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A PRESERVATION-MINDED CITY AND A PICTURESQUE BUT HOPELESS SITE

BUILDING STUDY

Edinburgh-based practice Reiach and Hall was established in 1965, and has worked in the education, health, residential, commercial, arts and industrial sectors. Key projects include the Wolfson Medical School at Glasgow University (AJ 24.10.02) and the Westport Offices in Edinburgh (AJ 24.4.03). The practice has just won a competition to design a £20 million office building for Dundee Council.

In the past decade, new British university buildings have tended towards the spectacular. Think of Richard Rogers' library for Thames Valley University, or Norman Foster's Tanaka Business School for Imperial College. These are loud, demonstrative buildings, declaiming messages about technology and access to information. The resources they contain are high-tech and they want you to know it. Such buildings are the result of a minor boom in university construction, as institutions either came into being or rebranded themselves from the early 1990s onwards.

Anxious to present new identities to the world, they found architecture to be an effective PR tool.

Reiach and Hall's Arts Faculty Building for St Andrews is something else entirely. This major building is the first addition to the central St Andrews campus in more than 30 years and adds 2,790mless than or equal to of teaching and office space, in an L-shaped plan, to the university's stock. But it exists in a singular context, namely an ancient university certain about its identity, and a historic city with a delicate fabric. This is a calculatedly unspectacular building, in which public messages are downplayed in favour of a dialogue with the difficult site. It also marks a development of Reiach and Hall's urban language, which references the work of Rafael Moneo, Eric Parry and Scandinavian Modernism, as well as the local vernacular.

This language has been seen already in two large Edinburgh projects: Evolution House at the western edge of the city's Grassmarket (2004) and the brilliant Silvermills project (2005), which created the first new street in Edinburgh's New Town in 200 years. The language is one of restraint, a word the practice is happy to use: a vocabulary of glass and stone; simple geometrical forms and a preoccupation with the site.

This restraint extends to engagement with the site; invariably the practice aims to improve on what is there, rather than impose something different: repair is a key concept. These are contemporary buildings, but ones that do not interrupt their context. The architects joke that their work is 'dull', perhaps too polite; a sublimation of Edinburgh's worst as well as best characteristics. But there is something quietly radical about this quality in a professional climate which celebrates novelty. Their work shows a lack of ego or preciousness and a willingness to make the building's profile secondary to the users' requirements for the space. The architects seem to enjoy how their work gets inhabited by the user, rather than prescribe how it should happen.

At St Andrews the client demanded a multi-purpose building for both teaching and offices. Particular demands were to house the expanding department of international relations and provide new, accessible teaching space, accessibility being a problem on the St Andrews campus. Two possible locations were discussed: North Haugh, a low-density, science-dominated campus on the town's western fringe, home to James Stirling's leaky but exciting Andrew Melville Hall (1968); or the central town campus between North Street and the sea. Discussions quickly favoured the latter, as this was the main location for arts students.

The site was picturesque but hopeless. It was a gap site at the western edge of the campus, bounded by a number of distinct elements: Faulkner Brown's 1970s Brutalist library; St Katherine's West, a substantial 19th-century townhouse occupied by postgraduates; the New Picture House, a long, narrow 1930s cinema whose rear juts right into the campus; a car park; and a dozen or so private back gardens. Its heterogeneity was complicated further by fat stone walls and numerous changes of level. Worse still, a plant-room enclosure on the site needed to be incorporated into the building. The 1970s library, a pavilion plonked in the middle, abruptly curtailed the vestigial sequence of quads. On top of that was the preservation-minded city itself, inclined to stop anything out of kilter with the surroundings.

In the end, the very difficulty of the site offered a way forward. Its disparity and the frank ugliness of the backs of the surrounding buildings offered the chance of repair, which was the concept put to both client and planners. Here was the opportunity to heal, renew and join up the site, an approach with broad appeal for the client.

