Saturday, May 18, 2013


The Shetland Times declared that at last, the construction of the twelve million pound music, cinema and creative industries centre at Lerwick, the Mareel, had finally been completed: August 2012. Other arguments about time, money and responsibility are apparently continuing, but now, after years of promoting the idea of this complex, and after all of the reported delays and controversies with the development, funding and construction of this new centre, it was now ready for use. This centre, that gathers the arts together near the harbourside Museum and Archives Building that had been opened three years earlier in 2009, houses a live performance auditorium, two cinema screens, rehearsal rooms, a recording studio, educational and training spaces, a digital media production suite, broadcast facilities, and a cafe bar with free high speed Wi-Fi internet access. Already Dougie Maclean has performed at the Mareel, and a broad selection of movies is shown on a regular daily basis. The centre was intended to stimulate Shetland's involvement in the arts by providing a core location to support cultural activities in Shetland - Lerwick and the regions. It appeared that the venue was off to a good start; and the Mareel was proving to be profitable too.

Images of the Mareel - a word that rather beautifully means 'phosphorescence on the ocean' in the local dialect (see also: ) - have been published in The Shetland Times over the years, first as concept sketches, then as presentation drawings, frequently as a building under construction, and now as the completed project. Unusually the aspect of the development chosen for all of this publicity material has been the same. This much-promoted view of the project shows the sides of the building that are adjacent to the water. This is a perky prospect that has the intriguing ambiguity of an illusion. The two wedge forms of the building that one might guess were the bulky theatre/cinema spaces, are arranged as mirrored masses, with the high sections, (maybe the stage/tower portions?), on the outer ends of the building form, away from the lower central meeting point. This arrangement gives a solid sculptured effect to the whole that gathers the matching masses, volumes that differ only in plan width - the southern block being twice the width of its reflection - around a common low centrepoint, like a broad letter 'M' (for Mareel?). The building’s metal cladding runs zigzag over the ends and top - up one end, over, down and across, up, and then down the other end. The roller coaster shape gives a distinctive identity to the arts complex.

The odd visual effect - the sense of illusion - of this angled vista comes from the treatment of one of the glazed panels in the low end wall of the larger of these forms. It seems sensible to open the building up to the water views, even if a little obliquely, but this glazed portion of the wall is itself a wedged form too - a large, triangular glass panel. Located in the lower wall of the wider wedge mass, this window starts high at the intersection, and slopes down to an acute angled point at floor on the harbour side. The odd illusion that keeps on teasing the eye is a strange circumstance - happenstance. From one particular position, this glazing gives the impression of being in the same plane as the adjacent wall that is nearly at right angles to it, with the alignment of the sloping head of the glazing looking like it is a straight line continuation of the roof line of the adjacent form, rather than being a steeper angle skewed in a plane at something like eighty degrees to its neighbouring wall.

The added ruse is that the perspective lines from this location in the harbour make the horizontal parapet of the low wall look as though it is sloping as part of a sculptural three dimensional ‘M’ play. The deception adds some criss-cross intrigue to the massing, making it appear a much more satisfactory resolution than it really is, for the intersection of these forms - one with a wedge-shaped glazed opening hinging at the vertical meeting point, the other with vertical slots parallel to this line of intersection - is really somewhat awkward; visually unhappy once the illusion has faded. One is left wondering if this was the idea that the architect kept on returning to with the proud, indulgent, unquestioning self-satisfaction of an addictive fascination, for it does have a dazzlingly attractive effect as an image, albeit for only a few minutes. The concern is that this apparent trick 'sexes up' what really appears to be a less than pretty ordinary building that struggles for truly inventive ideas with any integrative substance. This criss-cross intersecting interlacing concept is a theme that one later discovers has been toyed with on the opposite entry elevation too, but in a more graphically literal mediocre manner. But what is the building really like? Published images and photographs can easily deceive.

Driving along Commercial Road to get to the Mareel meant traversing roundabouts and managing lane changes in what can be an unusually hectic part of Lerwick, a somewhat chaotic zone at times where thoroughfare and bypass traffic meet. Then, a little surprisingly, out of all of this distracting buzz, the high angles of the roof appear, sharply rearing up differently skewed behind the grey buildings spread along the street and the stone walls beside them. The art centre is barely higher than these structures lining the waterfront. This seemed sensible. Had the Council learned from its ‘mistake’ with the planning for the museum, where it boldly approved a tall structure, symbolizing sails and warehouses, in front of some of Lerwick's grand, older tenement buildings that once enjoyed open water views?

