The launch of the Glasgow Lighthouse, Scotland's centre for architecture, design and the city, is a major event. Taking its cue from Paris, Chicago and Barcelona, Glasgow has bravely created a place where architecture and design, past, present and future, can be shown, promoted, and debated in the context of the local, national and international scene. By making use of a long-disused, but highly adaptable, industrial building, with scope for extension, Glasgow has created a real centre in the commercial heart of the city, a far remove from the cold and uninvolving spaces of the riba. The opening of the Lighthouse should silence the cynics who predicted that the Year of Architecture 1999 would be a flash in the pan, with no lasting benefits.
The refurbishment of Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Glasgow Herald building (built in 1893-95 when Mackintosh was working for Honeyman & Keppie) was one of the stated aims of Glasgow's 1999 bid. The building had been commissioned as an extension to the Herald's existing premises, which fronted on to the prestigious Buchanan Street. One of the prime objectives behind the development was the creation of a clear route for the newspaper's delivery vehicles between Mitchell Street and Mitchell Lane. In other respects, the building was to be a routine warehouse - for some years it was let. The most distinctive feature of the client brief was a huge water-tank: too many Victorian newspaper buildings had succumbed to disastrous fires. This was accommodated in the dramatic, top-heavy corner tower. Thirty years ago, the Herald moved out. The Buchanan Street block was redeveloped as high-grade shops and offices behind the historic facades. Mackintosh's extension, located on a back street with doubtful commercial potential, remained empty.
When Glasgow-based Page & Park won the competition for the conversion of the Herald building in 1995, the issue of funding remained unresolved. (The competition scheme proposed that the Habitat store would occupy two floors of the building.) Only after Glasgow was awarded the Year of Architecture was cash (from the Lottery, the Strathclyde European Partnership and Historic Scotland, as well as from the city itself) gradually forthcoming.
It was late 1997 before work started on site, and a planned opening early in 1999 had to be deferred until last month - when the Queen finally cut the tape.
The retention of the historic fabric virtually in its entirety was prescribed from the start. Every aspect of the scheme was monitored by Historic Scotland (which ruled, for example, that the exterior of the building should not be cleaned). As project architect Paul Sutton recalls, 'it was a question of how to reinvent the Herald building, restore it and yet give it a totally new identity'. The obvious strategy was to place galleries and other spaces in the existing building, and lifts, stairs and escalators in an extension. By demolishing a nondescript block on Mitchell Street, the L-shaped void - the former service yard - around the Mackintosh building could be expanded and all the practical requirements of access and circulation addressed. A new straightforward block containing offices and storage has gone into the Mitchell Street gap above a new service entrance.
Page & Park's analysis of the building produced a reading, developed with the artist Jack Sloan. Based on a view of Mackintosh's art as organic and naturalistic, it envisages the building as a plant, growing from seed to flower to seed pod (the water tower), a vertical progress towards the light out of the narrow, gloomy city streets. This is plausible enough, yet could easily be overstated: the scheme can equally be understood in a more pragmatic way, as a response to practical needs and to the grain of the city. If there is a downside to Mackintosh's work, it lies in a tendency to preciousness - yet the Herald building is a solid, working structure first and foremost.
The absence of notable historic interiors was a clear advantage. The austere warehouse floors have adapted well to a variety of uses. Basement and ground levels have been let for retailing and restaurant use, providing valuable revenue. The main gallery is on the first floor. The second floor houses the education centre, including the 'Wee People's City' for the very young. The third floor is split between the Mackintosh Interpretation Centre (designed by architect Gareth Hoskins) and a conference suite. There are further galleries (currently occupied by the 'Greek' Thomson show) on the fourth and fifth floors, with an attractive cafe also on the fifth. There are no extraneous additions, no gimmicks.
In contrast, the new, steel-framed circulation building, entered via a 'notch' in the narrow Mitchell Lane, tries hard to be visually exciting. The architect points out that the basic diagram - circulation pushed to the edge of unobstructed gallery spaces - is that of the Pompidou Centre. Escalators - the narrowest available to reduce their impact on a limited space - extend up five floors into the void, accessing all levels. Dramatised by vivid blue strip-lighting, they invite visitors to ascend - yet, perhaps because the first is out of alignment with the rest and the route upwards is not as obvious as it might be, many visitors choose to use the (overstretched) lift instead. The full drama of the escalators is obvious only when you get to the top and look down.
Impeccable fire engineering and a sophisticated smoke-extraction system have allowed the new building to be fully inhabited by exhibition areas and an extension of the cafe. The circulation block has its own designated escape stair, separate from that serving the old building and enlivened by stained and etched glass by Alexander Beleschenko. At each level, 'bridges', which vary in size and configuration from floor to floor, connect the circulation system with the galleries. There are views out from these spaces, dominated, alas, at lower levels, by the mass of banal new construction behind Buchanan Street, now uncomfortably revealed. The void is topped by a patent glazed roof - a more sophisticated roofing system was ruled out on grounds of cost.
From the fifth floor, the lift gives access to the new viewing gallery, which was strongly promoted by Glasgow 99's director, Deyan Sudjic, and provides striking city views. There are better views, for the able-bodied, from Mackintosh's own tower, from which the water tank and floors have been stripped out to accommodate a new steel and timber stair, suspended from the roof and stabilised by wall fixings (see Working Details on page 34).
The basic aesthetic of the project - boldly juxtaposing contemporary technology and materials with old fabric - is well trodden ground, the approach now advocated by English Heritage (and, presumably, by Historic Scotland). The rear elevation of Mackintosh's building has been cleaned and repaired as a mix of glazed brick, stone and render. The old boiler chimney has been retained, a visual link in the vertical space. Conservation and the contemporary sit easily together: on the fifth floor, where the new work is light and minimal, the mood is akin to that of Foster's Sackler Galleries.
But Page & Park's roots and affinities do not lie in the Hi-Tech. In the past, as at the Italian Centre, the practice has flirted with history. (It was the natural choice to design the mise-en-scene of the Thomson exhibition.) Its approach is expressive, inclusive and allusive, content to take inspiration widely from within the Modern tradition. Minimalism and purism are alien to it. Paul Sutton notes: 'Making the building attractive and popular mattered - it's a place for the public. That was more important than the pursuit of high art'. Sutton believes that the wide range of materials is part of the building's tactile and visual appeal. The great concrete arc which contains the reception area and the stair to the first floor rises upwards, capped off with an external terrace at third floor level. Concrete, steel, copper cladding, slatted timber, glass-brick and stone add to a richness of texture, extended by the external use of lead and zinc, which some might find confusing - the preoccupation with texture suggests Scarpa-esque leanings.
Mackintosh quoted with approval the pronouncement of the Arts and Crafts architect John Sedding that 'there is hope in honest error. None in the icy perfections of the mere stylist'. A slick, overstyled addition to the master's work would have been presumptuous and inappropriate. Page & Park's new building seeks appropriateness and approachability above mere style. There are inevitably compromises as a result - a certain glossing over, rather than a dramatisation, of the point where old and new meet, for example. But as a practical demonstration of the way that old and new can profitably interact as part of the city fabric, the Lighthouse has many lessons for Glasgow and other British cities.