In 1989 Peter Brook, the theatre director, staged a nine-hour epic, The Mahabharata, in a disused industrial shed in Glasgow. It was a revolutionary event from which sprang new ideas about theatre production, a new confidence in the cultural regeneration of Glasgow, and a new life for the building as a venue for innovative theatre.
The industrial shed which offered the space for the great Indian epic was the Tramway, built in the 1890s as a depot for horsedrawn trams. It had had many lives - including as Coplawhill Car Works and the Glasgow Transport Museum - but since Peter Brook its huge industrial interiors have accommodated the avant-garde: for instance, the theatre of Robert Lepage and Silviu Purcarete and, in the visual arts, works by David Mach and Christian Boltanski.
The modest street frontage of the Tramway, a series of blank classical stone arches, reveals little of the cavernous space inside or the rigid structural order which supports it. The building is divided by a series of cast iron columns into fifteen structural bays, 60m long by 8m wide. Each bay is covered with a pitched roof, glazed at the ridge. The south wall is of brick with a saw-toothed trim formed by the gables of the roofs. It overlooks an open space which was once the machinery yard, bounded by derelict sheds and high brick walls.
Trams ran on their tracks into two huge halls where they were maintained and assembled. In one hall Peter Brook built massive rough walls to stage his Mahabharata; they still stand as a permanent backdrop to the space which for the last 10 years has been used for performances. The horses which drew the trams were housed on the first floor which were reached by two wide concrete ramps and a covered walkway which ran along the south facade to 15 30 x 8m stables which opened off it.
Three years ago the cultural and leisure services of Glasgow City Council appointed Zoo Architects, after a limited competition, to create better facilities and to develop the building in new ways, especially focusing on the long-term vision of how the whole complex might develop. Scottish Arts Council Lottery, City of Glasgow and Scottish Enterprise funding made this possible. To Peter Richardson of Zoo Architects, the essential factor was the retention of the industrial character of Tramway which he describes as 'generous, simple, spartan, industrial, linear and orthogonal, invoking a powerful sense of place.' His concept is a collage of old and new, integrating both 'so that the edges are blurred'.
A new internal street, an 'arts promenade' now cuts through the centre of the building and gives access to the new performance, exhibition and workshop spaces along the way. It runs from a spacious new entrance cut in the north wall, opens out to foyer and booking office, stairs and balcony spaces, and reaches the south wall where it opens out to become a spacious bar and cafe with views through a massive glazed sliding door to a newly landscaped courtyard.
The main theatre, known as Tramway 1, opens off the promenade on the east and the 24 x 50m exhibition gallery, Tramway 2, on the west. Derelict workshops have been transformed into a studio theatre, extensive new workshops and dressing rooms. 'The development will reveal previously inaccessible and hidden places to create places for people to explore, pause, observe, participate and promenade, ' explains Richardson. Lifts give disabled access to all levels.
The promenade also gives access to seven of the long-neglected stables, which have now been restored to become spacious top-lit rooms for music, dance, drama, rehearsals and offices. One of the ramps which the horses used has now been adapted; it leads to the walkway which has been enclosed within a rear extension to give access to the former stables. The new extension is an assymetrical arrangement around the large door which connects the inside space to the garden and gives views to it.
As far as possible Zoo Architects has kept the main building as it was found -the tram tracks still run into the theatre as a reminder of its former use. Materials have been re-used - a staircase is clad with timber boarding taken from the stable floors. The pitched slate roofs were too dilapidated to repair and have been replaced with mill finish aluminium sheet. Some slates have been salvaged to clad the walls of the rear extension and those past repair have been assembled into hard landscaping for the courtyard.
The structure has been retained; except in Tramway 1 where a new beam has been delicately inserted to allow columns to be removed and to give an unrestricted view to the audience.