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Remembering Gareth Hoskins: three buildings by the architect

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The AJ revists three of Gareth Hoskins’ projects which were previously reviewed in the magazine



Mareel Arts Centre

Mareel Arts Centre by Hoskins Architects

Mareel Arts Centre by Hoskins Architects

Source: John Coutts

Penny Lewis reviewed this arts centre on the Shetland Isle of Lerwick back in 2013

Lerwick, the administrative centre of the Shetland Isles, is Scotland’s most northerly town. It is 150 miles north of John O’ Groats and closer to Norway than to Edinburgh. Most visitors arrive in Lerwick in the early morning, having taken the 5pm ferry from Aberdeen the previous day.

Like much of the north-east of Scotland, the island’s economy benefited greatly from the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s. In recent weeks Shetland, the BBC TV drama by crime writer Ann Cleeves, has imagined a darker, parochial aspect of island life, but the isles’ astounding treeless landscape, white beaches and fantastic wildlife attract ferry-loads of hardy tourists each summer.

As with many remote settlements, the islands appear both inwardlooking and self-sufficient and outward-looking in equal measure. The inevitable diaspora, digital technology and air travel mean many of the island’s 22,400 residents are as well ‘connected’ as any Glaswegian. Some of Shetland’s buildings, the old timber warehouses and new blue kit houses, have a Nordic flavour, but the pattern of dispersed crofts, abandoned cottages and dreich brown post-war council houses is unmistakably Scottish.

For such a small, remote population, public expenditure is a big issue. Cuts to services for the elderly and the closure of primary schools have provoked a passionate debate over the public purse in the local press and on community websites. Against this backdrop the completion of a £13 million new arts venue – Mareel, designed by Gareth Hoskins Architects (GHA) supported by local firm PJP Architects – is a remarkable achievement.

Now the project is up and running, detractors who dubbed the project a ‘white elephant’ look meanspirited

Since the competition to design Mareel was launched in 2006, a localised ‘Culture War’ has been raging between those dubbed the ‘arty-elite’, who believe public money should support the arts, and others who argue that commercially driven leisure activities are the key to a good public life. The story of the commissioning and construction of Mareel evokes memories of Edinburgh’s Holyrood project. Construction began in 2009 but completion was delayed until August last year due to severe weather and problems with subcontractors. For the past year the project’s client, Shetland Arts, has been involved in an ongoing dispute with DITT Construction, the main contractor.

Now the project is up and running, detractors who dubbed the project a ‘white elephant’ look decidedly meanspirited.

Few could fail to be enchanted by the sight of islanders and visitors of all tastes and ages enjoying this elegant public building, with its direct relationship to the harbour.

On an island like Shetland the idea of a multi-purpose building programme makes a great deal of sense. Gwilym Gibbons, the project’s main client and director of Shetland Arts, is visibly relieved that the ‘canny’ mix of uses has paid off. Two thirds of the venue’s £2.3 million annual turnover is made through its commercial activity. The two cinemas (which show mainstream and art house films) generate the bulk of its income and ensure a large enough audience to make the café viable, leaving national funders to lend their support to worldclass touring artists and participants in national touring shows.

Mareel’s success is not restricted to its programming: it’s an accomplished piece of architecture. It sits between new council offices and the Shetland Museum and Archives building, designed by BDP and completed in 2007. The council had planned for the three to work together and GHA was keen that Mareel should generate a public route linking all three. The Museum and Mareel are linked but the orientation of the council offices has undermined the original plan and until Lerwick can find funds to invest in landscaping the car park will continue to dominate the approach.

Mareel’s success is not restricted to its programming: it’s an accomplished piece of architecture

A defining feature of the dock is the set of stone piers and breakwaters which are witness to historic patterns of use, of loading and unloading, and objects of aesthetic beauty. GHA made a good decision to build right up to these quays. Nevertheless, because of Shetland’s often severe weather, any building on the water’s edge must be prepared to take a beating. The number of fixings used to tie the aluminium skin to the frame is double what you would specify on a mainland project. The envelope is formed from tight layers, hence the rather heavy trims that emphasise the building’s edges.

