Published  29/11/2006

Architecture in Scotland 2004-2006: Defining Place

Architecture in Scotland 2004-2006: Defining Place

The Lighthouse, Glasgow
1 April-5 June 2006

Architecture in Scotland 2004-2006: Defining Place is both a book and an exhibition,1 the latter presented in the unusual form of video presentations with a physical framework that includes the screen itself and the seating in front of it. Altogether, seven architectural projects (if one includes the illuminated pathway leading to the Old Man of Storr, an isolated tower of rock on the northern coast of the Isle of Skye) are examined to see how they turned a physical space into a carefully defined place by both the architectural design and its relationship to its immediate environment.

In some presentations, how space was being turned into a special place was very clear, as was its relationship with its setting. Most obvious, perhaps, was the extension that is just being completed by Reiach and Hall to the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness on the Isle of Orkney, home to an amazing collection of 20th-century British art (much created in St Ives in Cornwall), which its collector, the late Margaret Gardiner, gave to the island some time before her death at the end of the last century. Two new buildings have been added to the harbour building that was converted into the art gallery, and both echo the gable ends that face the water along the Stromness harbour front, their relationships creating pends (narrow alleyways) that are also typical of the town, and their red and black walls repeating features that are found elsewhere in the area. What matters here is scale and neighbourliness.

Another project, 'The Drum, Phase 3', examines how Malcolm Fraser Architects created a space by building 28 four- and five-bedroom houses on a south-facing site overlooking parkland with views towards the Firth of Forth, east of Edinburgh. Whether the site itself was a non-space waiting to be developed is open to argument, but certainly the architects have achieved what many today do not - a small housing estate with a clear sense of identity and stature. Many of the houses, which have white walls, few but large windows, grey roofs and thin, tall chimney stacks that are like slender versions of those beloved by Voysey (and the houses do have an Arts and Crafts feel about them), are arranged around a central square, while all have plots that include a forecourt, an inner entrance court, the house and its garden. The sense of a small, self-contained village is created immediately.

In the Robin House Children's Hospice, designed by Gareth Hoskins in Balloch on the edge of Loch Lomond, the exterior effect is different because the building seems to merge with its rural setting rather than give it an architectural definition. The hospice consists of two wings, running parallel but at an angle to each other, connected by a central play courtyard. The wings, clad in timber, house all the bedrooms and have big French windows opening to the outside, in some cases with views to a large, open-air hydrotherapy pool. Internal facilities include a quiet room, an art room, a teenagers' room, a soft pad playroom, a library and a therapy room. With its soft, curvaceous interior and brightly coloured walls, there are hints of Rudolf Steiner in the architecture, while in the way in which the hospice blends into its surroundings, there are echoes of some of the buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Very different is the tower block of flats called A'Chrannag (Gaelic for Crow's Nest), designed by Gokay Devici, that tops a hill overlooking Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. A circular-shaped building that also has a projecting tower stair and lobby (there are two flats occupying half the circle on each of its seven floors), the white-painted building's exterior is enlivened by differently shaped windows that are repeated on each floor. A'Chrannag occupies a brownfield site outside Rothesay's conservation area and was subjected to detailed public consultation. In fact, its Modernist appearance echoes the island's 1930s pavilion, which is still used for dances and events such as the annual jazz festival. Like the pavilion, it makes a clear visual statement.

Two other projects are less assertive. One is a small, two-storey timber-clad house with a flat roof called Seton Mains House which was designed by its architect, Paterson Architects, for his own family and is situated at the end of a small group of farm buildings in East Lothian, outside Edinburgh. Unusual for being an upside-down building (the bedrooms, bathroom and toilet are on the ground floor), the vertical, brown wooden cladding and very plain windows echo the colour and simplicity of neighbouring farm buildings. In this case, however, the house does not seem to create a sense of place so much as to extend the existing sense of place and, because of its flat roof (which makes it different) act as a visual full stop.

The other project is a group of three small industrial workshops by gordon murray + alan dunlop architects in Clydebank, to the west of Glasgow. Here, the relationship is to the former John Brown's shipyard and the disused Singer sewing machine factory nearby. The use of brown painted fibre cement panels enlivened by a screen-printed sewing machine stitch pattern, and gold anodised aluminium panels for the exterior cladding, refers both to the sewing machines and the shipyard, while areas of glazing beneath the parapet are illuminated at night to give the workshops a visual presence and indicate their main entrance.

Finally, how to turn a non-place into one of direction. This was done by nva, an environmental arts charity based in Glasgow, who created an illuminated path leading to the Old Man of Storr, using sound and light markers put into position by helicopters so as not to disturb the environment to create a symbolic as well as physical walk. It begins in a forest and then transverses a steep, open hillside before reaching the pinnacle surrounded by 700-foot cliffs. What remains is the path. What can be removed or replaced is the sound and lighting system, which is portable. Arguably, the installation does not create a sense of place; what it does, by human intervention, is to make it less wild and awe-inspiring and more the subject of a son et lumière entertainment.

In 'Defining Place', all the projects are small scale and easily manageable. The real challenge facing Scottish architecture is how to manage change on a much larger scale, whether it be in Caltongate in Edinburgh, in Leith Docks or in building small towns planned for the Highlands. At the moment, the omens are very mixed.

Richard Carr

1. Bain M. Architecture in Scotland 2004-2006: Defining Place. Glasgow: The Lighthouse, 2006.

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