of William Morris and was introduced into Wales by architects such as William Eden Nesfield who was responsible for the rebuilding of Kinmel Hall and the designer W.A.S Benson who was the architect for Clochfaen at Llangurig in Montgomeryshire. These architects very much favoured the use of half-timbered decoration, red brickworks, roof tiles and tile hanging on walls. If you would like to learn more about Arts and Crafts style architecture head to our article on the subject.
Baroque Revival architecture is variously described as Neo-Baroque and Edwardian Baroque, and is paralleled in France by Beaux-Arts architecture. The style is also called “Wrenaissance”, acknowledging a debt to Sir Christopher Wren. In Wales the style starts appearing in the 1890s and was used for major public architecture, the newly founded universities and commercial buildings. It reflected the considerable wealth generated in this period, particularly from coal mining and also the growth of Welsh National Identity.The Baroque Revival style was also used for a range of other public buildings, banks and schools and universities. A refined example of this style was used by Alfred Cross for the Edward Davies Building at Aberystwyth University, was the first purpose-built chemical laboratory in a British university. Examples of Art Deco buildings in Wales are limited largely to Cinemas and houses. Possibly the best example of a cinema is the recently closed Pola Cinema in Berriew Street, Welshpool, with its attractive curved frontage and good stained glass, which was completed in 1938. In the years following the 2nd World War resources mainly went on the provision of housing. During these years of austerity some public buildings were constructed including the village hall or Neuadd Tysul. During the 1960s local Government started to commission some notable buildings. Foremost amongst these is the Wrexham Swimming baths of 1965–1967 by F.D. Williamson associates of Bridgend. The baths have a giant parabolic roof covers three swimming pool with the glassed end with the diving boards rising to four stories. Brutalism and Midcentury Styles started to influence the architecture of Wales at this time.
The 1974 Re-organisation of Local Government in Wales led to a rash of vastly ambitious building programme. This mainly centred on the building of new headquarters for the County Councils to assert their identity and the building of Leisure and Arts centres. The subsequent further reform of Local Government, particularly in 1996, has made some of these developments look unnecessary and superfluous. The 21st century brought Modernism to the forefront, introducing new materials, and an integration of them into natural spaces. Curving lines and asymmetrical features characterize this new age of architecture, with buildings like Malator at Nolton in Pembrokeshire, and the Millennium Centre. Since the 1990s the availability of dates provided by tree-ring dating or dendrochronology has revolutionised the study of early buildings in Wales and is particularly relevant for timber-framed buildings. The earliest tree ring date associated with a building in Wales is a date commissioned by CADW for a door at Chepstow Castle which was made from wood felled between 1159 and 1189. The combination of these old buildings and new makes for an interesting landscape across Wales. Let’s take a look at some of the most interesting buildings across the country.
10 Most Striking Buildings In Wales
1.Paxton’s Tower, Llanarthney, Carmarthenshire
This majestic tower looming over the village of Llanarthney is a Georgian folly, built by William Paxton, the man who turned Tenby into a Victorian seaside resort. As to why it was built, there are several theories. Some say it was to commemorate his friend Horatio Nelson, who had just won the Battle of Trafalgar. Others say it was to reinstate his power in the area – very visibly – after losing an election. Either way, the 360 degree views of the Towy Valley from Paxton’s Tower are undeniably impressive from here, and easy to access from the free car park below. It is situated on the top of a hill near Llanarthney in the River Tywi valley in Carmarthenshire, Wales. It is a visitor attraction that can be combined with a visit to the nearby National Botanic Garden of Wales. Its high location provides views over the Botanic Gardens and the Tywi valley.The tower is 36 feet high. The lower part of the tower is triangular in shape with a turret at each corner. On the first floor there is a banqueting room. Coloured glass from one of the windows can now be seen in the Carmarthen Museum at Abergwili. On the second floor there is a hexagonal prospect room surrounded by roof terraces. The windows to the prospect room are now bricked up. There is currently public access to the first floor banqueting room via stairs in one of the corner turrets.
