Friday, May 4, 2012

THE BELL AND THE FISH - TWO GLASGOW MUSEUMS PART 2 OF 3



THE RIVERSIDE
Walking to the Riverside Museum from the city centre is an interesting way to approach this development. The stroll along Argyle Street takes one past some of the classic sandstone tenements and churches of the city – variously red, brown and beige; some newer, less attractive development in brickwork and concrete; and some work in progress as holes in the ground. The walk branches off to the left where one has to cross a motorway via a ramped overpass that delivers one within visual contact of the museum, a vista that is framed by a chain-wire-fenced wasteland. It seems that this riverside void is to have a mixed development at sometime in the future. The present neglect provides a sad context for the smart new shining form in the distance, but it gives one the opportunity of viewing the museum from afar, albeit it through the security fence, around signs, along a muddy path and over sundry debris. One wonders: what will the future hold? Will this prospect be obliterated? Architecture is always an interaction between the whole and the part – distance and detail – so there is some advantage in pausing to consider this pedestrian vista. The surprise is that the metal mass has a coherent wedge shape.


The walk along the rough dirt track finally leads one to the edge of a car park. By stepping over a garden and striding across the expanse of new bitumen - one gets the sense that nobody was really meant to walk to this museum - one approaches close to the front glass wall that one assumes contains the entry. The glossy darkness of the infill disguises any certainty that the main door is in this location. A quick look and feel of the metal cladding as one passes it suggests it is zinc sheeting dressed into the fluid, curvaceous form of the mass, with regular ribbed upstands cleverly sliding in unison over complex curves with a defined rigour in their detailing, direction and organisation. It is nicely pieced together. The wall is surrounded by young trees that will eventually shroud the form with their leafy masses and mottled shadows. Is there some lack of confidence in this gleaming bold, silver massing of metal form? Is the metalwork not as perfect as its image might suggest?



After a sheepish approach to the black mirror, the entry is discovered amongst the dark glass panels framed by the bold diagrammatic zigzag portal surround that has become the symbol for this place. The entry is grim and glossy - slick - like its surroundings, and has its own curved, more formal, dark frame. The approach to the door is coded with lime-dot graphics declaring the obvious, confirming that one has indeed arrived at the right place. It is as if this information was indeed needed - was perhaps essential - to clarify all of the previous doubt and uncertainty caused by its lack of definition. To one who does not know, there are few other clues to reassure a visitor approaching this museum that this is indeed the place where one enters the strange and unusual mass. Its difference stifles normal expectations into anticipating just about anything other than the norm.

The building is not easily comprehended. The publicity it has received has illustrated its steps and curves without too much factual information. It has just been illustrated as very persuasive, diagrammatical mode that highlights style. Knowing this, one is inclined to approach the museum with questioning thoughts asking about how everything that one has seen published might actually work - as a structure, as a shelter, and as a museum. It is clear that the form has been the generator of this building rather than the function of display. Luckily museums are malleable enough to adapt to whatever is provided. The Musee Dorsee managed to fit into a railway station with some creative detailing. Here at Riverside, it seems that style displays its primary and demanding urges, leaving things to do with the museum to make a best fit.


There is an immediate surprise upon entering the space. To the left of the entry facing the car parking area, is a mock street of another era with horse-drawn trams and carriages on a cobbled pavement bordered by mock facades that give the impression of curving nicely with the form of the building, thus shortening the vista along the street. It is an intriguing idea that encourages one to discover the other end of this dim, Sherlock Holmes-styled space that is just like a film set. The interest in this thoroughfare terminates abruptly just around the bend, leaving one to step out into the grand void of what is discovered to be a very small building, in spite of its waved ceilings that delineate the longest lines of the form. It is soon determined that one can almost see one end of this building from the other, and that the distance between both ends, if the extended path of the wave diagram is ignored, is very short. The building is a tube with two glazed walls enclosing it - two entries, one on the street-side, the other on the dock-side of the development. This arrangement has its own advantages and problems.


The undulating ceiling seems to match the exterior roof forms – twisted peaks and valleys. These are highlighted with linear strips of neon that follow the lower lines as if to define the form. It is not clear where the rainwater goes. Does it really cascade over the front - the street entry, if this is the front? It is towards this lower end that the whole building mass, as seen from afar, falls. Inside, there is no necessary relationship between the layout of the exhibits and this sculptural massing overhead that is all finished in a pale lime green. It appears that there has been much discussion about this colour, but it works well and looks good. It adds to the illusion of infinity. But what about the exhibits? So far the eye and interest have concentrated on the building that carries the cliché description of ‘eye-catching.’


One moves through a grand clutter of clever arrangements and big pieces of transport-related paraphernalia only to discover the rear – or is it the front? – glass wall that is also an entrance that exits to the tall ship display. Maybe it is best called the dockside entrance? So why not go out to see what is happening here? The tall ship looks good reflected in the dark glass along with an elevated truck. But this truck: is it a display item? No, it carries the cherry picker from which the huge glass wall is being cleaned. Moving across this façade and walking around its outer edge, one discovers another cleaner with an eight-metre long brush reaching up to a high glazed opening in the curved metal cladding. “Do you have to clean it regularly?” “Every three months. But this clean is for the queen. She’s visiting next week” – followed by comments about the queen that need not be reported. “Do you have to clean the walls as well?” “Yes, every six months for the top, and once a week for the lower parts.” “I guess that is the down-side of high tech?” “Yes, it was a lady architect.” “I know. Good luck with the queen.”


