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The Briggait Market Halls, Glasgow by Nicoll Russell Studios

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Nicoll Russell Studios’ loving retrofit of The Briggait market halls has given Glasgow a vital new arts hub, writes Rory Olcayto

Earlier this month, arts analyst John Myerscough published an exhaustive, data-heavy study of Glasgow’s creative output that confirmed its status as the UK’s second cultural centre after London.

Myerscough found that more than 30,000 people are employed within Glasgow’s creative industries, equivalent to seven per cent of the working population, with strong clusters in film, media, music, performance and design. The number employed in architectural practice for example, exceeds 6,000.

And where Edinburgh has the greater concentration of curators, conservators and archivists, Glasgow is home to nearly half of Scotland’s actors, dancers, producers and broadcasters, and around a third of its musicians, artists and graphic designers.

Its museums are the most popular outside London, and every week it puts on more plays and concerts than rivals such as Manchester and Birmingham.

Glasgow’s old fish market, known as the Briggait, a complex of Grade A-listed buildings by the Clyde in the Merchant City dating from the 1870s, has been given a central role in growing that sector still further, following a smart, energetic and low-budget retrofit by Dundee firm Nicoll Russell Studios.

The £4.9 million first phase, which opened last July, is now home to over 80 artists and cultural organisations working in dance, theatre, circus, street arts, the visual arts and design.

Studios, shop units, admin and a café cover 5,500 square metres of public and private space. A second phase will see the architects develop a further 1,100 square metres as dance and circus facilities.

You may recognise the Briggait originally designed by Clarke and Bell which, says Historic Scotland, houses the nation’s ‘most important collection of surviving market halls’.

It was the focus of a building study in 1986 (AJ 06.09.86), shortly after Assist Architects refurbished it as a ‘50-shop one-stop’ shopping mall, a half-hearted attempt to do Covent Garden in Glasgow, that due to bad management fell flat on its face.

By 1990, when Glasgow reigned as the UK’s first European Capital of Culture, it had closed and has lain more or less empty, only part occupied by its most recent developer, Wasps Artists’ Studios, since 2001. Alan Dunlop, who worked on the project with Assist on his year out, remembers it as a ‘decent project done for no money.’

He adds: ‘It failed because 25 years ago this area was desolate. No one would come down to the river from Argyle Street and riverfront regeneration was resisted by the city council, so it never stood a chance.’

Yet while the Briggait lay dormant for these past two decades, Glasgow’s cultural sector, inspired by the success of the 1990 arts programme, has grown by 44 per cent.

Much of it has emerged at the southern edge of the Merchant City, in Trongate (see site plan page 27 of issue 13.3.11), where medieval Glasgow first sprouted before its industrial expansion in grid form.

Many architects, including Dunlop, have relocated there in recent years, such as NORD, Page\Park Architects and emerging talent like Do Architecture and ERZ, which was shortlisted for the AJ Small Projects sustainability prize this year.

This momentum has given the Briggait a fighting chance of survival third time around, and could see it providing the energy to drive further development.

Its new makeover hits you straight away. Paintwork has been stripped from both stone facades, and its relief work and carvings seem far easier on the eye.

Inside, given the overpowering sense of identity the building already has – a craggy 17th-century steeple designed by William Bruce, Daniel Defoe’s ‘Wren of North Britain’, erupts from within the market huddle – Nicoll Russell has succeeded in adding a fresh aesthetic to this quite marvellous townscape accretion.

There is no surprise here. The firm, one of Scotland’s best if a little unsung, is playful, experienced and used to squeezing great design out of small budgets (see their excellent Whitetop Centre in AJ 04.08.94 to get a sense of the firm’s range and inventiveness).

Consequently, many of the new spaces have a jauntiness about them, a kind of stage-set Modernism that sits with a smile alongside the key moments in the building, parts of existing fabric the architects knew to celebrate once again.

My favourite intervention is the atrium studio structure in the 1903 hall, which divides it symmetrically and has sloping glass walls and tubular steel bow trusses that nod respectfully to the ironwork holding the glazed roof up (see working detail).

Another is the staircase with the yellow spine wall that sits under a rooflit atrium alongside the steeple, thus bringing the oldest part of the building back into play.

In the main hall, the eighties-made shop units have been reworked as artist studios. The huge heating ducts installed in the 1980s have been removed along with staircases at either end, and grey and white tones emphasise the qualities of the Victorian structure, now seen unobstructed.

The spatial and visual impact it makes probably persuaded the Civic Trust to give it the Special Award for Scotland this month.

There is a concern however, that the hall itself has no specific programme and on many days – such as when I visited – it will be empty, cold and despite being deemed public space, not so inviting. Nevertheless, this is exemplary re-use, and a crucial step towards establishing the area as Scotland’s premier creative townscape hub.

The success of Glasgow’s creative industries since 1990 has been one of stealth. Vision and voluntary work have brought about new artistic uses for buildings like the Tramway, once an abandoned tram shed, now a performance venue of international repute, or the Arches, the undercroft of Glasgow Central Station, which since the early nineties has grown from a theatre-nightclub into one of Europe’s busiest culture hubs.

Glasgow is good at stealth. Two years ago, Elder and Cannon transformed a nearby tenement block into Trongate 103 for a collective of galleries centred on the Glasgow Print Studio. This year NORD will create more studios in an adjacent block.

A new conversion by RMJM houses The Modern Institute, which represents some of the UK’s leading artists. Like the Briggait, these projects sit around the edge of a massive car park, land undeveloped since the St Enoch railway terminus was rased in the seventies.

But stealth only gets you so far. It has taken Wasps Trust secretary David Cook, the real hero of this project, ten years to pull together small pots of funding from the council, the Scottish Arts Council, Scottish Enterprise, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland and other benefactors.

As the Civic Trust citation notes, the Briggait plays a vital role in reinvigorating Glasgow’s medieval core and adding to the Merchant City. Stealth however will not transform a 40-year derelict site into a townscape.

Now the facts are clear about Glasgow’s creative industry, the Scottish Government needs to be imaginative and brave and lead the development of this land as mixed-use townscape geared towards creative start-ups.

It would be a move that clients such as the Briggait’s, and the hundreds of artists and architects who have moved to locations around it, and the author of the Myerscough report too, would say is a pretty safe bet.


Start on site July 2008
Contract duration 14 months
Gross internal floor area 6,800m2
Form of contract
Standard Building Contract
Total cost
£4.9 million
Cost per m2
Wasps Artists’ Studios
Architect Nicoll Russell Studios
Structural engineer Buro Happold
M&E consultant Buro Happold
Quantity surveyor Doig and Smith
Acoustic consultant New Acoustics
Fire engineer Edinburgh Fire Consultants
Project manager Davis Langdon LLP
Main contractor Morris & Spottiswood
CDM co-ordinator Kirk and Marsh
Approved building inspector Glasgow City Council
Annual CO2 emissions Not known

The Briggait Market Halls in the AJ Buildings Library

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