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Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop by Sutherland Hussey Harris

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With its cloister and campanile, this workshop complex in Scotland’s capital city can be seen as a tribute to Gillespie, Kidd & Coia’s St Bride’s Church, writes Johnny Rodger


Creative Laboratories is the second stage of Sutherland Hussey Harris’s Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop project, built to sit alongside a block of studios and workshops the practice completed in 2012. As winner of Foundation Scotland’s Arts Funding Prize in 2010, which was judged by Isi Metzstein among others, Creative Laboratories was granted £3 million from an anonymous donor to: ‘Bring audiences closer to the artists working at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop and incorporate public viewing areas to enable visitors to see artists at work, make new indoor and outdoor working spaces and a public café designed to create new social space for the community’.

As a complement to the existing block, there are numerous ways – spatial, material, professional, social – in which the new building enhances and develops the operational scope of Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop. If the 2012 block (containing studios, offices, workshops, a store and two residential apartments) has a dense and complex interrelation of enclosed interior spaces arranged in a rich section through three floors, then Creative Laboratories is an open, public space organised through the simple planar geometry of the plan. Where the original block steps up to present a two-storey institutional front to the street from the low-lying ex-railway cutting that is the site, the labs spread out on the horizontal at ground level. They are thus visible from the street running along above them. The passer-by is invited and welcomed by the open, staged promenade of stairs down to the viewing platform atop the café, and further into the central courtyard itself.

The basic geometric forms of this project are what give it the immediacy of that welcome. An open-ended rectangular cloister has a trapezoidal-planned café block and a triangular-planned tower placed strategically at that open east end, with their angled sides gathering the approach to the courtyard. The tower, which is brick with a concrete skin lining the interior, is completely hollow, and acts as a beacon for, and gateway to, this low-lying public space. At night the void cut into the upper half of the south-facing facet is lit up, and it beams its presence across to the centre of the city.

In addition to the public access and community engagement aspects, this structure was also conceived as creating space for artistic production, artist-led research and events. As such the six bays on each side of the cloister provide space for the open-air working of individuals or groups. A bespoke foundry is to be installed in the south-west end of the cloister, and there are also drying rooms at either end of the exhibition galleries on the west end to support ceramic and clay works.

The open-air workspaces are created expressly in this residential area for artists doing work without power tools. For heavier and noisier work there are soundproofed workshops in the basement of the original block. There is direct communication to the basement, to those workshops and the rest of the original building via the cloister on the north side. The studio at the west end of the labs can host indoor events, exhibitions and project work, while the large courtyard is at once delivery yard (capable of receiving large trucks and movements of heavy bits of kit and material) and expansive, spectacular public exhibition space.

One can’t help but notice a fastidious care to keep details clear, simple and exposed

When it comes to the materials used to construct this basic format of cloister, tower, courtyard, gallery and café, possible sources and influences abound, yet the very substance of the structures cannot be abstracted from their functions. The architect points to Insel Hombroich in Germany, a ‘cultural island’ with distinct and regular-formed buildings marking definitive spots of artistic pilgrimage in a countryside setting. This building does sit in its own green island of the urban ex-railway cutting – but its own particularity calls on an even richer palette of expression. The smooth, finely poured concrete of the structural frame and the brick infill give an unmistakably Roman feel – brick and travertine style – to the space. It’s materially robust – like a mid 20th-century Italian railway station – while simultaneously exuding the faintly reverential and contemplative undertones of a Giorgio de Chirico painting with its neo-Romanesque cloister and campanile. The concrete colonnade is neatly managed on the south side with a cantilevered soffit to let the cloister remain uncluttered as a workspace, and accessible, via full-height galvanised steel gates which open all along that side, to the cycle path and public right of way there.

One can’t help but notice a fastidious care by the architect to keep details clear, simple and exposed – like the prismatic form of the galvanised rainwater vessel above the freestanding wall with a concrete pouring lip on the west side. The Le Corbusier and Carlo Scarpa influence is not missed here. But is it only because of the climate in this country that such exposure of careful honesty and integrity in our operation with outdoor materials has always been so unusual?

One final point regards an act of generous and respectful homage that is surely to be recognised in the forms we see here. Metzstein and Andy MacMillan (of Gillespie, Kidd & Coia) both taught the principals of Sutherland Hussey Harris when they were students at the Mackintosh School of Architecture. We can hardly look on the tight juxtaposition of those brick forms, the 28m tall tower cheek-by-jowl with the cloister, and not be reminded of GKC’s brick St Bride’s Church, built in East Kilbride in 1963, and whose own 46m campanile was demolished 20 years later. Does it matter if the architect aimed expressly at creating a tribute? The fact that such an interpretation is even possible is a demonstration of the myriad layers of significance and authenticity that have been accumulated here in the making of this place.

Johnny Rodger is a writer, critic and professor of urban literature at the Glasgow School of Art

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop & Creative Labs. Sutherland Hussey Harris Architects.


Sutherland Hussey Harris

The brief asked for the following:

  • Support excellence in contemporary arts practice by providing the time and inspiring creative spaces needed to pursue ambitious high-level artist-led research and project-development
  • Establish a vibrant cultural hub by offering a dynamic and inspiring creative space which attracts artists, thinkers, creative minds and innovators from across the cultural, academic, public and private sectors
  • Support community development by creating new ways for the public to access the learning, personal and community development benefits of engaging with contemporary sculpture, and by creating an inspiring sustainable development which directly benefits the local area.

