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Cornerstone, Glasgow by Gordon Murray + Alan Dunlop Architects

Set in stone: gm + ad’s Cornerstone building has the sturdiness that Glasgow’s historic core of Georgian and Victorian city blocks demands, writes Penny Lewis. Photography by John Barr

Sometimes the contradictions between planning policy and contemporary building technology find a very clear architectural form. The historic cores of the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh are littered with what might be described as ‘thin’ buildings, in which the architectural ambition is matched by the lightweight quality of the external cladding and detailing.

These are inoffensive contemporary stone buildings, designed to comply with planning policy. Superficially, they suggest a sympathetic approach to context, but ultimately they fail, in part because the cladding material is used with so little commitment.

The market and contemporary needs demand that a building is steel framed with lightweight cladding, but the context and the planners demand a very different kind of architectural language – one of loadbearing masonry. Architects are caught between an aspiration to make buildings that exude a sense of permanence and reliability and a desire to innovate.

Glasgow’s Cornerstone is a speculative office development by Glasgow-based practice Gordon Murray + Alan Dunlop Architects (gm+ad), positioned on the corner of West Regent Street and Wellington Street, where the city grid starts to fall towards the River Clyde. Cornerstone’s site was previously occupied by a Grade A-listed building dating from 1830, which was significantly extended by Scottish architect Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson in 1872. After lying empty for over a decade, the building was demolished in 2004. However, the city stipulated that Thomson’s door cases and railings were to be retained. gm+ad has produced a number of commercial buildings in this section of the city grid and was asked by Kenmore Property Group (in a joint venture with Ashford Property Group) to consider the viability of developing the Thomson site.

Practice partner Gordon Murray relishes the challenge of satisfying the planners, producing a good net-to-gross floor ratio without allowing these considerations to override the architectural intentions of the design team. Cornerstone provides 1,920m2 of office accommodation over seven floors, with six basement car-parking spaces. It is in a conservation area in which blonde sandstone is the planner’s cladding of choice. The genuine care that has been taken in the use of stone on this modest project is refreshing.

The building forms a couplet with Wellington House, a building by gm+ad built in 1989 (AJ 30.05.90). In Frank Walker’s 1992 Phaidon architecture guide to Glasgow, Wellington House was described as ‘po-mo rationalism’ in the tradition of Aldo Rossi or John Burnet & Son – the long-established Glaswegian practice behind some of the city’s most distinguished classical office buildings. Walker poetically suggests that if you laid the long elevation of Wellington House on the ground, it would match the city grid pattern.

Cornerstone might be described as Miesian, with its simple plan and limited palette of materials. Every element is pared down to essentials. Compared, Wellington House looks decidedly decorative. Both buildings represent large masses on what is a relatively eclectic street with a jumping roofline, but they work with the proportions and sightlines of their neighbours. On Cornerstone, the east gable, which extends above its neighbour’s roof, has been clad in stone rather than a cheaper material often adopted once you turn from the main facades. In both buildings, the bottom, middle and top of the building are articulated, but in Cornerstone these elements are reduced to the minimum.

The elevation facing on to Wellington Street is fashionably random – what critics might call a ‘barcode facade’. But on closer inspection it’s clear that a great deal of care has been taken with this stone work – Peak Moor Yorkshire sandstone, with a base level of Dunhouse Blue sandstone. The building is constructed with a steel frame and shallow floorplates. The external skin is not deep, but has been detailed so the windows sit so far back they appear virtually on the line of the internal finish. This creates generous window reveals, which give the walls an implied sense of depth and of solidity when viewed from the outside.

The architect appears to have followed the logic applied when stone is used as a loadbearing material. The elevations are very carefully controlled. The 75mm-deep stone cladding is organised in two band depths and the vertical joints reinforce a crafted approach. At each floor level, a stainless-steel corbel is used to support the stonework cladding for the entire floor. The detailed arrangement of the damp-proof course has avoided the need for weep holes. At each window opening, a full stone quoin is used to create a reveal, avoiding the messy interface that often arises when stone is used as a suspended skin.

