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Dundee House, Dundee, by Reiach and Hall

Reiach and Hall’s Dundee House proves that new civic buildings can be daring and retain a stately sense of the past, writes Miles Glendinning

One of the most persistent themes in the history of modern architecture has been the distrust of conventionally monumental, formal solutions for large public buildings. There have been many prominent exceptions, one only needs to think of the Lincoln Center in New York, but on the whole, anything that smacks of ‘classical formality’ is looked on with suspicion.

This poses a special challenge for national and civic government complexes, a type of building bound up with the traditional and stately. Generations of modern architects have struggled to arrive at an approach that is both flexible and socially embedded, yet still conveys an element of monumental symbolism, whether through open-planned layouts of towers and slabs in the 1960s or the more individualistic, metaphor-laden approaches of the ‘iconic’ era.

Reiach and Hall’s new Dundee House, the municipal administrative centre of Scotland’s fourth largest city, represents a new phase in the search for a modern civic architecture, a phase that rejects the meretricious egotism of ‘signature design’ and strives instead to achieve a sense of restrained urban decorum.

Complementing a nearby interwar Beaux-Arts classical complex (City Square) which houses the council’s ceremonial and legislative functions, the new building replaces a redundant postwar office tower, Tayside House, whose standalone setting on the largely undeveloped riverfront was no longer appropriate. A solution that fitted much more closely into the city fabric was required.

The easiest way of doing this was by combining urban relocation and contextualism through an ‘intervention’ slotted into a city centre regeneration gap-site and integrated with existing, usually redundant, historic structures.

This is not a new formula, and, as a stock-in-trade of starchitects in the 1990s, frequently led to disaster. Historic monuments were embedded, trophy-style, into showy confections such as Enric Miralles’ Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Indeed, some of the other competition entrants for the Dundee site proposed gestural towers, pods or blobs. But Reiach and Hall, a longstanding Scottish practice firmly rooted in 1960s Modernism, has put a very different slant on this theme.

The rather constrained focus of the site, wedged just north of the Overgate Centre, is a four-storey listed industrial building constructed in two stages from 1910 and used successively as a machine-manufacturing factory for the jute industry and a D C Thomson printing works.

It is a structure that embodies the spirit of urban accretion and civic memory. The integrity of Reiach and Hall’s approach to the existing heritage is shown by the way it is made the leitmotiv of the whole development and not tacked on, gazebo-style, as with Queensberry House in Miralles’ parliament. Austerely classical in its rows of tripartite windows and tall arches, it is transformed and ennobled into an ‘civic loggia’.

Rather than hollowed out into a shell, its linear plan is projected backwards through the depth of the building, into a complex north-south circulation and service core, which anchors the building in massive, in-situ concrete. Finally, an array of three open-plan office spurs, arranged in a slightly splayed form admits light and views over the city.

To emphasise that the industrial building has been incorporated as a whole, the rear external brick wall extends its aura over the entire building, not only exposed as the main interior wall of the circulation space, but echoed in the external brick facing of the office towers to the west.

The architects’ philosophy of combining modernity with conservative repair has a Ruskinian outlook that has, since the 1964 Venice Charter, constituted the accepted international norm for re-using old buildings.

The plan-form of the building exploits the linear layout with a cruciform circulation plan at ground-floor level and a pedestrian route zigzagging across from the loggia. Most of this is left open as a two-storey civic space with two additional floors of offices and a glazed, meeting room floor above. The intersection of the transverse route and the linear spine is marked by a multi-purpose, robustly-furnished public enquiry space, horribly titled One Stop Shop (apparently dictated by national precedent).

In previous projects, Reiach and Hall had developed this linear-plan theme, most notably at Stobhill Hospital (AJ 29.06.09), where the need for public access dictated an open, airy spine traversed by bridges and balconies. In Dundee, as the six upper floors are entirely occupied by council departments, the spine takes on a more private, enclosed form, not dissimilar to the firm’s 2003 Westport office development in Edinburgh.

An intricate web of corridors, light wells and glimpsed views dissolve gradually from dark intensity to panoramic lightness as one ascends through the building. The office spaces, subdivided and articulated by the massive spine walls and the west facade ‘tower’ incisions, also aid this framework of shifting views. Although the building accommodates a staff of almost 1,000, the structured plan ensures there are no vast corporate spaces.

