It’s quite a stretch to imagine that the soaring shimmering form of Marischal College, a 120m-long and 24m-tall silver granite landmark building that currently dominates Aberdeen’s skyline, was until recently a dark and dirty – and pigeon infested – city centre “development opportunity”. It’s a dramatic reversal of fortune, and one that arrived in the unlikely form of a huge leap of faith from a cash-strapped Aberdeen City Council, who opted to invest £40m to transform one the largest granite buildings in the world – second in size only to the El Escorial Palace outside Madrid – into their new office HQ.
A laudable decision, admits architect and project partner Douglas Jack of Holmes Miller, the architecture firm responsible for the redevelopment. “It would have been much cheaper to build a new out-of-town office building, but instead the council saw this problem listed building in the city centre and rescued it.”
This noble, and some might say foolhardy, rescue effort has already yielded palpable results. For not only has the arrival of 1,400 local government staff and associated visitors injected more life and buzz back into this part of the city centre, but in creating a contemporary light-filled, open-plan office complex out of the muddled mix of butchered interior interventions that lay behind the grimy granite, the project has shown that heritage preservation and modern working needs, need not be mutually exclusive. In fact they can, and in this case do, co-exist very happily.
Marischal College, a former seat of the University of Aberdeen, first emerged in 1841 as a Tudor Gothic-style building arranged around a three-sided quadrangle. This was later augmented by Alexander Marshall Mackenzie’s “perpendicular Gothic” design, completed in 1906 and believed to have been influenced by Charles Barry’s designs for the Houses of Parliament.
However when Holmes Architects – now Holmes Miller since the firm’s recent merger with the Miller Partnership – was appointed to redevelop the building in November 2007, it was a far cry from its heyday as “the pride of the silver city by the sea.”
“The Grade A listing makes this a precious building. It’s much loved in Aberdeen,” explains Douglas Jack.
“In terms of our overall intention for the project, this was to restore and clean the stonework facade and to create grand internal civic spaces that would be representative of the building. However, what lay behind the building facade was a nightmare – a series of messed-around interior spaces where the rain was coming in, and it was also infested with pigeons. It wasn’t feasible to create an open-plan office by keeping all the existing structure, so we scooped out the inside of the building, retaining the facades by means of temporary steelwork.”
The only retained part of the original interior is the Senate Room, an oak-panelled space to the right of the main entrance, which has been meticulously restored and where the city registrar now carries out wedding ceremonies. The remaining internal structure has been reconfigured and now includes two extra floors, which was achieved by excavating down into the existing floor levels and installing new roof-level accommodation. Clad in natural zinc, and designed to blend with the granite masonry, the new roof structure has been carefully worked out to minimise its visual impact above the original masonry parapets. However, a bolder contemporary intervention had originally been planned.
“We started off with a design solution of a pure glass box on the top of the extension – a bit like at the top of the Tate Modern in London,” continues Jack. “We felt that it was a suitable response. But this had to be modified so that the leading roof edge would be below the original granite structure. There was a risk that the original solution may have been loud and shouty in relation to the original building. But on balance we’re happy with the solution that we have now, as the internal spaces have worked out so well.”
Among the features of the new rooftop extension are a third-floor external terrace that staff can use in the summer months, and a rooflit conference suite on the fourth floor. The “glass box” circulation lifts have been designed to take advantage of views across the city as staff and visitors move up through the building.
Another key aspect of the redevelopment, and a device that overcomes the separation between the north and south wings, is the creation of a main entrance in the original pend – the arched passageway previously used for vehicle access. The frameless glazing system creates a grand internal foyer (and crucially, a wind-resistant one) while maintaining the views through to the central collegiate-style quadrangle.
The reception and customer services areas at the main entrance are dramatic, double height and opulent. “We were keen to create an Aberdeen theme to the front-of-house areas,” says Jack. “The granite floors and details are cut from local Kemnay granite blocks (the same granite cut for the Scottish Parliament building). We wanted the desks to reflect the driftwood from the beach. Not a lot of people associate Aberdeen with beaches, but there is an amazing sandy beach to the north of the city. The black resin tiled gateway is emblematic of the oil economy of the city, and this also adds a lot of drama to the space and contrasts well with the granite. Black granite would have to be imported so we used a resin bound tile with crushed rock.”
The photographic wallpaper at key locations shows images taken of the Aberdeenshire area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including archive photos from well-known Victorian photographer (and Aberdeen native) George Washington Wilson.
In contrast to the drama of the public reception and waiting areas, meeting spaces for private consultations are positioned under acoustic ceilings with additional acoustic panels between the desks in order to create a more intimate scale. A few glass-walled meeting rooms have also been designed for more sensitive discussions. Although internal office areas have been designed to clearly respond to the historical facade, clever spatial solutions create a contemporary light and airy feel. Towards the north wing of the building, where the floorplate becomes too deep for sufficient light penetration, roof lights and a full-height void have been inserted to allow a shaft of light deep into the heart of the building. This atrium space accommodates two rebuilt windows taken from the original building.
“We’ve tried to expose as much of the building’s details and intricacies to modern use,” concludes Jack. “Even the little turrets above the entrance pend can be used; they can only accommodate around three people, but they can still be used. I’m pleased with the way that we’ve made a feature of the existing building.”