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9 Jan 2008
The Lighthouse's exhibition on the work of Gillespie Kidd and Coia provides a long overdue opportunity to reflect on the work of one of Scotland’s most ambitious
The current Lighthouse exhibition is long–overdue and has been welcomed enthusiastically by peers and former students' of Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan, the partners that ran the practice from the 1960s to the 1980s. There are those that claim that GKC's work has been overlooked. Metzstein and MacMillan visibly cringe when they see the present state of some of their buildings, notably the derelict St Peter's seminary but they are reluctant to play the role of artistic martyr or vicitms of some historical injustice.
Looking at the practice objectively GKC did win an RIBA Gold Medal in 1969 and significant commissions in England, (not just England but Oxbridge). Writing in a special issue of Architectural Design on Scotland in 1962 Patrick Nuttgens wrote; “Suddenly to the background music of Le Corbusier and Niemeyer, Coia launched into the most vital and thrilling designs with an almost cavalier disregard for building construction and maintenance. The latest designs (making allowance for this very serious matter of good construction) suggest that his stature will become still bigger. He is probably the outstanding architect in Scotland today and certainly by far the most interesting.” An image of St Paul’s Glenrothes, MacMillan and Metzstein’s first church, sat alongide the article.
GKC's location in Glasgow meant that they were not at the centre of things written about by architectural historians, but one can’t help thinking that their position, on the periphery of British architecture, was a convenient one that suited their slightly maverick attitude to the ideological and architectural fashions of the profession.
If the historians and critics have overlooked anything about GKC’s work, it is perhaps the polemical character of the work produced in the 1970s. Robinson College (1980) represented the culmination of the creative partnership between Metzstein and MacMillan and as such might have provoked a debate about the future of architecture. Instead it received a long but unsympathetic review in the AJ and dispassionate coverage in the national press.
As Louis Kahn said: “How accidental our existences are, really, and how full of influence by circumstance.” GKC’s achievements arose from their unprecedented opportunity to build provided by the post-war boom. The muted response to Robinson College may be explaiend by the fact that it's completion coincided with a shift in architectural and social values. Robinson was not so much ‘over looked’ as ‘out of step’ - too late (for modernists) and too early or serious (for post-modernists).
After Robinson the practice wound down and Metzstein and MacMillan continued the argument about architecture by teaching. They produced a generation of students that, unlike many of the their contemporaries, had a very critical (even cynical) attitude toward the emerging 'starchitects' of the 1980s.
In the 1950s and 1960s Mezstein and Macmillan aspired to ‘extend’ the language of modernism. If early Modernism was a polemical campaign for a more rational approach to design and construction, GKC were Late Modernist operating in a context in which everyone was ‘modern’ and modern architecture was in danger of being reduced to crude functionalism or just ‘building.’
If a historian were to place them in a box, GKC almost fit the profile of the so-called ‘Festival Generation’ - those gentlemanly modernist (inspired by the Festival of Britain) that were interested in history and tended towards a romantic, pastoral modernism. However, GKC’s work is hardly romantic, it’s often been caricatured as brutal. Nor was GKC part of the gang of architects that usurped the gentlemen epitomized by Jim Stirling and his Leicester Engineering Building and Cambridge History Faculty.
GKC’s work in the 70s has its own very distinct character, it was not effete Modernism or New Brutalism. It reflects a shift in programme and setting; their work load changed from being predominantly public buildings on green field sites to a wider range of building types sometimes in the city. In Robinson College you have a clear exposition of an architectural approach which draws on a range of historical and contemporary influences and a very particular experience of having built churches and then colleges.
Robinson College was finished in 1980 four years after Roger and Piano’s Pompidou Centre. At the time Rogers et al were viewed as the natural successors to carry the mantle of the modern movement. Reyner Banham, the historian, claimed the Pompidou was the only building of interest produced in the ‘70s. He was captivated by the machine aesthetic, the mega-structure and the fact that the building wore its services on its sleeve. At Pompidou the user was the master, not the architect. You were not guided through the building, you could enter and drift around as you pleased in a flexible, open space.