On the south elevation, overlooking the back lane, as if to remind us of the real character of this building, the stone appears to slide away to reveal an entire elevation of curtain walling. This creates a wall of uninterrupted glazing which transforms the quality of the office interior. It’s also a reminder that this is really a framed building with a thin skin, in which the architect has chosen to invoke the memory of the traditional use of loadbearing stone.

Project Information:
Start on site
: December 2007
Contract duration: 14 months
Gross internal floor area: 2,545m2
Form of contract: Negotiated traditional contract with quantities
Total cost: £4 million (contract sum)
Cost per m2: £1,546
Client: Kenmore Land Ashford Property WRS
Architect: Gordon Murray + Alan Dunlop Architects
Structural engineer: Scott Wilson Scotland
M&E consultant: RSP Consulting Engineers
Quantity surveyor: Thomas and Adamson
Planning supervisor: Summers Inman
Main contractor: Dunne Building and Civil Engineering
Annual CO2 emissions: Not supplied

Readers' comments (61)

  • I am very dissapointed to see that this is an AD+GM is a shocker.

    A very, very poor version of what is becoming a generic standard - the hit and miss facade. In fact, there is another one just being finished in Glasgow (only in red sandstone) which is equally as characterless.

    A poor, and patronising addition to the Glasgow townscape.

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  • I am sorry you feel so strongly about this Samuel.

    There is a strength of purpose behind what you describe as the hit and miss facade and if you contact me I'd be happy to show you around the building and explain the context.

    I'm not expecting that'll change your mind but maybe your assertion that this is a patronising building.

    Look forward to hearing from you.

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  • You aren't allowed to be critical of Alan Dunlop Samuel.

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  • No, I think that Mr Dunlop is right in challenging my comment. I must admit I had an assumption on who the practice may have been (I wont say), but was dissapointed to see that it was actually GM+AD.

    The Glasgow city scape is BETTER for the hotel project at Central Station (Raddison I think) as it is for the other buildings in the 'city'. I remember defending the shiny one and also the hotel with the projecting roof...a project which really does challenge the urban grid and vistas offered within the city...It is perhaps the fact that I am dissapointed in the architect that I felt so stongly about the project.

    I offer this as a compliment in the hope that it balances the discussion.

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  • Alan

    Let me throw in my tuppence worth. I disagree with Samuel in at least one respect, the comparison he makes with the other red sandstone building ( by Keppie Architects, I understand) A trained eye would see that there is a world of difference, that difference being what Penny Lewis touch on in her article the care taken in the use of stone. Yours is not a thin building it is beautifully executed and I congratulate your practice on this. It is for me though a rather dull building in comparison with your other projects in the city. I suspect that as probably the most succesful modern office in Glasgow you must accept critisism and I know that you can give as good as you get. I have been on the recieving end of your critisism before

    The Radisson on Argyle Street is in my humble opinion as a retired architect of many years experience, the city's best new building and one of the best in Scotland. The interior foyer is spectacular. Glasgow city centre is all the better for the work of your practice. The Marks Hotel makes me smile everytime I see it, how you got that passed the conservation lobby I'll never know Sentinel is immaculately detailed.

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  • That's what Mr Dunlop likes. Undiluted adoration. Otherwise he tends to throw hissy fits.

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  • the raddison hotel is a monster dunlop and his kind are destroying glasgow the riginal thomson builing should have been restored. glasgow should become a world heritage site like edinburgh and get protection from this rubbish

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  • That's you off his Christmas card list then, even though many would agree.

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  • Interesting that there should be features in both the Architects Journal and Building Design on Glasgow this week. It's great for Glasgow but Building Design is a difficult read unfortunately the paper seems to eat good feature writers these days, one day a columnist on heating engineering quarterly, it seems the next a features writer in BD but worth a scan as it's free. As for this project, I like it so can I have a christmas card please.

