BLOG Ellen Bell

NWR Issue 113

For the People: A celebration of Welsh Architecture: Photographs by James Morris

It is 9.30am and the café is quiet – no echoing squeals from little girls in pink leotards scampering in and out of the dance studios, or the humming of parents clustering around prams. Except for a female American third-year student mentoring a male first-year at a table by the window, the seating area where these photographs by James Morris hang, is, for the moment, empty.

Commissioned to portray some of last year’s award-winning Welsh architectural projects, Morris’ twenty-seven photographs are striking in their ordinariness. From a distance, unframed, and simply pasted on board, there’s a 1970s greyish, corporate-cum-educational-cum-museum-signage feel to them. They’re easy to overlook.

A thin girl with long black hair and a short, squared-off fringe slides herself into a chair in the corner. A hirsute, pony-tailed man coughing, a paper cup in his hand, strides into the end of the room and flops into one of the hard, faux-leather sofas. Putting his feet up, legs crossed, he stares out of the window and sneezes. A woman in catering uniform, her hair in a black hair net, walks past pushing a metal trolley full of bowls of salad. Good Morning, she bellows at the man, rise and shine. He groans. Head-down, hair covering her face, the thin girl is intent on her iPhone. Dragging the chairs out, two middle-age women sit down. The taller one, in a red hand-crocheted cardigan, pulls a file from her bag and places it on the table. An elderly couple, the man balancing two turquoise cups of cappuccino on a tray, choose an adjacent table. Morris’ photographs have, as yet, have gone unnoticed.

People doing commonplace things. People doing commonplace things in public spaces.

There are pictures of Cardigan Castle and Caernarfon Castle with their brand, spanking-new, glass-fronted tourist centre foyers, annexes and cafes. Elegant, up-to-the-minute, architectural, in-keeping-with-the-heritage, problem-solving. In the foreground of one a woman in swirly-patterned maxi dress and a white, floppy sun hat marches towards a giant chess set. In another, a group of Japanese girls in matching shocking-pink anoraks and with lime green rucksacks on their backs queue for tickets. There are pictures of Plas Heli’s Welsh National Sailing Academy in Pwllheli and Llandegfedd’s Visitor and Watersports Centre – the first a triangular wooden structure, the other a metal and stone dome, intermittently spiked with flagpoles. Blue tarpaulin-ed covered boats flank the greensward, while others, white, sails-up, float on the lake. In one, there’s a boy on a skateboard, a honey-hued spaniel, trotting behind. In another, a line of life-jacketed kids drag a row of small sail boats on trailers towards the water while a scruffy mongrel sniffs at a blue wheelie bin.

The man on the sofa sneezes again and, leaning over to finish his drink, mutters the word cow. So basically, the woman in the crocheted cardigan is saying to her colleague, we really need to get down to brass tacks. Slamming her chair hard against the table, the girl with the iPhone leaves. On a table near the café counter a group of four Syrian refugees are talking. The women wearing hijabs, the men in leather jackets, are interrupted now and again by one of them pressing a button on their phone. An automated voice. Welcome, it says. Two of the refugees repeat it. Welcome. Could you tell me where the reception is? the voice continues.

In the foyer there are pictures of Pontio, the Arts and Innovation Centre at Bangor and of Cardiff and Vale College. Photographs, inexhaustible in their repetitions of floor-to-ceiling windows, primary-coloured squares, circles, triangles and lines –lines in red, lines in black, lines in steel.

Inhabited space transcends geometrical space, wrote Gaston Bachelard. The buildings, though noteworthy, are not the half of it. It’s the people in Morris’ photographs, remarkable in their unremarkableness, that steal the show.

East, says the automated voice on the refugee’s phone. West, he replies, a smile breaking out across his face.

Caught in a spinning blur of momentary, exquisite freedom, the children of Burry Port Community Primary School are dancing.

Ellen Bell is an artist and writer living in Aberystwyth.


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