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Murphy' s magic

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Richard Murphy - worker in miniature, crafter of jewel-box architecture - has finally had a chance to complete something big.

The building in question is Dundee's Arts Centre, the result of an architectural competition held in 1996 by Dundee City Council in partnership with Tayside Enterprise and the University of Dundee. The centre was conceived as a catalyst for the regeneration of Dundee, and is located on Perth Road in the city's cultural quarter.

The street frontage on to this 'city side' is just 10m wide, and the easy option would have been to treat the grand frontage overlooking the river as the entrance elevation, but from the earliest competition drawings Murphy has been unequivocal about the fact that the building faces its city. The relationship between the two has developed over time - the most obvious difference between the competition drawings and the final plans is that the prow of the building has been reoriented slightly so that it is on axis with the processional route which leads directly to Nicoll Russell Studio's Repertory Theatre, designed in 1979 - the last major civic building to be built in Dundee.

In making this fundamental move, Murphy set himself the challenge of designing a small entrance facade capable of advertising the wares of a large public building. His strategy was to lure visitors inside by hinting at the depths of the building beyond. Rooflights create a path of light from the entrance into the building, while a distant corner window tempts the visitor to come ever deeper into the space by offering a tantalising glimpse of the River Tay. It is a typically poetic move, but one which has not been appreciated by the client - the window is currently blocked off with plasterboard. This is symptomatic of an occupational hazard of the competition process, whereby the body which briefs and appoints is distinct from the eventual users of the building. In selecting a Murphy building, the judges demonstrated a clear preference for an architecture of multiple layers and unfolding planes, of lovingly-crafted nooks and crannies, and, above all, of an exuberance which is entirely at odds with the predilection among gallery curators for neutral white space.

This tension is most apparent in the two main gallery spaces which occupy the top floor of the warehouse, where Murphy's initial plan to create different spaces with distinctive characters stands in stark contrast to the two different-sized but otherwise broadly similar spaces which were eventually built. Fortunately, the basic strategy of locating them on the now top-lit top floor of the former brick warehouse which occupies the south side of the site means that these are still great spaces - lofty, and bathed in natural light.

One of Murphy's strengths is his ability to make intelligent use of the material which he is given, and it is characteristic of his multi-faceted approach to architecture that he perceived the warehouse as an opportunity rather than a threat.

Externally, it offered a chance to put into practice some of the layering of old and new which he so admires in the work of Carlo Scarpa. The eroded brick warehouse has been 'finished off' with pre-patinated green copper panels, which re-emerge in existing openings lower down in the facade, and are also used to form a more precise facade where the architecture is entirely new.

In terms of planning, the warehouse was simply another factor to be considered in an already complex site: L-shaped, and with an 8m drop from front to back. Other factors included the existence of a 24-hour public right of way through the site, and the various rights to privacy and light of its two immediate neighbours - a Roman Catholic Cathedral on one side, and on the other a nineteenth-century villa which is now the Clydesdale Bank. Add to this an absurdly complicated brief, and it becomes clear that, despite its size, the sheer complexity of the building called for the kind of keyhole surgery at which Murphy excels.

The schedule of accommodation reads like an undergraduate exercise in how many distinct building types it is possible to include in one coherent form. There is the full set of arts facilities (large gallery, small gallery, large cinema, small cinema), and the full complement of support facilities (cafe/bar, information centre, shop). Then there are offices, not only for the arts centre, but also for Dundee City Council Arts and Heritage Department, along with activity rooms for children, and public meeting rooms. There is also a printmakers' workshop, and various facilities which form part of the University of Dundee: laboratories, offices, studio space, and also a flat for a visiting artist, and an experimental gallery in which he or she can display their work.

Murphy has handled this curious hybrid building - part arts centre, part university, and part town hall - by assuming the role of city planner. There is some basic zoning. Offices are arranged around a top-lit atrium, and are positioned directly behind the reception area, reflecting a belief that officials should be accessible to the public. The university has its own territory on the lower two levels of the warehouse, where laboratories and offices are grouped around a double-height experimental studio.

Public spaces, which are confined to the entrance level and the floor below, are arranged around the 'town square' represented by the double- height cafe/bar at the foot of the staircase just inside the front door. Cinemas are placed immediately behind the bar, while the printmakers' workshop and the galleries are in full view of the cafe. There is a commercial rationale to this arrangement. Cinema-goers can't help but be aware of the exhibition in the printmakers' workshop, while lancet windows between the bar and the cinemas offer tantalising glimpses of the film to punters propping up the bar.

But the rationale behind the strategy of interconnecting spaces is as much about showmanship as about commercial nous. Windows between spaces offer fleeting glimpses of strangers. The visitor standing in the cantilevered window in the gallery can overlook the courtyard and become as much on show as the professional performer in the poet's pulpit. Even the cinema has a window, with a shutter which is open until the film begins, so that people arriving from the car-park entrance are momentarily part of the show. This is a people-watcher's paradise, where visitors are the players rather than simply members of the audience.

If the planning is playful, it is also deeply idealistic. The cafe is perceived not so much as a space on its own, but as the threshold between surrounding spaces: somewhere for the university employee to have a drink with the civil servant, the cinema-goer to flirt with the passer-by. Sliding glass screens allow the cafe to spill out into the courtyard, hopefully becoming a magnet not just for the building but for the Dundee. Murphy's Aaltoesque attempt to introduce the ideal of the Mediterranean market square to a city whose climate has never encouraged this kind of mingling reflects his underlying belief that people are fundamentally social. An extrovert through and through, he has designed an environment which he himself would enjoy.

Before it was finished, Murphy said of his building, 'The test of its success will be whether people go to the building, and then find out what's going on, rather than visit the building only if there's something they particularly want to see.' And while it may not be possible to determine exactly what it is that draws them there, visitor numbers are far exceeding expectations, with 12,000 visitors reported during the first week of opening - and it's impossible to get a table in the cafe.

Murphy, together with project architect Bill Black, has carried off his first major building with panache. He has proved that his particular brand of magical architecture can be applied to larger buildings without losing any of its charm, and that he is remarkably adept at turning the constraints of a complicated brief and a difficult site into a coherent and confident building. The interesting thing now would be to see how his talents translate into a building which demands the single big gesture rather than the weaving together of a thousand disparate threads. If there's a client out there who's interested, what's needed now is a commission for an out-of-town spec office on a greenfield site.

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