The turning at the signed roundabout took one down towards a new building that, after a short inspection, was assessed as being a recently completed office development rather than the Mareel. One had to turn again, left, to get to the Mareel. This searching manoeuvre was a disappointment: why did one have to look so hard in order to discover the latest iconic public building in Lerwick? Why did it not stand out clearly? Why did it hide away behind this more prominently located presence that was later learned to be the new Shetland Island Council offices? This revelation caused some alarm. What town plan is guiding futures that have come to look like an ad hoc collection of waterside buildings? What is happening to the civic quality of Lerwick and its new structures? What strategy is being implemented to create some coherence in and the enrichment of historic place?

The Mareel was approached obliquely, almost snidely. On this elevation, the twin, mirrored wedge shapes that had been glimpsed during the approach, were zigzagged in plan to form an entry zone that looked tiny, narrow, out of scale when compared to the size of the project and its prestige. The building sat directly on what looked like a small service road that led to the museum. The Mareel felt almost to be an afterthought, an aside, shaped to create a slight widening of the narrow footpath to form the tiny public space, a mediocre gesture to identity at the entry zone. The entrance door was in this step of the wedged masses and could be confirmed by the typical red-lettered illuminated sign above that gave details of the daily 'headline' cinema programmes with something like a mini-Broadway/Times Square presence. But even this sign seemed a squeeze. Was it an afterthought? Unfortunately, vehicles were allowed to park on the narrow street, making it a single lane thoroughfare - a bottleneck - directly on the main frontage of the new Mareel. Why was this much-promoted arts centre such a tight squeeze on its site? There had been plenty of time available for the promoters and designers to discover the tightness of the fit and to do something about it. Did the proximity of the new Council office block place any limitations on the Mareel site? Surely not. It is not as though any necessity relating to this site has made any non-negotiable demands in the design process.

This day we were going to the museum to see the Egyptian cat on loan from the British Museum. The sculpture was on display for its last week. The Mareel was a bonus, a good one, as this visit gave one the opportunity to gauge the Mareel and its environs as a casual, disinterested 'visitor,’ a passerby, for the first time. One's attentions and intentions allowed a certain nonchalance in the review. Getting to the museum past the Mareel was awkward. We had to wait to let another vehicle pass by before we could squeeze along the parked vehicles. Why was this access made so tight? The approach to the museum seemed like a narrow country lane, a chicane. It had been demeaned by the Mareel rather than enhanced by it. The drive felt as though one was approaching a backwater rather than the much-praised Shetland Museum and Archives Building. Was this constriction the result of the struggle to make the arts centre fit this waterfront site, whatever: come hell or, (dare on mention it?), high water.

Waves at Eshaness

A thought arose: why work so hard to get an arts centre on a small waterfront site when most of its functions require fully enclosed spaces? Why not develop a site to reinforce the civic quality of the town - say near the town hall - rather than press on with an idea of cliché water views at an old dock site remote from any natural sense of coherent civic place? This strategy of development for the arts is similar to that used by supermarkets that are typically scattered in the fringe areas of towns, like Lerwick’s Tesco. These developments suck energy from the traditional centers, in Lerwick’s case, Commercial Street, and weaken the civic structure of the town by stripping activity from it. Sadly, Lerwick’s integrity is suffering from an amorphous perimeter sprawl. The location of the Mareel does not appear to help matters. The concerns are further aggravated: why would anyone work so hard to build so close to the water when there is so much talk about climate change and the potential for ocean levels to rise in the future, let alone the immediate problems of storm surges? Is it a problem that has been ignored?

After parking in the museum carpark and stepping out into the harbour view, the Mareel offered a completely different appearance to the stylish angular identity of the wedged promotional images that appeared to explicitly define the enclosed functions of the centre. Two large planes of metal-clad walls - the ends of the stepped wedges of the massing shapes - stood framing the car park area as tough they were projection screens at a drive-in theatre, or hoardings. They were huge, and confirmed the size and scale of the development that pressed so hard against its public street address. These were ‘screens’ that were unlikely ever to see the dance of light from movies across their rippled surfaces, only, as was discovered on the next visit, the cliché changing floodlight colours that made a pretty display of a bland wall. The building gave the impression that it had taken clues for its making and shaping from the large, featureless sheds that once sat on the site, for it had a sense of caring about nothing but its own cheap enclosure, as such sheds do. Yet one was aware that things must be otherwise: more money was needed to pay the bills. Where had it all been spent? This centre has been spoken of as a ‘state-of-the-arts’ building. So it was somewhat alarming to the eye to discover the difference in the shades of the cladding. One large section stood out as paler than the remainder of the sheeting. Did the architect not notice this? What was the quality control of the rest of the building? The variation did not seem to be a conscious outcome as it appeared awkwardly ad hoc rather than artful: unwieldy in its patterning.

