Thursday, February 01, 2007

Monster machines at work

Demolition of the Oxford House shopping centre and office block on the Hayes has now begun in earnest with the arrival of even larger machines with even longer articulated arms and threatening looking pincers attached for chewing through walls and girders. The largest of them stands fifteen feet high and can reach up 60-70 feet. Yet their operators can manipulate them with great dexterity and what seems like delicacy in the way they can home in on, and pick up quite a small piece of wood or metal, as well as pull things apart. I was most impressed by one operator who made his machine pick up a long plank right in the middle, and then use it like a broom to push a bizarre mix of concrete and bricks plus polystyrene foam bits in their millions from some discarded insulation material.

If only I could stop myself from thinking about the use of these self-same machines (offspring of the Caterpillar Corporation of Peoria USA) in the Holy Land, where the Israeli Army have been using them to destroy Palestinian Arab homes and uproot olive orchards (deemed a 'security risk'), since long before I was there in 2000.

But, back in Cardiff, at the same time, scaffolders are at work creating temporary platforms up to the highest points of the external surfaces of the buildings, section by section, to allow access to window frames that are to be removed piece by piece. It came as a surprise to see in one of the gutted sections already exposed to the elements, washbasin water pipes hanging off the tiled wall of a toilet, and the hot air drier still there on the wall opposite, probably adjudged not worth recycling.

On the site between Bute Terrace and Bridge Street, cleared before Christmas, where the new John Lewis department store will be constructed, there's now a forest of huge mobile cranes up to two hundred feet in height. Attached to them is specialised core drilling equipment, linked to hydraulic rams, which push cylindrical steel tubes into the ground to a depth of 40 feet or more, as soil is removed. It's an great piece of modern engineering technology, accurate and efficient able to deliver an impressive rate of progress with little noise, compared to the pile drivers of yester-year. Thousands must be inserted around the perimeter in order to contain the empty space which excavation of the basement parking and service areas will produce in the year ahead.

Wherever I can, I take photographs, which I'd like to publish to illustrate what's happening as it happens. Yesterday I met one of the project managers when I was out and about. He told me about the webcam mounted on the roof of the Alto Lusso apartment block on the South side of the site, to give an up to the minute overview to site supervisors. I was told that the URL of this will soon be made public, so that we can all share in watching progress unfold day to day. I hope to be able to bring that link to you soon.

It's pleasing the way some of the workers, when they see the cleric with the camera, enjoy a brief chat when they are taking a break. The older, more experienced ones are quite excited about participating in such a high tech building project. I confess to wondering what they felt about the presence on this site of a ladies', as well as a gents' loo among the stack of portakabins that serves them as office, canteen and stores - just where the checkout in Toys 'R Us used to stand - but I didn't ask.

In the lunch time period, the area is full of guys (and gals too) in hard hats and hi-viz jackets queuing with all the rest to buy lunch, making the most of the fact that it isn't raining at the moment. It makes a change from business suits and overcoats. Retailers, apart from the fast food outlets are noticing the impact on trade, with the downturn in the number of regular shoppers. Yet, it'd like to think that the centre could be flooded by Dads and their offspring at weekends and half terms, all come to see the monster machines in action.

Wales play Ireland this Sunday afternoon. It'll be a huge challenge, not only for the hospitality industry locally, but also for retailers and others hoping to make the sporting event worthwhile to accompanying families as well as fans. The Park and Ride schemes are up and running, but the new surface car park in Adam Street is not yet open to visitors, and won't be until the multi storey parks due for demolition have been officially closed (they have already been deserted by the punters despite being open). As yet there's been no success in getting a shuttle service organised to link the Adam Street parking to the shops, despite a year's worth of calls to ensure this happens. On some fronts, there's impressive progress. On others, it seems very jerky indeed.

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