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Scandi comes to Scotland at McGinlay Bell’s Bearsden House

Words:
Ben Addy

McGinlay Bell’s Glasgow house prizes Nordic idioms in blackened timber, glass and brick, and geometric volumes with a domestic scale

One of three courtyards running along the home’s deep plan, which help blur the distinction between inside and outside.
One of three courtyards running along the home’s deep plan, which help blur the distinction between inside and outside. Credit: Jack Hobhouse

There is often a Nordic inflection to Scottish cultural production, not least in architecture. In the design of this house in the famously leafy and affluent Glasgow suburb Bearsden, these influences have been knowingly explored and celebrated by McGinlay Bell. 

In April 2016, roughly a year before their appointment on this project, practice founders Brian McGinlay and Mark Bell took their Y4 students from Strathclyde University on a study tour to Finland: five days, five cities, 30 buildings by Alvar Aalto. The consequences of discussions instigated by this trip can be seen both in the formulation of the firm’s strategic response to this site and in the detail and expression of the completed building.

A two story block of brickwork containing the most intimate rooms locates the building on the (private) street edge and provides an anchor on two sides to a comparatively informal low level pavilion of black stained timber and glass. The two volumes are legible as such at all times on the compact site and are of a markedly and appropriately different character, both internally and externally. Enclosed, with controlled and elevated views in the case of the former; expansive, fluid and permeable for the latter. The two elements are nevertheless united through a carefully judged approach to scale, lending domestic familiarity to this building; an unassuming sensibility unlike some of its more substantial neighbours that, once the connection is appreciated, does indeed bring to mind Aalto’s residential work. The Aalto reference is also reinforced in a direct visual manner by the vertical emphasis of the timber on the pavilion element, the asymmetric butterfly roof atop the sheer volume of the private block and a horizontal plane of brickwork set into the ground at the entrance. 

Vertical timber cladding and the butterfly roof of the two-storey block tacitly tip their hat to Aalto.
Vertical timber cladding and the butterfly roof of the two-storey block tacitly tip their hat to Aalto.

These influences also reflect the clients’ predilections. A construction professional and an accountant, the couple have an enthusiasm of their own for ‘mid-century’ ­architecture and the acknowledged references in the design will no doubt have brought a lot of enjoyment. However it is in the coherence of the spatial concept that the success of this project is primarily experienced.

As a response to the constrained site (formerly the neighbouring villa’s tennis court) the low level pavilion is particularly effective – the orthogonal meandering of the plan provides three simple but distinct courtyards, carefully scaled and related back to the internal spaces which they adjoin. At the front of the house a ‘den’ abuts a timber decked suntrap; midway through the plan a pocket garden is a welcome intrusion that provides visual separation between a secondary bedroom and the living room; at the rear the kitchen and dining space extends outside the building line and into the back of the plot. While the Nordic idioms found in this building are clear to see; especially in the form and exterior detailing; on a blisteringly hot July afternoon (flip flops, palm fronds, a cooling breeze though the house) references to the west coast Case Study Houses are also enjoyably apparent in the fixed spans, material efficiency and above all the emphasis and suitability of the home as a venue for entertaining. While this house may be a departure for Bearsden in terms of aesthetics and how a home might be conceived, there is also a sense of effortless comfort that the well-heeled suburban setting will be untroubled by.

The underlying strategy has been pursued rigorously and consistently through the design process, translating well to the completed building. This is notable as the procurement of this building did not follow the conventional pattern: the project was self-managed by the client couple, with individual trades directly appointed and co-ordinated. There are instances in the detail where a disconnection in sequencing between trades led to additional work being required to bring things back together. Project architects can come under particular pressure in such circumstances and here the increased site attendance of project architect Angus Ritchie was crucial in maintaining the clarity and cohesion of the two principal organising elements, so clear in the concept, all the way through construction.

  • There’s a crisp, Scandi minimalism to the home’s one-storey pavilion.
    There’s a crisp, Scandi minimalism to the home’s one-storey pavilion. Credit: Jack Hobhouse
  • Locally sourced black-stained timber perfectly offsets the slender, buff-coloured Petersen Tegl brick
    Locally sourced black-stained timber perfectly offsets the slender, buff-coloured Petersen Tegl brick Credit: Jack Hobhouse
  • Despite being a self-managed project, good site attendance by the architects ensured the concept was carried through to the execution.
    Despite being a self-managed project, good site attendance by the architects ensured the concept was carried through to the execution. Credit: Jack Hobhouse
  • A model of leafy affluence: the house in the Glasgow suburb of Bearsden..
    A model of leafy affluence: the house in the Glasgow suburb of Bearsden.. Credit: Jack Hobhouse
  • Bathrooms use microcement floor and wall finishes for a homogenous feel.
    Bathrooms use microcement floor and wall finishes for a homogenous feel. Credit: Jack Hobhouse
  • Courtyards help the home seem like a fluid grouping of internal and external spaces.
    Courtyards help the home seem like a fluid grouping of internal and external spaces. Credit: Jack Hobhouse
  • The pavilion holds the main living and dining areas, with the brick block forming more intimate sleeping spaces.
    The pavilion holds the main living and dining areas, with the brick block forming more intimate sleeping spaces. Credit: Jack Hobhouse
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Of course there are advantages to self-procurement, principally in relation to cost and flexibility in material sourcing. Slender bricks, of a typically high quality, were bought direct from Petersen Tegl in Denmark; and rough timber boarding, off the saw, stained black and mounted on edge, was obtained via the architect from another client’s supply on the west coast of Scotland. It is gratifying that the specification of these two materials was secure throughout the process, intrinsic as they are to the external expression and detail of the building. Photographs of the building taken by Jack Hobhouse following completion also show a matter-of-fact fascia to the pavilion in black elastomeric membrane; the roof covering lapped over the perimeter and brought down to the top of the timber cladding. This has since been covered with black zinc, perhaps a more conventional facing material, although the directness of the EPDM may have been truer to the original design ethos. 

Internally, the project makes extensive use of microcement in various pigments. The material is used on floors, walls and ceilings; and also sliding doors and the kitchen. The uniformity of this approach is practical – it is a versatile finishing material. However, used in multiple colours it is not the simple background that would make the most of  a play of light or the clever geometric orchestration of the space, while at the same time – and given the uniformity of texture and finish – it also curiously flattens the sense of materiality. By contrast, the intersection between the two-storey volume and the pavilion is highly convincing: access to the private areas of the house is demarcated with beautifully designed, co-ordinated and fabricated cabinetry. The same book-matched joinery covers the end wall of the living room and together these elements provide a material counterpoint that lends finesse to the interior.

Ben Addy is managing director at Moxon

There is a sense of effortless comfort that the well-heeled suburban setting will be untroubled by

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