The strangely familiar building form (dubbed the ‘squinty box’) has more in common with the work of Scandinavian architects such as 3XN or SnØhetta (with whom Hoskins has worked before) than traditional Scottish rural forms currently fashionable. It is partly determined by the programme (which demanded large, black boxes) but also by the context, a sprawling working harbour with its large, utilitarian tin sheds.

GHA made a conscious decision to take inspiration from the surrounding warehouses rather than the domestic architecture of the islands. The two large wedges of accommodation turn their back on the water and each is covered by a long, monopitch roof. The building has a hybrid structure, with steelwork supporting the long spans and heavy loads at the core of the building and exposed timber glulam beams supplementing the steel and carrying the outer skin.

Where the two roofs intersect, you find the entrance foyer to the front and the café and café gallery to the rear. At this point the skin of the two boxes is cut back to open up views to the harbour and to light the foyer. In these two public areas the timber elements of the structure are exposed. Deep glulam frames at close centres give the interior an ordered, even classical, elegance, the softness and warmth of timber contrasting strongly with the tough exterior.

GHA has built a reputation on its ability to create public buildings which have an informal and welcoming quality. Breakout spaces in the form of play areas, ‘streets’ and cafés are designed to ensure the occupants linger and make themselves at home. Mareel’s two-storey café/bar is possibly its most successful break-out space to date. Its merit lies in the fact that it is pretty tight and occupies the corner of the building where the hard, utilitarian exterior opens up to provide views of Hay’s Dock to the west and the isle of Bressay to the North.

The success of the café is matched by the quality of the auditorium, which has been designed with Shetland’s famous fiddle players in mind. A modest timber gallery detailed with the same level of simplicity and restraint as the main timber structure provides a degree of permanence to what is in fact a highly adaptable space. Working with Seb Jouan of AECOM and with Arup Acoustics over a period of time, the architects have managed to create a space which is both acoustically and visually intimate.

In the early days of the design there had been plans to make it possible to open the auditorium to the water but in the final design the performance space is surrounded by small units such as rehearsal rooms and educational resources used by the University of the Highlands and Islands to deliver courses in music and media production. Shetland Arts avoided pressure to cut corners in this area and as a result they have one of the UK’s best live recording studios.

New build in Shetland is often cheap and unambitious. In a recession, in a remote location and hostile climate it is easy to opt for cheap and undemanding solutions. Mareel is proof that Shetland deserves more, and that the isles can thrive where expectations are high.




Marlaw by Hoskins Architects

Marlaw by Hoskins Architects

Back in 2012, Chris Coleman-Smith wrote about this new private house within the Pollokshields conservation area of Glasgow

The site was formerly the orchard of the Grade-A listed building adjacent, and had become an overgrown vacant plot bounded on three sides by mature trees in existing rear gardens, with a wooded public park falling away from the western boundary.

As well as the significant cross-fall, a key challenge of the site was eradicating the Japanese knotweed which had encroached from the adjacent land. Controlled under environmental legislation, this ‘extremely invasive and competitive plant’ requires very careful handling in its removal.

The dwelling was designed as a contemporary interpretation of the ‘Grand Villa’, with sliding panels of limestone, render and glass contained within a folding precast concrete band. To avoid overlooking, accommodation is arranged around private courtyard gardens that reflect the U-shaped plan of the adjacent villa.

The ground floor is terraced down to the front entrance in response to the sloping site. Steps continue from the landscaped courtyard through the fully glazed family living areas, linking internal and external spaces. 

The dwelling was designed as a contemporary interpretation of the ‘Grand Villa’

The building sits at the centre of the site, set back from the public park to create a clear approach, and the existing, listed boundary wall line is continued from the avenue into the main body of the building to form a covered entrance area and define a secure line between front and back. As you enter the building, daylight has been maximised in the double-height reception area and entertainment suite, with cantilevered walnut staircases and a glazed lift providing access to bedrooms. The house has been arranged so that the entertainment suite is separated from the family areas, connected only in the entrance hall and with a bridge at first floor level.

