Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Interview – Neil Gillespie, Reiach and Hall Architects

Excerpt from an interview of Charles Rattray with Neil Gillespie, Reiach and Hall Architects, Edinburgh. Neil Gillespie talks about the influence of art on their architecture and about their collaborations with the artists Alan Johnston, Roger Ackling, Thomas A Clark, Ragna Robbertsdottir and Alan Charlton.
Sleeper is a small space for art in the offices of Reiach and Hall Architects in Edinburgh. Artists who made exhibitions in Sleeper are among others Lesley Foxcroft, Douglas Gordon, Alan Charlton, Martina Klein, Thomas A Clark and Roger Ackling

From Architectural Research Quarterly Vol 8 No 1, 2004
See for complete interview and other writings:


Much of the work is informed by an interest in contemporary and conceptual art and also by a particular collaboration with his friend, Alan Johnston, professor of drawing and painting at ECA.

You have a little room in the basement ...

Sleeper. It's a space that we provide. Then we collaborate with Alan Johnston and it is really over to him to fill it with people - artists. We provide enough money for a card and a few bottles of beer. What has emerged doesn't rely on anything else and doesn't rely on subsidies from anybody. It's a very quiet thing. All we are interested in is what the idea is on that particular day, whoever the artist may be. And we have no influence over it whatsoever - who the artist is, what the artist does. It's like a piece of grit embedded in the office, making us think about ideas going on outside.

You deliberately have someone else select, and they can provoke you in any way they wish.

Alan's art is about his own very interesting pieces but also about making interesting connections. So when he goes to Japan, Germany, wherever, he can offer this space, say 'next time you're in Edinburgh, you can do a little show'. It's about ideas, and it has been amazingly successful - purely in terms of art, not foot-fall. And a lot of our buildings have influence from the shows.

The room can be taken as a whole or people can put things in it ...

Yes. What has tended to happen is that the artist - and we've had people like Douglas Gordon and Ulrich Ruckreim - has done a one-off piece specially for that little room because it has just appealed to their sense of a simple, little idea. They feel they can take a chance here, and some of them have said it's given them a spark. It's remarkable really because - well, you've seen it ...

... a small room ...

... virtually a wardrobe. So that has been really positive for us. But we also work with artists in our buildings as well.

What happens when you do a building specifically for art - the Collective Gallery in Edinburgh, the Pier Gallery extension at Stromness? The art is what is going to go into it. The building ought not to be the equivalent of bad art.

It's a really difficult one. The normal route is to try not to be there. But it's a balance, isn't it? The art is more memorable in a memorable space - but not so memorable that you can't see the art. The Collective Gallery is a series of four rooms going down the street, two old, two new, with glass on the front. The rooms themselves seem to be complete when viewed from the outside but, inside, the apertures between them are offset. There is a play, then, between the readily understandable and the more ambiguous and we were also interested in the relationship of the spaces to the city: the gallery-space being an extension of the street and vice versa. The Pier is very different. It's a remarkable place. the project has a piece of everything: it has a 'we're not here' piece; another piece - the extension - where we make a mark on the town so that people can recognize that there is a cultural building there; and then there's a refurbishment to lift the standards of environmental control and so on in Kate Heron's bit, designed in 1978.

The Pier extension has a very simple shed-like form to which various things happen.

Two artists in two consecutive shows at sleeper influenced us. One was Roger Ackling, who takes driftwood and burns very very precise marks onto it with a magnifying glass. The analogy was that Stromness became the driftwood, and we wanted the new building to be etched or tattooed into the fabric of the town. Hence the soft blackness of the cladding too - pre-patinated zinc. The new building wasn't going to touch the town lightly but was going to be embedded. The shed idea was about accepting that everything on the Stromness foreshore has that form and then transforming it by removing all detail from it. The other artist was Icelandic : Ragna Robertsdottir. She glues pieces of lava from Icelandic volcanoes to a wall in a geometric arrangement and then starts to move them, using tweezers - amazing. As you move towards a wall and view it obliquely, the lava particles join up, as it were, and the wall becomes their colour. Our white wall became black. We use a similar idea on the courtyard elevation at the Pier.

The simple exterior conceal a less expected interior.

Yes. There are various intersecting volumes and places where there is a northern notion that the interior really has got nothing to do with the exterior, that the Mediterranean idea of flowing from the inside to outside doesn't hold because you're retreating from a hostile environment.

The way you describe certain buildings shows evidence of a strong art interest. And what is fascinating is that this can continue in difficult situations - not only with an 'art' building but a commercial building, for example.

