A blighted post-industrial suburb in Glasgow’s east end, defined more by gap sites than prime sites, may seem an unlikely location for a cutting-edge and architecturally audacious office development. However, in this unlikely neighbourhood a new office HQ is not only providing one of the area’s highest-profile tenants – Shettleston Housing Association – with an elegant and expansive office, but its very presence has given the community its first beacon of civic renewal for many years. The development, which was mooted by the client back in 2005, involved two main elements: the restoration and adaptation of the housing association’s long-term Co-operative Hall premises – a three-storey red sandstone building framed in cast iron that is one of the few civically significant buildings left in the area; and the creation of a new office and public reception area. In early 2006 Glasgow-based architects Elder and Cannon were appointed to take on the challenge. The need for more space prompted the ever-growing SHA, which owns and manages nearly 2,300 affordable homes in the area, to initiate the project. “Basically, the existing premises were too limited to support the staff,” explains project architect Donald Shearer. “A whole series of ad-hoc alterations had been carried out over the years and everyone was jam-packed into an inappropriately small area. There was also an unhappiness with the building’s public space, which was a tiny cramped lobby, with nowhere to sit and relax.”
Initially, the architects explored the idea of retaining the adjoining car park at the back of the site by creating a pend, or passageway. However, this would have led to a smaller extension. Eventually, the design concept that prevailed involved creating an extensive new-build extension, with a glazed double height entrance abutting the restored and refurbished existing Edwardian building. “Due to the fact that there aren’t really any civic buildings of note in Shettleston, we were keen to acknowledge the existing building,” continues Shearer. “We didn’t want to build an extension that would copy the original building in any way, or be too visually competitive. But we did want to design a structure that accentuated the civic nature of the space, and in doing so create a strong public building.”
The result is an extension that acknowledges the mass of the Co-operative Hall by echoing the five-bay neoclassical arrangement of the facade, but at the same time radically reinvents the form through a simple rationalised and repetitive arrangement of cast stone units forming a simple post-and-beam frame. A double-glazed curtain wall behind the exposed pre-cast concrete facade creates the requisite openness for the two levels of public space: the ground floor features a large waiting area and interview rooms, while the first floor comprises a single large office space and meeting room. The uppermost level, an open-air roof terrace at present, has been future-proofed and engineered to take the load of a lightweight structure, to cater for any future expansion. The existing building, which contains all staff accommodation, has been stripped of all its internal layers of pokey partitions and polystyrene ceilings. “All the ad hoc additions were very heavy and insular, so uncluttering the internal volume was the main aim,” continues Shearer. “We were keen to open it all up, and bring as much light back into the building as we could. Yet we still wanted to acknowledge the original features, such as the vaulted ceiling on the top level (which had previously housed a ballroom). We basically stripped it back to the floor joists and the central service core and built it up from scratch by means of lightweight glazed walls, where different teams and departments can now mix together. Communal areas in the corridors also create a much more sociable environment.”
The retained central services core has been upgraded, and now features MDF cladding that has been painted and lacquered, resulting in a high-quality finish. “In a way it’s dressing it up – it’s an inexpensive way of creating a sharp look.” The conundrum of how the existing building and new extension could be seamlessly combined was solved via a double-height glass public entrance. “The idea was to create transparency between the new and existing structures,” explains Shearer. “With the two-storey volume and rooflight, which allows light to flood down as visitors enter the building, we aimed for the effect of a grand entrance, which reinforces the building’s sense of civic scale and presence.” The two-storey entrance void is also important in that it not only symbolically unites the two distinct public/private volumes but also cleverly creates a transitional zone between the different floor levels in each building. Indeed, this subtle scheme to seamlessly unite old/new and public/private space was described by one of the judges who recently awarded the structure the Best Building in Scotland Award 2010, as “a masterly lesson in understatement”. A lesson in understatement it may be, but it is one that is at the same time a strident statement of intent for a community determined to reverse its fortunes.