Glasgow’s new Stirling-shortlisted City Campus stands proud on the hill, knitting together neglected parts of the city and supplying an inviting presence to students and the public alike
Glasgow’s new City Campus has an undeniable presence, communicating its scale and mass as an object in the city with confidence and pride, and facing off against its other ‘schools on a hill’, the School of Art and the University. On a tour of the building with architects Stuart Watters of Michael Laird, and Andrew Stupart and Neil Gillespie, both of Reiach and Hall, a sense of civic and the desire to create an educational beacon with no less a presence than those other esteemed educational institutions here was a consistent theme and talking point.
With an area of over 60,000m², the impetus for a new building of such scale is a series of college mergers and estate consolidation in Glasgow’s further education sector. City of Glasgow College was formed in 2010 through the merger of the Central, Metropolitan and Nautical Colleges into a single institution. This second phase of the City Campus creates a super college, bringing accommodation from 11 separate buildings and six major faculties from across the city to two new central campuses, Riverside and Campus.
I was initially sceptical about the strategy and the perceived necessity for consolidation into one building – concerned that like other attempts to unite multiple educational establishments on one ‘super campus’ this project would result in derelict sites and empty buildings; creating new life and activity in one part of a city at the expense of others. It is perhaps a credit to the architecture of some of those previous buildings that my concerns are unfounded. Two modernist classics vacated by the college, the College of Building and Printing and the Charles Oakley Building designed by Peter Williams of Wylie Shanks Underwood, will be turned into a new hotel and student accommodation, thanks to robust and inherently flexible designs. They and the new City of Glasgow College are bringing new life and repair to a fragmented and disconnected part of the city centre’s northern edge.
The college is positioned on a hill where the grid of Glasgow’s Merchant City is terminated by the medieval Cathedral St as at it runs east from the city centre; its relationship to the adjacent community of the Townhead estate is critical and transformative in terms of the site’s social context. The building’s strategic diagram creates a clearly defined public route that acts as a continuation of Montrose St, connecting the post-war social housing of Townhead back to the city centre. This relationship works in terms of both connectivity and edge and also form and mass. On the west side of the city campus the principal elevation is pinched to create space between it and the adjacent tower block, while the introduction of a tower within the composition of the new building responds to the form and mass of the adjacent residential tower; making the new building respectful to its surroundings where less skilled designers might have chosen to turn their back.
In section the building section negotiates a steep and sudden gradient through two civic stairs, one external and the other internal. These act as the main routes into the building and form places of public circulation and social gathering; bringing the city into the heart of the scheme. What appears externally as an imposing civic mass is organised internally as two large voids that arrange the plan as a figure of eight, with an additional wing that moves away from the atrium towards the north. One of these spaces takes the form of an internal seven storey atrium described by the architect team as ‘a grand room’, while the other is articulated as an open multi-layered courtyard. Separating these two voids and connecting the different teaching spaces and faculties is the library. Its prominence owing to its position within the plan, and its articulation as a distinct visible and accessible element, works well. Consistent generosity of space, light and material quality is bestowed on the entire internal configuration and composition of classrooms, workshops, offices and circulation but it never feels indulgent. There’s a considered sense of restraint but not of missed opportunity.
This ethos is also manifest through the design of the building’s external fabric. Uncompromising rigour and restraint of the gridded facades to the west and south elevations translate the concept of civic scale that is articulated through internal courtyards into an architectural language that is appropriate to the status and ambition of the college. Glasgow has a fine tradition of rigorous, rhythmically repetitive buildings expressed as elegant and finely proportioned columnar facades and string courses. Here the architects have referenced Glasgow buildings such as the John Honeyman’s Ca’d’oro and the Egyptian Halls by Alexander Greek Thomson, with a contemporary interpretation of neo-classicism that can also be found in the recent work of David Chipperfield and Peter Markli.
