Architectural Heroes

01 Mar 2003
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If, as Sir Winston Churchill said, "We shape our buildings: thereafter they shape us", then Scotland's architect's past and present can be credited with shaping our nation.

Many, like Adam, Craig, Playfair and Thomson have commanded international respect for the best part of two centuries, whilst for others, like Charles Rennie Mackintosh, recognition especially at home came too late to make a difference to their lives.

They did it their way

Take Fife-born Robert Adam for instance arguably the most important British architect of the 18th century. Blessed with a classical training, experimental bent and wealthy clients, he was the first architect in Britain to develop a style recognisably his own, demonstrated in Airthrey Castle and the magnificently 'medieval' Culzean Castle.

If Adam was known by his individual masterpieces, one of his contemporaries, James Craig, was famous for an entire 'town'. In 1766, at just 22 years of age, Craig won a competition to masterplan Edinburgh's New Town. His winning design featured two grand squares - St Andrew's Square and Charlotte Square - with three parallel streets (Princes, George and Queen) running between them. Appropriately enough, it was Robert Adam who designed Charlotte Square, birthplace of Alexander Graham Bell, Lister and Earl Haig, and now home to big finance and Bute House, the official residence of the First Minister of the Scottish Government.

Whilst a native Edinburgher gave the capital its New Town, it was left to one of its adopted sons to earn Edinburgh the title "Athens of the North". London-born William Playfair spent most of his time in Edinburgh where he established his reputation as a fine architect with such classical buildings as the National Gallery of Scotland (built on the spoil heap created by the construction of the New Town); the elegant town houses of Royal Terrace, Carlton Terrace and Regent Terrace and the National Monument on Calton Hill, modelled on the Parthenon in Greece.

East is East and West is West . . .

And though never the twain shall meet, they do both share the same creative flair. Whilst Craig and Playfair left their mark on the east of the country, two of Scotland's other free thinkers gave vent to their architectural self-expression in the west.

No prizes for guessing the major influence on Alexander 'Greek' Thomson's style, though he did combine the classical with Eastern elements from Egypt and India. Co-founder of the Glasgow Institute of Architects, which still runs The Alexander Thomson Travelling Studentship, his most celebrated works include Holmwood in Cathcart (reopened by the National Trust for Scotland) and St Vincent Street U.P. Church in Glasgow, designated a World Heritage Site.

Glasgow's other architectural hero, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, left an equally remarkable legacy to the city in the fields of architecture and design. Most famous for his Willow Tea Rooms in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow School of Art and Hill House, Mackintosh's unique style based on the belief that a revival of the Scottish Baronial style, adapted to modern society would meet contemporary needs went largely unappreciated in Scotland during his own lifetime. With Robert Adam, he shared an appreciation of the romantic and a compulsion to design everything down to the smallest detail. In the Salon de Luxe, for example, the Willow's inner sanctum, the waitresses even wore chokers and dresses designed by Mackintosh himself.

Lighting the way ahead

If Mackintosh had one foot in the past, so too he had one in the future. His first public commission, the Glasgow Herald building, was re-animated by local architects Page & Park to produce one of Europe's largest Architecture, Design centres. Although its use has now changed, The Lighthouse was opened in 1999 with four floors of exhibition space, a permanent Mackintosh Interpretation Centre, state-of-the-art conference facilities, an education centre, panoramic viewing platform and associated retail, bar and restaurant units.

Page & Park also designed the multi-award-winning Museum of Scottish Country Life at Kittochside, near East Kilbride. Proof that less is indeed more, the Museum impresses with matter-of-fact form, structure and space without resorting to flashiness or gimmickry. Within the urban jungle, Page & Park also designed part of Glasgow's Graham Square Housing project which meant finding sustainable, energy-conscious, ecological solutions for low-cost housing on the site of an old meat market in the east end of Glasgow.

The two other high-profile architects involved in this project were Glasgow-based McKeown Alexander Architects and Richard Murphy Architects. Having won recognition at home for their refurbishment of Edinburgh's Fruitmarket Gallery and Dundee Contemporary Arts, described by the Sunday Times as "one of the most satisfying, sublime and stylish public buildings in years", Richard Murphy Architects attracted further praise for their sensitive handling of the 17th century 'A-listed' Stirling Tolbooth Arts Centre. They also won a commission from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to design a new British High Commission in Sri Lanka, a real coup for Scottish architecture.

Closer to home, another Scottish architect is played an equally formative role in Scotland's political foundations. Together with EMBT (Enric Miralles' Barcelona-based practice), RMJM designed the new Scottish Parliament building, described by the former Presiding Officer Sir David Steel as "the most important to be built in Scotland for 300 years". For Edinburgh-headquartered RMJM, it's the latest in a long line of successes both at home and abroad in design competitions, including Homes for the Future 2, Scottish & Newcastle HQ, the Falkirk Wheel, Tron Theatre and, on the international stage, St Petersburg's Hermitage Museum.

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