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City of Glasgow College: the public-spirited grit in this year’s Stirling Prize

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Reiach and Hall & Michael Laird Architects’ City of Glasgow College makes a sober, practical investment in the future of Clydeside, says Robert Wilson

In a shortlist that contains several monuments to private wealth – a retirement dream house, an art-ocratic personal gallery, an endowed Oxford library extension – the riverside campus buildings for the City of Glasgow College lend a bit of welcome down-to-earth and public-spirited grit to the Stirling Prize proceedings. This is a project procured through the Scottish government’s Non-Profit Distributing programme – a version of PFI – and the new home of one of only four UK maritime colleges, teaching marine engineering and science and delivering Merchant Navy officer training – as well as other technology, engineering and mathematics courses – to more than 3,000 students. 

This project is part of the college’s rationalisation from its previous six campuses into two, and part of the seeming shift to education rather than culture; campuses, not concert halls, now being the symbolic drivers of ‘public’ regeneration in British cities these days. 

Closer up, the echoes are almost Italian rationalist, almost (whisper it) Fascist, in the orchestration of an abstracted vertical grid

Reflecting this civic role, its site is a prominent one, sitting – fittingly for a maritime college – on the south bank of the Clyde at a point where the river is still tidal. The college’s two blocky towers step up to the riverbank walk – even seeming to dip a toe into the river with the existing jetty and free-fall life-boat launching pad – establishing a prominent civic crust that most of the river is missing. 

Sited in the context of the serially redeveloped and still tough residential area of the Gorbals to the south – studded as it is with a few remaining point blocks and terraced splinters of a Piers Gough masterplan – the scheme not only creates an urban edge but clearly restates in plan a block of the main city’s almost American-style urban grid to the north, nicely bookended by a road and rail bridge.

There is a sense of a rationalised call-to-order here, not just a perversely self-referential look-at-me building. This is evident visually in the insistent vertical gridding of the façades. While from afar these look unnervingly 1970s municipal – quite an aesthetic trend in this post-iconic phase – closer up, the echoes are almost Italian rationalist, almost (whisper it) Fascist, in the orchestration of an abstracted vertical grid, with the frame sometimes pulled out and expressed in precast, stripped-Classical-like concrete arcading at the base, which runs around a formal courtyard garden, reading like a tribune space between the blocks. According to Reiach and Hall director Lyle Chrystie, the treatment of the façades also subtly references the ‘elegant and rigorous modularity’ of the precast façades of the many fine 19th-century commercial buildings in central Glasgow, which are such a key architectural legacy in the city. The result has a quiet poise for an education building, very different to AHMM’s brash graphic-ness or the glazed slickness of an Allies and Morrison. 

 

The campus contains an 11-storey, 198-bed student accommodation block. This sits across a courtyard from the main teaching block, wrapped around a seven-storey entrance atrium, its huge glazed wall orientated north to views of the city centre, which forms an urban panorama as it rises the hill. Around this are teaching spaces, from regular classrooms to state-of-the-art simulation suites, which can be programmed to show shipping lanes around the world.

These high-tech facilities are balanced against the more hands-on ones located in the horizontal slab of engineering block at the site’s south-west corner, where welding and various tinkerings with marine mechanics take place in workshops and a lofty engineering hall. This, the third of three large spaces – hall, courtyard, atrium – around which the strictly orthogonal plan is orchestrated, provides flexible shared forums in the college – actual, visual and spatial – which reflect what Chrystie refers to as the more ‘spiritual’ side of the brief: that the campus should create and foster a sense of community. 

The long refectory-like canteen and cloistered garden clearly reference the communal monastic model – and the traditional university college layout that came from it – refreshing after so many touchy-feely breakout-space education buildings, here designed more like extended coffee shops. This is education as improver and civic tool. Disappointingly though, at street level, the courtyard with its arcades fenced off for night-time security, feels more like a sequestered compound. Tony Fretton’s Warsaw Embassy comes to mind. 

After so many education buildings designed like extended coffee shops, this is education as improver and civic tool

Interestingly the theme of mutual communality ran through the design team, too. Reiach and Hall teamed up with Michael Laird Architects, marrying their respective experience in education buildings and delivery of large projects to win the bid, then forming in essence a satellite office, together with the other consultants, in order to deliver the project. So no room here for standalone starchitecture-egos; just solid expertise, waving a flag for a procurement route too often associated with compromised interior finishes and shoddy delivery. Here indeed tight budgets seem to have been turned to creative advantage with a deliberate exposure and expression of structure – meaty bolted steel junctions left unclad, services and ceiling ducts exposed throughout – meaning the building can be read itself as a construction of engineering and mechanics. 

While this striking but quiet scheme does not offer any novel architectural gymnastics, it brings a lot of threads together, offering a convincing model for a landmark urban project that contributes to restitching the city together, without trying to mimic the dreary bricky ‘ordinariness’ that so much architecture now aspires to. Whereas 15 years ago you might imagine a ‘regeneration’ millennium-style project would have employed some ship-like Cor-ten steel façade gimmick as a metaphor for the city’s shipbuilding past, this offers a sober, practical investment in the future of the city. It is very much a child of its time in the new, hands-on maker economy being nurtured today for, where skills come, jobs may follow. 

Robert Wilson is a writer, curator and editor at the &beyond collective 

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