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6 Apr 2006

Easterhouse’s new arts centre and library is nearing completion after a rocky few years of delays, brief changes and media speculation about its occupants. The original vision for a public route and meeting place at the heart of the complex is revealed and Gareth Hoskins, the architect, seems very happy with the result.

For a while Gareth Hoskins seemed reluctant to talk about the Easterhouse Arts Centre. The building has been delayed, the brief had changed during construction and, more recently, it has become a source of stories among the newspaper hacks because the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS), itself a pretty contentious institution, had agreed to make the building its HQ. However, the project is now about two months off completion and he seems pretty enthusiastic about the way in which the building has developed.
The new building, known as the Arts Factory, is more like a major infill project than an object building. It connects to John Wheatley College on one side and a revamped swimming complex and leisure centre, which the city council’s civic design team is refurbishing, installing a new flume and river rapids et al. The combined projects – the upgrading of the swimming pool, the reorganisation of parts of John Wheatley College and the Arts Factory building, which are collectively called the Easterhouse Cultural campus – will cost about £10 million to build.
Funding for the complex has come from a variety of sources; £500,000 from the Social Inclusion Partnership, Glasgow City Council (£3.86m) Scottish Arts Council (£2.2m), European Regional Development Fund (£1.88m) and SportScotland (£700,000). Bridget McConnell, the head of Cultural and Leisure Services and wife to First Minister Jack, has always had a particular interest in the project.
Into the space between the pool and the college, Hoskins has shoehorned a library and theatre for 220 people, a rehearsal room, storage space and workshops and offices for the NTS. It’s a very tight site – some of the members of the Scottish Arts Council’s capital funding panel thought it was too tight – but Hoskins believes that the limitations on space have led to the creation of a very simple and yet convivial building. “The idea is to get clever programming between the linked buildings to improve the use of all three. At the moment the local library is not very well used,” he says.
Hoskins believes that placing the library right at the heart of this new centre and making it possible to walk from the café with your coffee into the library area should make it more accessible. So the Arts Factory really doesn’t have a front door as such; it can be accessed from three different directions, but it is the crucial link that will transform the two existing buildings into something more meaningful, in an area that does seem to have a proper centre.
The most important space in the Arts Factory is the central library, which doubles as a street. The roof over this space is supported on long, tall columns arranged in what appears to be a random pattern, like trees in a forest. The space also follows the fall of the land across the site so that visitors rise up along the library’s ramped floors. At night, when the library is closed, the space will still be accessible to the public. The trees and the ramps give the building something of a Koolhaas quality and it will be interesting to see if it exudes the same energy and playfulness once it is completed.
The architects have worked hard to knit the building into its surrounds. Landscape architects Gross.Max designed a new public space outside the north, the rehearsal room has a large window, like a big TV, so that passers-by will be able to watch actors rehearsing and a ramp of heroic proportions leads visitors from McDonald’s across the site into the building. Hoskins hopes that the street will become an inside-outside space, like the concourse of Central station, that people like to hang about in, but are equally prepared to use as a short-cut to somewhere else.
Hoskins won the competition in 2000 and first applied for funding in January 2001. It was one of the first significant commissions that he won after setting up in practice. The other contenders in the competition were well-established practices such as Richard Murphy and Page and Park. “Right up to three days before the submission we had something designed that looked a bit like a giant burrito, but then we changed it all and submitted loose sketches,” recalls Hoskins. They made the building much simpler, moving the library to the heart of the building, and their proposals caught the imagination of the judges.
The client body Greater Easterhouse Arts Centre (GEAC, pronounced ‘geek’), is made up of a number of different public bodies and arts organisations, including Cranhill Arts and Visual Statement, a performance and dance company. After securing funding, detailed design work began and when the project was close to going on site, in September 2003, Frank McAveety, then Culture Minister, announced that the Arts Factory would become home to the National Theatre.
McAveety argued that by placing such a high-profile body in Easterhouse, the Executive was sending out a signal that deprived areas should have “parity of esteem” with city centres in the distribution of arts jobs. In August 2005 the Sunday Herald revealed that McAveety’s decision had generated quite a lot of rancour among the bodies involved and a report by Jones Lang LaSalle stated that the accommodation available for the theatre’s 15 staff was not adequate. Since that date, Vicky Featherstone, the director of the National Theatre, has said that any disadvantages of being in the Easterhouse campus are outweighed by the advantages. And Hoskins seems happy with the way the accommodation has been slotted into the existing building, although he admits he had a bit of a shock when he read about McAveety’s decision in the papers.
According to Hoskins, suggestions that the building is too small stem from a misunderstanding about the National Theatre. “The perception of a new National Theatre is that it should have a purpose-built centre. In fact, the new theatre is a commissioning body that wants to work out of theatres and other venues across Scotland and internationally. The accommodation that the theatre will have at Easterhouse is its offices.” Hoskins hopes that NTS will stage a production in the building at some stage, and believes it is likely to use the rehearsal space.

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