Sunday20 August 2017

City Campus, Glasgow by Reiach and Hall and Michael Laird Architects

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Reiach and Hall and Michael Laird Architects’ last project for City of Glasgow College nearly ran off with the Stirling Prize. Would the same team be able to repeat the trick at the college’s massive new campus? Ike Ijeh finds out

City of Glasgow College exterior City Campus

Source: Reiach and Hall

The facade is expressed arranged into vertical bays that “project a feeling of civicness”

Last year Reiach and Hall and Michael Laird Architects’ City of Glasgow College Riverside campus came very close to winning the RIBA Stirling Prize. Eventually losing out to Caruso St John’s Newport Street Gallery, the £66 million scheme was nonetheless praised for its “cloistered garden” and “grand foyer” and its ambition to embrace both the River Clyde and the notorious adjacent Gorbals district in an effort to “truly engage in the culture and dynamics of the city”.

Almost a year later the same client and architect team have added a second building in the same city to its roster. The City campus of the City of Glasgow College is located about half a mile away from the Riverside campus on the north-western edge of the city centre. Both schemes are part of a project to completely overhaul the college’s Glasgow property portfolio by consolidating the previously disparate collection of 11 buildings into two.

But at four times the size of the Riverside campus, the City campus is conceived on an altogether grander scale and ambition. Offering an enormous 80,000sq m of teaching space across an 11-storey building, the £138 million faculty provides accommodation for 40,000 students and 1,200 staff.

But it is not its scale that is of chief interest architecturally, so much as its concept and execution. Can the City campus build on the success of the Riverside scheme? And how does it continue the signature architectural themes established at Riverside, while maintaining a unique identity of its own? The new building provides a fascinating opportunity to view the architectural equivalent of “second child” syndrome in action.

Precast concrete frame

The precast concrete frame is extruded in front of the rainscreen cladding

Undoubtedly, there are many similarities between the two campuses. One of the strongest resemblances comes in the form of the large, full-height foyers located in the centre of the buildings. As at Riverside, the City foyer acts as the social and symbolic heart of the scheme, crafting an impressively scaled multistorey space complete with sweeping ceremonial staircase and timber-trimmed rooflights as the building’s primary hub.

The City campus also contains a courtyard, although gone are the memorable colonnades that so skilfully navigated the interface between the linked blocks at Riverside. Partially as a result of this, the City courtyard is a less successful space, hoisted and enclosed above the ground floor due to the site’s significantly sloping gradient, and thereby starved of the civic animation and interaction that so enhanced Riverside’s equivalent.

Other similarities are of the more perfunctory kind. Both buildings are colleges, so obviously contain similar teaching spaces and facilities. While the bigger City campus negotiates circulation within its large linked blocks by a horizontal and vertical series of what are referred to as learning ribbons weaving through the building, both interiors (with the significant exception of the atriums) feature the same raw industrial aesthetic of exposed concrete and services in an effort to underpin structural and aesthetic honesty and to act as a ubiquitous teaching aid for those students undertaking constructional vocations.

Atrium and grand stair

Source: Edmund Sumner

The atrium at the Riverside campus, which was shortlisted for last year’s Stirling Prize

What is far more interesting about the City campus is how it differs from Riverside. And one of the most striking contrasts is evident on the exterior. To all intents and purposes the blocks at Riverside stand as static, autonomous objects. The colonnades do all the hard work of establishing a relationship with context and public realm, the blocks themselves evoke the minimalist and defensive Miesian language of the continuous curtain wall.

Glasgow has a fine tradition of rigorous, rhythmically repetitive buildings inspired by the city’s mercantile grid

Reiach and Hall

Not so at City. With no colonnade to act as urban translator, the blocks themselves, through their massing and elevations, weave and ripple in a much more responsive dialogue with the city that surrounds them.

At Riverside the immediate context is either the Clyde or the relatively arid perimeter townscape of the Gorbals. But at City, with the block forming a hard street edge against the busy urban thoroughfare of Cathedral Street and facing the tight grain of Glasgow’s Victorian grid system opposite, there is much more to play with.

