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.
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