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Steel and stone make a civic beacon in Fraserburgh’s Faithlie Centre

Words:
David McClean

Corten stitches together Fraserburgh’s granite fabric in Moxon Architects’ civic and symbolic Faithlie Centre

The Corten and glass outer skin is like a carapace over the old; translucent in parts to allow the existing to be read past the new.
The Corten and glass outer skin is like a carapace over the old; translucent in parts to allow the existing to be read past the new. Credit: Simon Kennedy

The harbour town of Fraserburgh, in the far corner of Aberdeenshire, in an area known colloquially as ‘The Brock’, is tough and austere in both its character and architecture. It points across the grey North Sea towards Bergen in Norway, with which it shares an economic history based on fishing. However, beyond this simple association, the contrast with Bergen could not be greater. Fraserburgh’s fabric consists of unyielding granite streets, with an array of utilitarian industrial buildings strung along its shoreline and around a harbour largely concealed from the town centre. Yet there is a beauty in the starkness of the town, and a quality that stems from its stern expression. 

Fraserburgh is an important and prosperous fishing port, like the larger town of Peterhead some 17 miles to the south. By contrast however, Fraserburgh suffers from high levels of social deprivation, while also being a place of great hardiness and resilience. 

The town’s Faithlie Centre, the new facilities for Aberdeenshire Council, constitutes the lead project for the Fraserburgh 2021 Townscape Heritage and Conservation Area Regeneration Scheme. It is intended that the prominence of its central location, and the council’s refurbishment of important historic fabric, will in time catalyse further regeneration and development of the town centre. 

Uncovering and laying bare creates richness and incident

  • Viewed from the harbour side, the new extension slips into the existing roofscape.
    Viewed from the harbour side, the new extension slips into the existing roofscape. Credit: Simon Kennedy
  • The new staircase efficiently and elegantly connects the formerly separated adjacent buildings.
    The new staircase efficiently and elegantly connects the formerly separated adjacent buildings. Credit: Simon Kennedy
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The brief sought to consolidate in one location a number of civic and public functions and services hitherto dispersed around Fraserburgh. Most of the accommodation was to be housed in the heart of the town near the harbour – in the elegant Saltoun Chambers, still in use for council meetings and ceremonies, and the adjacent derelict former police station, together with a small area of vacant land to the rear that had become appropriated by drug users. The financial model, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Environment Scotland, the Scottish Government Regeneration Capital Grant Fund and the client body, was unusual in a town that has traditionally proudly shunned external support. 

From Saltoun Square, or when viewing the historic facade from neighbouring Kirk Brae, the extent of the intervention is not apparent.  Indeed it is not until one ventures to the rear of the complex that it becomes evident: a bold rectilinear geometry and layered facade that is at once suggestive of the life inside, while maintaining an element of ­privacy and discretion. This is the external manifestation of the scheme’s key strategic move; a new element that houses a vertical circulation to connect the many disparate levels of the two existing but completely autonomous structures. It also presents a public face that, while civic in scale, offers a more informal expression than that of the existing historic facades. 

Finished in Corten steel panels and filigree, the strength of this bold new element is in its juxtaposition with the original granite construction, creating a rich and lively contrast. It pays homage to the material nature of the neighbouring industry; of steel-clad sheds, sheet piling, and rusting capstans. Its uncomplicated rectilinear form similarly acknowledges the strength of the granite townscape. In terms of language, the extension recalls some of the early work of Jean Nouvel, such as the Hotel St James in southern France, and perhaps even that of Sean Godsell. This uncompromising material lends itself to simple, bold geometries, and feels very fitting for the character of both the place and its people. 

  • By night the new building reads clearly as a skin over the old.
    By night the new building reads clearly as a skin over the old. Credit: Simon Kennedy
  • The delicate new structure references Japanese timber screens, or perhaps even Mackintosh.
    The delicate new structure references Japanese timber screens, or perhaps even Mackintosh. Credit: Simon Kennedy
  • The Saltoun Centre’s restored, upgraded and white-painted Council chamber.
    The Saltoun Centre’s restored, upgraded and white-painted Council chamber. Credit: Simon Kennedy
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The Corten pays homage to the material nature of the neighbouring industry

Internally, the project derives its architectural quality through the careful revealing of fragments of the past lives of each of the original buildings. Through a process of paring back and closely reading the existing structures, Moxon Architects has given expression to the features of the buildings that speak of their histories and place within the community. This process of uncovering and laying bare has created richness and incident within an interior that is otherwise handled very simply. This is best exemplified by the main chamber itself, the principal space within the whole complex. With its tall, elegant windows casting a very beautiful even light across the room, its understated restoration allows a clear reading of its innate spatial qualities and refined detail. 

During the process of eking out maximum value from the existing structures, the architect realised that the attic of the old police station had the potential for a new floor. Though beyond the requirements of the brief, it enabled the creation of an enterprise centre that reinforces the social and economic dimensions of the Council’s remit. 

The project not only provides much needed integrated facilities for the council, but serves as an agent of change within the town, re-purposing valuable and important historic fabric, while enhancing the physical presence of the local authority at its heart. Through painstaking conservation and a bold contemporary addition, a new landmark has been created in the town, both physically and, through architectural motif and language, in the consciousness of its residents. 

Plagued by difficulties stemming from the insolvency of the main contractor mid-way through construction, the project is testament to the design team that despite these challenges, the integrity of the scheme has survived intact, and the project delivered as intended, albeit with some compromises on the finer detail. It also speaks of a depth of understanding and trust between design team and client. 

  • Visibility gleaned from the use of filigree metal is a two-way street, where views out are as important as views in.
    Visibility gleaned from the use of filigree metal is a two-way street, where views out are as important as views in. Credit: Simon Kennedy
  • The Faithlie Centre was as much about restoration of the existing 19th century civic building as it was about a new one.
    The Faithlie Centre was as much about restoration of the existing 19th century civic building as it was about a new one. Credit: Simon Kennedy
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Skills and expertise from across north-east Scotland helped realise the Centre, from the beautifully restored sandstone facade of the Saltoun Chambers, to the Corten steel, which was fabricated by a servicing company for the offshore energy industry.

Overall, the scheme has an economy that is fitting for Fraserburgh and this part of the world – with a tendency towards the understated, the modest, and the reserved.

The creation of the Faithlie Centre has been handled with skill and attention to detail, fulfilling and exceeding the Council’s expectations in a manner that appropriately combines yet subtly distinguishes between the civic and quotidian functions of the client. Its fundamental success derives from the simple extension to the rear that stitches together, unifies and reinvigorates two existing buildings, while forming a tough yet subtle contemporary facade and entrance. Equally importantly, the project has created an imagery that, through association, is already helping to further reinforce civic pride in the community it serves.

Credits

Client/clerk of works Aberdeenshire Council
Architect Moxon Architects
Conservation architect Alan S Marshall
QS Faithful + Gould
Structural engineer David Narro Associates
M&E engineer TUV-SUD
Health & safety advisor GWS Architects
Main contractor Morrison Construction

Suppliers

Corten cladding contractor KR Steel
Metal stair JBS Fabrication
Stonework conservation G Laing Stonecraft
Glazing supplier Cube Glazing/Shueco
Flooring contract IFT
Roofing supplier Briggs Amasco/Sika Sarnafil
Lighting specialist iGuzzini, Zumtobel
Heating/insulation/ventilation TUV-Sud/Sparks

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