2. Castell Coch, South Wales Valleys
Castell Coch emerges through the trees where the M4 meets the A470 heading north: John Crichton-Stuart’s fairytale turreted retreat, a rural counterpart to the urban folly of his Victorian castle in Cardiff. Restored and upkept by Cadw, its interiors are similarly impressive. Artists in residence display here too, and workshops for schools and families are held regularly. Castell Coch, or the ‘Red Castle’, rises up from the ancient beech woods of Fforest Fawr like a vision from a fairy tale. Yet these great towers with their unmistakable conical roofs only hint at the splendour within. Given free rein by the third Marquess of Bute, architect William Burges didn’t hold back. The highly decorated interiors and rich furnishings of Castell Coch make it a dazzling masterpiece of the High Victorian era. But it’s no exotic folly. Underneath the mock-medieval trappings you can still trace the impressive remains of a 13th-century castle, once used as a hunting lodge by the ruthless Marcher lord Gilbert de Clare. Castell Coch has been a plaything of the rich and powerful for over 700 years. Having lavished huge sums on it neither Gilbert de Clare nor the Marquess of Bute spent much time here. But it remains a magnificent vision of an imaginary medieval world – regularly voted by the public as their favourite building in Wales.
3. Llyn Celyn, Tryweryn valley
This one is controversial. Completed in 1965, its sole purpose was to supply water to Liverpool, yet it required the sacrificial flooding of the village of Capel Celyn, a stronghold of Welsh language and culture. That aside, the landscaping and much of the design, including this decidedly space-age straining tower, was the work of the Frederick Gibberd Partnership. It measures roughly 2.5 miles long by 1 mile wide, and has a maximum depth of 140 ft. It has the capacity to hold 71,200,000 cubic metres of water.Construction of the reservoir for Liverpool Corporation Waterworks involved flooding the village of Capel Celyn and adjacent farmland, a deeply controversial move. Much of the opposition was brought about because the village was a stronghold of Welsh culture and the Welsh language, whilst the reservoir was being built to supply water to Liverpool and parts of the Wirral peninsula, rather than Wales. The reservoir was built to help maintain the flow in the River Dee, so that drinking water could be abstracted further downstream as part of the Dee Regulation Scheme. These abstractions include one at Huntington water treatment works in Chester, operated by United Utilities, which supplies water to Liverpool and Wirral. The reservoir is contained behind a rock gravity dam and, at its upper end, it is bounded between Arenig Fawr and Arenig Fach, two of the mountains of south Snowdonia.
4. Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff
Already a cacophony of styles, some dating back to the 12th century, the cathedral was badly damaged in the war, then extensively refurbished and remodelled by George Pace. His boldest move was to put in a huge parabolic arch (a modernist take on a rood screen), and top it off with a Jacob Epstein statue. And, if that’s not enough of a temptation for you, it’s also jam-packed full of treasures from the likes of John Piper, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Don’t delay. Go now. The current building was constructed in the 12th century on the site of an earlier church. Severe damage was done to the church in 1400 during the rebellion of Owain Glyndŵr, during the English Civil War when it was overrun by Parliamentarian troops, and during the Great Storm of 1703. By 1717, the damage to the cathedral was so extensive that the church seriously considered the removal of the see. Following further storms in the early 1720s, construction of a new cathedral began in 1734, designed by John Wood, the Elder. During the Cardiff Blitz of the Second World War in January 1941, the cathedral was severely damaged when a parachute mine was dropped; blowing the roof off the nave, south aisle and chapter house. The stonework which remains from the medieval period is primarily Somerset Dundry stone, though local blue lias constitutes most of the stonework done in the post-Reformation period. The work done on the church since World War II is primarily concrete and Pennant sandstone, and the roofs, of Welsh slate and lead, were added during the post-war rebuilding. In February 2007, the organ was damaged during a severe lightning strike, prompting a fundraiser of £1.5 million to raise money for an entirely new organ.
5. Bell Tower and Great Hall, Aberystwyth University
Dating back to 1970 and designed by the most cosmopolitan of Welsh postwar architects, Ivan Dale Owen, for the Percy Thomas Partnership. He was a Welsh architect in the modernist architectural style, who spent time working for Walter Gropius’s practice. The building makes an appearance in a 2018 stained glass window, in which it signifies the Heavenly City. The window in the Church of All Saints, Penarth, celebrates the life and work of Owen and commemorates the tragic death of his infant son. The tower was built over 20 years ago, and was done as an artistic piece along with the stairway before it that allot of people just stop on to eat their sandwiches. The tower was condemned as structurally unsafe in 2007 and was covered in scaffolding for a hear an a half. The scaffolding came down in 2009 and it was again deemed safe, however the bell doesn’t work any longer.
