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McManus Galleries, Dundee, by Page\Park

In Dundee, Page\Park has redesigned Albert Square and refurbished the historic McManus Galleries using the gothic arch, or vesica piscis, as inspiration, says Rory Olcayto. Photography by Andrew Lee

There can’t be many British architects who think as hard as David Page does about making our towns and cities more enjoyable places to live in. The 1989 Italian Centre in Glasgow, designed by his practice Page\Park, predates the early noughties mixed-use model of office, retail and home by a decade and a half, while the firm’s boulevard-scaled masterplan for Clydebank (2003) rightly suggests the derelict shipbuilding town is comfortable with bigness.

Further up the River Clyde, Page\Park’s work in Glasgow’s rebuilt Gorbals district joyfully exploits the city’s tenement model. Friary Court (2005), for example, comprises seven wedge-shaped blocks that fan around Pugin & Pugin’s St Francis Church, with narrow lanes leading to a shared garden arranged like a park. It is a subtle inversion of the traditional model of tenement ‘close’ and the back court this interior passage would normally give access to. It feels medieval, especially when you glimpse the church’s red sandstone through the lanes – but why not? The Gorbals has a history stretching back to those times.

A key aspect of the brief was ‘the need for a green lung and respite within the city’

Each of these projects is defined by an instinctive porosity; a sense of place and appropriate scale. Page\Park’s latest work, the redevelopment of Albert Square and refurbishment of the McManus Galleries in Dundee builds extensively on these ideas. This exemplary project also draws on Page\Park’s other key strengths: its understanding of the needs of modern civic institutions and its pragmatic approach to historic buildings.

The project effectively enlarges Dundee’s pedestrian-friendly city centre and reworks its most beloved institution. It does this by inscribing Albert Square with a new geometry, stripping it of signage and calibrating street levels, and making a new entrance in the south elevation of George Gilbert Scott’s gothic revival showpiece in the centre of the square, allowing it a dialogue with the centre it previously faced away from.

The interior of the Grade I-listed McManus Galleries, too, has been remade; partitions accumulated since it was first built in 1867 have been removed and a new staircase improves circulation. Underpinning Albert Square’s transformation is a shared surface strategy, championed by Mike Galloway, director of city development at Dundee City Council. Page\Park won a competition to redesign the square in 2002. Externally, the McManus Galleries had become stranded on a traffic island: railings, barriers and road signs dominated the approach from the city centre. Project architect Karen Nugent says a key aspect of the brief was ‘the need for a green lung and pedestrian respite within the city’.

The council had already transformed nearby City Square and Caird Hall, and made a walkable core of shops and cultural facilities. Unlike the crush of tourists in Edinburgh or the throng of people rushing through Glasgow, Dundee’s townscape allows you to promenade. The new geometry applied to Albert Square was inspired by this facility, but also by the circular boundary that defines the grounds of the neo-classical High School of Dundee, located in the north-west corner. By drawing a sweeping line from one building to another, suggesting the flow of pedestrians, Page identified a shallow arc that could be mirrored to create a vesica piscis enclosure around the McManus Galleries.

This seemed appropriate given its gothic revival aesthetic (the vesica’s shape gives form to the gothic arch). Furthermore, it echoes the leisurely curve of BDP’s nearby Overgate shopping centre (2000), which gently embraces the Steeple Church and its gardens. The vesica defines a series of gardens and paved terraces around the McManus Galleries. Boxed hedges to the west create small lawns and planted beds, ivy ground-cover is used in the more shaded east garden, and paving to the north reconfigures the setting around the existing statuary.

In the tradition of patterned paving, radiating lines of buff and charcoal grey granite add another geometric overlay and decorate the streetscape, extending the building into the urban realm. Page talks about being ‘less constrained when confronted with historic envelopes’ and finding the ‘universal geometries’ that sit beneath the city, bringing them to the fore. This may explain why, as part of its competition bid, Page\Park overstepped the mark a little and suggested cutting open the south facade of the McManus Galleries to create a route through to the other half of the square. This was ignored at the time, but showed that the practice’s holistic vision was worth investigating further.

In 2006, four years after it won the Albert Square project, Page\Park was awarded the contract to refurbish the galleries. The firm stuck with its plan to create a new south-facing entrance, which was essential to make the interior an ‘extension of the roomspace of the city’, but it also planned to ‘extend the external geometry inside’.

To realise this, a freestanding stairwell – a concrete shell with a lift at its core – replaces the old fire escape, a boxy enclosure defined by landings. Although clearly a distinct element in its own right, Page says the practice was ‘more concerned with making it a route, an angled corridor that spirals through space’. But he goes on to describe it as the ‘geometric twin of Scott’s luxurious, perfectly circular staircase’ on the other side of the main entrance, whose elements Page\Park’s stair inverts and plays with.

The new stairwell is contained within a vesica-shaped concrete shell, echoing the gothic-classical conversation between the McManus Galleries and the High School of Dundee. And while the treads of Scott’s stair are cantilevered from its external wall, here they hang from the inner concrete shell. Likewise, the steel balustrades hang down, while on Scott’s they rise up.

The composition, which sweeps visitors upwards to the spectacular Victorian gallery, hides its intellectual gameplay well; on first sight it feels muscular and visceral. Beyond the restoration of the building’s original volumes, in which a full refurbishment study would find much to admire, and the excellent displays that take in both futurist paintings and the skeleton of a whale, another of this project’s successes again draws from context.

The café is friendly, serves good food and has become a destination in its own right, much like the café that helped make Richard Murphy Architects’ Dundee Contemporary Arts a success when it opened a decade ago. There is another source of inspiration guiding this project: the work of Page\Park itself. Glasgow Cathedral Square (1984-91), with which the practice welcomed the city’s gothic cathedral back into its core, and the Lighthouse (1999), wherein a new circulation route was placed within a listed building, resonate as clearly as the latent geometries of Dundee’s well-worn streets.

Credits: McManus Galleries

Start on site July 2006
Completion July 2009
Gross internal floor area 4,810m2
Form of contract Traditional SBCC
Total cost £9.5 million
Cost per m² £1,975
Client Dundee City Council
Architect Page\Park
Project architect Justin Fenton
Structural engineer Dundee City Council
M&E consultant Dundee City Council
Quantity surveyor Dundee City Council
Main contractor Muirfield Contracts
Annual CO2 emissions Not supplied

Credits: Albert Square

Start on site 2002
Completion July 2009
Total area 6,790m²
Form of contract NEC3
Total cost £1.5 million
Cost per m² £220
Client Dundee Partnership: Dundee City Council and SET
Architect Page\Park
Project architect Karen Nugent
Civil engineer Dundee City Council
Landscape architect Ian White Associates
Main contractor Torith Annual CO² emissions Not supplied  

Readers' comments (3)

  • Was there myself recently. The project is beautifully executed and I doubt if there is another practice that could have done in better.

    Much credit to P/P and to Karen Nugent.

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  • i should make clear that justin fenton was project architect for mcmanus galleries and karen nugent was project architect for albert square.

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  • Looks very nice, but the use of the Gothic 'arch' in this way is a bit Part1 undergrad project isn't it? And anyway, I'm not sure how truly 'Gothic' the building is. The Gothic is mere skin deep, it basically looks like a classical building from the outside (in terms of massing etc..)

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