Last stand for Glasgow's concrete castle

A monument to the city's pioneering spirit is suffering for its designer's boldness. Gavin Stamp sounds the alarm

Tuesday 18 April 1995 23:02

"The Scottish style, I mean especially that of the old rough- cast castle, is eminently adapted to a development suited to reinforced concrete construction," announced James Salmon junior, the Glasgow architect, in 1908. "The simple corbelling, the small cornices, the straight lines, the rarity of arches and other details difficult to construct: above all, the freedom to do anything you like ..."

This was no idle claim. The previous year, Salmon had completed Lion Chambers, an unusual building in the heart of the city, which demonstrated the possibilities of the new material. The second reinforced concrete building in the city and one of the earliest in Britain, it remains - for the moment - a rare wonder.

Lion Chambers stands halfway up Hope Street, a miniature skyscraper of unashamed concrete towering eight storeys above the pavement. It was built for WG Black, the lawyer, writer and member of the Glasgow Art Club, so lower floors above a ground-floor shop contain lawyers' chambers, while at the top were artists' studios.

This dual function is expressed on the exterior: halfway up are the bewigged heads of judges, cast in situ in concrete, while the upper floors are corbelled out to dissolve into turrets, gables and chimneys. But if this tall, narrow front in Hope Street was inspired, like Mackintosh's buildings, by Scottish castles, the side elevation above Bath Lane consists of simple tiers of utilitarian bay windows, like those Salmon used on the backs of his other commercial buildings.

Glasgow's place in architectural history is that of a dynamic city willing to experiment. In the 1850s it erected complete cast-iron commercial buildings which had no equal anywhere else in the world; at the turn of the century, the city supported a number of clever architects who experimented with forms and methods of construction. There is nothing like the work of JJ Burnet, JA Campbell, Charles Rennie Mackintosh or his friend and contemporary James Salmon anywhere else in Britain. And unlike Mackintosh, Salmon ("the wee troot", as he was known) was interested in new structural systems. With his partner, John Gaff Gillespie, he built the "Hatrack" in St Vincent Street in 1899-1902, a steel-framed block with a "Glasgow style" Art Nouveau faade. Now, in 1904 in Hope Street, he tried reinforced concrete.

Lion Chambers was built by the Yorkshire Hennebique Contracting Co Ltd of Leeds, using the system pioneered by Franois Hennebique and promoted in Britain by his agent, LG Mouchel. The reason for experimenting with it was the small site, 33ft by 46ft; conventional masonry construction would have restricted the internal spaces. Hennebique's system was also fireproof, and obviated the necessity of erecting scaffolding in busy Hope Street.

The building, in consequence, is entirely framed with 21 continuous columns, rising from 13sq ins in the basement to 8sq ins on the upper floors. The intervening non-loadbearing walls are only 4ins thick, permitting the maximum amount of well-lit internal floor space.

As with so many pioneering buildings, Lion Chambers has suffered from its designer's boldness. Insulation was poor, and the thinness of the concrete has resulted in corrosion of the enforcements and progressive decay. The building was renovated in 1979; in 1993 its condition began to cause concern, and a structural survey commissioned by the owners and supported by Historic Scotland concluded that essential repairs would cost £1.3m, more than the owners can afford.

A month ago, Glasgow's Department of Building Control declared Lion Chambers a dangerous structure. It is now shrouded in protective scaffolding. The owners have applied for listed building consent to demolish. Lion Chambers may have a small footprint, but if the adjacent three-storey block on the corner of West Regent Street under the same ownership is also removed, a viable development site will be created.

Lion Chambers is listed Category A, as much for its pioneering structure as its appearance, yet Historic Scotland is reluctant to grant-aid any restoration that it believes will only extend the life of the building by a few years.

Possibly, Lion Chambers is doomed to disintegrate, but possibly not. Before Salmon's concrete baronial castle is condemned, a second opinion simply must be sought. In the last few years, our understanding of the problems of early concrete structures has made great advances, so that celebrated dilapidated buildings, such as the Bauhaus, are being, or have been, carefully restored.

In the last year, Glasgow has lost several precious and unique 1850s cast-iron buildings in Jamaica Street, while beautiful but long-derelict iron-framed Grecian warehouses, possibly by "Greek" Thomson, at Glasgow Cross, have been condemned, although their rehabilitation is crucial to the regeneration of the heart of the ancient city. For Glasgow complacently to acquiesce in the loss of Lion Chambers might suggest to cynics that the hard-won title of City of Architecture and Design in 1999 is rather a fraud.

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