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Opened in 1974, the building was designed by Sir Alexander John Gordon CBE (Dip 1948, Hon 1989), a proud alumnus of the University’s Welsh School of Architecture, who also designed the School of Music and Sherman Theatre. Celebrating its 50th birthday this year, the Students’ Union has been a silent observer of decades of student life in Cardiff. It’s witnessed new friendships, first kisses, break-ups, make-ups, and everything in between. It’s a place where mates became family and Cardiff became home.

When the building first opened, it was the Joint Students’ Union (JSU) for both the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology (UWIST) and University College, Cardiff (UCC).

“1974 was the dawning of a new era. UWIST and UCC no longer had their own separate Students’ Union buildings but were sharing the JSU. As a fresher who’d known nothing different, this brand new shiny building was part of an exciting adventure.

"However, for a number of returning students, it was a time of dissatisfaction. Gone was each college’s identity represented by their own Students’ Union spaces.

"The result was a rather informal division – UWIST in the barn-like Morgannwg Bar (entrance floor right), and UCC in the smarter, more comfortable Gwent Bar (on the left).

"The Dyfed Bar (on the Great Hall level, one floor down) was used mostly on concert and disco nights, but the subdued lighting and comparative comfort meant it was where you went for a date!”

James Myatt (LLB 1978), UWIST Students’ Union President 1978-1979

James Myatt (LLB 1978), UWIST Students’ Union President 1978-1979

The building took turns to host Freshers’ Week for each of the institutions. Whilst the joint space may not have been universally welcomed, as successive years of students arrived, the divisions between the colleges began to fade.

In 1983, following work by the SAB team, Cardiff Students’ Union became a limited company.

“Becoming a company in its own right meant we could run more events and use the building for a lot more student entertainment.

"We made it one of the most exciting SUs in the country and held the university’s first anti-apartheid concert and its first reggae concert, featuring band Steel Pulse.

"We worked hard to get it running as a business that made a decent turnover, which enabled the huge investment that led to the creation of The Hanging Gardens.”

Sanjiv Vedi OBE (BSc 1984), University College, Cardiff Students’ Union President 1983-1984

Sanjiv Vedi OBE (BSc 1984), UWIST Students’ Union President 1983-1984

In 1986, after three years of planning and over £200,000’s worth of work, The Hanging Gardens opened.

At the time, this state-of-the-art entertainment space was unique amongst Students’ Unions in the UK, firmly placing Cardiff as one of the best in the country.

“Opened last year, the Hanging Gardens gave Cardiff’s Students’ Union a unique and unrivalled position over any other union in Britain. Out of a dreary, bland bar and refectory that looked like any other refectory, the Gardens grew.”

As time moved on, so did the name. The Hanging Gardens became Terminal 396 during the nineties, then Solus, and is now known as Y Plas.

Alongside this, the Great Hall has hosted hundreds of epic gigs throughout the years. Manic Street Preachers, The Stranglers, The Cure, Radiohead, The Clash, Happy Mondays, Portishead, The Jam, Super Furry Animals, Ocean Colour Scene, and Public Enemy to name just a few, have graced its stage.

“The team used to put on fantastic gigs, and I’d bump into the big bands (of the day) in the lift. I’d try to act cool but my mind was totally blown!

"I worked with fantastic, passionate SABs, SU officers and staff. I remember with great fondness how Rona Griffiths would sit at the front desk issuing minibus passes to societies and making everyone laugh with her fantastic sense of humour.

"I progressed from Women's Officer to Equal Opportunities Officer to President. I enjoyed meeting fellow students, hearing what they needed, and putting it into action. We created an equal opportunities hub, set up free self-defence classes, and put on free minibus services to ensure students got home safely.

"I came from a single parent household where we didn't have much money. I worked my way up through the opportunities that the SU afforded me, and it was an honour to be President of this glorious Students’ Union in a fantastic building that was just for us. It was an incredible time and catapulted me into the world as a confident, independent young woman.”

Josie Grayson (BScEcon 1994), (formerly Ford), Student’s Union President 1995-1996

Josie Grayson (BScEcon 1994), (formerly Ford), Student’s Union President 1995-1996

Societies have always been at the beating heart of the SU and there’s now over 200 to choose from.

The late-night deadlines of Gair Rhydd, the live broadcast of Xpress Radio, and the butterflies of Act One opening nights are where countless Cardiff students found their passion, honed news skills, and forged friendships for life.

As time marches forward, the iconic Students’ Union steps may be gone, but the soul of the building lives on. Now nestled against the Centre for Student Life, a modern companion and home to the University’s student services, the SU continues to embrace its past while reaching towards the future.  

To the alumni who roamed its halls, danced its floors, and found love within its walls, the Students' Union is more than a building; it's a time capsule of laughter, hopes and dreams, and the unbreakable bonds of Cardiff pride. Here's to fifty years of memories, and to fifty more!

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