By the late seventies the architectural profession had divided into two camps with the traditionalist and the heritage lobby on one side and Hi-Tech enthusiasts on the other and later the post mdoernists on the other.In the shadow of Pompidou, Robinson College, with its street and court layout and its plans and sections tailored to the college programme, must have looked frumpy. The idea of architecture as the controlled creation of spaces, tightly crafted to programme alongside the manipulation of space and light to create ‘rooms’ with distinct personalities and qualities rather than ‘spaces’ has been abandoned by the mainstream.
The concept of an integrated structure, expressed in GKC's work, had also given way to a much more pragmatic approach in which the structural grid is often the back drop against which a design is conceived. The idea of the architect as the over-arching hand that makes a building really legible to its user has also been marginalized – buildings are now apparently more ‘democratic’. There was also a radical re-thinking of the role of the professional. In the process of challenging the gentlemen the angry young men like Stirling had prepared the ground for a more relativistic attitude towards an architect's responsibilities.
The current Lighthouse exhibition provides a very rich record of GKC’s work. MacMillan and Metzstein’s careers are exceptional in that they began their working lives producing, not door schedules, but churches. The programme for a church is relatively simple and the opportunities for architectural expression are immense. A period of about a quarter of a century from 1956 GKC MacMillan and Metzstein were incredibly productive producing churches, schools, colleges , a hospital and a few housing and commercial projects. In the first decade they built twelve churches under the patronage of the Catholic church. Over the same period they built nine schools. Their most important piece of work in Scotland was probably St Peter’s Cardross, which was completed in 1966 and brought together many of the ideas that the partnerships had developed through ten years of prolific church building. Following on from Cardross the practice won a number of college commissions the most significant being University of Hull residences (1968) Wadham College, Oxford (1977) and finally Robinson College, Cambridge (1980).
One of the key characteristics of GKC’s approach was a commitment to the idea of the logic of a buildings organisation that was apparent to the user. Interviewed in 2004 for Prospect about the Scottish Parliament building Isi Metzstein said: “All buildings need an unfolding sequence. Architecture is not simply a visual art it is about how architecture reads. Like a piece of music a building has a structure, it tells you where the next piece of composition is going to come from and where it is going.”
GKC was able to explore the idea of promenade through church building. Religious rituals gave rise to specific programmes of movement. The idea of a promenade seems to belong to both modernism and its predecessors. Modernism which was built on the assumption that we should design building in response to human need and psychology rather than aesthetic tradition or classical orders. At the same time the manipulation of light and space had been explored since the renaissance and was one of Mackintosh's favourite themes.
In practice the promenade starts with the clear expression of the entrance. The visitor is often guided to the entrance by the surrounding buildings or the organisation of landscape. The external form of the building makes a big gesture to indicate the location of the entrance. This approach probably finds clearest expression at St Brides in East Kilbride, where one massive load-bearing wall folds behind another and corbels that cut into the massive brickwork provide a high level marker of the opening.
Visitors approach the entry to St Paul’s through an enclose space created by placing the priest’s house up against the entrance. Once inside the congregation find themselves in a low protected space enclosed by the confessionals. They turn through 90 degree to enter the main body of the church with their attention focused on the baptistery. As they walk towards the baptistery the main sanctuary comes into view. It’s a simple route, but a very powerful one. St Paul's is a small church for a congregation of 300 built on a small budget, the ambition was to create a sense of spirituality through the simple manipulation of the basic programme and natural light.
Alonside the fascination with the promenade GKC liked to work with deep plan forms, an approach that was later developed in relation to school, hospitals and colleges. Metzstein and MacMillan both describe how studying in the Mackintosh building at Glasgow School of Art was in itself an education in the organization of deep plan. Their work was a deliberate departure from the narrow single banked corridor, a simplistic design approach that had developed out of the modern movement. In St Paul’s GMC abandoned the traditional cross shaped basilica in favour of a wedges shaped plan. At St Benedicts Drumchapel they developed the diagonal orientation of the nave within a square plan. The same use of the diagonal is evident at Wadham College.
