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The spirit of surrealism

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The former Dean Orphanage, now the Dean Gallery, is one of a remarkable series of 'paupers' palaces' located around the Water of Leith, on the green western fringe of Edinburgh's New Town.

Its architect, Thomas Hamilton, was a stern Classicist, responsible for the Royal High School on Calton Hill (which Sir John Summerson described as 'the noblest monument of the Scottish Greek Revival'). For his orphanage, however, built in 1831-33, Hamilton abandoned the pure Greek style for a curiously compelling composite manner, more Victorian than Regency, with a vein of English Baroque to leaven the mix.

The chimneys, for example, are grouped to form towers which look like an appendage of Castle Howard.

The sheer eccentricity of the building appealed to Terry Farrell, winner of the 1995 competition to recast the orphanage as a branch of the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS). It was, says Farrell, 'as surreal as a Magritte' - which was appropriate, since the core collections to be housed there were rooted in Surrealism. Farrell's transformation of The Dean (as it is generally known), completed a year ago, has not only addressed the practical problems of re-use - the building is, for example, long and narrow in plan, with rigidly separated wings originally inhabited by male and female orphans - but has responded to both building and collections in a way which is both personal and subjective. The interiors as found were depressingly utilitarian, with the scars of successive campaigns of alteration and adaptation (though various original details survived) so that pure restoration was not an option.

While others might have sought to rationalise or simplify, Farrell immersed himself in the spirit of the period, drawing freely on Soane and his famous museum - 'a fitting connection for a building that relishes its domestic scale and seeks to reject the 'cleanliness' of a conventional contemporary art gallery'.

Farrell's clients were the trustees of the NGS, then chaired by banker Angus Grossart, and the NGS's director, Timothy Clifford. 'Tim Clifford drove the project', says Farrell. The NGS had acquired the former John Watson's School, a severe Greek Doric structure across the road from The Dean, in the early 80s. Rather blandly converted by RMJM, it now houses Scotland's Gallery of Modern Art (GMA). The Dean, used for many years as an adult education centre, had long been eyed as a possible extension of the GMA.In the early 90s the building was promoted as a potential home for the proposed Gallery of Scottish Art - this project, the subject of intense rivalry between Edinburgh and Glasgow, was eventually abandoned (along with proposals by Foster and Partners, Page & Park Architects and, indeed, Terry Farrell & Partners). A £6.3 million Heritage Lottery grant in 1997 completed the funding package for the conversion.

Appointed to the NGS in 1984 (after a highprofile stint in Manchester), Clifford made his first priority a convincing period restoration of the National Gallery's main building on The Mound. A traditionalist by conviction, Clifford was strongly supportive of Farrell's 'maximalist' approach, but there was also a highly practical agenda for the project. The Dean was to house the pictures stored in the Royal Scottish Academy building on The Mound - allowing that building to be developed as an extension of the National Gallery - as well as the NGS's administration .

Logic assigned the basement at The Dean for storage, with the wings as offices. The central, public portion of the building was allocated for the display of the NGS's outstanding Surrealist and Dada collection, which was reinforced by the decision of Edinburgh-born Sir Eduardo Paolozzi to gift his archive and library (along with the contents of his studio and a large number of works) to the National Gallery of Scotland.

Paolozzi's own interest in Surrealism gives the ground floor galleries of The Dean, housing the permanent collection, a clear coherence - the airconditioned first floor rooms are set aside for temporary exhibitions and are relatively straightforward. Paolozzi endorsed Farrell's vision of the gallery as 'a continual, theatrical experience where each space is animated by a formal and/or symbolic event'.The first priority was, however, to create a practical plan. It was Clifford, says Farrell, who suggested removing a floor to create a double-height space at the centre of the building, on an axis with the entrance - this 'great hall' is occupied by Paolozzi's colossal figure of Vulcan.

An upper-level gallery through this space joins together the formerly unconnected wings. But it is the reinstated ground floor central corridor, blocked off during late Victorian alterations, which is the true heart of The Dean. The colour scheme is invention, not restoration. The walls are painted 'Dior blue', creating a sombre but sensuous environment in which carefully lit objects, ranging from plaster-casts of hands and feet to animal skulls, make a strong impact. A blaze of light at each end of the corridor signals the stair towers, brilliantly toplit and painted a rich, Soanean yellow. Colour is used to create a mood, a sense of delight - not something which would have been considered appropriate in a nineteenth century orphanage.

It is the way in which Farrell both responds to Hamilton's work and simultaneously subverts it which makes The Dean far more intriguing than any work of restoration or pure pastiche. Farrell was struck, for instance, by Hamilton's use of open oculi over chimneypieces - allegedly a means of spying on the hapless inmates. His response was to contrive new oculi - 'light chimneys' - through the building, openings which provide vertical vistas from basement to top floor.

Glazed display areas set into the floors are also used to display objects. In the ground floor cafe (dominated by a cast of one of Paolozzi's figures of Newton) uplighters are arranged to shine off suspended mirrors - another Soanean device which is both enjoyable and without any precedent in Thomas Hamilton's work. Both the cafe and the shop occupy ground floor rooms and are integrated into the run of galleries, rather than discreetly tucked away - this is in tune with Paolozzi's view (which Farrell shares) that art, bodily pleasure, and commerce are inseparable and that art museums should not be rarefied temples of aesthetics.

Not everyone will share this conviction, but the sheer intensity of Farrell's spaces - like the dimly-lit Keiller Library, a Surrealist treasure house in its own right - makes the comparisons with Soane less far-fetched than might be imagined. With the completion of the ambitious, ongoing site masterplan, which embraces the GMA and includes a major landform sculpture by Charles Jencks, The Dean will constitute a serious challenge to prevailing trends in gallery design and display. Eschewing obvious didacticism, Farrell leaves visitors to pick and choose from a menu of experiences. The Dean is one of the frankest expressions yet of Farrell's vision of 'an architecture for everybody'.


National Galleries of Scotland; The Dean Gallery; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art


Terry Farrell & Partners, Edinburgh Duncan Whatmore, Neil de PrezLondon Dennis Doman


Project Management International


Will Rudd Associates


Ian Hunter Partnership


Thomas and Adamson


Ian White Associates




Peter Moran (enabling works); Hall & Towse Scotland (initial works); MJ Gleeson (main works)


Lilley Construction


J McLeod

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