Johnny Rodgers finds a traditional artist’s studio, with some distinctive differences
Placing an inhabitable object in a big, open, rough area such as the Scottish Highlands is a test for the placemaking skills of any architect. For its single-space artist’s studio in Kintyre, Studio Weave has learned some traditional tricks of the Highland trade, and pulled off a few particularly innovative turns into the bargain.
The commission was to build a small studio on top of the site of a former midden (dungheap) at the back of a converted stable block. What better symbolic site for an artist, you might say. Isn’t it indeed their job to spend time working through the detritus of their daily life and transforming it into something other? An altogether more picturesque promotion, however, might point out that the site is within 30m of the Atlantic seacoast and has a panorama encompassing the skyline of the beautiful islands of Gigha, Islay and Jura.
The building’s basic format is of a cardinally orientated pavilion with a double pitched roof; the gables facing east and west. One of the roofs is set slightly further back than the other, and the building’s entrance sits in the angle at the west formed by the set-back. The building is completely clad, roof and walls, in standing-seam zinc panels, which are patterned all over with alternating saltire and diamante bosses.
Such a straightforward description, however, belies both the conditions of complexity found originally on this site, and the intricate architectural solution, which unfolds gradually as you experience the building. The architect found itself quite literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. Running east-west on the north of the site is a massive boulder, and with a similar orientation of flow on the south side is the stream Allt na t-sionnaich. Between them these features would seem to form natural limits to the site, but there are further complications. The client wanted to build in the old midden, and incorporate its retaining wall. The main length of that 1m-high wall runs from the south-east of the site, at the burn, towards the north-west. In other words the wall cuts into the site and thus caused at least two problems. Firstly, if it were to be used as a straightforward load-bearing wall, this would make it very difficult to achieve the cardinal orientation of the building with north light for the studio and a view west to the sea. Secondly, if it were used this way then the size of the site would have been much reduced and made irregular, ie only between the wall and the rock, missing the stretch between the wall and the stream.
Studio Weave has found an ingenious solution to this problem. By leaning the whole building against this wall, it cantilevers its south length out over the flowing stream. The height of the wall inside the studio is then incorporated as the edge beyond which the south cantilever is all raised plywood-clad work surfaces for the artist. This solution allows for a regular orthogonal and cardinally orientated form which has north light from three rooflights and a window on the west gable facing directly west to the sea view.
The interior is an example of the classic artist’s studio design, as in Josep Lluís Sert’s studio for Joan Miro in Palma, Majorca – a broad uncluttered floorspace, with walls largely unpunctuated by fenestration, ample provision of workbenching around the edge, and plenty of north light. Floor, walls and ceiling have an inner skin of simple plywood panelling which, together with its zinc outside, makes for a building-in-its-work-clothes effect, imparting something of a hands-on ethic to the space. Indeed the only clue to the complex manipulation of material and form in space that produced this place is the mesmerising glass panel in the worktop at the south-west corner, which frames a view of the gushing water directly under the building.
The unkind might dismiss this building as no more than a garden shed in fancy cladding – an appropriately Gaelic proverb could sum the crit rather neatly: ‘Put silk on the goat: it’s still a goat,’ Yet that’s to miss something substantial here. Yes, it’s a dinky building, but it’s also very distinctive. There is then, something quite paradoxical about it. Arguably that distinction seems to draw simultaneously on at least two well-researched but very different traditions.
On the one hand an explicit nod is made by the diamante patterning on the zinc cladding to the Renaissance style, as seen most notably, in Scotland anyway, in the Baronial Crichton Castle in Midlothian. On a deeper level, however, the formal geometry and ordered orientation of the building evidently owe something to the regular and geometric forms of the Scottish Baronial castles and country homes. These buildings litter the Highlands with their dungeons, towers, keeps, bartizans and so on, and their strong forms anchor them in this rough landscape.
It belongs to the tradition of the one-off modern house in the Highland countryside
On the other hand, it seems also to belong very much to the tradition of the one-off modern house in the picturesque Highland countryside. Just like some recent Highland buildings by, say, Studio KAP and Rural Design, it is built not from heavy local stone but from light materials – zinc, glass, plywood; from sheets, cladding and screens, rather than heavy walls and solid masonry. These buildings also tend to sit very lightly on the land, sometimes on pilotis, as at Rural Design’s house at Fiscavaig, or cantilevered over the landscape as at Studio KAP’s Tigh na Dobhran, and here in Kintyre.
