The complexity and scope of the brief is not only elegantly accommodated, but transformed into a great piece of architecture, writes Rob Wilson.
Photography and film by Jim Stephenson
While it was Edinburgh that attracted the nickname The Athens of the North, Glasgow is littered with Classical antecedents in its architecture, too, not least in the surviving examples of Alexander ‘Greek’ Thompson’s churches. So, while the architects’ characterisation of the City of Glasgow College City Campus as ‘an Acropolis’ seems a little overblown, and is as much in half-jokey contrast to its near neighbour the Necropolis Cemetery as anything, such an allusion has form here since the Scottish Enlightenment. And, in more ways than one, the urban significance of this building justifies that moniker.
Most obviously this is in its physical presence, sitting like a gleaming white crust above the city centre, where the Merchant City district’s grid leaches into the more informally laid-out streets around the cathedral.
It is a huge building and necessarily so: it needs to accommodate 40,000 students across six major faculties, with more than 800 distinct learning spaces. As one judge observed when it won the 2017 AJ100 Building of the Year, it is Victorian in its scale and ambition.
It is not Victorian, though, in any looming, institutional way. Unlike Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art further along the ridge, the architecture does not turn its back to the city, but embraces it, its main block creating an animated street frontage to Cathedral Street on its southern edge with one main entrance and lobby facing Montrose Street, dropping downhill towards the river.
To the west, the block’s flank picks up the angle of the Merchant City’s grid, while negotiating the 10m change in site level, with an upper entrance marking the crank in the façade where the north-western wing of building joins the main block. Together, these create the eastern edge to a new public space, gently enfolding it. This space is further animated by a cascade of steps, externally connecting the levels, designed as much it seems to be sat on as walked down – at least when the Glasgow weather allows.
In the exterior detailing the detached grid of double-height and fluted precast concrete columns creates an appropriately grand civic frontage. Yet, through being clearly treated as a slender screen, the size of these elements are not intimidatingly massive – more Italian Rationalist than Neoclassical.
The vertical gridding of this screen also mediates and gives depth and textural edge to the building’s form, breaking it down and allowing for ripples and shifts in rhythm and perception as you approach or pass by.
Additionally, it allows for terrace and balcony spaces to occupy and further articulate its depth at higher levels.
Apart from its size, this is a building designed to function on an urban scale in its social and educational purpose. It is the ‘sibling’ (not ‘twin’ as Reiach and Hall are keen to differentiate) to the Riverside Campus in the city by the same design team. The two buildings were commissioned as a result of the creation of The City of Glasgow College in 2010, a ‘super-college’ formed from the merger of three institutions, formally spread across a total of 11 sites, and now rationalised onto two campuses. This, the City Campus, is by far the larger of the two: at more than 60,000m2 it is three times the size of Riverside.
Housing six major faculties – Building; Engineering and Energy; Business and Enterprise; Creative Industries; Leisure and Lifestyle; and Library and Learning Technologies – the brief for the building was to provide facilities for applied jobs training. It was to be a place to learn skills for careers in the real world.
The architecture of the building nicely reflects this. Internally, a seven-storey atrium continues the scale of the city into the building’s core in a civic-scaled gesture which connects the upper and lower entrance lobbies and is open to the public. Its dynamic diagonal shape is generated by shifts in the city grid and street pattern, while a bank of stairs negotiates the same 10m change in site level as those outside. It brings a sense of the exterior landscape into the building while elegantly doubling as an auditorium.
In addition to the top-lit atrium, a large planted courtyard and, higher up, a series of generous terraced courtyards and spaces, around which the faculties are organised, bring light deep into the learning spaces and provide break-out areas. It is a complex hierarchy of spaces, which means the building itself reads as a city within a city.
This urban sense is further underlined by the myriad flexible, multi-programmable learning spaces being joined by industry-standard and career-specific facilities.
These include a full-size aircraft cabin for cabin crew training, Scotland’s second largest TV broadcasting studio, a builder’s yard-cum-construction workshop, a bakery and a fully functioning commercial gym. In addition, a row of ‘live’ commercial units along Cathedral Street – including a restaurant, a butchers shop and hair and beauty studio – means students gain not only the technical skills but also the service skills needed to engage with the public in real work environments.
The complexity and scope of the brief is not only elegantly accommodated, but transformed dexterously and with real intelligence into a great piece of architecture. This bears witness to the skill of the architects and also to the deep engagement between them and their client throughout the design process.
Though it gleams white above the city, this is, then, not an ivory tower but a threshold for students embarking on their careers. It is a building that opens up to the life around it in all its energy and complexity, enhancing the experience of students as well as that of the city and society it is part of and serves.
How we built it
The Cathedral Street Campus embodies ideas about the city, the ennobling of the student experience and the enabling of new learning opportunities through the building design.
The site occupies a significant high point on Cathedral Street where Glasgow’s mercantile grid meets the diagonal route from the medieval old town. The building mediates between these two urban forces through a plan that is at once centrifugal and centripetal. The building negotiates the hill though a series of inhabited terraces and steps, both inside and out, with the public invited deep into the building.
The plans are organised round two city-scaled spaces, a courtyard and an atrium. They are convivial and shared social spaces that encourage students to mix and hopefully realise opportunities for a more blended way of learning. The teaching spaces either look into the atrium and courtyard or across the city. The activities within the classrooms are visible from circulation routes, promoting a sense of a single community. Students are encouraged to investigate opportunities outside of their own discipline with the prospect of cross-discipline interaction and projects.
The principle objective for the structure was to provide a solution to address the evolving learning requirements over the life of the building. Furthermore, the construction timescales demanded a rapid build structure to suit the contractor’s programme and cost requirements.
The solution to address these challenges comprised embedded asymmetric steel beams supporting Hollowcore precast planks and a structural topping. Primarily, this provided the client a structure with a flat soffit and therefore flexible spaces in the future by segregating the structural/services interfaces to minimise requirements in building adaptions. The prefabricated nature of the structure also maximised offsite manufacture to speed up the construction process on site.
Michael Laird Architects and Reiach and Hall Architects formed a standalone practice for the duration of the project. This was equally resourced by both practices. The joint venture practice drew on MLA’s major project experience and Reiach and Hall Architect’s education expertise .
Reiach and Hall Architects, Michael Laird Architects
Start on site Summer 2013
Completion August 2016
Gross internal floor area 60,000m2
Form of contract Bespoke Non-Profit Distributing (NPD)
Construction cost £162 million
Architect Reiach and Hall Architects and Michael Laird Architects
Client City of Glasgow College
Structural engineer Arup
M&E consultant FES with Hulley and Kirkwood
Quantity surveyor Sweett Group
Acoustic consultant Arup Acoustics
Fire engineer Jeremy Gardner Associates
Landscape architect Rankinfraser Landscape Architecture
Signage Studio LR
CDM co-ordinator Kirk & Marsh
Main contractor Sir Robert McAlpine
CAD software used Revit, AutoCAD, MicroStation
Annual CO2 emissions 28.31kg/m2 (estimate from EPC)
This article first appeared in the RIBA Stirling Prize 2017 issue which includes a free colouring book