Edinburgh bangs a drum, Glasgow belts out an aria

In rival British cities, two rival conference centres have been raised by rival architects Brian Edwards and Jonathan Glancey report on rival buildings in rival cities by two of Britain's most distinguished architects
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The Independent Culture
Terry Farrell occupies a strangely lonely place in the realm of British architects. For many years he has exploited the vacuum that still exists between the disciplines of architecture and town planning. Yet throughout the Eighties Farrell won commission after commission by appealing to popular rather than academic or esoteric taste and in so doing felt himself under critical attack.

Why? Because although his sophisticated concern with the relationship between buildings and town centres was never in question, he dressed his Eighties buildings in the bright costume of American-influenced Post-Modernism. And what seemed interestingly complex and contradictory in Manhattan, Portland and New Orleans seemed a little bit brash in the cities of London and Westminster.

In the taxonomy of Eighties architecture, Farrell & Co (recently renamed Terry Farrell & Partners) stood at the opposite pole to the Richard Rogers Partnership and Sir Norman Foster & Partners. Where the hi-tech practices created one-off monuments of steel, aluminium and glass, Farrell's buildings are shaped by the geometry of the streets they stand in. To connect with the existing fabric of town centres, Farrell builds with marble and masonry, his doors, windows and gateways celebrated in bold, stripped-down, Post- Modern classical styles.

The two extremes are readily represented by the Lloyd's building in the City of London (by Rogers) with its wonderful yet posturing celebration of new technology, and Embankment Place in the City of Westminster (by Farrell), the grand Po-Mo office building that straddles Charing Cross station and dominates this curving stretch of the Thames.

With the opening this month of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, Farrell has moved in a new direction that should win him fresh favour with critics as well as clients and the public. Here, as in other new buildings of his, there is a much greater sense of structural integrity - the architect making use, for example, of load-bearing masonry rather than the veneers of the Eighties. Solid walls lend the new generation of Farrell buildings weight in every sense and mean that they connect directly with traditional city-centre architecture.

In Edinburgh, Farrell has been building directly for the city; in the Eighties much of his work was for developers. Theywanted vast, glossy office buildings and Farrell provided some of the best, at the expense of his critical reputation. Much of the overblown architectural posturing of the Thatcher years was fuelled by demand for new office space. By contrast, the Nineties have seen a growing appetite for cultural, civic, transport and educational buildings. And, partly because of this, the opposing poles of contemporary British architecture have been coming together. Rogers's buildings have begun to confront the urban dimension with a formality unheard of a decade ago, while Farrell has been moving towards the centre with hints of hi-tech construction layered on to the outer edges of his solid walls.

Nowhere is this change of heart more evident than in the Edinburgh conference centre. It is the focal point of the Exchange, a nine-acre, pounds 320m redevelopment of redundant industrial land on the west edge of the city, planned as a whole by Farrell, which includes new offices and hotels. The centre alone will provide 642 new full-time jobs and is already fully booked until 2005.

Few architects can perform urban surgery as skilfully as Farrell at his best. The conference centre, although bold and massive, is a structure that, in terms of position, form and construction, is rich in local meaning. Its great structural drum is a landmark defining a key route into the city centre from the west.

The drum marks the circular auditorium of the main conference hall. It is visible from afar, yet only glimpsed in curved segments close to. As with a Baroque church in Rome, it addresses both the scale of the street and that of the city as a whole. So the drum is seen in its entirety only from a distance, while up close it is screened by four large pavilions which follow the lines of the street edges. The square-cut pavilions and the curve of the drum play off one another and against the curving geometries of Edinburgh's New Town.

This manipulation of squares and circles, cubes and spheres, is not, however, simply an exercise in urban spectacle. It is a powerful design that is both dramatic and unambiguous in use. Its internal planning and decoration are grandly glamorous, butalso practical. The auditorium, for example - a circle of 1,200 seats with sub-circles that can be closed off for smaller conferences - is brilliantly contrived. Yet from the outside the complexity of the internal planning is held in check by the great sealed container of the drum. Here is a functional modern building that keeps its internal workings firmly in place.

Edinburgh has often been called the Athens of the North. But what Farrell has built - knowingly - is a practical monument more Roman than Athenian. His centre speaks the language of the forum rather than the acropolis. This seems appropriate, for it signals Edinburgh's change from a city of government and learning to a city of commerce too. Farrell has arranged a convincing marriage of the two and made us look afresh at him as well as Edinburgh.

BE

No sooner has Edinburgh completed, or nearly completed, a heroic new international conference centre, designed by Terry Farrell, than Glasgow is seeking to outbid its ancient rival with what it hopes will be an even more impressive building. This latest extension to the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (the name, no doubt, designed to belittle Edinburgh's latest architectural achievement), due to open in May 1997, has been designed by Sir Norman Foster and Partners.

The 3,000-seat, pounds 30m conference centre (Edinburgh's seats 1,200) is, says the city's gung-ho publicity blurb, Glasgow's answer to the Sydney Opera House. Edinburgh has long been known as the "Athens of the North"; presumably Glasgow is keen to be known as the "Sydney of the North".

Superficially there is a resemblance between Jorn Utzon's bravura opera house and Norman Foster's spectacular conference centre. At Sydney the shells of the opera house roof are said to resemble the beaks of gulls or nuns' wimples; the interlocking aluminium-clad shells of Foster's conference centre are meant to be "reminiscent of a series of ships' hulls which reflect its position beside the River Clyde on what was once Queen's Dock".

In between the shells a series of slots will allow daylight to filter down into the foyer spaces and around the auditorium below; by night, they will glow with gentle bands of electric light.

The auditorium will be the biggest of its kind in Britain and will make the complex of (indifferently designed) conference and exhibition buildings in Glasgow one of the biggest and most comprehensive in Europe. Conference centres have traditionally been among the most banal buildings of their kind, but Glasgow and Edinburgh have set out to prove that this need not be so.

In fact the Glasgow building has raised the profile of the conference centre so high that even the Sun was encouraged to publish a story about it - "pounds 20m Gets Oz Opera House" - and reported Sir Norman Foster as saying: "The similarities with Sydney Opera House did strike us when we completed the design. But this building will be better." Which is the kind of spirit that once made Glasgow great and cocked a snook at the polite sensibilities of Edinburgh.

JG

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