It is about that word, 'culture'. We've been robbed of it, or at least the architecture or the clients we experience generally have removed that piece of agenda. And that has led to a certain frustration because Scotland is such a small building world that you are working for the same people all the time. So it is a way of keeping our sanity, I suppose, and generating ideas. Our most fruitful conversations are with artists, who seem to be lighter on their feet, able to take a situation and look at it and then turn it into something. That's much better than getting entrenched trying to pursue a purely architectural agenda. I think there are a lot of lessons there. Interestingly, virtually all the early collaborations were on commercial projects for people like Sainsbury's or Grosvenor Estates.

This wasn't a percentage for art, was it?

No. This was us saying to the client that we could add something to this very commercial project in terms of a cultural layer that might make it more interesting. It might make it more interesting to the planners, it might make it more interesting to the neighbours. Private clients found it difficult, but the really commercial guys responded.

On what basis can one sell that? They might think that it was going to cost more money, but the answer in terms of architecture is that it might not.

It might not. We've always tried to resist applied art. It always has to be something that reveals something about the building rather than just sticking something in a courtyard or whatever. What we've learned from artists like Duchamp is that everything is available, all materials are available, and they are all there for you to use. There is no such thing as a 'bad' material or a 'good' material. But developers and planners, they view the world differently. For them, there is a pecking order in terms of materials from those that are decent and novel to those that are secondary and poor. At the top of every list in Edinburgh is stone. So there's no debate about that. Just stone. I think it's a kind of Medusa thing: every time you look at a building in Edinburgh it turns to stone. Actually that led us onto a kind of conceptual idea which was about mirrors, because Perseus - wasn't it? - defeated the Gorgon by using his shield as a mirror when he couldn't look at her directly. The Collective Gallery, for example, was about putting a mirror into the Old Town and reflecting it. Maybe the moves are very modest; that's all people can afford to do. I was interested in bringing that kind of thinking into some of the really ground-down briefs like a hospital or a supermarket. How can you bring in an idea that can keep you going through that process and makes it something more, that might not be that obvious.

Underlying this is an acceptance of a reality, whether it is a commercial reality or a material reality.

Yes. We're quite fortunate because our portfolio is always really broad. I think that's probably a reflection of Scotland - operating a the size that we are, we have to involved in every kind of project. Here's a sewage sludge treatment plant. That was a great project to work on ...

... I keep wanting to set one for my students.

We really enjoyed the process, really mucked in (laughter). We tried to see what we could bring to it in an architectural frame: we brought a logic that didn't exist in the 'processing' mind. It was good.

A lot of architects don't have this acceptance of materials and so on that you are talking about. A lot are still like the planners you mentioned, believing that there is a definite hierarchy - some things are beautiful, some things are ugly - and their take is very traditional.


So your attitude is more egalitarian - you look at possibilities that are around, as they arise.

I'm sure that's where the artists help us. Their gaze is so acute. Generally in architecture you don't get that space to really, really look at things, so you resort to type very quickly. There are other aspects too which really come through Alan Reiach and Stuart Renton. In 1944, Alan Reiach published 'Building Scotland' with Robert Hurd. The title interests me because architecture doesn't come into it. There's this kind of Presbyterian thing here - let's get on with it, let's just build. I suppose that ties up with the art thing in that we're presented with problems, let's not moan about it, let's just get on with it. The other thing that's happened is that clients are becoming more demanding, so the debate is getting richer.

Give an example.

Alan Charlton made a fantastic piece here: a grey rectangle with a grey canvas. That influenced directly the Edinburgh Technopole building. There was a sudden awareness that we could do something in this very very economic building, that there were still choices.

The two blocks slide and you pick that up ...

On its largest scale the slips creates two courts by implication. One is facing east, and that's about entrance; the other faces west and that is about the end of the day, to spill out and have a few drinks or something. That plan idea was then taken through the details whether fenestration, or even the ceiling tiles, where the light fittings are all slipped. So right through, we kept reinforcing that simple little idea with the elements we had at our disposal, which were suspended ceilings, open lights, brick joints and so on. And that's when we started to work with Tom Clark. His piece in sleeper was about the woodland glade, a place apart. And he helped us to understand the nature of a very simple building sitting in a landscape. We started to view it not as a part of the landscape in the way a boulder might be, but as apart from it. Rather than hugging the ground or trying to disappear, it could just be placed there. And the piece of text he put on the facade - 'a fold of granite' - talks of forces within nature folding something, and the spaces formed when you make a fold as a first move in architecture.


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