Although the building, with its low-tech displacement ventilation system that pushes air up from service void floors and out through the two light-wells, fully acknowledges the carbon-reduction agenda, the architects rejected simplistic energy-led formulae as panaceas for good architecture. They insisted on the need to convey a sense of longevity and psychological sustainability.

The building embodies a loose-fit generosity of scale and uses a limited palette of enduring materials: oak, brick, stone, glass, concrete. Internally, the dominance of the rough brick of the retained building heightens this sense of permanence. In a 1960s public building, the ‘noble’ materials alone might have been sufficient to create a feeling of appropriate decorum.

Today, for good or bad, something more poetically individual is demanded. Thus the building is dotted with small artistic fragments by Gareth Fisher cast into the concrete walling slabs, as well as splashes of coloured internal walling.

Externally, the challenge is to integrate the seven-storey western office block and spine with the lower listed building to the east. This could have been an awkward juxtaposition, with a tall glazed wall rearing up behind the preserved facade, but in this case the junction is handled with unobtrusive restraint. Again, Reiach and Hall’s linear-spine concept is carried forward, avoiding the awkward front-rear disparity seen at Stobhill.

On the east side, a set-back, gold-tinted glazed attic block manages the transition from low front to high back. To the west, the strong forms of the three splayed office towers are faced with a gridded pattern of light pink Danish brick piers and precast concrete slabs.

Exploiting a plant-room floor at the top of the building, these grids are surmounted by a double-height ‘order’ of taller piers, somewhat classical in appearance and recalling the restrained rationalism of mid-century Danish and Swedish Modernism. The three towers are subtly differentiated, with the left-hand northern block emphasised by rotated piers that have a more autonomously monumental presence, intended to command a yet-to-be-formed civic square and extension of the Overgate Centre.

How does this carefully conceived project fit into the shifting landscape of contemporary architecture, both in Scotland and further afield? Does it make a distinctive contribution to today’s general movement against iconic egotism, and the corresponding search for greater integrity and decorum? We should bear in mind that the Reiach and Hall practice is a direct descendant, or survivor, of the original Modernism of the postwar years of social reconstruction.

The Modernist source from which they sprang was not the ‘late Modernism’ that anticipated iconic individualism and a reliance on poetic solutions. It was the earlier form of Modernism from the 1950s and 1960s, shaped by socially-integrated precedents of early post-war Scandinavia. It was a phase of Modernism that took for granted a decorous balance of monumental public buildings, background architecture, and buildings of intermediate character – like Dundee House.

Reiach and Hall continued building in this way throughout, and despite the showy Postmodern and neo-Modernist years, they are still doing so today through the work of a new generation of designers led by Neil Gillespie.

The sense of integrity that pervades Reiach and Hall’s Dundee complex is not just the expression of yet another fashion, a suspicion that lingers around the work of some London-based practitioners of the ‘new sobriety’. It is an imprint in the genetic code of the practice. A sense of socially embedded decorum is not unique to Reiach and Hall but is shared by other contemporary Scottish firms such as Page\Park or Malcolm Fraser.

It is not too far-fetched to see this new, confident sense of social integrity within contemporary Scottish Modernism as the architectural expression of a growing gulf between Scotland and England in social policy, as the SNP government stands aside from Westminster’s reckless assault on the welfare state south of the border.

Miles Glendinning is author of ‘Evil Empire?: The Triumph and Tragedy of Global Modernism’

Credits

Start on site June 2009
Contract duration 22 months
Gross internal floor area 12,500m²
Form of contract Two stage traditional
Total cost £29.8 million
Cost per m² £2,388
Client Dundee City Council
Architect Reiach and Hall Architects
Structural engineer Buro Happold
M&E consultant Buro Happold
Quantity surveyor Turner and Townsend
Planning supervisor Reiach and Hall
Lighting consultant Spiers Major/Buro Happold/Reiach and Hall
Main contractor Lend Lease
Project architects Nick O’Neill, Lyle Christie and Neil Gillespie
Estimated annual CO2 emissions 26kg/m²

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