UNSETTLING ROOF FORMS SLIP AND PLAY IN A CAPRICIOUS AND HUMOROUS MANNER
Gareth Hoskins set up his own practice in 1998 after spending six years as an associate at Penoyre & Prasad. His Glasgow-based practice now employs more than 20 staff and specialises in cultural and community buildings. Key projects include the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Interpretation Centre at The Lighthouse in Glasgow, the V&A and RIBA Architecture Gallery in London, the masterplan for the Royal Museum in Edinburgh and the visitor and interpretation centre for the National Trust for Scotland at Culloden battlefield.
A line has been drawn around a very beautiful fragment of the west of Scotland. Within this virtual boundary, all land, building and human activity is subject to the scrutiny, guidance and influence of the National Park Authority. The Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park is centred on the mountain-framed fresh-water expanse of Loch Lomond, with the romantic birch and heather complexity of Sir Walter Scott's Trossachs to the east and the rugged mountain and sea loch Arrochar territories to the west. The small resort town of Balloch is situated on the southern shores of the loch, the southern end of which marks the transition from the Lowlands to the Highlands. Balloch, or Bealach in Gaelic, means a pass or road.
Robin House is the second CHAS (Children's Hospice Association Scotland) hospice for terminally ill children in Scotland. The first, Rachel House, is situated in the gardens of Kinross House on the east coast. Robin House and Rachel House offer periods of respite for the children and their families.
CHAS exists thanks to the efforts of individuals through personal enlightenment, experience and endeavour. In a world of commercially driven procurement, analysis is synthesised directly into a building. A clinical plan is wrapped in an economic, anodyne envelope. The interior environment barely rises above a kind of consistent horizontal plane of mediocrity. Intuition, culture, empathy, love, fear, sensuousness; how do these sentiments enter into such a distant process? Like Maggie's Cancer Caring Centres, CHAS Hospices offer another attitude, pursued through individuals, who offer something more compassionate. Will this building, given its prominence and individuality, like a Maggie's Centre, attract sniping architectural criticism when all around lie the culs-de-sac of indifference?
It did not get off to a good start. The siting of this building within the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park became a well-publicised planning issue, even dragging in the likes of patron Ewan McGregor to bolster the popular argument for the building.
The National Park Authority Planning and Development Control Committee recommended refusal, as the development on agricultural land was contrary to the Development Plan. The National Park Authority, however, was forced to bow to pressure from the public and politicians alike, who argued that a facility of this exceptional character defies planning sensitivities. Given the requirement for easy access and direct links to a local community, the site is not an obvious choice. CHAS relies a great deal on the support of the local population for volunteers. The sense of connection to a local community, unlike Kinross' Rachel House, is not obvious. The building is distant from the town of Balloch. The access is along a narrow farm road; the site has a considerable slope.
The views from the site, while pleasant, do not have the romantic drama or scale of the famous locations in the park.
Robin House is on the edge of all this drama. The hill farm site looks away from the park, to the south and a comfortable arable prospect. The building resists the slope by creating a series of terraces. This is not a natural pause in the landscape; there was considerable work to be done to enable the possibility of a reflective, restive place.
Although surprisingly large, the building hides its mass well, digging into the south-facing slope. Externally it is clad in cedar boarding and a light mauve render. The feel is light and accomplished. The detailing is assured, inventive and contemporary.
Hoskins stressed that the building should exude a sense of quirkiness and playfulness. The limited external palette helps pull the, at times unruly and exuberant, facades together.
Hoskins likens the arrival to that at a country house;
he refers to Lutyens at Grey Walls, East Lothian, as a source.
At Balloch the arrival is more direct, more modest and more appropriate. The site layout is less self-conscious than that of the master choreographer. Two wings describe and enclose two courtyards. The first, an external paved court, is overlooked by a wing of offices and by the service wing to the south. To the north of the entrance, court car parking is discreetly located in an extension of the terraced slopes. A central plan element connects the two parallel wings and separates the courts. This connection accommodates the entrance, reception, stair and lift with staff areas above. The cross plan is topped by unsettling complex curved roof forms that recall MacCormac Jamieson Prichard's Cable and Wireless building. Here they slip and play in a more capricious and humorous manner.
It is not the curved forms which disturb. That is a question of taste, although being a self-confessed orthogonalist I personally find the easy curved line difficult. It is the orientation of the wave form and the fact that the external promise of a dramatic internal space revealed on entering disappoints. The curved soffits are enjoyed only by staff in the upper-level meeting rooms and by all in the main lounge. Their conviviality is not apparent in the entrance hall. Beyond this, the second court is partially roofed over. This central space houses two conical elements, which contain play and sensory spaces. Circulation between the two wings is allowed to filter through this space.
The hospice caters for eight children at any one time, staying with their parents and siblings for three to 10 days, offering accommodation and facilities of the highest standard. Children and parents are given their own respective suites. The rooms are split into small runs to avoid a sense of institutional repetition. The plan carefully shifts and splits without losing a sense of orientation.
The interior environment mirrors the staff, who are relaxed and friendly, with not a starched uniform or name badge in sight. This building is about rest and respite, a home away from home. But a home like no other. The facilities are excellent and show how we might care if we put our minds to it. Circulation spaces are generous and light-filled. Timber finishes and refined detailing are consistent throughout.
The children's bedrooms are excellent; an exercise in the use of daylight, volume, articulation, colour and finishes. These rooms are worthy of a civilised healing environment. Although the rooms have en suite facilities, across the circulation spaces there are more-specialist facilities, including spa baths. Some of the children and young adults who use these facilities have not had a bath for years due to logistical difficulties; here the lifting equipment and access is first class.
The main lounge space, which breaks out onto a south-facing terrace, is open to the kitchen and dining areas.
A communal dining table occupies one elevation with everyone eating together. The curved roof forms are visible within these overlapping spaces and serve to break up the normal crush of the horizontal acoustic soffit. Although staff areas alone enjoy the curved roofs beyond the lounge, the extensive meeting and relaxing areas for carers are a civilised and appropriate provision.
The plan and layout deal sensitively with difficult aspects of the brief, including a bereavement suite and a quiet room. These spaces are treated as an integral part of the building and the inevitability of the life of the house. In Hoskins' hands they are given dignity, space and invention.There is, however, a hermetic feel to the centre. The play and sensory experiences are cut off from the outside, enclosed in colourful conical towers swimming within a pool of horizontal structural glazing. It is rather difficult to understand the distancing of the play activities from the outside.
In contrast, the fine hydrotherapy pool commands a minimally glazed climax to the southern wing. The watery space extends effortlessly into the landscape.
Overall, there is a sense of trying too hard to please.
This is understandable as the brief is very moving. The desire not to disappoint is intense. The proposed landscape and extensive tree belts will help. They have yet to establish any presence. A more intense connection with the outside will cause the building to touch and be absorbed by the landscape, to lose itself a little.
The bedrooms and the main lounge will come into a more direct contact with the source of real respite, the open land.
Robert Louis Stevenson knew of the high line, a quest for literature of the highest order. He also needed to earn a livelihood and did this through his entertaining novels. Hoskins also knows there is a high line but he is prepared to wait and take his public towards it, smiling. He talks of CHAS maybe being a little 'over embroidered'. I feel, at the risk of being accused of being the first sniper, that there is certainly truth in that, although I feel at times it may have more fundamental issues.
Just as Balloch represents the gateway from Lowland to Highland, a transition from a low to a high line, the interesting question is, does Robin House represent a move towards a high line?