Page\Park’s retrofit of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery paints as detailed a picture of the country’s cultural character as the works within
In recent years, Scotland’s galleries and museums have been gradually refreshed, overhauled with lottery money or council and government grants. The programme usually runs like this: take a solid stone building from the 19th century, rip out bits carelessly added to the original plan, remodel the circulation, and complement with light industrial Modernist interventions such as object staircases, thrusting mezzanines and a café pleasant enough to wait in while the rainclouds pass.
These institutions form a backdrop for much of Scotland’s social life. Perhaps more than elsewhere in the UK, they serve as shelter, as much as entertainment and education centres, because of the often foul weather and because most are free to enter. Accordingly, they are important public spaces, where locals of all kinds meet each other and mingle with tourists.
Surprisingly few architects compete to define the look and feel of this sheltered public realm and Page\Park Architects, which has completed this £17.6 million refurbishment of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, is among the most successful. It has projects dotted throughout the country. The Lighthouse and the CCA in Glasgow, Eden Court Theatre in Inverness and McManus Galleries in Dundee precede this latest prize catch in the capital. Like those buildings, it shares a similar language of sandstone blended with render, painted steel girders with polished concrete and internal glass partitions with granite flagstones.
Page\Park’s big trick was to shuffle 60 per cent more space into the plan
The Glasgow firm has been locked in battles for these projects since the 90s, with Richard Murphy, Malcolm Fraser and Gareth Hoskins, whose Andrew Doolan Award-winning revival of the National Museum of Scotland rather overshadowed the re-opening of this half-forgotten Edinburgh institution in December last year (it was shut for three years during works). In terms of this kind of retrofit, with Mackintosh, Greek Thompson and Gillespie Kidd & Coia buildings in the bag, Page\Park is arguably the more accomplished among this squad of Central Belters.
The practice has a reputation for well-mannered architecture, perhaps because much of its work is behind well-known, well-preserved facades. But much of Page\Park’s refurbishment work contains bold, often shocking moves: the neon-lit escalator stack within Mackintosh’s Herald building shell for the Lighthouse and a new entrance cut into the A-listed walls of George Gilbert Scott’s McManus Galleries come to mind.
Robert Rowand Anderson’s original building is another extravagant A-listed classic, a Neo-gothic steel-framed chunk in the new town with a Doge’s Palace elevation in Dumfriesshire red sandstone. It dates from 1889 and was paid for by Scotsman owner John Ritchie Findlay. The facades are rich with sculptures of poets, monarchs and statesmen watching over Queen and North St Andrew Streets, while William Wallace and Robert the Bruce guard the entrance. This is now approached by steps incorporating a ramp and, thankfully, no balustrades.
Through the doors, it’s straight ahead to the main hall and candy-coloured murals by William Hole, right into an enlarged café, or left into the contemporary gallery to see the wall of Hot Scots, including comic book author Mark ‘Kick-Ass’ Millar, comedy boss Armando Iannucci and Doctor Who sidekick Karen Gillan.
Despite placing a huge glass lift capable of shifting large paintings up to top floor galleries towards the centre of the plan and a new buffer zone between the facade and the gaudily painted great hall, Page\Park’s big trick was to shuffle 60 per cent more space into the plan. The gallery has a huge collection of 3,000 paintings and sculptures, 25,000 prints and drawings, and 38,000 photographs, much of which has been in storage for years. Now, access to the exhibition spaces on all three levels has been opened up with the suite of top-lit galleries on the upper floor fully restored, which involved building a new roof and ceilings on the west side. The galleries are beautifully lit and there is a great sense of space. New elements are unobtrusive and existing stonework and parquet floors enhanced.
I’m not sure that visitors will go to the top floors first without a personal prompt, but the architect and client have planned the visitor experience with the hope that they do. I didn’t. I was instinctively drawn to the main hall and its murals first, as were most others. But at least now there is a choice, and the multiple routes through and up bring a little fun to the task of navigation. It’s almost fantasy castle-like.
In total there are 17 galleries. On the top floor, the older collection depicts scenes from the Reformation through to the industrial revolution and the social changes of the 19th century. The middle floor focuses on the 20th century to the present day.
There is some amazing work to see. Three Oncologists by Ken Currie will stop you in your tracks, John Lavery’s battleships in the Firth of Forth are a bolt from the blue and the John Slezer Gallery is a real treat. Its series of engravings from the 17th century surveyor’s Theatrum Scotiae are apparently the first pictorial survey of an entire nation. The word ‘portrait’ is loosely applied, but it is for the better.
But there’s something else worth noting here and it’s the new cultural public realm aesthetic that defines modern Scotland, a look and feel Page\Park has perfected over the years in a number of gallery retrofits throughout the country. You can see it in its purest form in the contemporary gallery on the ground floor.
A mezzanine, inserted to improve circulation and link with existing platform levels, floats overhead, tracing a line along the length of the plan to terminate at the glass lift, which is accessed through portals cut into the stone fabric. There are swish details such as an interior layer of toughened glass fitted to a custom-made heavy metal frame lining the inner face of elevational arches. Imagine a corporate spin on Carlo Scarpa’s Castelvecchio car-washed by heritage groups, design panels, building regs and the HSE. All of these synthetic moments are repeated in various ways throughout the rest of the building. It’s a method that works very well, a convincing template for others working in this field and a portrait of the nation in its own way.