Neil Gillespie of Reiach and Hall is in the vanguard of a new breed of Scottish architect intent on bringing vitality and vigour to its new designs - while at the same time adding an international dimension to Scottish architecture
'In Edinburgh, looks are everything, ' says Neil Gillespie. 'What a building looks like seems to matter more than what it does.'
Gillespie, one of the directors of the practice Reiach and Hall, and widely seen as the man who has given the firm a new cutting edge in design, believes the Scottish capital is, however, increasingly open to innovative architecture. It would be too easy, he says, to blame planners and politicians for the weak compromises of the recent past, seen to disturbing effect in areas of the Old Town. The architectural profession has to bear some of the blame: 'Post-Modern pastiche was what was on offer from architects - it was seen as camouflage, a way of introducing new developments into historic areas without too much obvious damage.'
Gillespie has spent most of his career with Reiach and Hall, eschewing the road to London taken, for example, by John McAslan and Rab Bennetts, his contemporaries as architecture students in Edinburgh during the early '70s. He admires the work of both - 'it has a rigour which I look for in my own work', he says.
Both McAslan and Bennetts established practices of their own, following stints with big London offices. Gillespie has faced the arguably more difficult task of reinvigorating an old practice.
Reiach and Hall was established by Alan Reiach and Eric Hall in 1965. Hall was the businessman, Reiach the designer. A brilliant student, Reiach won scholarships which allowed him to travel and meet, among others, Wright, Asplund and Aalto, and to find work experience in the offices of Robert Atkinson and Grey Wornum.
Reiach retired in 1975 but under Stuart Renton's leadership the practice continued to produce high-quality buildings - for example, the British Steel offices at Airdrie.
By 1980, however, the practice had, according to Neil Gillespie, 'rather lost its way - it was part of a general crisis for architecture in Scotland, with the profession appearing to lose its grip'. The clumsy PostModernism and fake historicism of the '80s and early '90s was the result. Now, to Gillespie's relief, a new generation of practitioners - Malcolm Fraser and Richard Murphy are good examples - is turning the scene around. Like many architects working in Scotland, Gillespie has experienced the popular backlash against the rising cost and delayed completion of the new Scottish Parliament building. The late Enric Miralles' approach to design is not Gillespie's, but the latter has enormous respect for Miralles' achievement (and that of RMJM Scotland), and believes the completed building will stifle much of the criticism.
Benson & Forsyth's Museum of Scotland is another major building about which Gillespie has mixed feelings - 'but it was inspirational as a really major work of new architecture in Scotland and generated a great deal of positive debate and discussion among the profession and the public'.
Gillespie, like many of his contemporaries, believes passionately that Scottish architecture must have an international dimension. 'There's a danger we spend too much time looking at ourselves rather than out to the world beyond Scotland, ' he says.
Reiach and Hall is very much an Edinburgh, as well as Scottish, practice.
There was for a time an office in Glasgow, but this has now closed. The two rival cities each have distinct architectural cultures - not that this prevents Reiach and Hall from working in the Glasgow area. The recently completed Wolfson Medical School at Glasgow University is, indeed, one of the buildings on which the renewed critical reputation of the practice rests. The offices for East Renfrewshire council is another major work by Reiach and Hall in the west of Scotland and there have been projects in Northern Ireland (including the civic offices in Coleraine, winner of a 2003 Civic Trust award). Health and other public projects loom large in the practice's workload, but it has a solid grip on commercial work too.
'We're not pigeonholed and that helps, ' says Gillespie. 'Richard Murphy, for example, for all his ability, doesn't get commercial jobs.'
Rigour is the key quality that Gillespie sees in the best work of the practice from the '60s and he wants to infuse into all its work in the future. A sludge incineration plant sounds the most unpromising of projects, but the facility Reiach and Hall designed at Seafield, near Edinburgh, is a revelation.
Given that the Modernist pioneers looked to industrial structures for inspiration there is, as Gillespie points out, 'a certain irony in the idea of architects rearranging industry and composing what are basically functional components'.
Alan Reiach, who was hugely influenced by Asplund and Aalto, would surely endorse Gillespie's view that 'Scottish architects should look northwards to Scandinavia as a source of inspiration'. The Orkney Islands, with their history of Viking colonisation, provide a suitable context for work that looks outward. 'The Orkney Islands were always open to the wider world, ' Gillespie explains. 'It was a classic maritime culture.'
One of Gillespie's most exciting current projects is the extension to the Pier Art Gallery in Stromness, with its notable collection of Modern art. He envisages a new building 'burned' into the island landscape, a zinc-clad shed that is a natural extension of the vernacular of the shore. The debate with local planners has focused on the degree to which this building will emerge as a Modern intervention into the street beyond.
With 31 people employed in the office, Reiach and Hall is practically as large as it has been in recent memory. Its premises, in a handsome Georgian terrace in the New Town, is shared with several other professionals and also houses the Sleeper gallery, an institution close to Neil Gillespie's heart. 'We very much enjoy working with artists, ' he says. The work of Icelandic artist Ragnar Robertsdottir, shown in the gallery, made a significant contribution to the Stromness project, while Gillespie hopes for a sculpture by Alan Johnston in the West Port offices. It is this broad cultural vision in Gillespie's thinking that makes him an excellent spokesman for architecture in the new Scotland.