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Looking At The Past Archly

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15 Dec 2005

Is Piers Gough being disingenuous when he says New Gorbals Site E is “a restatement of the original master plan’s principles”?

Eight storeys high at its south-west corner and stepping down six storeys to the east with maisonettes that run along a curved south-facing mews, Site E seems at first to be, if not an extravagant reinvention of Hypostyle’s master plan, then certainly a bending of the rules. Throughout the Gorbals master plan (phases V and VI), Hypostyle stipulated predominantly four-storey tenement buildings, with maisonettes on the lower two storeys. Back greens are entirely closed for security purposes.

Site E restates some of those principles. The back green is enclosed. Bins are out the front. In theory anyway, CZWG has made another bold step in its one practice mission to alter the cultural habits of generations of Scots, in order to preserve the security of the hallowed back green area. In terms of reinforcing the street pattern of Hypostyle’s master plan, the Site E project gives Old Rutherglen Road a solid definition where once it traversed a wasteland.

The maisonettes have parking out the front. In many ways, however, Site E is not a restatement of the original master plan’s principles. Not by a long shot. For a start, on the south side, the master plan provides for a straight road. However, Page and Park’s plans for Friary Court suggested a curved elevation, which CZWG have responded to with its own curved row of maisonettes. OK, it’s not a major re-working but its cute in a way a master plan could never proscribe. This gives the mews a less stark and more comfortable feel as well as reinforcing and complementing Page and Park’s singular relationship to St Francis Church. The mews provides maisonettes as stipulated by the master document but without the flats above. This not only gives the tiny street an intimate feel but also allows more sunlight to access the narrow communal garden.

CZWG’s scheme strains at the very limit of the tenement model proposed by the master plan, relating as much to the high-rise blocks to the east as it does to the New Gorbals tenements to the west. Although the adjacent Elder and Cannon project has an elevated tower, the sheer width of the project enforces the tenement as its overall model. The elevated sections are individual moments in comparison to the CZWG plan, which creates a refreshing novel cityscape. The master plan provided for towers on the corners of the site. CZWG, however, has turned these corner pieces into extended lateral blocks. An eight-storey block at the north-east, which begins at the north-east corner of the site, in fact extends down half of the north-facing site.

In addition to the volume and height of the project, there are some very deliberate echoes of the Gorbals’ immediate past, which has little to do with the tenements. Gough has referenced Spence’s original Queen Elizabeth Square, which stood on the very site, in a couple of striking ways. At the south-west corner, two inverted Perspex pyramids encase steel pillars. This is a clear nod to Spence’s original design. Nor is it hidden away. Given the curve of the adjacent Page and Park building, this south-west corner dominates the approach up Ballater Place. The five balconies that run across the front elevation are redolent of those on Spence’s design for the Queen’s Elizabeth Square high-rises, ranked around the old Queen Elizabeth Square which once stood where Site E now stands.

What is the purpose of these references? Gough sees it as part of an irrepressible magpie approach to design. “I think referencing the Spence building probably is quite provocative. The original never really had any affection amongst the people of the Gorbals. Any enthusiasm there came from the architects. So it was a bit of a naughty thing to do. I certainly didn’t tell them I was doing it but I really couldn’t help it,” he says. Certainly the legs, although encased in opaque plastic, have obscured the view of the ground-floor windows and the balconies are less a barrier to a ‘street in the sky’ as a balustrade to single luxury apartments.

The references are not simply playful postmodernism, however. Although Site E can be read as a tenement with elevated corners, it can also be read as a binding together of the tenements and high-rises that have since been demolished; all enclosed on a fourth side by a curved mews. Gough, after all, mooted the Percentage for Art scheme in his Crown Street master plan, which importantly recalls the area’s social history. Most importantly however, Gough has generated a cityscape that integrates different heights of building majestically (particularly worthy of note is the way the mews flats meet the block on the south-west corner).

This does the Page and Park scheme, on the adjacent Site D, a huge favour. Busy with contextualisation, in terms of both historical and immediate typography, CZWG gives Page and Park the space in which to flourish, certainly from the exterior. Friary Court, as the scheme is called by its builder, Miller Homes, addresses an even more fundamental aspect of the Gorbals’ past, namely St Francis Church. The scheme is essentially semi-circular in plan, and separated into seven constituent wedges, each of which is five storeys in height. The wedges end at a 5m-wide apex. Ground floors open out onto a roughly semi-circular garden, with the bulk of St Francis Church immediately beyond. Balconies from the upper storeys look straight on to the side of the church.

The scheme is dominated by the relationship with the church. Six narrow vennels offer access to the stairwells and glimpses of the church for the passers-by. The vennels themselves have an atmosphere that has the faintly monastic feel of a top-grade Oxbridge student accommodation building, perhaps the Gillespie Kidd and Coia work at Robinson College. The relationship between old and new is certainly the same, with the modern building providing ways of reviewing and reinterpreting the old rather than attempting to match it in terms of scale.

The wedge concept is carried through into some dramatic interior spaces. The interior stairwell is accessed by doorways halfway down the vennels on each side of the building. Here the buildings are only four storeys in height. The more southerly blocks have double sloping roofs however, which provides space for mezzanines on the top-floor flats. Wedge-shaped galleries hang above the kitchen and dining areas. In the three blocks to the north of the site, however, the roof slopes down to the street rather than back, in towards the stairwell. This means that the Page and Park building addresses the mews of CZWG not simply through its generous curve, adding a further dimension to the witty conversation between these two buildings.

Sites D and E, together and separately, are the sign of a real maturity in the Gorbals area. Indeed, part of their success is that returning to Crown Street, one finds their re-appropriation of the strict tenemental form in the early phases as rather self-conscious now. Such were the political dictates of the time, however. When Crown Street was built, high meant bad. This sense of constraint will no doubt be altered radically when CZWG’s scheme for a tower at the head of Crown Street has been completed. The confidence expressed in the earlier phases of the redevelopment has reached maturity.


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