And the wedged glazing? Where was this? A glimpse of the lower acute point was revealed to one side and confirmed its presence. Oddly, this triangular panel of glass seemed to open up the Mareel interior to the museum car park rather than to the harbour. This could be looked at another time, as today the trip was for the cat. Entering the museum always brings to mind its relationship to water. This is a good thing as Shetland's history is intimately linked to the sea; but it was the height of the museum's entry floor level that was the concern. Has Council not heard anything about the predictions of rising sea levels? The high water level appeared to be only a metre or so lower than this approach that looked as though even a windy storm in today's circumstances could prove to be a problem for the lower floor. Had the Mareel learned anything from this? It seems not. It appears to sit low in the docks too, on a wall at the edge of the harbour. The potential of these seas to rise was the other reason to ask if this arts project might have been better in a different, perhaps more civic location. It appeared to be more real than ever as one felt as though one was close to walking on water as one moved into the museum precinct.

There was no need for us to worry about finding the cat. It sat in the middle of the foyer, an unfortunate situation that made this heavily-promoted exhibition - of one bronze cat only - look as though the British Museum was ticking its boxes for its well-funded regional displays, establishing a need that could have raised the question: "How can we spend this money within the specified time?" “Lerwick! It’s pretty remote!” The display looked like a waste, and a wasted opportunity. The cat sat in a glass box with a few notes, in the middle of nowhere. The exhibit seemed to lack commitment. Surely it deserved a place with better lighting, and more solitude and significance so that viewers could have some private time with such astonishing piece, with such an amazing provenance, rather than being a part of the normal hustle, bustle, clamour, clatter and chatter of the foyer.

After a quick browse of the nearby shop, we returned to the car and drove of. It was the Shetland winter, so daylight had gone pitch black by 4:30pm. Leaving the carpark took us along the lane in front of the Mareel that now glowed with light. A glance sideways surprisingly showed the interiors of messy offices in every unnecessary detail. The turn into the road leading to the main route along the Lerwick waterfront meant that we had to wait for a car or two to pass by. It was an awkward turn. One felt that access to such an arts centre and museum complex might have been a much more easily managed, comfortable transition. As we paused for the turn it was obvious that the construction of the Mareel had meant that some existing residences had lost their wonderful waterfront views. There seemed to be a problem with manners here: architectural manners, a subject once considered important enough for Howard Robertson to write a book about it. Now, sadly, the display of good manners in architecture appears to be just a naive, old-fashioned idea. We drove off north to the ferries to Unst: timetables now governed our movements. One would have to return to discover more about what seemed to be an unfortunate development.

. . . . . . . . .

It was already dark and damp when we arrived some weeks later. We had been asked if we had seen the building at night, but had not thought more about this question, only remembering the brightly-lit messy offices on embarrassing public display, as a working shop window on the street frontage. As we stepped from the parked car, the changing, coloured flood lighting was noticed. So this is what the questioner was alluding too. It reinforced the image that presented the wall as a drive-in theatre screen, but it did enliven an otherwise prosaic, ‘tin shed’ elevation with a glowing fringe: crude ‘mirrie dancers,’ a miniature aurora borealis? Unfortunately, this theatrical lighting only emphasized the industrial ordinariness of this facade, making it appear that the lighting had been a necessity in the effort to transcend this mundanity, as if it required this effort to make the shed appropriately 'arty.'

Walking through the rain to the entrance of the Mareel took one past the illuminated shambles of the office spaces. Why were these placed here? If the other parts of the building had no need to look out to the harbour, then these spaces might have enjoyed this prospect. Changing light on water is always a Shetland delight; peering into sloping stacks of files is not. Arriving at the entry, we walked in under the bright red illuminated letters displaying the films that were currently being shown, and others that would be. Inside, the space was brilliant and open - high and bright. The surrounding surfaces were light and the volumes expansive, making the long ticket counter appear tiny, oddly out of scale, in just too much space. There was real sense of void surrounding this strip of benchtop that bordered one’s movements. Turning right on he grey floor away from the counter, one moved into the main foyer space, a double-height volume with a high mezzanine level accessed via a long, large stair that looked like the 'stairway to heaven,' such was its dramatic rise. It was wide and lofty. While it should be the space that is easily accessed from the entry, and it was, the foyer had the misfortune of looking out back to the narrow street and the Mareel capark opposite. On such a site one wondered why the foyer turned its back to the dazzling views of the harbour that gleams both day and night.

