THE BEAST WITH TWO BACKS- BUILDINGS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY THE ARMADILLO, GLASGOW

Norman Foster's Armadillo is photogenic - but is there substance behind the spectacle? By Robert Nesbitt
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The Independent Culture
A city which commissions a building by a famous-name architect is like an individual buying a pair of designer jeans. The act doesn't necessarily convey a serious interest in design, or even a commitment to quality. What it shows is that the consumer wants to be seen wearing a "label". Glasgow has always had a penchant for architectural superstars. And the city has just gone shopping again.

Glasgow's latest purchase - a ready-made landmark, courtesy of Sir Norman Foster, architecture's answer to Giorgio Armani - is a 3,000-seat conference centre. It's built on a barren site on the north bank of the River Clyde, though it could be anywhere: like the worst of 1960s architecture, the building stands as a scaleless object to be admired in glorious isolation, resistant to change or human interaction. The apparent design aim of this dramatic, glistening object is to put its home city on the map - by looking good in photographs.

Foster is one of only two household-name architects in Britain. In a country in which architects are commonly reviled, Foster and Richard Rogers, his former associate and main rival, have established the link between a landmark building and a known architect. So if you are an up-and-coming city, and if you want a shiny metal building with which to be seen on the architectural front line, you know who to call.

Foster's conference centre, nicknamed the "Armadillo" (or should that be woodlouse?) is the result. Foster has attributed the former diminutive to the building having "enough character to make people give it a name"; but this betrays an unfamiliarity with the Glaswegian tendency to christen landmarks, whether admired or not. The city's underground system is known as the "Clockwork Orange" not tenderly, but simply because the trains are painted orange and the track goes round in a circle. If Foster's building were just a little more reminiscent of a croissant, it would be known as the "Croissant". Maybe the "Silver Croissant". Or even just the "Bun".

The Armadillo/Woodlouse/Croissant's exterior is defined by a series of apparently effortless soaring sails. But the building seems plonked on to the site, with no obvious regard for the (admittedly very undistinguished) building to which it connects, the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre. Superficial similarities with Jorn Utzon's Sydney Opera House - possibly the world's most loved example of Modernism - are misleading. The Australian building visually opens up, embracing Sydney Harbour; the Armadillo cowers away from its surroundings. One has to consider the meaning of a visual reference to such a defensive animal. When first commissioned in March 1995, Foster's office issued a press release, describing the practice's "long love-affair with Glasgow" (though it had never built in the city before). How prickly would the building have been if designed for a city Foster and Partners weren't in love with?

And one can't help wondering why, if the front door is the creature's mouth, delegates from the Exhibition Centre enter and leave the building by its rear.

Once inside, the best thing that can be said about the Armadillo is that you can't see the exterior. In fact, you can barely see outside at all. Apart from the glazed entrance hall, the building has alarmingly few windows - it feels like an underground warren, a maze of artificially- lit corridors and staircases, painted in countless shades of cheerless grey. Very occasionally, you are provided with oblique views of the Clyde; more often, the vistas are of stretches of car park. And, on the inside, the elegant sails become a huge mass of tangled steelwork, clumsily colliding at awkward angles.

While bristling with pride over their new conference centre, which they hope will bring valuable income into the city, the cash-strapped Glaswegian authorities stress that the Armadillo is in fact a cheap building. (Even the highest estimate of pounds 38m is low in comparison to Edinburgh's similar but much smaller, new facility.) And every penny not spent is on display on the interior, from the coarse wall-finishes to the crude hung ceiling and clumsy industrial ducting.

Scotland is currently awash with speculation about its new parliament, a building Norman Foster has been tipped to design. It looks likely that the Scottish Assembly will be erected for a similar cost and with the same indecent haste as the conference centre, which was mooted only 30 months before it opened in September. The Armadillo should be taken as a warning that not all that glitters is gold, or even silver.

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