One might wonder on the motivation behind these buildings’ light touch on the land. Is it due to the damp in the soil here (a stream in Kintyre) or perhaps because of the roughness of the terrain? Or is there more of a phenomenological intention in sustaining a certain ambience and eco-culture? Perhaps all of these factors are of relevance, and indeed catering for them allows for a much-needed versatility in the Scottish Highlands, an area that has, after all, long been acknowledged to have fragile economic, social and eco-systems.
Johnny Rodger is a writer, critic, and professor of urban literature at Glasgow School of Art
The brief for Midden Studio was to create a light-filled studio space for an artist, set inextricably into the existing landscape. The desire was to address the existing qualities of the site – the adjacent granite boulders and historic midden wall – and to use their materiality as design drivers and parameters within which to work. Controlled openings within the studio walls would provide the artist with curated glimpses of the surrounding landscape while retaining a simple, calm internal space, allowing them to immerse themselves in their work without distraction.
The studio’s rotated plan was a response to the artist’s brief to maximise north light within the space. The desired north-south axis of the building when juxtaposed with the existing midden wall, resulted in cantilevered sections and raised interstitial spaces. One of these spaces floats above the adjacent fast-flowing burn, and provided an opportunity to develop a stronger connection between the surrounding landscape and the studio’s interior. The ‘soffit light’ set within the artist’s work surface allows views down to the flowing water beneath, and the building is filled with the sound of water all year round.
This trapezoidal 1,900mm-long opening brings a curious quality of light into the space. Reflected from the water below, the light shimmers blue-green, illuminating the ceiling space and creating an ephemeral atmosphere that changes with the ebbs and flows of the burn. The soffit light is framed within the work surface so as to allow removable panels to be inset flush, allowing the artist to
Zinc was chosen as the cladding material because of its malleability and durability. The zinc would patinate and age gracefully over time, further integrating into the language of the surrounding mottled granite rocks. The zinc cladding pattern was partly inspired by Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara, and Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo in Naples, and was embossed into the 430mm-wide zinc sheets using a cold-press technique.
Both the massing and fenestration were designed to eliminate the need for cut panels and so retain the pattern’s geometric purity. The cladding details were developed in collaboration with the zinc manufacturer and window fabricator, and most were adaptations of standard, well-practised techniques to avoid challenges on site. The prefabricated cladding panels were manufactured as a precise jigsaw puzzle. The detailed design of the overhanging corniced eaves allowed for any material tolerances to be accommodated on site and provided space for the facade to be ventilated.
The Midden Studio is an artist’s studio on the edge of mainland Scotland, looking out over the islands, and situated next to a burn which opens out to the sea 50m downstream. The site is all important to the building.
The architecture attempts to tie the building to the site, and its form draws on local vernacular stables and lodges, while features such as the ‘soffit light’ bring the landscape inside by allowing the artist to peer down through the work surface at the flowing water beneath. The building is filled with the sound of water all year round, from the Atlantic waves, the burn, the rain, and the drizzle. By contrast, the exterior ornament echoes far off places such as Chiesa del Gesù Nuovo, Naples, so the building comprises overlays of other ideas from all over the place.
The site’s remoteness and the harsh coastal conditions led us to a design that was fabricated predominantly off site. The structural timber panels were prefabricated, then joined and finished on site to form a stress skin. The inner skin of the panels forms the interior finish. This bare timber was appropriate for the function of the space (an artist’s studio), and also saved on materials and labour on-site. The embossed raw zinc panels were formed in a factory and then fitted, minimising on-site welding.
The building has a simple programme, although the space is quite complex as a result of the tight footprint, wedged between the rock, the old midden wall and the burn. A planning requirement to keep the ridge line below 4m was part of the reason for the double-pitched roof, which creates some complex volume on the interior.
The Midden Studio tells a story, but rather than springing from a singular concept, the ideas it contains are overlapping and sometimes.
Studio Weave contacted VMZinc to request a special building skin for a special site. Natural mill finish zinc was chosen, as its initially uneven patina created a harmony with the local granite rock. The natural zinc will take between four to eight years to form a more even warm grey patina.
The zinc also had to reflect the local rugged landscape by way of stamped patterns. VMZinc has produced stamped sheets, mainly for ornaments, for almost 200 years. However applying this technique to roofing and facade systems required some challenging technical innovations. The close collaboration between Studio Weave and the VMZinc technical department resulted in standing-seam zinc panels being stamped with two repeating patterns. The panels were then installed by HL Metals on a traditional vented substrate with a bespoke ridge. All the flashing trim was also produced in natural zinc.
The zinc envelope not only fits in with the harsh environment but can also protect against it. Zinc’s durability, which in some cases exceeds 100 years, makes it a very cost-effective roofing and cladding material which requires almost no maintenance. The Midden Studio will provide a place for creative art for several generations to come.
Jonathan Lowy, product manager, VMZinc