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Hillhead Primary School, Glasgow, by JM Architects

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Hillhead Primary School combines a parkland setting with the bustle of Glasgow’s cultural quarter to create a school of two halves, says Alan Dunlop. Photography by Andrew Lee

Glasgow is a city of hills, its topography determined by glacial movement that took place 10,000 years ago.

As the ice shelf drifted down to form the Clyde Valley, it left ridges of compacted sediment or drumlins. Many of Glasgow’s most prestigious structures, squares and residences sit on these drumlins, including Glasgow University, Blythswood Square and Park Terrace. The Hillhead district also sits on a drumlin.

North of the Clyde, the city has four distinct areas: the Victorian grid, the medieval city, the merchant city, and the west end. At its centre, Glasgow is the most complete example of a Victorian gridded city. To the east of the grid sits Glasgow Cathedral and for over five hundred years, the Cathedral and the area around it defined the medieval city. Nearby, the merchant city is where Georgian Glasgow’s traders built grand residences from the profits of tobacco, cotton and slave trade with the US.

The west end is where Glasgow University, founded in 1451 and Scotland’s second oldest, now lies, having been moved in 1870 from the High Street to a building designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott atop Gilmorehill.

The spire of the Neo-gothic building once dominated its surroundings and still locates the university campus on the Glasgow skyline. Gilmorehill and Hillhead were open fields in 1870 and independent boroughs. The land was the property of the Gibson family who created plots on which many fine blonde sandstone terraces and villas were built for Glasgow’s ever-growing merchant class.

These terraces and the remaining four-storey tenements still provide an almost complete and solid edge to Gibson Street, Hillhead’s principal thoroughfare. The site of the new primary school is on Gibson Street at the foot of the hill. Gilmorehill and Hillhead remain dominated by the university campus. The area is Glasgow’s cultural quarter, which is populated by academics, artist and students and until recently also housed the BBC.


Glasgow is also a city of sandstone. Blonde sandstone marks out its oldest buildings and Hillhead is built predominantly of this stone. The original Hillhead Primary School was a five-storey Neo-classical building, built in 1884 and located on Cecil Street alongside one of the earliest terraces.

Hillhead had four primary schools within its catchment area; Hillhead, Dowanhill, Willowbank and Kelvinhaugh. As school pupil numbers decreased, Glasgow City Council considered it best that the four existing primaries were brought together in one single new school for over 600 primary school pupils and 75 nursery school children and toddlers.

The council owned the land that fronted on to Gibson Street and back, on a north/south axis along the banks of the river Kelvin to Kelvingrove Park. Located within a strong residential community, it seemed ideal for a new school, although the site was complex with an awkward change of level across its length and breadth.The promise of access to open parkland, a riverside setting, and its street frontage presented JM Architects with a challenging dilemma – was this to be an urban school, a school in a park, or both?

The site was split by a substantial house located halfway down its length and on hearing of the proposed school, the owner sold to a private developer who then unsuccessfully tried to sell the property to the council. The position of this house sealed the strategic design-thinking for the architects. Hillhead Primary would be a school set into the park, but with administration, school dining and the sports hall placed near the street front and linked to the main school by a slender, glass fronted footbridge.

Now complete, this approach has turned out to be both its strength and weakness. The administration and dining block does not grasp the opportunity to repair the line of Gibson Street and is deliberately set back to expose the rear gable of the Hillhead Congregational Church, built in 1889 and now a university conference venue. The rear gable was hidden through most of its history but the architects felt it had now become an important community marker.

The space from the pavement edge to the ground floor of the new block encloses a hard landscaped open ‘square’, which can be used by the school as breakout space from the dining hall on warm days or by the community as it will be when it houses the West End Festival in June. The edge to the square and front of the school are presented as a well-crafted but imposing 1.8 metre high sandstone wall with a clock tower flourish.

Entrance to the administration block is awkward. The ground floor is raised above the level of Gibson Street to allow for parking below ground. The staff and public entrance is ramped up, with steep, stone gallery steps to one side. You enter under a cantilevered canopy that supports the library above.

