May 13, 2016 \ Creative Workspace
by David Page
Standing in this marvellously restored Rowand Anderson Church, now conference centre, I am reminded of my Mum’s thought that I could be a minister. So not to miss the opportunity, my talk is loaded with thoughts and voices for you to take away.
At its simplest to have a voice is free and we all have a voice. You don’t need money, infrastructure or to live anywhere in particular. The question with voicing your thinking is who hears it. But changes in the world of communication are altering that.
Looking back, Scotland has been a good place to think and have a voice in practicing architecture.
It has a great historical legacy of great architecture embodied in that built legacy, from Adam, through the 19th century, Thomson, Hamilton, Honeyman, Mackintosh, Burnet, Salmon, Gillespie and Anderson the founder of the Incorporation. In the 20th century, Coia, Macmillan, Metzstein, Morris and Steedman, Spence, Womersley, Mathews, Kinninmonth, Richards, Johnson and Young of Assist, Benson, Deans in particular for modernising the profession, and now leaving aside our contemporaries but sadly including Gareth Hoskins and Kathryn Findlay.
It also has a great pedigree of teaching architecture in its universities – Strathclyde, Glasgow School of Art, Edinburgh College of Art now Edinburgh University, Dundee and Aberdeen.
Two aspects of Scotland voice:
– excellence in thinking by building
– and excellence in thinking about building.
But it is easy to be overwhelmed at any one point by the crushing realities of delivering buildings. In the context of what may seem unconscionable obstacles to excellence that we will all have faced or for the younger of you – will face.
Whether it be seeming lack of ambition, intransigence, cowardice, political machinations or just plain belligerence.
However, we should take strength from that lineage of excellence, it is possible to make good buildings at any time, to have a voice. What it is important to do is to reconcile the contemporary realities and challenges with what we make now.
In that perfect alignment of the stars, anything is possible.
In that respect I can place Greek Thomson from the mid 1860s on a plain with Jim Johnson and Raymond Young of Assist from the 1970s for focussing on the city, one for building it the other for saving it.
John Richards in the 1960s in the orbit of John Burnett of the 1890s for operating with humanity at the big scale.
That Thomson like Burnet worked with stone and Jim Johnson and John Richards with concrete blocks is irrelevant
What matters is, with the means at their disposal they weren’t hanging on to the previous eras ways of doing things, rather they worked with what was available at that moment.
To see things as they are, we need to listen and think hard, to find the pitch of our voice, quiet and reflective like Morris and Steedman or sonorous like Robert Adam.
And do you know what holds us back is fear – fear first to think the unimaginable and then fear to find the voice to utter it and then fear of rejection, criticism and embarrassment.
In that respect I am chuffed in the representation of some of our projects in the travelling RIAS 2016 Scotstyle exhibition.
It represents projects whose thinking has found a voice. There they are there – in the bottom one which is Elder and Cannon’s brilliant block ours is the wee bit in the red at the back.
It has been interesting and informative to reflect back on the thoughts that shaped these voices. And to do so doubting the worthiness of their inclusion, but accepting the opportunity for a degree of reflection of these moments, if only in their defence and to remind ourselves whether there are any lessons to be learned.
But I am going to mark these lessons leavened by a parallel echoing cluster of failures, and in that respect I am inspired by the professor Johannes Haushofer, who is an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University who last week published a CV of failures to show his students that to get your thoughts out there you have to pass through many failures, bumps, inadequacies, rejections – failure is the foundation of achievement.
In the first of our projects represented in the RIAS Scotstyle exhibition, the Italian Centre was a lament for the city at a point in Glasgow’s history when the city was in danger of decaying away. It is hard to imagine that when the Italian Centre was being built the city seemed to be in terminal decline with all sorts of predictions of population and physical erosion. Of course there was an embryonic counter surge, but it seemed so weak.
We saw the project as a eulogy on the ideal city, an interior courtyard composed of flats offices and shops faced by the palace, factory, the mad and ordinary. I remember we valued the City Chambers tower, revealed from the courtyard as a contribution for free.
Out artist friends Jack Sloan, Sandy Stoddart Shona Kinloch, Ian McCulloch and Rob Hain explored this decline in tandem.
How wrong we were about the disappearance of the city.
Lesson – when your voice seems out of sync with the rest of the world – don’t lose heart.
That collaboration with artists Jack Sloan and Sandy Stoddart continued for a long time. I remember one instance in our Cathedral Square winning competition which still presumed the motorway was going to be in a tunnel under the Provand’s Lordship.
Jack had proposed a sculptural balustrade over the tunnel entry under Cathedral Street of Nebuchadnezzar Chariot charging the vehicles below. You can imagine it, a slightly larger than life chariot and four raging horses to the fore, cantilevered out over the road.
We went to a meeting at the roads department to present the idea.
Now Roads Departments in those days were the powerhouse of development. They were building motorways.
They were power.
