Architecture: Two towers of strength and beauty: Jonathan Glancey on new university buildings that raise his hopes for Scottish architecture

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The Independent Culture
The current revival of university architecture is producing some of the best new buildings to be found anywhere in Britain. This was true of the great university boom of the Sixties, as it was at various times in Georgian and Victorian Britain. Richard MacCormac at Oxford, Edward Cullinan at Cambridge and now Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, are producing a new wave of collegiate buildings that marry the functional planning of the best Modern Movement architecture with the lessons of history, craftsmanship and landscaping - lessons that have been learnt by Britain's most imaginative and reliable architects over the past decade.

The two residential towers on Robert Gordon University campus, beside the River Dee, are remarkable buildings. 'Perhaps the most remarkable thing about them,' says Gavin Ross, vice-principal of the university and the man who commissioned them, 'is that the planners agreed so readily to two new towers rising above a very sensitive stretch of the Dee. The Round Tower House, in particular, is monumental and makes its presence felt strongly as you travel along the road flanking the opposite bank of the river and certainly at this time of year before the trees come into leaf.'

Not only is the Round Tower House imposing, its colouring is as vivid as that of the cheeks of a couple of Highland pals leaving a pub after a few drams: it is finished in a rough, red-ochre rendering. 'It's a strong colour,' says Mr Ross, an architect who studied under the great American Louis Kahn in the Sixties, 'but it's traditional in this part of the Highlands - the red used to come from bulls' blood - and tones down over the years. The rendering will last at least 50 years and well before then it will have developed a lovely patina.' Already, as the sun rises and sets, the red ochre changes in colour, from the dustiest pinks to near blue.

The twin towers are not made of the local Aberdeen granite. 'They've been paid for by an anonymous benefactor,' says Mr Ross. 'They've cost twice as much as we could normally pay for student accommodation, although this is still half as much as Oxbridge colleges spend, and even the generosity of our patron doesn't allow for granite. There is, however, a strong local tradition of building towers of stone rubble which are then covered in a very thick coat of render. Our towers are made of rendered blockwork, a modern way of doing the same thing.'

Ironically, the only granite used in the construction of the towers - notably around the entrances - comes not from the 'Granite City' itself, but from Cornwall. Aberdeen produces oil these days (which, despite the odd economic hiccup, keeps it almost recession-proof) and has almost abandoned the extraction of granite.

The two new towers are halls of residence for undergraduates of the expanding and newly designated university (until recently it was Robert Gordon's Institute of Technology and Gray's School of Art). The Deeside campus, already home to Garthdee House (a granite country house designed by William Smith in 1872) and the remarkable art school, is slowly becoming a feast of sophisticated architecture. (The art school, designed by Michael Shewan and dating from 1966, is a virtual recreation of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's hugely influential Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago.) This is very much the doing of Gavin Ross who, now that he is no longer practising as an architect, is enjoying commissioning new buildings of real character and quality. With the towers are complete, he is looking for an architect to build an equally imaginative new management college elsewhere on the campus.

The choice of Edward Jones and Jeremy Dixon as architects of the towers was not an obvious one. Sassenachs of the first order, but possessed of a charm the toughest Scot would find hard to resist, the London- based team (who have long been struggling with the on-off remodelling of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden) were among a small number of architects asked by Ross to look into new student accommodation.

Their solution - tower houses - was near ideal. Ideal, because towers occupy precious little land. They also offer superb views; from the upper storeys of the Round Tower House, students who bother to raise their blinds can see right along the River Dee into the heart of snow-capped peaks in the Grampians. They provide accommodation free from damp (most Scottish towers were built high, not for defensive purposes, but to keep damp at bay, and because, until the coming of the railways, the long timbers and other materials that allowed a building to 'stretch' horizontally were difficult to find here). Above all, they have allowed the architects to create a self-contained flat on each floor. In both towers, each flat is reached by a tightly packed zig-zag stair (reminiscent of those found inside the walls of traditional tower houses). Each 'flat' is equipped with a kitchen fitted out to a high standard.

The plan of the Round Tower House is the more satisfying of the two; running up through its core is a timber-panelled drum. Inside are hotel-like lavatories. The students' rooms and kitchen dance around these drums in a close circle. Each room has two windows, a shower and wash basin and is fitted out to a standard, that although very simple, is a cut above the

average.

The stair, meanwhile, winds up to a lofty common room (panelled in blue- painted tongue and groove, fitted with a timber floor and as smart as any fashionable city cafe). The common room describes half a circle at the top of the building; the other half is occupied by boilers and mechanical gear. Delightfully, the room gives on to a circular walkway around the top of the tower; a magical place to while away summer evenings - the views from the top are the stuff that the best Highland hotels would lavish with praise in their brochures.

The tops of the stairs in both towers are capped with steel-and-glass lanterns. Lit up at night, these serve as beacons welcoming students home. In fact, both towers act as powerful punctuation marks in the rambling campus area. They bring character to the Deeside grounds, and a sense of architectural unity.

These are two important new buildings. Tucked away on a university campus, some miles from Aberdeen, they are unlikely to be widely seen but are very much a part of a new sensitivity in contemporary British architecture that proves how a sense of history and a sense of place can be wedded to modern planning and building techniques. Their story deserves to be writ in granite.

(Photographs omitted)

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