Completed in 1897, the terracotta Pierhead Building was originally the new headquarters for the Bute Dock Company, which became the Cardiff Railway Company that same year. Cardiff was one of the world’s busiest ports during this era, with coal being one of the most lucrative exports. In the 1920s the Cardiff Railway Co was taken over by Great Western Railway, but the Pierhead Building continued to be a main office for Great Western. The structure is sometimes unofficially nicknamed the “Baby Big Ben” or “Big Ben of Wales”.
In 2001 the building was reborn as “The Assembly at the Pierhead”, an educational visitor center for the National Assembly for Wales. On St David’s Day (St David being the patron saint of Wales) in 2010 (01 March) an expanded history museum was unveiled within the building, which now also provides event space for functions and activities.
I would say that the Pierhead Building is easily among my favorite public buildings. Its terracotta exterior really sets it apart particularly on a day with blue skies and a few wisps of cirrus clouds framing the scene. The exterior ornamentation blends details reflecting the original occupant as well as gargoyles. (Naturally, the gargoyles tend toward the “dragonesque”.) The Cardiff Railway motto of “wrth ddŵr a thân” (Welsh for “by fire and water”), along with a locomotive, adorn the coat-of-arms on the side of the building. Be sure to spend some time really appreciating the intricate detail all around. The fact that this was constructed as a corporate headquarters and not a church or government monument is pretty cool in my mind. Nowadays we just don’t see that very often – companies rent out the cheapest, most mundane office space available it seems.
The interior is no less pleasing to the eye – and is free to enter. Terracotta and ceramic tiles of several colors cover the walls. There are even some little gargoyles here and there.
The building houses historical artifacts and information about Welsh history, and especially of the Assembly and related matters. The compass housing from the Terra Nova ship that Captain Scott (see my previous post) sailed to the Antarctic is on display. Significant and noteworthy Welsh citizens are highlighted in one room. I’d recommend allowing an hour to tour the interior, more if you’re going to spend time reading and admiring the fine details of the structure.
In addition to being cool to look at, I found it fun to think about all of the history that took place around and within this building…how its role changed over the decades while it stood tall and proud over the bay. Perhaps in 50 or 100 years its purpose will further evolve, who knows. In any case, we certainly enjoyed our visit to the Pierhead Building.