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Great Detail: Chris Boyce on Gillespie, Kidd and Coia’s St Bride’s

Aj great detail crop2
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The next in a series looking at the building details that have impressed and inspired our readers. Today: Chris Boyce of CJCT Studios

Architect Gillespie, Kidd and Coia 
Building St Bride’s, East Kilbride (1963)

St brides detail

St brides detail

St Bride’s in East Kilbride is a very Scottish building, approached across the sunburst paving of an Italian piazza, with a hint of the Tuscan hill town in the massing when seen from the road. However, materially, it’s a wee bit English.

Brutalism in its clearest discernible form was about big gestures and raw concrete, left exposed as the form work moulded it, exposed to the wind, to the rain, and to the human hand.

St Bride’s (Grade A-listed, built 1963), however, is built of hand-thrown, warm red brick. It is a monolithic, it is beautiful, and it is Brutalism at its absolute best.

It is brick because in the hopeful age of the new town, brick was plentiful, cool, easily moved around and cheap. It is also brick because the patrician partners of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia worked in the material extensively and created a true modern vernacular for the Roman Catholic Diocese across Scotland from the 1920s onward.

Maybe its creators (my old tutors at the Glasgow School of Art) Andy Macmillan and Isi Metzstein of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia (RIBA Gold Medallists 1969) would have been happier if it had been made of the sandstone of their beloved Glasgow, or of concrete itself, but either way the choice of brickwork allowed them to play with many surface and formal details from which architects today can still learn.

1373567 st brides east kilbride p071011 1

1373567 st brides east kilbride p071011 1

The playful manipulation of coursing, corbelling, staggering, setbacks and niches demonstrates two young architects at the height of their experimental powers. Referring to the past, both Medieval and Modernist, their use of bricks here helped me see a humble material in a new light when I first visited the church in 1993.

The detail of the main entrance to the church is a subtle corbelled niche cut into the thickness of the wall, leading to a doorway of truly epic scale, like the swish of a brickwork curtain, it sucks you into a vertical fissure and through the shadow, into the startling brightly lit interior beyond.

The brickwork is monolithic, not as we often use that word today to describe a brick reveal on a veneer of non-structural masonry, but in the sense that the already thick wall is made up of solid brickwork (in an English bond) like a diaphragm, with deeply cut, recessed, internally angled to play with the light that floods in from the slot like high level windows and supporting an amazing lightweight ‘factory’ roof of glass and timber.

The thickness of the wall is made apparent by the Corbel, stepping back to chamfer the outer line of the wall at slightly over head height, it is humanising in the sense that the huge wall has subtly shifted to allow you entry. It grounds the structure, and connects you to the chapel inside as you pass.

It’s also a traditional Scottish stone detail I saw for myself as a boy growing up in the Highlands, on every castle and fortified house, and on the flanks of the tower at Muckrach, ancient seat of the Grants of Rothiemurchus, built in 1598. This was my local castle just a mile from home.

The entrance to St Bride’s, I like to imagine, comes from a friendship that included travel in the Scottish Highlands, admiring the Scottish vernacular close-up, of a fevered conversation about a simple concept (the massive blind box) and how the application of simple, semi-traditional material detailing can make it all the richer.

St Bride’s is simply one of the finest buildings in Scotland.

Chris Boyce is design director at CJCT Studios

Plan st brides gsa archives

Plan st brides gsa archives

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