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Merchant adventure

Filling a block in a Glasgow's Merchant City is not an easy task, but CZWG has used the city's essential elements plus a few of its own inventions to deliver a powerful contemporary building By Deyan Sudjic. Photographs by David Churchill

Ever since Gilbert Scott got the job of designing Glasgow University's new campus, Glasgow has been more ambiguous than most cities about architects who come to visit, and then stay to build. The original buildings, dating back to the mid-sixteenth century, were sold off to a railway company and turned into a goods yard built on what would now be Grade A-listed rubble. Nor is it a city that has encouraged architects based elsewhere to do their best work. Norman Foster's convention centre on the Clyde is effective enough as an architectural signboard in the midst of a chaotic environment. Robert Matthew deliberately disrupted the city grid when he built in the Gorbals. Basil Spence, despite his famous claim that the washing-bedecked balconies of his high-rise flats were like galleons in full sail, narrowly failed to live to see them demolished by dynamite.

The problem, in part, seems to have been the way in which the visitors have been expected to use the chance of a Glasgow commission to build a trademark, but have been damned for it when they have duly produced the signature building they thought they were being asked for. Piers Gough on the other hand, a regular visitor for more than a decade, has worked his way into the fabric of the city in a gentler way. There is his masterplan for the rebuilding of part of the Gorbals at Crown Street from the ground up for the second time in 30 years. While the architecture of the resurrected Gorbals is not his, the relaxed masterplan is a demonstration of how a city can recreate a sense of urbanity even in extremis. And now he has built a handsome new city block in stone in Glasgow's Merchant City just across the street from the heroically scaled city chambers, which offers both urban fabric and architecture. It's known by its developers as Cochrane Square, but in fact it will eventually come right up to the street line on three sides of the site it occupies, and butt directly against an existing building on the fourth. The 'square' tag refers to the internal courtyard that will eventually be part of the scheme; but the architectural action is all on the street.

Neither the Gorbals plan, nor Cochrane Square, could be described as predictable czwg designs - if there is such a thing - except perhaps for the way in which they refuse to be overawed by their context.

Cochrane Square is big, filling an entire city block, and rising up to a peak of seven floors. And it is a rare attempt by any architect, Glasgow- born or not, to live up to the scale of the grid, the great generator of the city's nineteenth-century core.

The essence of Glasgow's city centre depends on stone, on classicism, and on the grid. What czwg has done, working to a brief that is essentially speculative, is demonstrate that it is possible to redeploy all three elements in a convincingly contemporary take on the dynamic that gave Glasgow its original urban character.

And cities just don't come more urban than Glasgow. It has its streets that, thanks to the natural topography, make you feel like Steve McQueen in Bullet, thumping down the streets of San Francisco toward the Clyde. And then there are the lanes, that are more like the alleys of Los Angeles, with Starsky and Hutch leaving boxes thrown up in their dust. Gough's work is at the eastern edge of the grid, marking its limit. The site is now occupied by two different office buildings, one of them the preserve of the city's Housing Department, Wheatley House, the other a tax office known as Cotton House. But czwg's buildings look anything but the part. They look like the fabric of a busy commercial city, rather than a bureaucratic landmark, or a conventional architectural filing cabinet. They are scaled up at street level to acknowledge pedestrians, and later stages will involve ground-level activity such as shops and cafes. It's a reminder of just how much the centre of Glasgow has threatened to come unravelled that such a large block was available for a single development. But also of just how powerful is Glasgow's architectural dna that such an ambitious project is possible.

The long facade on Cochrane Street, facing the Frenchified classicism of City Chambers' later extensions, is dominated by Gough's brand-new invention, the Clyde Order: giant stone columns, topped by capitals that take the form of ships' prows, in cast concrete, with iron handrails that look like the kind of thing that might have graced a Titanic poster. The giant order of columns, four storeys high, marches in stately fashion across the Cochrane Street facade, sitting on a comfortable rusticated base, the rhythm underscored by three-storey-high glass-and-bronze panels cut into the stone on each side of the columns, and interrupted by an inflection that marks the main entrance.

There is enough detail in the stone, and enough subtlety in the proportions and rhythms, to ensure that this is no architectural one-liner. And as you move around the scheme, Gough deploys a range of architectural effects: seen head on, the columns look quite different from the way they do from an angle. The scheme's second phase turns the corner into Montrose Street and offers a quite different character, with a zig-zag facade that suggests that this is the extreme edge of the grid, and that the city beyond marches to a different rhythm. This has the effect of giving the Cotton House two quite different facades. On one side it shares the vocabulary of giant columns with the housing department. On the other side the flavour is a little more deco. The point is that the two offices have been designed at the urban scale, rather than at that of the individual building. The corner is itself marked by a series of setbacks, each of which rises by an additional storey, in a manner strongly suggestive of pre-war Berlin, before setting off on its riveted-bronze and glass zig-zags.

The exact form of the third phase is still under discussion, but will eventually complete the block as a symmetrical facade with stone wings at each corner, before turning into Ingram Street where it will face the austere pediment of the city's long-derelict sheriff court. The plan had to take account of the contemporary realities of the office market: large floorplates, planned around light wells, with brick walls that will eventually vanish behind the stone street front.

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