6. Morannedd Café (now Dylan’s), Criccieth
Clough Williams-Ellis was never a big fan of the modernist aesthetic and this was the closest he ever got to it. Although the building may look decidedly 1938, it was actually designed in 1948, and not built until a decade after that. The original Williams-Ellis plans are hanging on the wall inside. At first view this Grade II-listed building seems to be from the Art Deco period, before the Second World War. However, it was built in 1954 in the individualistic style of its designer, the architect Clough Williams Ellis. He is best known for his whimsical Portmeirion village. The café building has a distinctive curved shape, floor-to-ceiling windows and thick stone walls. It provides an intriguing contrast to the round towers of the ancient castle at the other end of the esplanade. The architect’s blueprints show that a small glass observation gallery should have been erected on the top and that a much grander entrance was originally intended. However the project ran into financial difficulties and was never fully realized. One of its early owners was Sir Billy Butlin. Holidaymakers would be brought in by bus from the nearby Butlin’s holiday camp to attend Tea Dances here. It’s easy to imagine the dances in the spacious airiness of the place, perhaps with potted plants scattered around and waitresses dressed in black with white pinafores and caps.
7. Theatr Ardudwy, Harlech
If a Bond villain were to design a theatre, it might look like this. Perched atop a steep hillside, with views out to the ocean, the style is uncompromising. Theatr Ardudwy was built as an arts centre attached to the Grade II* listed Coleg Harlech, an adult education college. In 2016 it was determined that the theatre itself should also be included in the listing as it was both under the same ownership and as a structure forming part of and attached to a listed building. Some of the theatre’s facilities are also housed in parts of the original college building. The theatre is a radical design with all elements of the building having a clear external expression and is also considered a fine example of refined Brutalism of the period. The future of the theatre and the Coleg Harlech site had been perilous for several years prior to the theatre’s inclusion on the Theatres at Risk list. In June 2021 the theatre and associated listed buildings on the site were sold to a private owner, who has indicated an ambition to reopen both theatre and college buildings for the local community. There are still challenges to be overcome regarding the condition of the building and substantial funding required for necessary repair work however it is hoped that the new ownership is the start of a positive new future for Theatr Ardudwy.
8. The Great Glasshouse
Designed by Normal Foster and Partners, the Great Glass House opened in 2000 at the National Botanic Garden and was the largest in the world, measuring 110 m long by 60 m wide. The larger-than-life domed roof makes the interior sparkle on sunny days. The garden is both a visitor attraction and a centre for botanical research and conservation. Elliptical in plan the building swells from the ground like a glassy hillock, echoing the undulations of the surrounding landscape. The aluminium glazing system and its tubular-steel supporting structure are designed to minimise materials and maximise light transmission. The toroidal roof measures 99 by 55 metres, and rests on twenty-four arches, which spring from a concrete ring beam and rise to 15 metres at the apex of the dome. Because the roof curves in two directions, only the central arches rise perpendicular to the base, the outer arches leaning inwards at progressively steep angles. The building’s concrete substructure is banked to the north to provide protection from cold northerly winds and is concealed by a covering of turf so that the three entrances appear to be cut discreetly into the hillside. Within this base are a public concourse, a café, educational spaces and service installations.
9. Caerphilly Castle Visitor Centre
Blending modern with ancient, the Caerphilly Castle Visitor Centre was designed by Davies Sutton Architecture. Their goal when designing this modern building was to make it sympathetic to its surroundings but still a structure “of this era.” Welsh slate was used for the flooring and steel/lead for the roofs – a common feature in old castles. The pointed roof, a striking feature, rises up as if it were attacking the Gatehouse itself. The building faces south to maximize solar energy, and the adjoining moat’s thermal mass greatly reduces energy consumption. According to Davies Sutton, the design is a blend of traditional and modern. Traditional materials were used to honor the past, but modern construction methods were employed.
1o. The Senedd
Senedd means parliament in Welsh. It’s where the Welsh Assembly meets and is also open to the public. Looking up as you enter, you will see an incredible undulating wooden ceiling which leads to a tree-like structure in the middle. The building is in Cardiff Bay, previously a busy port during the industrial era which was then regenerated as a leisure area in the nineties once the demand for coal slumped. The architect company Richard Rogers Partnership said of their vision: “The building was not to be an insular, closed edifice. Rather it would be a transparent envelope, looking outwards to Cardiff Bay and beyond, making visible the inner workings of the Assembly and encouraging public participation in the democratic process.” The Senedd is designed to be environmentally friendly: it uses an Earth Heat Exchange system for heating; rainwater is collected from the roof and used for flushing toilets and cleaning windows, and the roof features a wind cowl which funnels natural light and air into the debating chamber below.
Wales is a smaller and less visited country than England or Scotland perhaps, but it has a lot to offer, including its architecture. From early settlement to now, the buildings have evolved with their own unique style influenced by the vernacular architecture developed in the environment and culture of the place. If you ever get a chance to visit, I hope this list gives you a starting point of some fascinating and beautiful buildings to visit!