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Degree show review: Strathclyde University

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Strathclyde University’s end-of-year exhibition shows an architecture of pragmatism and ambition that succeeds despite the department’s cramped home

‘People can inhabit anything […] More and more I think that architecture has nothing to do with it,’ said Rem Koolhaas back in 1996.

My memory confronted me with this statement when visiting the University of Strathclyde’s end-of-year architecture show. Since 2013, the architecture department has moved out of its dedicated home (an idiosyncratic little Brutalist number of top-lit open plan studios and sunken discussion spaces) into a single floor of a rather perfunctory building in an effort to streamline the engineering faculty. The building offers little more than small, characterless spaces with limited access to light or views, linked from a central, low-ceilinged corridor.

Strathclyde University student show 2018

Strathclyde University student show 2018

Strathclyde University student show 2018

None of this seems to matter to Strathclyde’s current crop of budding architects who, in spite of these uninspiring surroundings, are producing some inspired work.

The overriding sense throughout the exhibition is one of a group of tutors and students engaging with their host city, Glasgow. This is typified in the work of the Year 4 students, whose projects (located in Govan – the focal point of a once-world-famous shipbuilding industry) employ a range of strategies from sentiment to spectacle to address the area’s decline. 

Holly Pender’s Memory Banks creates a varied sequence of space which allows the community to share and reflect on its proud past in a type of memory museum. Lara Bandoni’s Clyde Pinnacle is both pragmatic and idealistic as it seeks to address the reality that most of the ships built on the Clyde end their life washed up on foreign shores by providing a soaring, skeletal structure for these ships to return home and be ceremonially dismantled.

Ryan Cole’s Govan Bakehouse proposes the establishment of an industrial Glaswegian bakery composed of muscular chimney forms and corbelled arches; while Nicolas Hubin creates a centre of craft around architectural salvage defined by shared spaces, exposed structure and a repeating industrial roof motif. 

Year 4: Nicolas Hubin – Govan Salvage

Year 4: Nicolas Hubin – Govan Salvage

Year 4: Nicolas Hubin – Govan Salvage

This theme of engagement with the social, urban and aesthetic issues that still afflict Glasgow continues in the undergraduate years. Whether it be the need for quality urban housing addressed by Year 3, exemplified in Katie Forbes’ Hygge Housing, which, despite the voguish title, displays an excellent grasp of issues relating to street activation and the provision of quality civic space, while providing living spaces of light and generosity; or the outstanding detailed drawing studies by Year 1 of façades along the city’s historic high street, which then use the rules of the street (scale, rhythm, pattern, datum and so on) to inform their own proposals. The result is almost Piranesi-esque in detail and approach, using the lessons of the past as a springboard for future architectural exploration.

There is, however, sometimes a general sense in some of the undergraduate work that the effort to create architecture that addresses real and familiar problems within the city has left some of the opportunity for architectural exploration (formal and spatial freedom, questioning of the brief, fun) unexplored. Buildings can appear refined, but not always fully interrogated.

This cannot be said of the synchroniCITY final-year thesis project by Elina Giannoulaki and Marina Konstantopoulu. The project, a cultural forum, appears as an explorative history of architectural form and space – arches, grids, vaults, agora, sunken spaces, elevated spaces, towers, pavilions, colonnades. With echoes of Italo Calvino, Carlo Scarpa and Barozzi Veiga, these rich and layered structures and spaces interpret the city as a palimpsest where new forms, spaces and functions are informed by the indentations of the city’s past. 

Year 5: Elina Giannoualaki and Marina Konstantopoulu – Synchronicity

Year 5: Elina Giannoualaki and Marina Konstantopoulu – Synchronicity

Year 5: Elina Giannoualaki and Marina Konstantopoulu – Synchronicity

The project is a microcosm of all that the department is hoping to change about its host environment, but also about a city that has experienced so many ruptures to its urban fabric over the past 60 years and what it could do if those in power took the time to listen. 

As a whole, the exhibition displays a department engaging with the issues affecting its host environment, proposing an architecture of pragmatism and ambition – an architecture that matters in spite of their less than salubrious working environment. 

Koolhaas may have been right that people can inhabit anything, but no one seems to have told the tutors and students at the University of Strathclyde.

James Tait is an architect at Glasgow-based Elder & Cannon Architects

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