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Glasgow City Mission by Elder and Cannon Architects

Glasgow City Mission and Elder and Cannon Architects, the designer of its new headquarters, appear to have similar values. Both are a positive force in Glasgow; both seem content to keep a low profile and to quietly go about their business. Photography by Andrew Lee

Elder and Cannon’s work is recognised for its consistently high quality. Co-founder Dick Cannon is a much-respected designer who, with Tom Elder and director Tom Connolly, has been improving Glasgow since the early 1980s. The practice is highly regarded, yet self-effacing and publicity-averse. Tom Elder and Dick Cannon are retired now, but remain with the practice as consultants.

Glasgow City Mission also maintains a low profile, moving from place to place, and is often found in the most rundown parts of the city.
It was founded in 1826 by David Nasmith as a non-denominational safe house for poor, vulnerable and homeless people. The highly respected and influential Nasmith established city missions elsewhere in the UK and abroad. He died young and penniless and is now almost forgotten outside of Glasgow.

In the early 1990s, the mission occupied a small single-storey timber structure on McAlpine Street, an area blighted by the Kingston Bridge and suffering from the demise of the shipbuilding industry. But this was a fortunate move, fundamental to the creation of its new headquarters.
The humble timber structure sat on land that 10 years later was critical to Glasgow’s reinvention as a big financial services player, when the location fronting on to the River Clyde was earmarked for a new financial services district.

Like other cities in the UK, Glasgow was prospering at the turn of the millennium. Anything seemed possible, even an aspiration for a financial centre to match London or Edinburgh. The crash was years away and offices, hotels and company headquarters were being built on derelict land. Developers bought up sites and made proposals for thirty-storey hotels and high-rise apartments. McAlpine Street became much sought after and Glasgow City Mission, after years of moving around the city looking for cheap accommodation, found it occupied part of a highly prized site.

Major landholder Gladedale Capital, with other smaller stakeholders, commissioned Elder and Cannon to prepare a masterplan. In conjunction with Glasgow City Council and Gladedale, the City Mission agreed a land transfer from its site fronting the river to a more appropriate location. The mission had been ‘hoping and praying’ for a new building for years, wishing to provide day-time activities and extend its care for disadvantaged people. Fate was kind; its new site on the corner of Crimea Street and Brown Street gave it the opportunity to build a headquarters free of charge, giving it a distinctive identity in the centre of the city’s most high-profile regeneration area.

Glasgow is the most complete example of a Victorian gridded city, and the structures that form the grid have a boldness characteristic of the Victorians. Stone and slate buildings reinforce the grid edges of all of the major streets and were built to last. The grid was set out to the north of one of the city’s most important thoroughfares, Argyle Street, and runs west for almost a mile from the Tollbooth, the historic core of Glasgow, parallel to the Clyde. In between Argyle Street and the river, the street pattern shifts. This area, known as the Broomielaw, once teemed with warehouses and is characterised by long streets – one of which is Brown Street – that run down to the water. This is the area designated as Glasgow’s new financial services district.

The city’s vision for the district was for all new buildings to be of a civic scale and a minimum height of five storeys. Glasgow City Mission had big plans, but was pushed for space in a single storey, so this directive gave it the opportunity to add new services and facilities. The mission’s new building contains art spaces, a gymnasium, an internet café, meeting rooms for worship and a roof garden.

Elder and Cannon has stacked up these spaces within a refined, elegantly proportioned, yet robust steel-framed building, clad in a blue brindled brick in keeping with the tone and texture of the historic warehouses. Spaces that require natural light are on the corner of Crimea Street and Brown Street; those that do not are kept to the side and the rear. On the corner, at ground-floor level, is a light-filled, double-height space. This is the ‘drop-in’ café, which at night is filled with people looking for a hot meal or for help and counselling. Externally, each floor is defined by a double soldier course and brick reveals deep enough to convey a sense of solidity, mirroring the historic buildings that make up the Victorian grid.

Plant and general storage spaces are on the roof, which, rather than stepping back, continues to the street corner and forms a colonnade to contain the roof garden. This clever move reminds me of Louis Kahn’s 1971 Phillips Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire, USA, and it gives the building presence on the corner.

There is a subtlety about the structure and the clever play of window and brick patterning on the main elevations. According to Elder and Cannon, the success of the building owes a great deal to contractor Fleming Buildings, particularly the quality of the external brickwork, which is immaculate. This is a building of almost domestic scale and more than a little restraint. Despite this, it stands out as unique amid the ubiquitous corporate architecture that makes up almost all of the financial services district.

Glasgow City Mission is delighted with its premises, paid for by Gladedale Capital, which it considers an ‘amazing story of God’s provision’. Elder and Cannon has created a refined building that is distinctly Glaswegian and has given the mission a presence that is difficult to ignore. It is a positive achievement all round.

Start on site April 2008
Contract duration 14 months
Gross internal floor area1,150m2
Form of contract Design and build
Total cost £2.15 million
Cost per m2 £1,870
Client Gladedale Capital
Architect Elder and Cannon
Structural engineer/planning supervisor Halcrow Yolles
M&E consultant Hawthorne Boyle Partnership
Quantity surveyor Doig + Smith
Main contractor Fleming Buildings
Annual CO2 emissions Unknown

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