While the public and staff entrance to the new school is confusing, access to the main school building is not. Pupils enter from three separate gateways in the park to distinctive gathering points that lead to a bright double-height social area. This main space is flooded with natural light and pupils access classrooms with open and clear circulation routes. Classrooms on either side are generously proportioned with big windows along one side offering views to the parkland and the river Kelvin. On a bright January morning, the low sun to the rooms facing east was clearly disruptive, so blinds were half drawn. Despite this, these were obviously pleasant spaces that would be amenable to learning.

Further into the park, the two-storey main classroom block steps down to single-storey where the nursery is housed. Overall, the school presents as solid, but elegantly proportioned in elevation and the acid-etched precast concrete panels that mimic the historic blonde sandstone of Hillhead are an inspired choice. Warm red brickwork panels sit within the grid, echoing the backcourt finishes of the neighbouring terraces and tenements. This is robust but not institutional architecture, both well-detailed and constructed.

The school is naturally ventilated through beehive ventilation chimneys on a sedum roof. The roof-scape is cleverly composed as a sequence of terraces, the composition significant because the low-rise school is directly overlooked by the university to the west and Park Terrace on the hill.

The architects have successfully responded to a unique setting and created an environment that teachers find supportive and the pupils, stimulating. It is unfortunate that the administrative building on Gibson Street is a detached compromise; it neither continues the street line of an important thoroughfare nor is particularly welcoming to the visitor.

Perhaps the nature of the site offered too many options, but one is left thinking that the chosen response of two distinct buildings linked by a glass bridge is perhaps less than optimal. That said, this is a welcome diversion from the cookie-cutter patterns of current school design and is a positive attribute for the community.

Alan Dunlop is director of Alan Dunlop Architects and visiting professor at the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture

Isi Metzstein’s last crit

We took Isi Metzstein to visit Hillhead Primary School; this was a longstanding appointment. Like many architects of our generation, we valued Isi’s opinion of our work. The visit was arranged to allow Isi to give the building a crit, and to later discuss his evaluation. So, with trepidation, we walked him around the building.

He was mildly surprised (his words).

He enjoyed the clarity of the plan and the situations of the classrooms embedded by the riverside amongst the mature trees and vegetation. He said it felt Scandinavian; a great place for children to learn and see the changing seasons and the transformation of the landscape.

He commented on the quality of detailing, especially the columns wrapped in rope. He thought this was ‘sensuous’ – his words. I said we got the idea from another architect – he didn’t seem to mind. We all learn from each other anyway don’t we!

He berated one teacher for covering the fully glazed classroom wall and its view over the river, with children’s paintings and work, saying that the work blocked the beautiful view - what was it doing there?

Dany, Isi’s wife, told us later that visiting this school was his last outing before his passing, and that it had made him happy.

Isi was never a man who gave compliments lightly, so when you got one you cherished it. His positive feedback on the building was both a relief and as close to a good crit that any of us would ever expect to get. Not a bad memory for us to have of a truly remarkable man.

Henry McKeown, JM Architects


Start on site August 2009 (including demolition and site clearance)
Completion July 2011
Gross internal floor area 4,292m2
Form of contract or procurement Traditional procurement using SBCC 2055 with JM Architects as contract administrators
Total cost £13.8 million
Cost per m2 £3,215
Architect JM Architects
Client Glasgow City Council, Education Services
Structural engineer Ramboll
M&E consultant Ramboll
Quantity surveyor Turner & Townsend
Landscape consultants Mike Hyatt Landscape Architects
Project manager Turner & Townsend
CDM coordinator Turner & Townsend
Main contractor City Building Glasgow
Software Autocad
Annual CO2 emissions 19.3kgCO2/m2

NB This project was undertaken by Henry McKeown, Ian Alexander and Craig Tait in 2004. McKeown Alexander Architects were incorporated within JM Architects

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