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Small Animal Hospital, Glasgow, by Archial Architects

Archial Architects’ reputation soared when it won the RIAS Andrew Doolan prize for its Small Animal Hospital last year. But is this really Scotland’s best building, or just bad British architecture, asks Rory Olcayto. Photography by Andrew Lee

Last year, the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) gave Archial Architects’ Small Animal Hospital the Andrew Doolan Best Building in Scotland Award.

It was a unanimous decision. Ian Ritchie – who sat on a jury chaired by Andrew MacMillan – said it ‘stands comparison with the best new architecture anywhere in Europe’. The award citation described Archial’s design as ‘a highly complex work of architecture which sets new standards in the design of buildings for veterinary medicine’.

On the other hand, Archial’s buildings (though not this one) draw strong criticism from a seemingly less-qualified, but nonetheless influential critic. Vicious rants against the firm by Ghost of Nairn – a faceless blogger invoking architecture critic Ian Nairn, who wrote The Architectural Review’s 1955 ‘Outrage’ issue – are too extreme to print here. On the Bad British Architecture blog, keenly followed by critics, Ghost of Nairn’s recent targets include Archial’s controversial Murrayfield housing project in Edinburgh and the National Curling Academy in Kinross.

For one practice to be on the receiving end of both warm institutional praise and passionate, if anonymous, abuse is rare. Furthermore, it raises questions about the nature of awards, the role of criticism and, most importantly, the constitution of good architecture. Clearly a review of Archial’s work is long overdue and the Small Animal Hospital is a good place to start.

For one practice to be on the receiving end of both warm institutional praise and passionate abuse is rare

Located at the entrance to the leafy Garscube Estate in north-west Glasgow, the hospital forms part of the University of Glasgow’s faculty of veterinary medicine. It is focused around a central treatment hub with facilities that include day-care, intensive care, operation suites, diagnostics and oncology. Teaching and office spaces occupy the upper level, with views over the estate.

Set into the landscape, a huge grassed roof supported by a steel frame ramps over the plan. It rises from the ground at the west end of the site to create a two-storey, east-facing facade. The roof is crowned with a faceted cupola and its perimeter is part-enclosed by an impressive, tough-looking gabion wrap. Behind this, elevations are formed with strips of grey fibre-cement cladding. One corner is marked by V-shaped steel columns that support the roof above an empty segment of the building’s footprint, creating a canopy for open-air dog runs. The hospital’s entrance, in the north facade, squats under the lower part of the slope and is again expressive, with intersecting planes of glass, rock and render and a cube-shaped portal door.

Like Ghost of Nairn, the team behind this building has a secret identity. Glasgow-based Davis Duncan Architects was among a number of practices subsumed by the Archial Group (then known as SMC Group) in 2006. Over the past two decades, Davis Duncan built a solid reputation in a number of sectors: health, housing, education, commercial and industrial. It was versatile in the extreme – conservation and ecclesiastical buildings were its other prosperous markets – and it generally brought a degree of flair to each project. If anything, records show the firm has improved since it was snapped up by Archial. Last year, its Pollock Civic Realm project won Archial its first RIBA Award.

The link between Pollock Civic Realm and the Small Animal Hospital is Russell Baxter, director at Archial’s Glasgow studio, who worked on the hospital from the start. The project began in 2003 when the firm won a feasibility study for Glasgow University. It developed a plan with a linear block for public functions peeling off from a radial hub containing the hospital zone and treatment centre, with both ranged under a sloping roof rising to a roadside elevation – the basic form we see today. It beat off competition from RMJM, which proposed a barn-like structure rejected by the client on the grounds that it presented a clichéd, parochial image of veterinary science.

Archial’s scheme was considered more emblematic of a contemporary veterinary hospital; in essence, more iconic. The client had big ambitions: to be the preferred referral hospital and vet school in Scotland for pet owners, staff, students and the local community, and to be an internationally recognised centre of excellence. Archial won the OJEU tender in 2005, but at this point the site changed to a more secluded spot on the campus-like Garscube Estate.

Nevertheless, both client and architect stuck with their plan, and Baxter – a firm believer in the sanctity of the diagram – resolved to fit the building to the new site. This saw the introduction of the green roof, the application of the gabion wrap and a re-orientation on the site, with the two-storey frontage now facing away from the approach road. Construction started in October 2007 and the building was occupied last August.

When you visit the hospital, it is at first barely visible. The cupola rises out of the green slope but is tucked behind a protected oak tree, which determined the building’s placement. A perimeter fence on the roof is the only other sign of construction. The road dips down on the northern flank of the building, leading to a small car park and the hospital entrance. This elevation traces the line of the slope and there is an awkward kink near to where it meets the ground. But the entrance is welcoming and, beyond, the reception space is rather special.