After discovering the entries into the performance theatre, we retraced our steps and strolled back to the ticket counter, where we turned right into the long, thin cafe. We had planned to eat there. Ah! So it was the cafe space that sat behind the triangle of glass that formed part of the primary illusion; and yes, it was odd that this space looked directly out into the museum car park, with only a sideways glance given to the expanse of water that was so close. Are the Lerwick locals immune to the beauty of their harbour? Has familiarity played its part here in turning this busy body of working water into something to be held in contempt - to be ignored? It is an excellent harbour. The surprise was that this metal-clad shed had huge laminated timber mullions supporting it - well, maybe just the glass? The skeletal steel framing had been seen a year ago during its construction. These ash-coloured laminated millions were huge, and were spaced so closely that they impressed just with their being there. It gave the cafe a nautical feel that was pleasant; but one was constantly asking oneself about what seemed to be an excessive indulgence in a building that had generated so much public debate about its cost. Was there waste here? Oddly, the depth of these columns acted as baffles to define the alignment of the vista to the car park and limit the exposure to the depth of the harbour. They were blinkers. The cafe space, like the foyer, was a double-height volume with a mezzanine accessed by a return stair located on the harbour frontage, but closed to it. Looking later, it was confirmed that the building did indeed sit directly on a harbour wall. What thrashing will the Mareel get in a storm? It might truly become the 'phosphorescence on the ocean.' Its location seemed to display a supreme confidence in the skeptical view of climate change. On discovering that the cafe only served simple snack food and drinks rather than light meals, we moved on elsewhere, to Scalloway, for our meal. We would have to return again to see the other areas of the building in more detail.

Days later while on the Internet, the Mareel site was opened to see exactly what facilities the building provided. The site had an expanded isometric graphic that colour-coded the various functions of the areas on the different levels. It was interesting too see the arrangement that comprised core theatre spaces with perimeter zones allocated for various uses. The cafe and the foyer formed part of these fringe areas as well as the broadcasting and recording spaces, and service and plant zones. The diagram displayed an arrangement that appeared to be self-centred, resolved around itself rather than being shaped as a response to any particular context. It was a surprise, as the location was unique - a harbourside area adjacent to the museum and archives building next to a new Council development on the waterfront. Why did these developments all stand alone, side by side, ignoring one another? In spite of the special opportunity, the Mareel seemed happy to collect its functional areas together as a bubble diagram might, irrespective of its site. It could almost have been anywhere. It seemed to be a good opportunity missed.

While Shetland must be pleased to have a new arts complex, the Mareel did not appear to rise to the occasion to build on or enrich Lerwick's civic quality or urban framework. Instead, it looked like a private game was being played on a site remote from the town centre, ignoring it, all while wanting to become the cultural core of Lerwick - but, it appeared, only on its own terms. Sadly, it had the opportunity to be both a civic and cultural centre, but, for some unknown reason, did the arts community want otherwise? The outcome seemed to suggest that those promoting the idea wanted to turn their backs to the real world. The arts are a bit like that today - self-centred; self-important; self-indulgent. The Mareel might have to learn the hard way - and Lerwick too.

Lerwick can produce beautiful integrated developments. Indeed it has. There is a great irony in circumstances when the latest and best of these developments turns out to be the harbourside public toilet block. This is a marvellous example of exquisite sensitive design and beautiful detailing, albeit in a very modest, almost mundane, building. The complex has made a unique commitment to not only its special context, but also to its functional purposes - their resolution and integration - all without compromise and apology. It is a true architectural gem. Just why the new arts centre finds itself unable to match the qualities of this little building remains an open and unanswered question. Sadly, it seems, the Mareel carries this disappointment in its genes.

Still, one hopes that the Mareel can grow and mature with use, adapt to the pressures of needs and be enriched by time and change to mellow as an old fiddle might. The arts should hold their place in every community, with a mutual love and respect. To date the Mareel seems to have generated too much difference, just too much angst to readily mediate, enhance and promote sensitive cultural issues without any latent tensions. It is a bitter sweet outcome indeed. Just as much as one has to ask about the future of Lerwick with such planning decisions as this, one has to ask about the fate of the old Garrison Theatre too: Why? What? When? How? History cannot, and should not be ignored. We can, and should learn from it too.

The Garrison Theatre is a 280 capacity venue in Lerwick, Shetland, Scotland, with a sprung proscenium stage with fixed raked seating. It has 19 rows, named A to S which either has 8, 12, 13, 15 or 16 seats in each row.
The venue hosts dance, drama, stand up comedy, pantomime and music productions together with regular film screenings (Shetland currently has no dedicated cinema so the Garrison Theatre has monthly film screenings. A new cinema opened in 2012 - see Mareel).
It was opened in 1903 and used as a Drill Hall and gymnasium during the First World War. It was also the headquarters of the 7th Volunteer Battalion Gordon Highlanders. The building was converted to a theatre by ENSA in 1942 to be used as a venue to entertain troops during the Second World War. During the 50s and 60s it was owned by the Zetland County Council, who decided to repair and refurbish the theatre in 1989, and was programmed by Islesburgh Drama Group and an Entertainments Committee. Ownership was then transferred the Islesburgh Trust before coming under Shetland Arts management in April 2007.

5 April 2014
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