The building was to contain:

  • A large external space for working and events that could be used in a variety of ways
  • Semi-covered external ‘studios’ that can be used flexibly
  • Two large internal studio spaces
  • A social hub which could contain a café and kitchen
  • Ancillary accommodation including stores and WCs.

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop & Creative Labs. Sutherland Hussey Harris Architects.

Architect’s view

Sutherland Hussey Harris

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop (ESW) is an organisation that offers a base for artists, providing studios, exhibition spaces, workshops and accommodation.

Over the past 15 years we have been working closely with ESW to assist in their campaign to raise funds to move out of their draughty old railway shed and into a new, purpose-built facility. We have done this in two distinct phases, representing two separate funding sources: one through publicly accessible sources such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and the second through the Arts Funding Prize – an anonymous donation of £3 million for an arts building in Edinburgh.

The two phases represent an exploration of the opposite sides of the ‘arts building’ coin. One, the hermetic, practical, messy side of the making of art, and the other the open, accessible and extrovert of the gallery. They are the Bill Scott Sculpture Centre (Phase 1) and the Creative Laboratories (Phase 2) respectively.

Phase 1 is a compact building containing metal, stone, wood and mixed-media workshops with 30 ‘garret’ studios sitting on top, and a series of public-facing services at street level as well as two autonomous artist lodgings.

This represents the internal needs of the organisation, and of the artists with thinking and making spaces accounted for, as well as educational facilities which maintain ESW’s focused creative programmes for the public to engage with sculpture and the arts.

Building this first allowed ESW to decant from their dilapidated shed on the adjacent site, freeing up the land for Phase 2 which is an altogether different building.

Twelve external sculpture bays divided by elegant concrete piers flank two sides of a sunken courtyard inspired by the Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto, with a public café and the laboratories themselves forming the remaining two sides. This adjoins a new public route from street level down into the previously abandoned railway cutting – now a forming a key component in Edinburgh’s green link cycle network.

The main elevation to the cycle path is clad in brick and metal screens, a reference to the site’s industrial past that allows glimpses into the courtyard, revealing the process of making to the public and encouraging passersby to explore within.

The sequence is completed with a 28m tall campanile, left for interpretation by future visiting artists, acting as both a gateway and as a beacon visible to the wider city beyond.



Client’s view

Irene Kernan, director, Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop

Our initial plans for the Bill Scott Sculpture Centre developed from connections we had with a residency centre in rural Norway, which had invested in high-quality contemporary architecture in a beautiful but remote setting. The centre attracts artists from all over the world and adds value to the surrounding community, and was our inspiration for the project.

When we started working with Sutherland Hussey Harris on the development of the sculpture centre it was at the earliest stage of our thinking about what we needed. We were clear on the function and number of the spaces required and about practical issues to be addressed, such as ease of access and compartmentalising of workspaces. We also had aspirations to create opportunities for social activities and accidental meetings between the different people working at or visiting ESW. And we were working within an extremely tight budget using public funds, and so needed to demonstrate value for money at all times.

Sutherland Hussey Harris spent time listening to artists to find out how they worked and considering what sort of conditions would create a productive and supportive environment. As we are a production facility rather than a gallery, they proposed interesting solutions to our ambitions to open up what we do to a public audience and reveal the work being made here.

The end result is a building which has inspired the many artists and public participants working here to new levels of professionalism. The development of the site has enabled us to significantly improve the surrounding public areas and made it easier for us establish new relationships with the local community.

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop & Creative Labs. Sutherland Hussey Harris Architects.

Materials detail

Sutherland Hussey Harris

The construction method and materials reflect the function of Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop. The building celebrates a working establishment; a factory for the production and development of sculpture. It is designed for robustness and longevity.

The primary structure is in-situ concrete, the bays of the concrete frame forming a cloister around the perimeter of the external space. The bays provide a basic infrastructure that can be used flexibly by ESW as temporary working spaces, areas for storage or exhibition, or to build more permanent internal studios at a later date. The concrete frame is well suited to this purpose as it is robust and long-lasting, and allows the opportunity to cast in fixing points for other structures.

The continuous, gently folded roof is clad with bricks, an extension of the plinth from the first phase. This brick surface folds around the outside of the inner frame forming the external skin to the new building. The stepped public route through the site is also surfaced with the same material.

Openings in the brick and concrete structure are treated simply, using either aluminium-framed glazed walls for internal spaces or galvanised steel gates.

The internal surface of the arena is hard-wearing but varied in texture to break down the scale of the space.

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop & Creative Labs. Sutherland Hussey Harris Architects.

Project data

Start on site Phase 1 January 2010, Phase 2 August 2013
Completion Phase 1 July 2012, Phase 2 November 2014
Gross internal area Phase 1 1,840m², Phase 2 internal 310m², external covered 850m², total 1,160m²
Cost Phase 1 £2.9 million, Phase 2 £2.2 million
Contract Traditional SBCC (Phase 1 altered to allow for Gross Max Price)
Client Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop
Project manager Thomson Bethune
Structural engineer David Narro Associates
Quantity surveyor Thomson Bethune
M&E engineer AECOM
Landscape architect Liane Bauer
CDM co-ordinator Thomson Bethune
Main contractor Phase 1 Graham Construction, Phase 2 Maxi Construction
CAD software used Phase 1 Bentley MicroStation, Phase 2 Graphisoft ArchiCAD

Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop & Creative Labs. Sutherland Hussey Harris Architects.

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