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On the bonnie, bonnie banks. . .

BUILDING STUDY: Set in what will be Scotland's first national park, Bennetts Associates'Gateway and Orientation Centre merges with the landscape, taking inspiration from a Loch Lomond steamer

Scotland, unlike England and Wales, has no national park status for areas of outstanding natural beauty. A baffling situation, given that John Muir (1838-1914), the first person to promote the idea of national parks and the architect of the modern conservation movement, was born in Dunbar on Scotland's east coast.

In April 2001, the government proposed to introduce national park status for a few areas of Scotland. The first of these would be Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. The legislation to introduce National Park status is being enacted by the Scottish Parliament and will be in force in early 2002.

In the meantime, an interim committee, a complex, multi-headed body representing the interests of the three local authorities in which Loch Lomond and the Trossachs area is located, along with those representing natural heritage, tourism, social, economic and local communities, has spearheaded the Loch Lomond Shores development at the southern tip of Loch Lomond.

This complex, which has been masterplanned by the landscape architect Ian White Associates, is designed to cater for an expected one million-plus visitors per year.

The Loch Lomond Shores development consists of three separate buildings and commissions. The centrepiece of the masterplan is the multi-storey, multi-function visitor-attraction building by Page and Park, while the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Gateway and Orientation Centre is by Bennetts Associates. The inevitable retail centre, which has yet to be constructed, will form a crescent between the two keynote buildings.

Unfortunately, the creation of this linkbuilding will interrupt the dialogue between the two main protagonists on the site.

The 'Gateway' building, as Rab Bennetts refers to the Orientation Centre, represents a departure for this most professional and committed of architects.

It introduces an element of explicit 'metaphor' to this normally coolly-detached practice. Bennetts Associates has been exemplary in terms of its focus on appropriateness, thoroughness, logic and a real investigation of commercially-viable sustainable systems.Virtually all its previous projects in Scotland have been corporate or commercial and stem from ideas honed during Bennett's early career with Arup Associates, and particularly with the late Peter Foggo.

One witnesses, in the Gateway building, two conversations, each shaping the building, each adding complexity and a certain loosening of Bennetts' customary rigour. In Geddesian parlance, one conversation is about 'outlook', about how the building sees itself in the world; the other about 'inlook', about a private conversation within Bennetts Associates.

The public conversation is about building in the countryside. This issue is currently to the fore with the recent completion of a number of high-profile buildings, notably Page and Park's Museum of Country Life and Munkenbeck + Marshall's visitor centre on Bute.

A recent exhibition at the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland's headquarters in Edinburgh was curated by the dynamic landscape and urban design practice Gross.

Max. which, like Enric Miralles, in his new Scottish Parliament building, points to the Scottish landscape as a source of inspiration and guidance.

Gross. Max. called on the thinking of the geologist James Hutton (1726-97) to reveal the underlying essence of the Scottish Landscape. Gross. Max. consigned 10 selected architectural projects, including Munkenbeck + Marshall, Frank Gehry and Miralles, all of whom confront the idea of building in a Scottish context, to a white plan-chest.

Meanwhile, a massive aerial photograph of Scotland, video installations and huge geological engravings dominated the space.

Buildings were put firmly in their place - minor players within the scale of the natural landscape. The buildings were not seen as central to the debate; they were removed and the architectural personalities suppressed.

While Bennetts Associates has been included in the box, Page and Park has, surprisingly, been omitted. At Loch Lomond, the two buildings sit in splendid opposition, each representing a different attitude to building in the Scottish landscape. On the one hand, Page and Park's building is heroic, a literally massive form of stone and render.

It speaks of broch and ruin, of a romantic landscape. It sits apart from the land, becoming the focus of the scene; it has domain over the territory. Corbusier's Church of Saint Pierre at Firminy-Vert comes to mind for its sheer singularity of form.

In contrast, Bennetts attempts to merge with the landscape, seeking the shadows of the wooded margins of the site. Unlike Page and Park, which uses stone and render - materials heavy with contextual associations - Bennetts adopts materials and systems from its commercial repertoire. The building owes more to the iron passenger-steamer which plies the loch. Indeed, the cantilevered observation deck gives the building a sense of being some black flat-bottomed pleasure craft beached for the season.

While Loch Lomond is a gateway to the highlands, Bennett's building is perceived as the gateway to the site. It sits between the visitor car parks to the south, and the woodlands and the open expanse of Loch Lomond to the north.

Visitors move northwards from their cars to a linear walkway which runs west to east towards the loch, before arcing southwards to the Page and Park tower.

