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Tuned to the quay: Mareel Arts Centre by Gareth Hoskins and PJP

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After a troubled gestation, Gareth Hoskins and PJP’s Mareel arts centre in Lerwick has confounded the doubters, writes Penny Lewis. Photography by John Coutts

Lerwick, the administrative centre of the Shetland Isles, is Scotland’s most northerly town. It is 150 miles north of John O’ Groats and closer to Norway than to Edinburgh. Most visitors arrive in Lerwick in the early morning, having taken the 5pm ferry from Aberdeen the previous day.

Like much of the north-east of Scotland, the island’s economy benefited greatly from the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s. In recent weeks Shetland, the BBC TV drama by crime writer Ann Cleeves, has imagined a darker, parochial aspect of island life, but the isles’ astounding treeless landscape, white beaches and fantastic wildlife attract ferry-loads of hardy tourists each summer.

As with many remote settlements, the islands appear both inwardlooking and self-sufficient and outward-looking in equal measure. The inevitable diaspora, digital technology and air travel mean many of the island’s 22,400 residents are as well ‘connected’ as any Glaswegian. Some of Shetland’s buildings, the old timber warehouses and new blue kit houses, have a Nordic flavour, but the pattern of dispersed crofts, abandoned cottages and dreich brown post-war council houses is unmistakably Scottish.

For such a small, remote population, public expenditure is a big issue. Cuts to services for the elderly and the closure of primary schools have provoked a passionate debate over the public purse in the local press and on community websites. Against this backdrop the completion of a £13 million new arts venue – Mareel, designed by Gareth Hoskins Architects (GHA) supported by local firm PJP Architects – is a remarkable achievement.

Now the project is up and running, detractors who dubbed the project a ‘white elephant’ look meanspirited

Since the competition to design Mareel was launched in 2006, a localised ‘Culture War’ has been raging between those dubbed the ‘arty-elite’, who believe public money should support the arts, and others who argue that commercially driven leisure activities are the key to a good public life. The story of the commissioning and construction of Mareel evokes memories of Edinburgh’s Holyrood project. Construction began in 2009 but completion was delayed until August last year due to severe weather and problems with subcontractors. For the past year the project’s client, Shetland Arts, has been involved in an ongoing dispute with DITT Construction, the main contractor.

Now the project is up and running, detractors who dubbed the project a ‘white elephant’ look decidedly meanspirited.

Few could fail to be enchanted by the sight of islanders and visitors of all tastes and ages enjoying this elegant public building, with its direct relationship to the harbour.

On an island like Shetland the idea of a multi-purpose building programme makes a great deal of sense. Gwilym Gibbons, the project’s main client and director of Shetland Arts, is visibly relieved that the ‘canny’ mix of uses has paid off. Two thirds of the venue’s £2.3 million annual turnover is made through its commercial activity. The two cinemas (which show mainstream and art house films) generate the bulk of its income and ensure a large enough audience to make the café viable, leaving national funders to lend their support to worldclass touring artists and participants in national touring shows.

Mareel’s success is not restricted to its programming: it’s an accomplished piece of architecture. It sits between new council offices and the Shetland Museum and Archives building, designed by BDP and completed in 2007. The council had planned for the three to work together and GHA was keen that Mareel should generate a public route linking all three. The Museum and Mareel are linked but the orientation of the council offices has undermined the original plan and until Lerwick can find funds to invest in landscaping the car park will continue to dominate the approach.

Mareel’s success is not restricted to its programming: it’s an accomplished piece of architecture

A defining feature of the dock is the set of stone piers and breakwaters which are witness to historic patterns of use, of loading and unloading, and objects of aesthetic beauty. GHA made a good decision to build right up to these quays. Nevertheless, because of Shetland’s often severe weather, any building on the water’s edge must be prepared to take a beating. The number of fixings used to tie the aluminium skin to the frame is double what you would specify on a mainland project. The envelope is formed from tight layers, hence the rather heavy trims that emphasise the building’s edges.

The strangely familiar building form (dubbed the ‘squinty box’) has more in common with the work of Scandinavian architects such as 3XN or SnØhetta (with whom Hoskins has worked before) than traditional Scottish rural forms currently fashionable. It is partly determined by the programme (which demanded large, black boxes) but also by the context, a sprawling working harbour with its large, utilitarian tin sheds.

GHA made a conscious decision to take inspiration from the surrounding warehouses rather than the domestic architecture of the islands. The two large wedges of accommodation turn their back on the water and each is covered by a long, monopitch roof. The building has a hybrid structure, with steelwork supporting the long spans and heavy loads at the core of the building and exposed timber glulam beams supplementing the steel and carrying the outer skin.

Where the two roofs intersect, you find the entrance foyer to the front and the café and café gallery to the rear. At this point the skin of the two boxes is cut back to open up views to the harbour and to light the foyer. In these two public areas the timber elements of the structure are exposed. Deep glulam frames at close centres give the interior an ordered, even classical, elegance, the softness and warmth of timber contrasting strongly with the tough exterior.

GHA has built a reputation on its ability to create public buildings which have an informal and welcoming quality. Breakout spaces in the form of play areas, ‘streets’ and cafés are designed to ensure the occupants linger and make themselves at home. Mareel’s two-storey café/bar is possibly its most successful break-out space to date. Its merit lies in the fact that it is pretty tight and occupies the corner of the building where the hard, utilitarian exterior opens up to provide views of Hay’s Dock to the west and the isle of Bressay to the North.

The success of the café is matched by the quality of the auditorium, which has been designed with Shetland’s famous fiddle players in mind. A modest timber gallery detailed with the same level of simplicity and restraint as the main timber structure provides a degree of permanence to what is in fact a highly adaptable space. Working with Seb Jouan of AECOM and with Arup Acoustics over a period of time, the architects have managed to create a space which is both acoustically and visually intimate.

In the early days of the design there had been plans to make it possible to open the auditorium to the water but in the final design the performance space is surrounded by small units such as rehearsal rooms and educational resources used by the University of the Highlands and Islands to deliver courses in music and media production. Shetland Arts avoided pressure to cut corners in this area and as a result they have one of the UK’s best live recording studios.

New build in Shetland is often cheap and unambitious. In a recession, in a remote location and hostile climate it is easy to opt for cheap and undemanding solutions. Mareel is proof that Shetland deserves more, and that the isles can thrive where expectations are high.

Project data

Start on site June 2009
Completion August 2013
Gross internal floor area 3,600m²
Total cost £12.4 million
Cost per m² £3,066
Procurement Traditional JCT 2005: SBC/Q/Scot (revised October 2007)
Architect Gareth Hoskins
Executive architect PJP Architects
Structural engineer Elliott & Company
Services engineer Harley Haddow
Quantity surveyor David Adamson & Partners
CDM co-ordinator PJP Architects
Acoustic consultant Arup Acoustics
Venue consultant Arup Theatre Consultants
Project manager H James Nisbet
Main contractor DITT Construction
Client Shetland Arts Development Agency
Artists Nayan Kulkarni and Roxane Permar
Aluminium cladding Architectural Profiles
Rainscreen cladding Eternit (Natura Secret Fix)
Curtain walling Riaco
M&E No1 Group/SES
Lifts and escalators Kone
Timber supplier Bryceland Timber
Fabric acoustic linings Hodgson & Hodgson
Timber floors Weitzer Parkett
Floors Altro Walkway and Flowcrete

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