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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 November 2005, 07:57 GMT
The architect with 'light touch'
By Gareth Jones
BBC Wales Business Editor

John Belle
John Belle will be 75 when his glasshouse is finally opened

Cardiff-born John Belle does not conform to the modern stereotype of the thrusting, hi-tech, polo-necked architect.

Yet this quietly-spoken and diminutive Welsh émigré has carried out some of New York's biggest architectural make-overs in recent decades.

He was in charge of the 10-year long, $250 million revamp of Grand Central Terminal, a space that is now regarded as one of the most spectacular and beautiful railway stations anywhere in the world.

His Ellis Island Museum of Immigration and the renovations of the Rockefeller Centre and the Chrysler building have earned him the highest accolades.

Revealing his plans for a new tropical glasshouse for the National Botanic Garden at Middleton, near Carmarthen, Mr Belle was asked if he'd ever built anything in Wales before.

"No," came the reply. "Rather late in my life, the country of my birth has finally discovered me, but I'm not complaining."

Artist's impression of John Belle's glasshouse
John Belle's glasshouse will be inside a double-walled garden

And neither are the people running the Garden.

For not only is New York-based Belle providing world-class expertise, but he's giving it free, as a gesture of goodwill to his native land.

That expertise will be needed: his brief is to design a building that matches the high quality of its surroundings, but on a very tight budget of just £0.5m.

Tropical glasshouses have to be tall to accommodate big plants like palms, yet this one has also to nestle in a corner of the historic double-walled garden.

John Belle's initial designs look rather traditional-like a very big Victorian conservatory, in fact.

He agrees, saying: "Conservatories were very important for the Victorians. I think this one will provide a direct link with the greatest builder of glasshouses, Joseph Paxton."

Paxton, of course, built the enormous Crystal Palace which housed the Great Exhibition of 1851.

But there's no danger that Middleton's about to be submerged under more steel and glass.

Rockefeller Centre, New York
New York's Rockefeller Centre is among the architect's projects

"This mustn't dominate," he says. "I'm just designing an envelope for the attraction."

Belle has built a reputation on doing just that. There are no "Belle buildings" as such, but mainly careful restorations or renovations of other people's creations.

But he is no mere window-dresser. His Ellis Island experience has much that is original and even when refurbishing historic structures he will create something new.

"I have a lot of fun when people come up to me and thank me for uncovering this or that 'original feature' in Grand Central. I wait a while and then tell them 'actually, I put that there myself'," he chuckles.

That light touch is perhaps the key to Belle's work. He is no "star-chitect", stamping his own ego on neighbourhoods with highly individualistic edifices.

"I don't have a problem with that kind of architecture, but I like to be more respectful to a sense of place and of history."

Some would say it's a shame that Wales waited so long to commission John Belle - he'll be 75 when the glasshouse is finished.

The monetary value of this project is tiny, but at least someone - the National Botanic Garden - has seen fit to give the man a job here at last.

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03 Aug 05 |  South West Wales
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13 May 04 |  South West Wales

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