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social space

For artist-designer Bruce McLean, architecture is about creative co-operation for social ends. He has developed his ideas through collaborations with Will Alsop and his own architect-son by mel gooding. photograph by tony stokes

Bruce McLean has no doubt that his life-long obsession with architecture can be traced directly to the influence of his architect father, a complex and temperamental man.A pragmatic Modernist who believed that conditions of everyday life could be improved without recourse to Utopian systems, Peter McLean was dismayed by the destruction, in the early 1960s, of the Gorbals in his home city of Glasgow, advocating instead a viable modernisation of the tenement blocks, with their staircases and courts, as humane and defensible living structures and spaces.

A conviction that behaviour, private and public, is a function of the built environment has become a recurrent theme in Bruce Mclean's work as an artist-designer, performance artist, painter, sculptor and maker of artists' books. It has deeply influenced his work on architectural projects in the past 15 years. His collaboration with architects is energised by the belief that constructive architectural imagination can transcend programmatic politics and institutional inertia.

For McLean the idea of architecture necessarily entails creative co-operation towards social (ie ethical and political) ends. Architecture figures in his imagination not as the design of buildings with purposes, and with constraints of site and material, so much as an orchestration of social actions, whose outcomes include buildings and spaces conducive to specific kinds of desirable behaviour. Seen in this light, architecture is a form of practical politics.

Critical relations of behaviour and language to social space and objects were the ironic focus of McLean's High Up On A Baroque Palazzo, a performance work in 1974 (pictured). This was concerned with architectural conditions for effective entrances and exits as essential elements in the quest for 'the perfect pose at the highest level'. It was greatly appreciated by younger architects, including Bernard Tschumi, who was the first of many architect-teachers to invite McLean to contribute at the Architectural Association.

McLean's next large-scale performance work on architectural themes was The Masterwork/Award Winning Fishknife, at Hammersmith's Riverside Studios in 1979. This involved forklift trucks moving huge blocks of masonry round the scaffold-stage, and a complex continuous choreography of acrobats, jugglers and dancers to a minimalist score by Michael Nyman. It was a sustained tour de force of disgust at the moral blindness and political vanity that lay behind much post-war planning.

Costumes for the piece were designed by Will Alsop, who had recently set up practice at Riverside Studios: thus began a creative conversation and collaboration between Alsop and McLean. Its high point so far was the 1991 masterplan for the reconstruction of Potsdamer Platz/ Leipziger Platz, Berlin. The scheme was for a majestic polychrome ensemble in which streetlength high-rise buildings sheltered spectacular arcades. These converged at and united the two great squares, which were to be transformed into urban parks.

In the same year McLean contributed the extraordinary double-sided 50m long stoveenamel Platform Painting as a structural element to Alsop Lyall and Stormer's interchange station at Tottenham Hale in north London. He has since worked with Alsop on designs for the new British Embassy in Berlin, and on the redesign of Blackfriars Station and Puddle Dock. In 1987 McLean also collaborated with David Chipperfield on the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol.

In the 1990s Mclean was much engaged in architectural work in the public domain. His design for Argyle Street in Glasgow, conceived with his AA-trained architect son William McLean, projected the transformation of a dreary shopping precinct into a busy non-stop theatre, in which each retail frontage created a backdrop to an arena for pose and play: clothes and shoe shops had catwalks of their own; video shopfronts became giant screens.

The regeneration of Bridlington's run-down South Promenade, the result of McLean's collaboration with Leeds practice Bauman Lyons, received one of this year's RIBA Awards for what the jury described as 'a completely new take on the English seaside'. A mile-long terrazzo strip pavement sculpture unifies the three-part promenade, which ends with a view across endless sands and sea from a witty belvedere-pier.

McLean's latest architectural project, currently in progress, exemplifies his conception of architecture as collaborative philosophy in action.

A team consisting of McLean, his son and myself was commissioned by North Ayrshire Education Authority to propose a model for a new kind of primary school. The main conceptual outcome was the 'Pythagorean Model': a three-dimensional projection of a right-angled triangle, each side being extruded into a cubic volume that becomes the spatial frame of an environment for learning activities. The whole school is envisaged as an observatory, a complex machine for the study of the external environment.

The concept awaits realisation, but in the meantime, at the new Lawthorn Primary School in Irvine, North Ayrshire, the team has designed the 'Wall ofWonder'which turns a school wall into a interactive learning instrument. For McLean, art and architecture are not divisible: each activity is the working of imaginative conceptions into visible and useful realities.

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