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reductive criticism

Since producing the runner-up scheme for the Scottish parliament, Glasgow architects Gordon Murray and Alan Dunlop have been in increasing demand, for both their clutter-free designs and their forthright, often critical, opinions.

Ironically, the competition that boosted Gordon Murray and Alan Dunlop Architects' fortunes, that for the new Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, was famously won by somebody else. Such was the profile of the competition, however, that the runner-up position achieved by the Glasgow practice (working in tandem with Denton Corker Marshall) fundamentally altered Murray and Dunlop's standing forever.

The enquiries which resulted from the Holyrood success led to several projects currently on site and others which will proceed in the next few months. While the practice is still relatively modest in scale with 20 employees, this is double its 1997 size.

Both partners originate from Glasgow but only Murray (pictured opposite page, left), at 48 the elder of the pair by five years, also studied in the city. Dunlop attended the Polytechnic of Central London before undertaking postgraduate study at the Mackintosh School. While his original intention had been to study at the Architectural Association, he couldn't get a grant. Since a number of the association's big names also taught at the Polytechnic, it seemed a good second choice.

Their respective early careers followed the pattern of their education, Murray stayed close to home, and Dunlop in the South. Murray joined the Cunningham Glass Partnership in 1979: this would later transmogrify to Glass Murray and, finally, in mid-1999, to Gordon Murray and Alan Dunlop Architects. Dunlop started his career with BDP in Manchester, where he worked on the Children's Museum in Halifax. He subsequently worked in a number of smaller practices. The two joined forces in 1996 with Dunlop arriving as a partner.

Despite their disparate architectural roots, Murray and Dunlop list the same heroes and contend that it was their shared design philosophy which drew them together. Both are remarkably forthright about the shortcomings of contemporary design in Scotland; however it is Dunlop who, in the last few years, has been typecast as, in his own words, 'that bolshy architect'. The media has frequently sought his trenchant opinions. His criticism of Glasgow's endeavours towards its year as UK City of Architecture and Design, and particularly his critique of the Museum of Scotland, have riled many. However he and Murray continue to argue for better quality debate towards defining Scottish architecture in its new context.

As president of the Glasgow Institute of Architects and a member of the RIAS' public relations committee, Murray is well placed to argue for such a reassessment.

The Museum of Scotland, runner-up for the 1999 Stirling Prize, is a building both Dunlop and Murray admire. But unlike much of the Scottish establishment, both architectural and lay, they do have reservations. They feel that the building's reworking of traditional forms and the overabundance of ideas in its elevations and spaces set this project firmly as the final endeavour of one distinct, but backward-looking, phase in Scottish architecture. Generously, they view Enric Miralles' scheme for the new Scottish parliament as the first major work of a new tendency, demonstrating fundamental political change for a nation as well as the dawning of a new century.

Most of Dunlop and Murray's work is based in Glasgow, though they do have one office project within the Richard Meier masterplan of Edinburgh Park. Among local projects pending is a hotel for Argyle Street close to Glasgow Central Station.

They are also completing the refurbishment of the station itself, but the hotel could not be more of a contrast with the station's Victorian charms. Its main elevation presents a massive, curving, copper plane through which, at second-storey level cuts a three-storey block of glass-fronted suites.

As with their recently completed Glasgow projects in George Square and St Vincent Street, the hotel design creates lots of light and space at ground level. Whereas the earlier projects reworked existing buildings, this new building provides the opportunity for more overtly playful flaunting of convention and expectations. The hotel is for a commercial client; in recent months the practice has been working on its first significant project for an arts organisation, the new Scottish Youth Theatre. Set in Cowcaddens beside the Piping Centre, the design displays the practice's familiar juxtapositions of mass and plane.

The roots of Murray and Dunlop's emergent architectural signature partly exist in their shared admiration for Khan, Aalto and Stirling. However their work also derives from a sense of place - Scotland and, for the majority of their projects, the grid of Glasgow City Centre. They unstintingly praise Glasgow planning authority, whose representatives have, on the whole, been sympathetic to their aims of innovating the city.

The planners' approval is evidenced in four schemes now on site and two more in the offing.

As far as the workings of the practice go, both Murray and Dunlop are quick to credit their project directors and others within the office, who are given considerable autonomy. Their own role in generating creative vision is summed up by fellow Glasgow architect Dick Cannon's description - 'like an editor on a newspaper'. The key is the editing of clutter from designs. Murray says that they both seem to have dedicated their careers to 'trying to get to the minimum', though on reflection he adds, wryly, that the process might be more like that described by Claus Maack who talks of buildings 'reduced to the maximum'. It all seems like a fairly sound basis upon which to create a new Scottish architecture.

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