Glasgow and Edinburgh: the architectural rivalry

The cultural rivalry between Glasgow and Edinburgh has been reignited by two striking new museums. But who gets the bragging rights? Jay Merrick finds out

Two new museums in Scotland, a vast zinc-coated amoeba on the edge of Glasgow, and a transformed temple of High Victorian knowledge in Edinburgh, have renewed the eternal cultural rivalry of these two great cities, just 47 miles apart. Glasgow claims immediate bragging rights because the Riverside Museum of Transport and Travel was designed by Zaha Hadid and cost more: £74m. And yet Gareth Hoskins Architects' £46m modernisation of the 145-year-old home of the National Museum of Scotland makes it hard to deny the vivid power of big, classically inspired set-piece spaces awash with natural light.

Those braced for high drama on Clydeside can unbrace. There is only one look-at-me moment: the roof edges of the two main facades are like languid architectural scribbles above the gleam of the glazed ends. Here, at Pointhouse Quay, where the Kelvin river flows out of Partick to join the Clyde, this architectural soft machine is anything but a big, big toy for big, big boys.

The museum doesn't obviously express Hadid's key creative stimulants: Russian Suprematist and Constructivist art, Arabic calligraphy, and her fundamental desire to shatter preconceptions about architectural space, and how we experience it. Only her interest in denuded landforms and watercourses seems to apply to the Riverside. Despite 6,000 square metres of exhibition area, the museum is an oddly gentle presence on the quayside where A&J Inglis built ships from 1861 to 1962. From some angles, the museum's beautifully applied 24,000 zinc scales give it the look of a coiled, battleship-grey python.

The back story of the design is the heart of the matter, and two aspects in particular: the socio-economic strategy of Glasgow City Council's nine-year development of the project; and the strong curatorial and demographic leads imposed by the Transport Museum itself, which was previously housed in Glasgow's Kelvin Hall, where only half of its 3,000-object collection could be shown.

The completion of the Riverside marks a key moment in the Glasgow Harbour regeneration project, which is why the council paid two-thirds of the museum's cost, the rest coming from the Heritage Lottery Fund and local corporate and public donations. Architecturally, the museum is the least disturbing of the new developments in the Clydeside areas around Partick and Govan. The Riverside forms an almost flaccid break-point to the grim go-faster stripe of big new blocks of flats that have introduced "lifestyle living" to this stretch of the north bank of the Clyde. It is a lifestyle bereft of any engaging sense of place or history – just another dreary chunk of British boom-bust urban legacy.

Inside the museum, a cornucopia of historic artefacts of transportation is spread out or hung in huge pleated caverns the colour of Golden Delicious apples. The highlights include the Wall of Cars, rather like a two-storey high presentation box of used Dinky toys. There's a heroically mammoth, wildlife-crunching South African Railways locomotive; a charmingly skew-whiff vehicle-loaded shelf that rises up one wall in mimicry of the steep road in Argyll known as Rest and Be Thankful, where manufacturers used to test cars; and a brilliantly contrived moving conveyor belt that parades selections of the museum's 708 ship models.

Does the Riverside work as a welcoming place for the 650,000 visitors expected in its first year, with up to 800,000 coming to see the Glenlee tall ship moored next to it? There is certainly a distinct tension between the architecture, and what it contains. In flowing, column-free spaces like this – with a sharp, cathedral-like high point of about 100ft – it's obvious that it will take some time before the curators discover what segments best suit particular configurations of exhibits. Apart from the fact that the Riverside Museum's café-restaurant seems far too small, Hadid's creation seems highly suitable for Britain's only remaining heavy industry – heritage tourism.

But all thought of things blobbish and avant garde seems trifling on a stroll up The Mound and North Bank Street in Edinburgh. This densely engaging scene reminds you of the emotional and intellectual importance of historic architecture – not all of it superb – in relation to changing times. St Giles' Cathedral, the city's Presbyterian High Kirk, bristles like a dark mound of thistles in sandstone. A little further south, at the corner of Chambers Street, the 1998 postmodernist extension of the National Museum of Scotland, designed by Benson and Forsyth, seems overwrought.

In comparison to this tricked-up blancmange, Hoskins and his co-director, Chris Coleman-Smith, have positively knelt at the altar of the Grade A- listed museum's original architect, Francis Fowke, who also designed London's Albert Hall.

The crucial design move has been to return the magnificent atrium and three levels of galleries in the Grand Gallery to something very like their original condition; in addition, the long stone-vaulted basement space beneath it has been opened up for the first time: it's now the main entrance to the museum, an atmospherically compressed introduction to the building which leads visitors straight up into the Grand Gallery.

As architectural segues go, it's pretty gripping. Yet, considered detail by detail, the Grand Gallery is not in the least astonishing. The iron columns, the arched windows, the glazing – they're all quite unremarkable. But the way the bones of this space are set out, their shifts of scale and perspective, proves that you don't need brilliant architectural refinements to produce a really wonderful space; you can't help smiling when you walk into this one.

The greatly enlarged 16-gallery domain covers 6,800 square metres – slightly more than at Glasgow's Riverside Museum, incidentally – and retains something of the aura of the 18th-century Scottish Enlightenment and of the far-flung Scots of the 19th century who gifted the museum with extraordinary artefacts from the days of empire. More than 8,000 objects will be displayed in a building that now has 50 per cent more public space.

Coleman-Smith has treated the museum – previously constipated at key points by clumsy ad hoc interventions that blocked views and made circulation difficult – with kid-gloves; the new modernist details are restrained. "Previously, people regarded the building as a problem," admits the museum's director, Dr Gordon Rintoul. "Now, the building's almost the main exhibit."

It's a telling remark. How do you get the balance between a museum's exhibits and its modern (or modernised) form right? You can, as in Jean Nouvel's hallucinatory Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, create a building in which the ethnographic exhibits totally dominate. In Glasgow and Edinburgh, in two utterly different buildings, there remains a lingering sense of a complicated contemporary stand-off between historic objects and the way they're presented.

At the Riverside, there is a sense of exhibits being too tightly packed together. And even in Edinburgh, where the renowned Ralph Appelbaum designed the exhibition narrative, the National Museum of Scotland is keen to highlight the large number of interactive displays. History and historical objects are inevitably being reduced to museum entertainments that require greater footfall but shorter dwell-times. Thank heavens for Francis Fowke's Grand Gallery, which defeats that insidious vibe in a way that the Riverside Museum, despite its beautifully crafted shell, cannot.

The winner of this museum design bout is Edinburgh – it just shades its slick opponent, on historical points.

The National Museum of Scotland, Chambers St, Edinburgh (0300 123 6789) opens 29 July. The Riverside Museum of Transport and Travel, 100 Pointhouse Place, Glasgow (0141 287 4350) open now

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'

Arts & Entertainment
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit