HM Prison Saughton, Edinburgh, is a dreich place, a grim institution surrounded by an 8m high security fence. The prison sits dejectedly in the western fringes of Edinburgh separated from a strip of mean, thin-lipped, post-war council houses by an open car park - altogether a pretty depressing place. Couple this geography of despair with the tension and frustration of prison visiting and you have a measure of the context awaiting Gareth Hoskins Architects' first major project.
This is the first purpose-built reception building for prison visitors in Scotland. Hoskins, however, already had experience of this type of facility, having been project architect with Penoyre & Prasad's Belmarsh Visitors' Centre completed in 1996.
Saughton's facility came about through the initiative of the then governor, Alex Spencer. He argued that maintaining contact with loved ones and friends was a vital part of an inmate's rehabilitation and he therefore placed great importance on the value of visits. Prior to this facility being opened, visitors, 70 per cent of whom are female, many with children in tow and numbering some 1200 a week, were virtually uncatered for.
Strict security screening meant a long wait, with resultant long queues often forming outside in all weathers.
Project architect Liam McCafferty recounts that a driving force behind their proposals was 'not to treat the visitors of today as the prisoners of tomorrow'. The emphasis was to be on creating an open, friendly building.
A limited competition was initiated with funding secured from The Onward Trust. Gareth Hoskins won against Page and Park, Alan Murray, Morris and Steedman and Ungless and Latimer.
The building essentially functions as a reception and waiting area, manned by the Women's Royal Volunteer Service. It provides a variety of essential facilities such as security screening, information, waiting, WCs, buggy storage, baby change, lockers, cafe, creche, play areas, counselling spaces and offices. This building will eventually work in tandem with another new facility within the prison walls, currently on site with Morris and Steedman.
This is where visitors meet inmates face to face. It, too, is being designed to afford people some measure of respect.
An important aspect of the brief was that the building's organisation should be legible and obvious on entry. Visitors should be able to relax and, if they wished, find some degree of privacy. To that end the plan is measured and confident.
A linear strip of service spaces serve an open flared cafe and waiting area. A series of bays formed by articulation of the structural grid provide more private waiting areas against a deeply modelled, timber-glazed wall. As well as flaring in plan, the cafe and waiting area's roof opens up in a lazy yawn to the south, allowing light to penetrate deep into the interior. The plan ultimately focuses on a children's playroom, saturated in colour, and imaginatively detailed with lively fenestration and recessed soft play pit.
The served and the servant spaces also call out the inherent constructional strategy, with glulam roof members/steel composite columns to the former and loadbearing block domestic construction to the latter.
Internally, the space is light, airy and friendly. It is relaxed, users apparently delighting in the space with many reluctant to leave.
At a detailed level there are aspects of the interior which are less assured. Liam McCafferty described how the practice was looking to create an interior with the feel of an 'American diner'.
They have created, in fact, something much less kitsch, less commercial, something more refined and more northern, with more than a hint of Scandinavian good taste. However, I believe the refining process needed to go a bit further. For example, in the timber specification there are fine pieces of joinery in the cedar sliding doors and window screens and simply detailed beech reception desk and fixed furniture, but the yellow pine glulam beams seem uncouth against these more sophisticated pieces.
The interior detailing owes much to that school of English pragmatists who celebrate the articulation of each component of construction, that is the cruciform steel columns and the south, steel-framed, timber infill screen.
However, contrasting with this approach are convincing areas of abstract composition, notably the secretly-lit plastered ceiling within the waiting area adjacent to the entrance and the abstract fenestration composition of the playroom, which recall contemporary figures such as Steven Holl.
It is the emblematic ceiling plane, however, which expresses this ambivalence best. It seems to be caught between being articulation of the construction - the glulam structural bay, with its plaster infill - and being simply a white plane. A move to express one or other more emphatically would have been more successful, either by being a celebration of 'timberness' at all levels of construction - primary, secondary and tertiary, or by subjugating the frame altogether and expressing the ceiling simply as a white warped reflector.
At first sight, this building appears to offer limited scope for the application of engineering skill in a creative way. It is low rise and, in part, supported by load-bearing walls on simple shallow foundations that bear directly onto suitable ground.
A closer look reveals its subtleties and complexities. From an engineering viewpoint, the building is in two parts: the main hall with its uptilted roof, large windows and exposed structure; and the administrative and support areas, which are of cellular construction. The fabric of the building has been engineered to be multifunctional in the way that it encloses the spaces, moderates the internal environment and provides structural support. Internal environmental comfort is achieved with the minimum of mechanical assistance. Structural elements have been integrated into the thickness of the fabric, except in the central hall. Here the open cruciform columns are constructed from small scale angle sections spaced apart to respond to the scale and intimacy of adjacent meeting spaces. The spaces between the angles allow a common vocabulary of connections to be established between roof beams and floor slab. This is developed further into the detailing of the secret supports at the intersection between columns and timber roof beams, as they pass through the glazing line at high level. The clean simple lines of the masonry walls, which are punctured by slots in the drum at the entrance, are achieved by careful engineering design which conceals the framing of the opening.
The main challenges were dimensional: resolving the roof geometry and its juxtaposition with its support structure; and, at a more detailed level, the setting out of the sinuous north-facing windows. Both were achieved by close collaboration between architect, engineer, specialist suppliers and builder.