Where the campus directly addresses the city the two principal elevations are layered with a gridded facade of 400mm wide white concrete columns placed in front of an annodised metal cladding system – all organised on a 1.2m grid that not only sets out the facade but also informs the spatial and structural planning of the entire building. A cast zig zag relief on the columns, intended to help water run-off , becomes a motif that is repeated throughout the building to inform the design of balustrades and the application of the annodised cladding. It is this depth of thinking and consideration, from the scale of the city down to your finger, that sets the building apart; the architecture continues to reveal itself the closer you get – especially when viewed against the incoherent dross put on the southern edge of Cathedral Street in recent years by the University of Strathclyde.
‘Contextually there is no singular material on Cathedral Street,’ says Reiach and Hall’s Gillespie. ‘It’s a real mix, from stone, to brick, to zinc to glass. In a sense we wanted a palette that literally and metaphorically rose above this material clamour on the street. The idea of an acropolis, a high city, really appealed. The architectural language tended to the classical so white seemed right.
‘We also thought that the atmosphere, expression should be bright, optimistic,’ he adds. ‘It should catch the light. The spirit of the brief was confident and ambitious we felt the building should somehow project these qualities.’
Gillespie says the project essentially covers a set of complex briefs that could have been the basis for designing several different building typologies. There is an innovative multi discipline construction hall, industry standard hair and beauty salons, state of the art computer suites, catering kitchens, a restaurant, business school, community, care and social science provision and Sports Scotland standard sports facilities. A full aircraft cabin facilitates cabin crew training and a suite of media facilities provides Scotland’s second largest tv broadcasting studio and an industry standard radio production facility. The building is like a further education version of the Crystal Maze, with a different world at the end of each corridor and behind every door.
This is a public building in every sense. Its strategic architectural moves, its civic presence and its role as an educational institution all invite the public into the body of the building. It also offers a day to day engagement with the public in the way it delivers its teaching. This approach has inspired the development of a diverse and active street frontage to Cathedral Street, which was desperately needed in this part of the city. A publicly accessible licensed restaurant, hair salon, beauty studio, and a butcher, fishmonger and bakery line the ground floor of Cathedral Street elevation, creating a permeable social, cultural and commercial edge that enhances both the experience of students and the life of the city.
As the architects’ design statement says: ‘The building is conceived as a place of exchange where the whole city and its citizens are invited in. It is expressed as an open and democratic building. From the outset the design aimed to alert the city to this critical institution through its elevated location, its scale and its presence within the city fabric.’
Although PFI and design and build face constant – and not unfair – criticism, this project demonstrates that great architecture can be achieved regardless of the procurement or delivery model when there is a good client, a good brief, a good site and a good architect. The architects I spoke to were extremely enthusiastic about the quality of the brief and the role of the client throughout the procurement process and emphasised how critical this was to inspire excellent design.
‘The brief was compiled by vice principal Janis Carson and the project sponsor – Iain Marley, project director, and Peter Jennett, property director – in dialogue with all the staff and department leads within the college,’ explains Gillespie. ‘Henry McKeown and Stewart Davie of JM Architects were technical advisors and influential in determining the conversation. The brief was not only well constructed and thorough but could also articulate aspirations and ambitions above and beyond the purely pragmatic and measurable.’
This project undoubtedly exceeds the pragmatic and measurable. The new campus gives the children of Glasgow’s working class and our cities marginalised communities a voice, providing them with a place of respect, knowledge, dignity and enlightenment that places them as being no less important within society than anyone else seeking to further themselves.
City of Glasgow College is good architecture where it is most desperately needed and where it can play a critical role; the advancement of all people of all abilities wherever they be from for the betterment of themselves and for society.
Lee Ivett is founding director of Baxendale Studio
Gross internal floor area: 60,000m²
Total project cost: £162m
Number of students: 27,000
Contractor client Sir Robert McAlpine
Architect Reiach Hall Architects with Michael Laird Architects
Structural engineer Arup
M&E Hulley & Kirkwood, FES
Landscape architect Rankin Fraser
Interior design Graven Images