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  • That'd be Owen Hatherley then in BD? Glasgow: Centuries of change.

    This liking for shiny tat can also be seen in the call centres along the Clyde, in the towering Cineworld and even in the much-lauded work of Gordon Murray & Alan Dunlop Architects. Beautifully detailed, expensive and suave, buildings like its Sentinel office block and its “iconic” Marks or Radisson hotels are also decidedly heartless

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  • Penny Lewis is a lecturer in architectural theory and history at the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. Previously she was editor of Prospect, the Scottish architecture magazine from 2003-2008. She writes for a variety of trade publications and newspapers on a range of cultural issues.

    Lewis is author of two books on the work of the architects Gordon Murray and Alan Dunlop, Challenging contextualism (2004) and Curious Rationalism (2006).

    2007 Alan Dunlop of gm+ad has been appointed by The Scott Sutherland School of Architecture & Built Environment at the Robert Gordon University as visiting professor.

    Alan Dunlop quits Prospect magazine after public fallout
    28 January, 2009 Richard Waite AJ

    Alan Dunlop has left the editorial board of Prospect magazine following a public fallout over the judging of this year’s Carbuncle Awards

    Why is the article is so uncritical of what is after all, an eminently forgettable piece of commercialsm? Hardly a worthy successor to a Grade A 'Greek' Thompson.

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  • Penny Lewis is clearly biased, as a friend. Dunlop also is an egomaniac of the worse kind but typical of architects in Glasgow. Hattersley is right in his critique, Why does the AJ supposedly a professional magazine support this work by giving it a feature. It is a crime

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  • "...much of what passes for architecture today is nothing more than an anthropomorphic or naturalist metaphor made real by Sketch Up and contract management."

    "If contemporary architectural journalism lacks vigour the source of the problem lies in the arbitrary and incoherent character of architectural theory and in architecture itself."

    P Lewis July 9th

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  • "However, the city stipulated that Thomson’s door cases and railings were to be retained."

    It's rather disingenuous for the article to mention this, given this current planning application in with Glasgow City Council:

    "Reference: 09/01252/DC Community Cnl: Anderston (Inactive)
    Address: 107 West Regent Street Glasgow
    Proposal: Erection of office development - amendment to conditions 12 and 19 of consent
    06/03871/DC to remove requirement to re-use original Thomson portico and railings on
    Date Received: 01.06.2009 Date Valid: 10.06.2009"

    Perhaps Mr Dunlop could explain why he currently has a planning application in to try to wriggle out of having to re-use the original doorways after all ?

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  • It's because he actively hates anything to do with 'heritage', and has no idea how to work within historic areas.

    It's sad that he's allowed to promote his pernicious views amongst students.

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  • It's possibly because in re-use, the quality of Thompson's work and that of the lego building pictured would throw what rubbish Glasgow is now having foisted on it into sharp relief.

    It's also beyond credibility that Scottish planning policies allow the demolition of a Grade A building, but they are poor policies and easliy got round.

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    Having been following the article and comments earlier this evening, I nipped out the back door and took three photos which will hopefully appear there. In the meantime:

    Of course (and this is particularly for non-architects) the engineers who designed the engine of the Kia Pride aren't necessarily worse engineers than those who designed the engine of the Ferrari. They were given quite different tasks when asked to 'design a car engine' ;-p

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  • Heh, I think the posting guidance should have been re-phrased: "links permitted, but the pagination will render them unintelligible."
    Oops. The links are (rather off-topic) on the 'Carbuncles' forum thread over on in any case.

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  • While you are about it you might like to also post there that 'reasoned critique' about the Missoni on BD has simply not been published.

    The editorial hand at work?

    A number of people nominated the Missoni. See the nominations page. They can't all have a grudge against Murray.

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  • Thank you for that posting Gordon Hulley, a bit vague at first but if you follow it through all becomes clear. I take it the redsand stone building is the one refered to in the first post?

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