I went into this room and I have never seen a room so long with so many chairs, and around this table were so many suited men – it is still imprinted in my mind. We sat at the end. I can’t remember the rest of the meeting but towards the end of it, I squeaked – I seemed about 12 at the time, about Jack’s idea of the Nebuchadnezzar Chariot balustrade – it was the Cathedral Square winning idea.
The silence was for an age.
All turned to the head of the table. It seemed a long way away from where I was sitting. And the head of the table, all powerful then with that eye of utter disdain nodded to one of his many colleagues responsible for motorway barriers to speak – and he said:
“We have a standard balustrade for motorways” – a standard balustrade!
The thought of Nebuchadnezzar evaporated in my imagination, I shrivelled and ever since then I have ingrained in me a deep scepticism about standard solutions.
Jack and Sandy Stoddart worked with us again on the national polemical ‘post modern’ bill board side kick of 180 Ingram Street when devolution seemed a faint hope.
Walking around our historic cities we were always drawn to the symbolic encrustations on the city fabric celebrating the building use, founders and attitudes of the time.
Why could we not do that meaningfully now. Working with Sandy Stoddart and Jack Sloan an encrusted façade emerged which dutifully responded to the original classical delineation but which gave permission for Jack’s elaborate challenge at the inability of the Scots at that time to grasp devolution.
How wrong we were again.
Lesson – When voices seem to be overwhelmingly loud insistent or vociferous it may be just that their time is coming to an end.
The Museum of Rural Life in East Kilbride we saw as the alter-ego to the National Museum of Scotland, as the barn to the palace.
Gavin Sprott the then curator had assembled at that time the largest collection of combine harvesters in the world.
His brief, and what a beautiful brief it was ’do not embarrass me in front of the farming community’. The result was exposed brick, precast concrete, exposed services and no plasterboard – a very inexpensive building for its time.
One which used the idea of potential energy to explore a descent from the entrance through the building rather than going up. At its epi-centre was one of the earliest static threshing mills in the world.
I remember to this day his question why did the industrial revolution in agriculture only happen a hundred years later than other industries? – it was only then that we were able to get power to move – with engines on wheels. In other words the tractor or in this case the movable threshing mill or combine harvester.
Lesson – Follow non standard voices – they will lead somewhere interesting.
A point that was made to us in the following episode.
Isi Metzstein was a judge in the Lighthouse competition.
A number of years previously we were having a go like many others, (I recall 800) for the masterplan design for the German Parliament in Berlin.
I can’t recall but somehow Isi was reviewing our ideas, maybe not the right word – taking them apart maybe.
Anyway the problem of the site was it was split in two with this no build zone right in the middle. Isi said ignore it, create a band right across it.
Like hundreds of other entries we didn’t have the guts to do that so flailed about seeking to reconcile this impossible void at the heart of the plan.
The winner was Isi’s exact sketch.
Lesson – Be open when you listen
Anyway, we were chosen for the project, the vertical poem echo of the Lighthouse extension to the body of the Mackintosh Glasgow Herald Building.
Mackintosh in an early text willed viewers of his architecture to understand the meaning of every stone and carving.
Exhaustive analysis revealed a transformative theme in the façade from ground to sky to what was otherwise a repetitive series of working floors.
The thin skin of which we expanded in the battery pack extension, a climb up this transformative façade as an echo of the partner building. Each standardised floor approached by a non standard vestibule.
Lesson – The voice of an existing building can guide you in different directions.
The Inverness Maggie’s Centre was seen as an ode to the fight against cancer and alternative therapy in the context of a machine for health.
It represents the idea of a building that uses an understanding of that pain to express the poignancy of everybody’s battle to live.
Each individual faces the battle in their own way.
It is a democratising battle.
One curious lesson was that the minister of state who came to open it struggled to find a position from which to command the room in his opening speech
In fighting for each individual to find a place to face their own personal challenges it seemed as if the building adopted its own resistance to any corporate takeover.
Lesson – Look for the unintended consequences, they might be creative stimulus for the future.
The final project with Elder and Cannon is the Laurieston housing – about the idea of the city but really brings me back to the idea of thinking and voice.
Each of the projects started out as a thought and by immense good fortune in their own way became a voice, tuned to the dialogue of the moment. What we realised, was you need to practice your voice. That in any office there will be many voices but we need to find a way for them to be heard.
The basic premise, only by practicing speaking can voices be heard, perhaps not at first on the pavements of our cities but in the protected setting of the studios.
And so for the last few years we have documented the voices, written them down by creating a discursive forum for these thoughts through our Monday Word. So by discussion we find our voice, and through discussion we find the right pitch – if we are lucky or make our own luck.
Remembering back to our student days, conversations were an intrinsic part of learning to design. In a sense our generation were fortunate to have left at a point when the community housing association movement embedded conversations in the process of tenemental and urban regeneration initiatives.
We did 50 roof projects. Evening meetings in people’s flats – you practiced talking, over and over again – the rarefied atmosphere of the studio left behind, voices that wanted to be heard and listened to.
What Jim Johnson and Raymond Young started, was how to give a voice to communities that had none. All the communications and consultation processes we use now date back to that early 1970s radical thinking.
