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Scotland, no Muir

technical & practice

The designers of a Scottish visitor centre have decided against merely conserving the birthplace of a conservationist

'No dogma taught by the present civilisation seems to form so insuperable an obstacle in a way of a right understanding of the relations which culture sustains as to wilderness, as that which declares that the world was made especially for the uses of men. Every animal, plant, and crystal controverts it in the plainest terms. Yet it is taught from century to century as something ever new and precious, and in the resulting darkness the enormous conceit is allowed to go unchallenged.'

John Muir, 1875 Work has just begun on the refurbishment of John Muir's birthplace in Dunbar, East Lothian.Muir, famed as the 'father of national parks', became an émigré to America at the height of the idealist renaissance. Even though he settled in California, he could not help being touched by the Romantic vision, known as Transcendentalism, that was becoming a major cultural force on the west coast.

Muir's radical position, which developed during the rise of urbanity, industrialism and the consolidation of the Union, was to encourage a spiritual renewal. He propounded the suggestion that people should leave the towns once in a while to spend time in the mountains, to be close to nature. It was this belief in the need for an occasional spiritual cleansing within society that led to the setting up of the US National Parks System (including, during his lifetime, Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon and Petrified Forest).

He was the founding member of the Sierra Club, which is still the foremost campaigning organisation for the protection of the environment.

While many people in this country know little about him - which ought not to be surprising given that he left Scotland when he was 11 years old - in California, 21 April is John Muir day. Famed for his poetic writings, he once said: 'Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the green deep woods. Here grow the wallflower and the violet.

The squirrel will come and sit upon your knee, the log cock will wake you in the morning.'

Surely, there must be many readers, even today, who can identify with that?

Reinventing the past

The proposals to upgrade the threestorey townhouse where John Muir was born in 1838, have been the subject of intense local and Scottish debate. Occupying the top flat only, Muir lived here until he was just two years old - when his family moved next door.

However, the local 'conservationist' lobby, inspired by its reading of Muir's own philosophy, wanted the birthplace reinstated to its original form. During its lifetime, the building has been, among other things, a bedsit, a chip shop and a launderette, and underwent severe renovation work in the 1970s, when practically all of the original structure was removed. The design team have resisted the pressure to create a reconstruction, of a type referred to condescendingly in Bill Bryson's travels around various 'historic' birthplaces in small-town America.

Instead, it is focusing on a 'reinterpretation'.

David Campbell of Campbell & Co, lead design consultant, describes the building as a modest townhouse, typical of its period, of which many examples remain in Dunbar. He notes that 'there was nothing of merit and few original traits left'. Its B-listed status, rather than A-listed, reflects the fact that the building had effectively lost all of its historical characteristics of any importance.

Time team Campbell's company, which he describes as an interpretive design consultancy, was appointed at the same time as Richard Murphy Architects to develop the scheme.Working closely with the client, the John Muir Birthplace Trust, the design team was able to develop ideas in concert, which, according to Campbell, was an exciting and logical process and one which has led to a better project.

In its experience, when the design and development of various architectural and installation functions are separated, the fit-out often has to compromise with architectural spaces that are not always conducive.

Furthermore, usually the client's economic advisers develop the business plan based on visitor numbers for a scheme that has not yet been designed.

In this project, Campbell has been able to input early on in the feasibility process and the whole team have been involved in the discussions about the overall scheme; from lighting, form and function.

'Instead of being brought in at the end of the architecture, to provide a black box experience, ' he says, 'by resolving matters early on in the development of the overall design, we believe that we have been able to save time and money' and produce a more believable scheme.

The works

The scheme comprises the stripping out of existing internal partitions and floors back to reveal the shell of the building. 'Restoration would have been spurious, ' says Campbell.

The designers have decided that it would be more honest to remove contemporary fixtures and fittings and to expose whatever legitimate original features they can find, such as fireplaces and window reveals, etc.

A new rectilinear tower will rise through the centre of the building, influenced, says Campbell, by the John Soane museum in London. 'The tower will be wider at the top than at the base and provide small intimate spaces away from the main walls, ' although tie rods will anchor it. 'It should look like a tree house, ' he says, 'with views along its route providing glimpses of the house, memorabilia and views through the windows.'

The design is attempting to avoid 'a passive approach' to the visitor experience - for two reasons. First, by engaging with the visitors and providing clues to John Muir's life and times, it is hoped that visitors will be inspired to go on to find out more.

Second, because Muir left the country when he was just 11, there are very few objects to display.

For both of these reasons, the facilities at the top of the tower will include Internet connections directly to schools and universities in Martinez, California, where Muir spent most of his life, and it is hoped that students from local schools can work on joint projects. However idealistic and somewhat naive was Muir's vision, it seems that a conservation element will be introduced into the local school curriculum.

CLIENT John Muir Birthplace Trust

LEAD CONSULTANT Campbell & Co Design Consultants: David Campbell

ARCHITECT Richard Murphy Architects: Richard Murphy, Bill Black

CREDITS QUANTITY SURVEYOR Davis Langdon & Everest: Ian McAndie, Adrian Green

STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Will Rudd Davidson: Stewart Davidson

START ON SITE August 2002

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