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Scottish Building Influenced By Acclaimed Neighbor

Exterior rendering of the Reid Building
The Reid Building is located across the street from the beloved Mackintosh Building, which was completed in two phases in 1899 and 1909. Its design is considered complementary. © Steven Holl Architects

Challenged with constructing a new building opposite one of the Scotland’s most cherished structures, designers opt for ‘complementary contrast.’

April 15, 2014—The most beloved building on the campus of the Glasgow School of Art (GSofA), in Glasgow, Scotland, and one of the most admired buildings in all of Scotland is the Mackintosh Building. Completed in two phases—one in 1899, the other in 1909—the building was designed by one of the GSofA’s most famous alumni: architect and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Called Mackintosh’s “masterwork,” the building currently houses the GSofA’s School of Fine Art and is listed as a cultural heritage landmark—attracting architecture aficionados for daily tours. So when the GSofA decided to construct a new building across the street from the Mackintosh, designers had to consider how the new structure would play opposite its esteemed neighbor.

The GSofA conducted a review of its campus in the early 2000s and found that several of its buildings did not meet the practical needs of a contemporary art institution. To maintain the school’s stature as one of the most preeminent art and design academies in the United Kingdom, GSofA officials decided to replace three existing buildings across Renfrew Street from the Mackintosh Building with a large purpose-built structure that would consolidate the studios, workshops, and teaching and exhibition spaces of its School of Design. The GSofA held an international design competition for the project, and as a result of that process selected a design team led by Steven Holl Architects, an architecture firm headquartered in New York City, with Arup, an engineering firm headquartered London, serving as the multidisciplinary design engineer. 

The prominence of the site keenly in mind, Steven Holl Architects designed the Reid Building, as the new building is known, to harmonize with the Mackintosh Building without duplicating it—a method the architects call “complementary contrast.” As part of that effort, designers preserved one of the existing buildings on the site known as Assembly Hall—a 1930s masonry structure that houses the GSofA’s student union and has a rich history of hosting some of Scotland’s well known rock bands. The new building wraps around the hall without bearing on it, maintaining a connection to the Mackintosh Building by creating an ensemble of old and new structures, says Dominik Sigg, a project architect for Steven Holl Architects. “It reemphasizes the reading of the city as different historic layers. Otherwise, it would just be the old facing off with the new.”

East elevation rendering of the Reid Building

The Reid Building has a robust reinforced-concrete frame and
relatively thin glass facade in contrast with the nearby Mackintosh
Building, which has a relatively thin steel and wood frame and
robust masonry facade. © Steven Holl Architects

The desire for complementary design also influenced the design of the 11,250 m2 Reid Building. While the Mackintosh Building has a relatively thin steel and wood frame encased in a robust masonry facade, the Reid Building was designed to have a robust reinforced-concrete frame encased in a relatively thin glass facade. As a result, the Reid Building references the Mackintosh Building’s design without emulating it. “We didn’t want to use the same materials on the Reid Building in the same way they are used in the Mackintosh; rather, we wanted to do something within our time that was decisively different,” Sigg explains. “Instead of the thick skin and thin bones of the Mackintosh Building, we did the opposite with a thin skin and thick bones.”

The Reid Building has five above-grade levels over two basement levels. The basement levels house a lecture hall; workshop; storage facilities; and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing fixtures. The ground level includes an entry atrium as well as space devoted to exhibitions and seminars, while the upper levels house studios and academic spaces for the various disciplines within the School of Design. A ribbon of stairs weaves through the building, affording views into the studios to encourage students and faculty from various disciplines to interact and collaborate. “As you go through the space, you see into the studios and you see all of the different types of creative activity that is going on,” says Derek Roberts, CEng, an associate and the lead structural engineer on the project for Arup. “That creates ‘abrasion,’ so that all of the different parts of the school can work together and feed off of one another other in terms of the way they teach and learn.” 

The building’s 12.5 m deep basement is lined by a contiguous pile wall, covered by a waterproofing layer to prevent seepage from the site’s high water table. A 1.5 to 1.75 m thick concrete raft supports the remainder of the building. Monitoring conducted during the basement and foundation construction ensured that the work did not disrupt the historic buildings or Victorian-era cast-iron sewer lines that surround the relatively small site. “The building is located on top of glacial clay, which has the [tendency] to expand when you try to build these deep basements,” Roberts says. “We used inclinometers in the piles to monitor and understand how the piles were moving as the basement was dug, and we also had lots of prisms and inclinometers fixed to the adjacent buildings to see how each of those moved throughout the process.”

The building’s walls are formed around three sculptural voids, which capture sunlight and fresh air as part of the building’s sustainable design

The building’s walls are formed around three sculptural voids,
which capture sunlight and fresh air as part of the building’s
sustainable design. © Steven Holl Architects

The building rises from the basement levels as linear reinforced-concrete walls, dividing the building into two approximately 15 m wide bays. Each wall has a distinct geometry formed around three 5 m diameter “sculptural voids” that extend vertically to operable skylights in the roof that admit natural light and fresh air through to each level of the building. The curved walls that form the voids are approximately 300 mm thick and slant approximately 12 degrees, causing the building to want to lean forward, toward the Mackintosh Building. But other walls prop up the voids, and strategically placed kinks near the bases of the voids balance out those forces to prevent the voids from collapsing. “It was quite a challenge to understand how that balance would be achieved through the construction sequencing,” Roberts says, adding that the team used building information modeling to conceive the structural design and coordinate the project. The structure is made even more complex by dozens of cantilevers as long as 7 m. Located mostly along the building’s east and west elevations, the cantilevers tie into the structural framing with approximately 15 m long back spans.

All of the concrete throughout the building is exposed and whitewashed; the walls have a rough board-brushed finish and the voids and stairs have a polished finish. Achieving the desired aesthetic for each component required a great deal of effort. For instance, the stairs were initially designed to be 8 to 10 m long monolithic units, but because no two units are alike, the cost was high. As a result, the contractor proposed separating the stair treads from their spines so that one mold could be used for all of the treads and another for the spines. “We did a lot of work with the contractor after he proposed it to make sure that we could deliver something that was as shallow as had been designed and [that it would] look monolithic in the end so that you couldn’t tell it was built out of these separate pieces,” Roberts says. “That was a very clever way to deliver those units.”

The building is designed to achieve the United Kingdom’s Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREAM) rating of excellent thanks to a number of initiatives. The concrete used for the building contained half the cement of traditional concrete, reducing the material’s carbon content. The voids and the glass facade, which is made of recycled glass, allow sunlight to penetrate the building, saving on electric lighting requirements. A vegetated roof features native foliage and a rainwater retention system collects water for use in the toilets. And a biomass boiler system heats not only the Reid Building but also the rest of the GSofA’s campus. “We found that if we upgraded the boiler system to be biomass, we could make not only the Reid Building sustainable but also decarbonize the whole campus, including the Mackintosh Building,” Roberts says.

The Reid Building opened to students and faculty in January and officially opened on April 9. Under pressure to make the Reid Building compatible with the cherished Mackintosh Building, the designers met that challenge by referencing the existing building without duplicating it—resulting in a new structure that is unique and notable in its own right. “It’s a huge challenge to build opposite a building like that,” Sigg says. “It meant that this had to be an exceptional building, too. By way of this contrast strategy, we were able to achieve that and create a more interesting urban space.”



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