The key family space is the kitchen/dining and living area at the heart of the house, with sliding glass doors providing a direct connection to the courtyard. A fitness suite with pool, gym, sauna and steam room can be accessed either from these family spaces or by a discreet staircase from the bedrooms above.

At first floor level bedrooms have been arranged around the courtyard, with a separate guest bedroom facing the front. A wall of glazing in the guest room affords an uninterrupted view of the tree canopy. The master bedroom on the second floor cantilevers over the drive and opens onto a south-facing roof terrace, in response to the client’s desire for sunlight and views across Pollok Country Park to the distant hills. To reduce running costs, the design includes a ground-source heat pump and insulation exceeding Building Regulations requirements.

Chris Coleman-Smith, director, Gareth Hoskins Architects


National Museum of Scotland

National Museum of Scotland by Hoskins Architects

National Museum of Scotland by Hoskins Architects

Source: Andrew Lee

This scheme which revamped the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh was reviewed by architect Richard Murphy

When I arrived in Edinburgh in 1978, a fellow student helpfully explained the difference between Edinburgh and Glasgow. Edinburgh, he said was a magnificent city with no important buildings, whereas Glasgow was a straightforward gridiron plan with some amazing, world-famous buildings.

Armed with this information, I walked across Chambers Street and into what must be the exception to his sweeping rule. The Royal Scottish Museum, designed in 1861 by the naval architect Captain Francis Fowke, was Scotland’s response to the splendour of London’s Crystal Palace.

The main atrium is perhaps Edinburgh’s one truly great indoor urban space and is placed, unusually, not in the centre of the plan but parallel to Chambers Street, separated by internal stone colonnades. The atrium itself is ringed with two storeys of delicate cast iron galleries, so that  views between the street and interior are seen through an intriguing veil of columns, with a spectacular rooflight above. Although the upper levels are sometimes used for display, the main atrium level is primarily a gigantic foyer, leading to four smaller triple-height galleries, which were originally also top-lit.

Placed at piano nobile level, the museum is accessed from a cascade of steps on the exterior, which enter at three-quarters level, only to pause at the colonnade before continuing to the centre of the main atrium. Last month, a major reworking of the museum, undertaken by Glasgow-based Gareth Hoskins Architects, opened to the public.

The building started life as a museum for Edinburgh University (to which it is still linked by a disused Bridge of Sighs). It became the Royal Scottish Museum in 1888, and is, in London terms, the British, Natural History, Science and V&A Museums all rolled into one. Undistinguished extensions of a lecture theatre, offices and a secondary entrance were bolted to the south side of the building in the 20th century, but the main event of recent times was Benson + Forsyth’s Museum of Scotland next door, a tour de force that opened in 1998 (AJ 07.05.98).

These two museums, each with its own entrance but interlinked inside, attempted to hold separate identities, the subtleties of which were mostly lost on the public. These two institutions have now come together to form the National Museum of Scotland.

The 1998 museum, with its clever integration of the objects within Benson + Forsyth’s space, only illustrated how neglected the original building had become, with its tired displays and ad hoc alterations.

The alterations have gone much further than might have been expected

Gareth Hoskins Architects and exhibition designer Ralph Appelbaum were appointed to work on the museum in 2004. They began an ambitious study that culminated in a 15-year masterplan, a feature of which is the partial pedestrianisation of Chambers Street, an idea first mooted by Benson + Forsyth.

The Museum, closed for three years while renovations took place, has now reopened to great fanfare. Although only two of the four main atria have been completed, a rolling programme will eventually bring the other two up to the same standard. However, the alterations have gone much further than might have been expected.

