Squeezed between a multi-storey car park and the glitzy Buchanan Street shops, there is something beautiful under its layers of grime and neglect. The old Herald headquarters in Glasgow's Mitchell Street was the first public building designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, but it has stood empty and largely ignored since the Herald moved out in 1980. From ground level, there is little to distinguish it from countless other dirty red sandstone buildings, but take the lift up to the roof of the car park opposite and it is unmistakably Mackintosh: the organic curves of balconies, the sinuous carving over window frames, that improbably-shaped, pregnant tower.
Renamed the Lighthouse, and now undergoing a pound;12 million conversion, the building is both the symbol and practical centre of Glasgow's forthcoming year as UK City of Architecture and Design. With typical West coast enthusiasm, Glasgow 1999 is planning not only to make the year-long festival wide-ranging, influential and inclusive, but to leave a permanent legacy in the shape of the Lighthouse, Scotland's Centre for Architecture, Design and the City.
It is nearly a decade since Glasgow's last great "year"; the 1990 City of Culture with its stunning array of international and ground-breaking artwork, and its grumbling argument about the lack of celebration of indigenous work. Glasgow 1999 has learned from the experiences of its predecessor. The projects already under way for 1999 are models of outreach and local involvement. And one of the firmest messages of intent comes in the figure of the newly appointed director of the Lighthouse. For Stuart MacDonald is no sharp-suited member of the shiny designy set, but the down-to-earth education director of Glasgow 1999, who began his career as an art teacher in Forres, and whose sights are set on bridging the gap between ordinary people and those who create the environments in which we live.
Architecture has more impact on our lives than any other art, yet it is in many ways the least accessible. "People don't have a way of looking at it, of talking, or even thinking about architecture," says MacDonald, "yet it is central to our lives. Good architecture and human well-being go hand in hand." The opposite assertion is also true, as the disastrous urban programmes of the 1960s and 1970s have shown all too clearly. And it is in the continuing aftermath of those mistakes that the Lighthouse makes its bid to reconcile the public-professional divide, and take both sides forward in a productive partnership.
It is no mean challenge; and the Lighthouse is well-named, not only for its suggestion of probing into the gloom and showing the way, but also for the implication of hidden dangers lurking around about. MacDonald sees his task as a question of education in its widest sense, with all ages and sectors of the population - designers, business people, residents, teachers, pupils - learning from and with each other.
The Lighthouse's seven floors will bring together a unique amalgam of activities and interests. The basement, ground and first floors will be let as retail space to finance the rest of the building, which has to be self-funding (sponsors are also being sought). The second floor will be the education centre; the third floor is the Charles Rennie Mackintosh interpretation centre; the fourth and fifth floors house galleries and a restaurant. There will also be seminar and workshop spaces to encourage the business community into the centre, and there will be a home for the Glasgow Design Initiative, an agency dedicated to bringing together local designers and the business community in an attempt to stem the haemorrhage of design talent leaving the country. But all that is really only the beginning. MacDonald hopes the Lighthouse will be the hub for wider activity: from architectural walks through Glasgow, to satellite exhibitions visiting other areas of the country, to genuine Scottish economic development.
"Challenging is a misused word," MacDonald comments drily. "This really will be challenging."
There can be little doubt that Glasgow is the right place for the Lighthouse. As MacDonald puts it: "Glaswegians engineered their way through the last millennium; and design is a good way to engineer - or imagineer as Gus Macdonald, chairman of the Scottish Media Group, would say - themselves into the next century."
Glasgow is a design-conscious city. Just look at the shops, the bars, the clothes the young people wear. Add to that basic interest, the city's manufacturing history and the roll-call of important local architects (Mackintosh, "Greek" Thomson, John Honeyman and John Keppie), and you have as ready-made an audience as you will find. MacDonald intends to make that audience the core of his programme at the Lighthouse. He wants to involve ordinary people in as wide and meaningful a way as possible. He foresees local people being involved in decision-making and curating, helping to make the Lighthouse's programme of lectures, debates and exhibitions "both international and local". He wants to invite people in off the street to discuss the environment of the future; how they would like their street to look in 2020; and then get architects to come and listen to them. He wants to exhibit student designs as well as those of top international designers. His "technology hot-spot" with its 3D interactive model of the city will be available to schoolchildren wanting to redesign George Square as well as to professional architects. He wants the public to find out about cutting-edge technology, rather than leaving it shut up in university departments.
It would be easy to write such ambitions off as so much hot air, but MacDonald's education programme is already up and running, and reveals an impressive interplay between architects, designers and schools, and a commitment to getting concrete results out of projects whether it be a revamped school playground or a class of fourth-year pupils thinking creatively about city environments. The Lighthouse education programme will be based on the success of putting architects and designers into schools. "It is a relatively new idea," says MacDonald. "Artists of other kinds have been going into schools for years. But in terms of the 5-14 curriculum, architecture is a great subject for environmental studies. It includes design, geography, maths, landscape. It's got tremendous scope."
The Lighthouse is due to open in May 1999. MacDonald is going to be busy.