The facades respond in a manner that is conversant with those at Riverside but also mimics traditional and historic templates found within Glasgow. Revealing their strategy, the architects point out that “Glasgow has a fine tradition of rigorous, rhythmically repetitive buildings inspired by the city’s mercantile grid expressed as elegant and finely proportioned columnar facades and string courses. We have emulated this tradition with the composition of carefully proportioned facades that project a feeling of civicness, while admitting lots of daylight and providing solar shading, external terrace opportunities and maintenance access.”


The atrium at the City campus reprises the same aesthetic, helping to create a “brand” for the college

Accordingly the facades are expressed as an extruded concrete frame configured into a tight grid of vertical bays. The bays are grouped into two-storey stacks, a volumetric ruse common to commercial architecture to try and minimise the apparent number of storeys. Concealed behind the frame is the aluminium rainscreen cladding applied to the true external wall, with windows arranged to fit into the openings permitted by the over-sailing concrete frame. At the south-western corner of the building, a deep three-storey recess is punched into the facade to mark the entrance, with the concrete frame descending to the ground around it in slender columns.

Certainly the facades are superior to those at Riverside. The extruded frame provides depth and shadow, which enlivens the envelope, as well as strength for the overall form. Equally, there is a clean and streamlined crispness to the elevations and one can clearly see the debt the architects owe to one of their cited inspirations, David Chipperfield’s seminal Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach, Germany, with its clinically rigorous signature colonnade.

But herein lies the problem. Marbach sits in the middle of sprawling fields and can easily afford some cold monumental detachment. But the City campus lies in the heart of a city with one of Britain’s richest streetscape heritages, and the stark, unleavened repetition of essentially the same bay configuration across the entire building leaves a somewhat sterile aftertaste.

Campus plan

Campus plan

The architects cite the celebrated work of Victorian Glaswegian architects such as John Baird & R McConnell and the great Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson as further precedents. But while their elevations exhibit the same cellular regimentation, they are also enlivened by ornament. As modernism dismisses decoration, the City campus doesn’t have any. This is fine, but it then needs some other device to provide tempering and tone, and this unfortunately it lacks.

Things improve when moving away from the main street frontage. The eastern elevation of the building is an altogether more animated affair, pulled inwards at its centre with a deep kink that marks the termination of a taller, perpendicular block. A sweeping stair hugs the side of the building, the sloping gradient on which it sits used here to dramatic effect. New public realm is installed along and beside the stair, deftly navigated by a series of stepped terraces and trees that mark the new public route to a planned park to the building’s rear.

Main entrance

The main entrance is marked by a three-storey recess at the south-west corner

The stair also reduces the scale by treating the wall against which it abuts as plinth rather than building, and this helps to make it feel much more vibrant and responsive to local context. With its footprint swerving to accommodate a new public route and its roofline jerking upwards above the kink, the severity of the main frontage is successfully broken by a dynamic series of shifting vertical and horizontal planes. The superb hard land­scaping helps too.

Building on the success of one building is never easy, less so when the original building gained such critical acclaim and is located only a stone’s throw away from its successor. But the City campus manages to hold its own, not by copying its forebear’s template but by carefully adapting it to suit the needs of the new site. Elevationally, City remains a more contextual and urban building than Riverside, and while its mechanistic facades may sometimes strike a hollow tone, the building represents the same commendable attempt to anchor a big block within the grain and character of the city in which it sits.


Architect Michael Laird Architects and Reiach and Hall Architects
Client City of Glasgow College
Structural engineer Arup
M&E consultant FES with Hulley & Kirkwood
Quantity surveyor SRM/Sweett Group
Landscape architect Rankinfraser Landscape Architecture
Main contractor Sir Robert McAlpine

Central courtyard

The central courtyard is raised above ground level to counter the site’s sloping gradient

Sweeping stair

A sweeping stair hugs the east elevation, using the site’s gradient to dramatic effect

City section and Albert Bridge

Source: Edmund Sumner

The Riverside campus and its contrasting context – the River Clyde and Albert Bridge


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