In our submission for the Home exhibition at the Royal Scottish Academy, curated by Robin Webster, my colleagues together with photographer Luigi Di Pasquale sought to capture the community that are occupying our Laurieston housing.
Entitled ‘Do you know your neighbour?’ it explores in transcripts conversations the hopes and experiences of residents in their new neighbourhood.
Lesson – We all have neighbours, they all have voices.
Practice practice practice – so in speaking so in designing and drawing.
As for the singer so for the architect.
Emerging as we did out of the 1980s it seemed a miracle when anything got built. Projects stalled, stopped, found they had no money, were cancelled, chopped and disappeared. A curious quality emerged as a result, when that project was pulled out the drawer again after months, even years, it no longer fitted the economic cultural social context. The result was that you had to rework it.
An informal methodology emerged of acceptance of change and need for adaptability. An acceptance that the voice of that moment might not fit the next exactly.
The idea that any idea could become better by another reworking rather than diminished by the process of change.
The Theatre Royal Project for Scottish Opera in Glasgow was like that.
The competition entry cantilevered the floorplate from a central stair core and won on the basis of maximising the floorplate at each level for interval breakout. Looked like a car park though we were told.
The second and third solutions were a hybrid with a bit of structure on the outside and also in the core. Looked like an office block we were told.
The fourth reversed the competition entry and cantilevered everything from the outside so that no columns were needed around the stair in the middle.
I am not sure, that were it not for the stop start practice of the early years, we would have had the confidence to keep the ideas moving.
Lesson – Ideas can improve through reworking.
But something else changed, the idea started with the expression of a structural staircase at the heart conceived as the Wagnerian tree with the floorplates as branches to climb up.
By the end, underlying the design of the Theatre Royal was the idea that in stepping into the void at the entrance with the structure disappearing to the outside. The idea now became the donning of the crown held on the outside by the hands of the city and then the movement upstairs like royalty up through the floors – no matter who you are. The focus not, look at my structural strength, rather a royal welcome to all.
Some interesting observations.
By taking the columns away from the middle, we had to thicken the external columns, they became in turn recesses – Glasgow bays to the external skin.
Because the structure was working at its limit and the site was not particularly big, there is an interesting proportion between you, the space and the means of production – if the building had been 10 times the size so would the structure but you remain the same – so the Theatre Royal crown kind of fits.
And then the stars of the show were the Scottish Opera set builders who built the stair cladding in a virtuoso performance overlaid some brilliant engineering from Arup and McAlpine’s concrete team.
Lesson – We have the power to make everyone feel special in the buildings we make and celebrate all who make them.
Which brings me to the final lesson.
A lesson we are learning in the reconstruction of the Mackintosh Glasgow School of Art.
We are often asked two questions:
Will you have a voice in the reconstruction?
How faithful can you be to the original?
Three instances of the dilemmas we face:
The library windows were replaced in the 1950s with much heavier sections – can we go back to the original?
The Hen Run detailing was changed too in the 1950s, can we go back to the original intention as captured in early photographs?
The Glasgow School of Art was an early example of new services being introduced to the building – how do we deal with that now?
We are clear on our approach, and it is a complicated one, to get as close to how Mackintosh completed the building in 1910, modified by the understanding of the first phase building from 1897, adjusted before Mackintosh left Glasgow and his partner John Honeyman died in 1913, further adjusted by the building in use post 1913 – for example a lot of the timber in the studio spaces were stained a lime green originally, an unlikely colour for an Art School today.
We are studying all the records. We have amazing digital drawings and photography. But curiously the best records are us measuring by hand and asking questions.
You would think digital records would be the perfect model but they do not really describe the reality. The hand drawings and measurements are the most amazing resource.
To navigate our way through this we have constructed ten principles to work with. You will be pleased to know I am not going to go through them all, but for me the most important one is number six.
It advocates we are not restoring the building as a piece of heritage. Rather than in understanding the countless numbers of generations of students who have passed through the Art School, holding it in huge affection and crucially finding themselves consciously or inadvertently stimulated by the veneer of detail around them – we are restoring the pedagogical principles embodied in the fabric.
So if we think about the library windows, it is about the petal lightness in contrast to the structured interior – how light can it be or – Art as effect.
In the Hen Run it is the geometric grid which wraps around you and frames the world you will act upon – Art as the relationship between the measurable and immeasurable.
In the basement metalwork it is about doing the beam ends like this, or this or this – Art as typological variety.
I could go on and on.
Mackintosh created a teaching manual for Art. An introduction text to understanding the techniques of being an artist.
What we will recreate will be flawed of course – we see it as an annotated text. As close to the original as we can make it but close for us is better than not trying.
Lesson – What we build can be a tutor for future generations long after the voices of the authors have become silent.
I started with the voices of the past and finished with possibly one of the finest of them all.
They handed down their voices. In each building they made a lesson for us to listen to but also a prompt to us all to strive, whatever the circumstances, to make sure we hand down something too.