In turn the interest in deep plans led to the articulated section. A ziggurat type section in which elevation of each floor steps back from the one below allows the architect to get natural light into the centre of the plan. This stepped section is best exemplified by the main building at St Peter’s and Cumbernauld College. A similar approach was used by Patrick Hodgkinson on the Foundling Estate in London (1967) and at Cambridge Leslie Martin set up a research group to look at the efficiency of hi-rise buildings. Martin argued in favour of medium or low-rise courts and set out to prove that a stepped section could avoid the overshadowing usually associated with the north-facing elements of courtyards.
As the practice's workload shifted from churches to colleges the challenge of combining a large number of small cells with large public spaces became an engaging concern. With Hull GKC were asked to design 12 halls and centre, they produced a prototype hall which was modified and then finally built six halls. The master plan was organized to be flexible, so that it wouldn’t matter if it was not completed.
The deep plan and articulated section were combined at St Peter’s to allow for a large uninterrupted space at ground level and a wall of repetitive cells above. This same approach in which the cells were clustered around a stepped section was also adopted in relation to Robinson and Cumbernauld Colleges. The stepped section was about light and the combination of very different scales of rooms serving different functions, it was not bound up with the idea of a machine aesthetic. Nor were the radical stepped sections and concrete cantilevered balconies, part of the ideological programme for extendable buildings. Metzstein recalls being concerned by the excessive demandsby large frames or megastrcutures. Many of GKC’s larger building were conceived so the structure was fully integrated with the buildings walls.
Despite the fact that the form of Cumbernauld College seemed to echo the form of its big brother the town centre and evoke ideas of linked mega-structures the practice developed little enthusiasm for the stand-alone plug-in architecture that followed in its wake.
Although GKC worked in green field site up until the mid 1970s they didn't embrace modernist or post -modernist planning principles. As Gordon Benson recalls in the catalogue, while Mezstein and MacMillan enjoyed pouring over Le Corbusier’s latest work, they were critical of the Ville Radieuse (1933) concept of towers providing city dwellers with sunshine, fresh air and greenery for city-dwellers. Although they did very little work in city centres, BOAC building on Buchanan Street being the exception, Metzstein and MacMillan have been strong defenders of the idea of the street, the tenement and the backcourt as opposed to the free standing suburban building in a landscaped plot.
According to Metzstein, to have built Cardross on the site of Robinson College would have been ridiculous, both projects were site specific and their character sprang from the context. If you look at the competition submissions for Robinson College GKC’s scheme is unusual in that it is the only one that occupies the perimeter of the site to reproduce a street and a collegiate courtyard. The models of the other three short-listed practices - Feilden & Mawson, Eric Lyons Cadbury-Brown Metcalfe and Cunningham, MacCormac and Jamieson - consisted of dispersed low rise schemes spread across the five hectare site. The GKC scheme had a higher density and decidedly urban character.
Despite the fact that Gillespie Kidd and Coia’s ideas on architecture have not been at the centre of architectural debate their work was, and continues to provoke a reaction. The fact that locals called St Brides in East Kilbride ‘Fort Apache’ has been recorded by some critics as proof that the GKC churches were brutal and unloved. But the building does have a fortress like quality and a very distinct identity. It wasn't designed to be an icon, in the way that many contemporary buildings do, but the expressive qualities of the building allow it to engage people's passions.
An ‘architectural heretic’ wrote in the visitors’ book for the Lighthouse exhibition. “Let this be a lesson to those who treat architecture as an art apart. These two men’s most lauded building was prematurely functionally obsolete and physically decrepit, a gross failure outside their boundaries of elitist dogma. It was grounded in a fragile Corbusian ideology that has been peddled to the first generations of full time architectural students as axiomatic.” The current Lighthouse retrospective should allow us to extend the debate about architectural design and urbanism and the history of modernism. There is an implicit polemic in all of GKC’s work. When you look at it in detail and derive pleasure from the sketches and drawings and buildings, it’s hard not to feel a sense of regret that, Metzstein and Macmillan and others like them, lost the big arguments in the 1980s. The fact that they did not win the arguments means we have an impoverished architectural debate and professional outlook as a result.
Thanks to Isi Metzstein who was interviewed to provide some of the background to this article.