You enter a wedge-shaped room, crowned by the cupola. A reception and admin block occupies the centre of the public zone’s plan and stairs to the left of it lead up to a mezzanine lobby above. Consulting rooms line a corridor on the right-hand side of the space. These look west through big timber-framed doors and windows on to a deep ‘trench’ cut into the slope. Most surfaces are white-rendered, but oak panelling is used effectively on the lower half of the reception block (where engravings celebrate the hospital’s donors) and on furniture specially designed by Archial. Elsewhere, rough concrete steps and vinyl flooring lend a utilitarian feel; a welcome foil to the cosy modernity that defines the space. There is no artificial light in use when I visit on a dull March day, but it feels remarkably bright.

This is in marked contrast to the hospital part of the plan. It is arranged as a radial diagram, meaning many of the spaces are without natural light. However, Baxter explains that this is how the client wanted it, as many of the functions don’t need daylight. But there are some contradictions. The X-ray rooms for example, are located along the eastern wall, rather than centrally on plan. Baxter specified clear full-size windows for the adjacent operating theatres, but the client objected, and now just a thin strip of glass lights these rooms naturally. The treatment hub, at the centre of the radius, is lit by a skylight, although not as effectively as the public zone is by the cupola. Long, wide corridors run north-south and are bookended with floor-to ceiling windows.

The first floor is less coherent. Curiously, two meeting rooms are given the same hierarchical status as a plant room and toilet block through their inclusion in a central, windowless core. When we enter one of them, four lightpipes do their best to brighten the space but the ambience is poor. Baxter gracefully concedes the point. The cupola, which extends over the hospital zone as well as the public area, provides staff with a lunch room. It is by far the most effective of the first-floor spaces and leads to a mezzanine and the rooftop ‘garden’.

There are many good things to recommend here: the handsome gabion wall, the great public space beneath the cupola, the very happy client (‘Archial has designed us a world-class facility’). But I find it hard to agree with the experienced RIAS jury that this the best building completed in Scotland last year. Baxter admits the green roof, for example, is not quite as green as it sounds because of all the steel used to hold it up.

Excavating 18,500m3 of earth to create a building without ‘ruining the beautiful green space for which the Garscube Estate is renowned’, as Archial says, seems a tad cynical too. And in many places, such as where the soffit on the first-floor corridor drops down to obscure a full-height window or in the deadzones leftover where the roof meets the ground on the western flank, the overriding impression is of a building hammered into a hole it doesn’t quite fit into.

Yet this is not bad British architecture either. Each of the hospital’s negatives can be argued away. Poor landscaping at the building perimeter? Take a walk on the roof instead. It’s encouraging to see Archial, which designs great swathes of our built environment, engaging with provocative design. The profession needs firms like Archial to push things a little, rather than simply knocking out buildings, and hopefully the Glasgow office can influence the rest of the brand as workloads improve.

Coincidentally, Reiach and Hall’s Beatson Institute, a rival for last year’s Andrew Doolan prize, lies just metres away from the Small Animal Hospital. Inscrutable and assured, it represents the endgame of the austere, cool modernism that has dominated Scottish practice in recent years. You could argue that Archial’s hospital is Beatson’s opposite – a mixture of forms, planes, textures and volumes that coheres against the odds. Those at Archial unnerved by Ghost of Nairn’s harsh words might like to know that Beatson, despite being widely admired, was criticised in these very pages (AJ 17.07.08), and by Isi Metzstein no less. But be assured, criticism is far easier to give than sincere, fair praise.

Project data

Start on site October 2007
Contract duration 18/19 months
Gross internal floor area 4,500m2
Form of contract Traditional JCT
Total cost £15 million
Cost per m2 £2,300
Client University of Glasgow
Architect Archial Architects
Landscape architect City Design Co-operative
M&E engineer Hulley & Kirkwood
Structural engineer Beattie Watkinson
Quantity surveyor Armour Construction Consultants
Acoustic consultant New Acoustics
Main contractor John Graham (Dromore)
Annual CO2 emissions 241,219kg

Readers' comments (3)

  • However, Archial is a conglomerate of many parts and a great deal of Bad British's criticism of certain of its work is justified.

    As for awards, the much derided Hotel Missoni in Edinburgh has just won a major Civic Trust Award. Critics from Malcolm Fraser to the Cockburn Association, with many shades of views in between, have nothing good to say about it. So are awards really any indication of good architecture? Is it really Scotland's best building?

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  • Why would you judge (cynically, I must say) the performance of architects as designers on the basis of their poor business management?
    This feels like an article which was made up belatedly to fill an AJ editing hole as part of the 'SCANDAL!! BAD ARCHITECTS GO BUST!!' series, and will be more suitable for tabloids rather than a professional journal.

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  • To clarify: this building study was first published on 18th March 2010.

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