Two new entrances, placed symmetrically either side of the original, take visitors at street level into what were once the basement stores. These now form a stone-vaulted entrance space that mirrors the atrium plan above, with a bistro, shop and information point.

Two new staircases emerge from under the cast iron balcony on the south side of the building and pass into the atrium. The atrium has been repaved and the cafe and rather popular fishponds removed. One or two objects have been placed here, but the main display is a lucky dip of unrelated objects stretching from basement to ceiling along the entire south wall of the atrium.

There has been a satisfying removal of ageing plasterboard partitioning, revealing the original architecture of the building. Most dramatic of all is the opening up of a new route on the museum’s north-south axis. It connects the original entrance with the secondary entrance, displaying the original arches by completely removing the 1930s rear staircase. Before the alterations, most visitors failed to venture up to the upper galleries, but two new escalators placed sequentially within this route should rectify this.

I toured the building in the company of the museum’s director, Gordon Rintoul and Gordon Gibb of Gareth Hoskins Architects on a wet, school holiday lunchtime about a week after the re-opening. It was mobbed. I have never seen a museum anywhere in the world so thronged with people. But after the children have gone back to school and the PR-induced honeymoon period is over, one needs to assess what changes have been made and why. Most controversial must surely be the new entrances.

According to Gareth Hoskins Architects, it was only late in the day that the Museum decided to close the original entrance, although Rintoul says it will still open on special occasions. It would have been naive to think they would keep the main door open – a visitor would now bypass all the new facilities if they used it.

The entire logic of the front facade has been completely overturned

The director says surveys showed that level access would bring more visitors. Obviously people will vote for ‘no steps’ over ‘steps’, but the old steps, ‘now used much more for seating’, according to Rintoul, lead nowhere. Indeed, the architectural price is a heavy one to pay as the entire logic of the front facade – one of the largest designed facades in Edinburgh – has been completely overturned.

Even if one accepts the main move, the way that the new entrances have been punched through the rusticated base is questionable. During the day they are non-events and shuttered by night they resemble a row of garage doors. As part of the forthcoming pedestrianisation project, the stairs could have instead been completely remodelled to make the entrance more appealing.

The new foyer space is very generous and it is always interesting to see the roughness of the behind-the-scenes architecture of a great building. But one is left asking, is it appropriate to enter such a magnificent building through refurbished cellars? Yet, having made this move, the next major decision is how to penetrate the space above.

The two staircases tempt the visitor with a hidden source of light but their timid design and apologetic location within the atrium contrasts with the magnificence of the space they reveal. The original entrance sequence gave a sense of arrival; now one is made to feel as if one is entering via the servants’ stairs. Think of Gunnar Asplund’s incredible promenade from the street to the very heart of the Stockholm Library and you can imagine what might have been, with the two spaces perhaps joined or the front colonnade used.

Having arrived, the purpose of the original atrium is not obvious; without the fishponds and cafe it seems bereft of function other than to act as a form of circulation to the galleries, so instead of one very generous entrance hall we now have two involving considerable expense and engineering finesse. Nonetheless, the new route to the southern entrance is certainly an inspired move, with direct access to the lecture theatre and a glimpse of light at the end.

Radical surgery to important historic buildings is always controversial

The new interactive displays seem popular and tread carefully between entertainment and education. Vulnerable items have been protected at the cost of blacking out the rooflights of three atria, rather than using a more local solution and although the atria are arranged thematically there is no vertical circulation within them, as Rintoul believed stairs would spoil the spaces.

Radical surgery to important historic buildings is always controversial. In the UK, and especially in Scotland, there seems to be a belief that the more important the building the more discreet the alteration should be.

At first sight that seems a reasonable approach, but I believe the opposite to be the case. If major surgery is required (and here I am unconvinced that it actually was) then it needs to be full-blooded and designed to a very high standard. These new alterations seem to arise from a confused agenda and, almost inevitably, suffer not from their radicalism but rather from their timidity and a misplaced deference towards the original structure.

Richard Murphy is director of Richard Murphy Architects

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