The end result is a building which responds to everything around it. It is four-storeys high, corresponding to the height of both the library and the 19th-century townhouse. The exterior facades acknowledge, without imitating, the surroundings; the height continues the line of the library and townhouse; and the warm stone matches the concrete of the library (surprising the client, who thought it was grey). The vertical, projecting bays along the building's north front are an equivalent to the traditional bays of Scottish domestic buildings. It is an exceedingly polite exercise in contextual Modernism.

But the building is far from dull. The south facade is tough and interesting, a Moneo-like at plane with dark recesses whose severity makes the informality of the surrounding scrubby car park, garden sheds and thick wall picturesque by contrast.

This idea works best inside, however. The views from the generous, bright and crisp interior are tremendous. If the building itself is calculatedly unspectacular, the views it offers are anything but.

Two views stand out. On the east facade, picture windows all the way up frame the library, lifting it from mediocrity. It suddenly seems sculptural: a massive, brutal, Neanderthal building, fat and ham--sted, like an early Paolozzi sculpture. The second outstanding view is from the fourth oor, where a suite of offices and a gallery look out across the roof to the eastern Highlands.

Anywhere else, this would have been a cocktail bar, but the views are terrific: seals bobbing offshore, the distant hills and the aircraft of nearby RAF Leuchars.

The interior offers much to look at too. The circulation spaces at ground level are airy and generous, set off by a sculptural lighting scheme - in effect, a piece of serial minimalism. A fullheight atrium criss-crossed by walkways provides light to the whole building. There is a superbly detailed stair at the western extreme of the building whose austerity has an almost moral tone.

I felt I was in 1950s Sweden.

The individual offices are generous and well-planned, with beautiful views. Their occupants have already made them their own: some stuffed with books and struggling for air, others monastically free from clutter. The window inserts in the doors are covered with notices, ANC posters and pictures of Mao Tse-tung.

It feels like it will be a sociable building, too. The brief colonnade at the entrance gives an air of urbanity, while the ground-level circulation areas might be large enough to encourage students to linger, rather than simply pass through. The staff areas are well supplied with coffee points and generous spaces for informal gathering.

The teaching spaces are less convincing, at least as they are now configured. The seminar rooms were built for groups of up to 30, yet with lowish ceilings, sun through the south-facing aspect and the lumpy furniture (over which Reiach and Hall had no control) they might heat up quickly. The natural ventilation works in calm surroundings, with limited ows of people, in moderate temperatures - but how will these rooms perform at full capacity, in summer, with students fretting about exams?

The same applies to the lecture theatre, which seems to have been strangely specified. A long, thin shape, with a huge window to the south, it seems an uneasy compromise between the informality of the seminar rooms, in which discussion is the imagined activity, and the formality of a theatre proper. Here, a level oor offers poor sightlines to the podium, and whatever elegance the room once had is lost thanks to the university's furnishings. Like the seminar rooms, it also seems as if it might cook its inhabitants in hot weather. The intensity of light would impair the performance of AV equipment - a data projector would only work in a total blackout. The blinds are simple to operate but crude in effect, providing either complete darkness or light. Most of these issues can no doubt be resolved as the building beds in.

But the building's inhabitants seem to be half in love with it already. Rightly so - it is a beguiling and humane building and it creates a place where one did not previously exist. Unusually for a piece of contemporary architecture, it doesn't judge or overwhelm its neighbours, but makes them part of its programme.

Given the complexity of the surroundings, that alone is some achievement.

Costs

Hormann door Redmill Fabrication; metalwork Irvine Engineering; fire coating Stopfire; intercell cable management flooring and floor finishes Veitchi; Mansafe roof system The Access Group; extra coring to plant room Easy Derill; us ceilings J&M Interiors; decoration Clandec; oor screed Glenalmond Contracts;

floor tiling A De Cecco; blinds Goldcrest Furnishings; external glazed panels Greenberg Glass; Sto render to soffits Muir-field Contracts; manufactured joinery Alexander Oastler; mirrors and viewing panels Leuchars Glazing; surfacing works Ennstone Thistle; oak timber handrails Haldane; Emco entrance matting Boon Edam; builders' clean Shine Cleaning; mastic J&M Sealants; grass-seeding works St Andrews Landscaping Services

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