The line of the route is reinforced by the linear form of the new building and, most emphatically, by a green-oak screen wall 100m long. This timber element, of massive vertical oak members, screens and filters views into the woodlands before layering the glass curtain-walled building itself. The storm-felled oak was gifted to the National Park by France. Elements of the building, stair and entrance lobby span the ambiguous space between filter and facade.

The building is primarily a reception and orientation centre, containing an exhibition space, shop, administration and ancillary service spaces. From the outside, it looks deceptively small - its reticent transparency and receding qualities giving way internally to a light-filled expansive space. A straightforward 12m-span steel portal repeats at 6m centres for six bays, before being infilled by a second floor for the remaining two bays. The open space, which is yet to be fitted out, is confidently rendered in Caithness stone for the floor, oak panels for the ceiling and black paint for all frame and metal elements. The ancillary spaces, storage, WCs, offices and meeting rooms, are simply and robustly expressed.

The energy strategy is straightforward and appropriate. There is no great sophistication to the underfloor heating and manually operated windows. The high space coupled with good cross-ventilation maintains a maximum temperature of 18infinityC.

Given the simplicity and clarity of the architectural space and detail, the over-door hot-air blowers appear excessively obtrusive.

Prepared and informed, the visitor leaves the building via the covered cantilevered viewing deck to explore the woodlands.

Referred to as 'fragile', the woodlands have been extensively tended to, and laced with boardwalks by Ian White Associates. The woodlands are also the scene of an ambitious series of art installations; these have yet to be fully realised but it is hoped that they will provide a further commentary on the act of intervention.

The building is tethered to the woodlands by the boardwalks. Disappointingly, however, they seem broken and complex, and lack a simplicity and tension which the clarity of the building deserves.

On returning to the building from the north, depending on the time of day, it becomes transparent. The facade is not layered - it is simply the glazed envelope. Here the private conversation alluded to earlier is overheard.

From the north, the building reveals itself as a pavilion - what Peter and Alison Smithson call 'a retreat in a park' (Changing the Art of Inhabitation 1994). Inevitably, it recalls the Farnsworth House by Mies, or is it the Johnson House?

While comparisons may be useful in placing ideas, they are, however, superficial in their detail. Bennetts' building, unlike Farnsworth, is grounded, the glass skin being the dominant element, lying outside the line of structure and the roof plane. The intention, however, is similar: that is, to realise a simple canopy, a space which the Smithsons would describe as 'a restorative place in nature'. Viewed from the south, however, the approach is entirely different.

Here, the facade is layered and ambiguous, with elements projecting from the glass skin.

The south facade again speaks of Mies, but this time of the Barcelona pavilion, possibly seen through the filter of Stephane Beel's Villa M Zedelgem (project architect Doug Allard once worked for Beel).

This split personality appears entirely justifiable, given the particular location - that is, against the wood's edge. It also signals an increasingly explorative aspect of Bennetts' work.

The encouraging aspect of the Gateway Centre is that such a seemingly straightforward approach could result in conversations which touch on big issues: about how to build in a natural landscape; about complexity and ambiguity; about modesty and personality.

The current debate in Scotland benefits greatly from this latest contribution.

Structure

The building is fully integrated with its landscape setting, forming a gateway transition between the built development and the wooded promontory to the north.

The centre is rectangular on plan, with overall dimensions of approximately 54 x 12m, and a height to eaves of 6m. It was designed as a series of 10 portal frames, constructed from 300 x 300mm square hollow sections at 6m centres.

Office accommodation and seminar rooms are provided within the end 12m of the building, away from the loch. The remaining part of the centre has a clear double-storey height, and it is used for display areas, with the final 6m bay forming an open-air exhibition area, which appears to cantilever over the loch. In order to produce a light, open feel to the exhibition area, the external walls are formed from framed glass, which spans from the ground-floor slab to the exposedchannel eaves beam.

Due to the poor ground conditions, a raft foundation was adopted.

Adjacent to the loch, the foundations are stepped down to form a retaining wall buttressed by counterforts.

The cantilever for the open area was formed with tapered 610 x 305mm UB sections that were cast several metres into the buttresses of the retaining wall, at the level of the main construction joint. This allowed a large degree of tolerance in the alignment of the main beams, which were also installed early in the steelwork programme, thereby taking the more complex section of the erection process off the critical path.To reflect the exposed eaves beams, 300mm deep channel-sections were placed around the perimeter of the cantilever deck. These slender sections accentuated the effect of the cantilever, by hiding the main tapered beams which were located in the shadow of the deck, 1.5m from the edge.

Graham Hayne, Buro Happold, Glasgow

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