Building on Tradition

By Aldersey-Williams, Hugh | New Statesman (1996), May 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

Building on Tradition


Aldersey-Williams, Hugh, New Statesman (1996)


Hugh Aldersey-Williams visits two British cities that have chosen distinctive architecture as a means of constructing a new identity

The city of Glasgow is both blessed and cursed. It is blessed as one of the few cities around the world that appears to have acquired a distinctive identity through the work of one man. Glasgow's man is the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh; in Barcelona, it's Antoni Gaudi; in Ljubljana, Joze Plecnik. Glasgow is cursed for the same reason: it cannot forget Mackintosh.

But Barcelona is no longer the city only of Gaudi. Now, in likewise fashion, although on a more modest scale, Glasgow is striving to impress a new urban identity as the host city of the UK Year of Architecture and Design for 1999.

The idea that an identity - for a city, or region, or country - can be physically constructed troubles many people in Britain. Manchester is now learning, but in England generally the invention of tradition through architecture is not a conscious process: the best of the millennium projects here will be accidental statements of identity, not calculated ones, though perhaps none the worse for that. The very idea is regarded with suspicion in Wales, where they threw away millions of pounds in 21st-century tourist revenues by rejecting Zaha Hadid's design for the Cardiff Bay Opera House. Northern Ireland never gets a chance. It is understood only in Scotland.

From Ossian to Walter Scott, Scotland's record of invented tradition is a distinguished one. In Glasgow now, the need for more of the same is accentuated by the loss of industry and the ever-present rivalry with Edinburgh, the seat of the new Scottish Parliament.

Mackintosh is still honoured there. His first major work, the Lighthouse, the former Herald newspaper offices, is being refurbished as shops and a design centre. But there is a serious attempt to offset the Mackintosh effect with the rehabilitation of another past hero. The Lighthouse will start its new life with an exhibition of the work of Glasgow's other architectural son, the inspired Victorian classicist Alexander "Greek" Thomson, Scotland's Schinkel.

But Edinburgh sets the pace in new architecture. It is not just the future parliament. The city already has one new monument to civic nationalism. Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth's Museum of Scotland opened on St Andrew's Day last year. Turning around a huge stone tower cut with a giant cross, the building is full of ideas drawn from medieval Scottish castles as much as from Le Corbusier and Aalto. Slits and slots occur at intervals across the building's smooth sandstone and white concrete walls so that they look like a Stockhausen score. Inside, the design pulls off the considerable trick of making every floor seem as if it is bathed in overhead daylight. Above them all, a roof terrace offers one of the most spectacular views in Britain, sea and rock and architecture. The museum offers proof, if it were needed - and increasingly, it seems that it is - that you don't have to bus in a celebrity architect from halfway round the world in order to produce a thing of beauty in a British city.

Less spectacular but part of the same trend of civic aggrandisement through culture is the conversion by Terry Farrell - a national, not a local, architect - of the grand Dean Orphan Hospital into the Dean Gallery extension of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, which opened in March. Farrell is in restrained mood here, allowing colour to make the most of the interiors, and introducing skylights and glazed floor panels to allow the light to penetrate. The overall feel is reminiscent of Sir John Soane's house, although the contents are very different - some of the best surrealist art to be found anywhere.

Glass is a prominent feature in Enric Miralles' Scottish Parliament, too, though here as much for metaphorical reasons as for functional ones. Acres of "transparency" have become de rigueur for contemporary parliament architecture. …

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