Moving on one comes to a courtyard, an external space that has been formed by one of the main twists in the morphing. There seems to be no necessary function to be accommodated here other than the curve in the building. The warped void opens to the west and has vistas along the Clyde on one side; but why? Does one need a cause? Here the limits of transport seem to have been exhibited in their extreme as failed pavement that has expanded and flexed because of a lack of expansion joints. Portion of the paving has been intentionally twisted up to provide a plane that seems useful only to illustrate this engineering failure frequently seen in median strips; or is it for skateboarders? Who knows? Perhaps it is as random an intrigue as the outdoor area that could be or become the smokers’ retreat. Interesting little artworks are scattered around with a few diagrammatic plans of the swished plan – as if one could get lost around this simplistic, enclosed bulging mass with multiple approaches.



Moving back into the building exposes the weakness of two entries. Here I am greeted as though it was my first entry. “No thanks. I already have one.” What surprises one is the clutter. The space is like a Victorian living room, full of fascinating and quirky bits and pieces. The more one looked, the more one discovered. There was no precise route that one could stroll along. The waves above illustrated nothing but their diagrammatically complex forming and careful making. They were just there, displaying the cleverness of the concept. Things just appeared and surprised. The wall of cars made the vehicles look like a display of Dinky toys; the ramp of cars likewise- but these were clever. The circle of bikes upside and down made one puzzle over the idea that eventually made sense as the form of a Möbius strip. Was the task of getting everything moving like the cars do in the advert just too difficult? Too costly? The latent idea seems to be there as one spies a similar notion in the ships that move in a more linear fashion on the edge of the upper level.

This upper level is accessed via stairs and lifts. These spaces provide more exhibition space both above and below. Interestingly, the upper zones allow a closer inspection of the ceiling waves. Below this level, the spaces become bland boxes that disappoint. These cubic areas are finished in white, and look just like every other ordinary museum that has been squeezed into whatever old building might be available. The Limerick museum comes to mind. These spaces are disappointingly very ordinary given the effort that has gone into the remainder of the building form and its detailing – for it is generally carefully considered and beautifully pieced together. Khan-styled, lime green plastic hand rails twist up the recess in the curved stair wall to terminate wonderfully into a feathering form to become the balustrade rail. But there are surprises on the upper levels too. Full-height glass walls that overlook the lower displays stand precariously on the very edge of the interior slabs, leaving one breathlessly anxious until the glass is sensed. Even then, it is so clean that one is left feeling awkwardly exposed to a dramatic drop. The queen’s cleaners were everywhere. All surfaces were being scrubbed and touched up. “All she will smell will be fresh paint,” the window cleaner declared with little respect for the important visitor. “You’re from Australia?” “Yes.” The steam railway engine that protruded beyond the edge of the slab did nothing to encourage a feeling of security, but the security guard seemed very relaxed as he supervised the movement below while standing on the centre of another glazed panel yonder.



Back on the lower level, one moves around to see some of the spaces surrounding the main exhibition space. Are there service or storage spaces hidden behind walls within this geometry? What’s this? The lime-dotted graphics throughout were not easy to read. Oh, it’s the café. Strange; while it was nicely located at the dockside glass wall with a river view, this service area had been placed to one side of the building, in a corner, an area that was one of the highest spaces in the building. One had the feeling that the form had been generated before any critical analysis of the required functions had been considered, leaving decisions about spatial allocation at the mercy of a seemingly naïve box-diagram planning method that looks only at the necessities of area, location and juxtaposition. Adjacent to the first entry – street-side - one discovered toilets, a reception area and the shop. Were these just more boxes that had to be squeezed into the preferred sculptural shape? The toilets seemed to confirm that style was all. Hand pulls and pushes were full height bars – 2700mm high – on large doors with pivot hinges. Gosh, why? Even Tesco in Lerwick had finger protection shields on its similarly-pivoted bathroom doors. There was no finger protection here. But why pivots? Maybe Corb has a lot to answer for, with his use of pivots at Ronchamp? It all looked like an unnecessary indulgence that ignored the fact that the lower pivot will very likely get frequently mopped in water. It left a feeling that sensed the urge for style was the main aim – the primary intent.

On leaving the building, a detour was taken along the eastern wall to see the detailing around the door openings in the cladding. Here a conversation was struck up with a fellow having his morning tea. What, no tea room? “You seem interested in the detail. Are you an architect?” “Yes.” “What do you think of the building?” “Well, interesting.” “I work on the tall ship.” He went on to talk about how he thought that looking at cars meant looking at them in detail – into them - not just perusing the profiles on a giant wall display. He was puzzled about the bikes hanging willy-nilly. I explained how I thought it was Möbius strip idea that was never implemented. “Oh!” He completed the chat with his shrewd observation: “Museums should be more about exhibits than the building housing them.” “I agree.” That seemed to sum it up. I left for the bus back to town. The walk had not been enjoyable enough to repeat.

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