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Taking a shine to design;Arts

Julie Morrice visits the Lighthouse, Scotland's bright new centre for budding designers and architects

Appropriately enough, the lasting impression of the Lighthouse, Scotland's new "centre for architecture, design and the city", is of huge, curving white walls and lots of stairs. This monument to design may be housed in the red sandstone shell of a building created by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in central Glasgow, but inside all is etched glass and steel, 1950s-style cafe furniture, clever lighting and quirky details - it's like Anne McKevitt, from BBC1's Home Front, writ large.

On its six floors, the building houses no fewer than five exhibition galleries, two of which are home to a fascinating show about 19th-century Scottish architect Alexander "Greek" Thomson. Here the designers have created a wonderful, fluid space, with intriguing corners and large-scale displays. Even the fact that some of Thomson's most impressive works have been demolished adds value to the exhibition, with its fascinating computer-generated reconstruction of the interior of the Queen's Park Church and gorgeous wooden model of its bizarre Egyptian-inspired exterior.

On the floor below is the Mackintosh Interpretation Centre, which looks equally intriguing and offers access to the Mackintosh tower, the only bit of the building that shows its age. It is a steep climb, and I wouldn't like to try keeping a class of 10-year-olds from clambering over the wall at the top, but what a view. Domes, cranes, pylons, a corner of someone's roof garden, distant tower blocks, people at their desks in the offices over the road, the glass pyramids of St Enoch, Victorian curlicues, spires, more spires and distant hills.

Down on the second floor is the real object of this visit, the education centre. Today it is a building site - principal furnishing, dust. But in three weeks' time it will be a "total learning environment" for schools, colleges and the general public.

Education has been at the heart of the Lighthouse since its earliest days. Lighthouse director Stuart MacDonald started his career as an art teacher in Forres, and was education director of Glasgow 1999 before the Lighthouse snapped him up. The education programme is very much his vision, but education manager Julia Fenby is looking forward to putting her stamp on events after Christmas. Her background is from outside education, but she is working with teachers to shape the programme, discussing everything from product design for Higher Still students to introducing nursery children to building materials.

Under the dust, the education facilities look tempting. The largest space will be the Young Designers Gallery, hosting exhibitions of work by non-professional designers, from primary pupils to college graduates. It opens tomorrow, with the first show from Cardonald College, on graphics, textiles, fashion and product design. Then, in August, comes an exhibition about the St Jude's Safe Environment Project, a Glasgow 1999 initiative in which a primary school worked with architects, designers and artists to refashion its environment.

One show Ms Fenby is looking forward to comes from Norway and is called Small Ugly Spaces. Secondary school children in Oslo have been looking at their environment, and the corners that have been overlooked by professional designers. The exhibition will show some of their solutions.

Giving young people a dedicated space alongside the professionals is an idea that could have wonderful repercussions for the design industry as well as for the young people themselves.

The very young are not forgotten at the Lighthouse. In the dustiest part of the second floor, several people are at work with chipboard and polystyrene creating the Wee People's City, "a unique interactive environment on the theme of building and the city" for three to eight-year-olds.

What that means is a 3D, souped-up version of those road plans that children love to push their toy cars round. This one will have a moulded rubber floor, with hills and valleys, and an underground train system with periscopes down into the stations. Along the back wall will be an A-Z of building materials - H for hinges; M for mirror; Y for Yale lock, with lots of touch-and-turn bits and bobs. On the ground will be buildings, including an airport and a railway station, building blocks for creating new designs, and a mini viewing tower that children can climb up inside for a bird's-eye view of the city below. In a small ante-room a computer will offer an animated "fly-thru" of the city projected onto the ceiling to be viewed from the comfort of beanbags on the floor.

Next door to the Wee People's City is the Glass Box. Tiers of glass shelving will act as a display case for handling exhibitions. Design objects will be available for close examination, and the displays will tie in with exhibitions in other parts of the building or with education projects going on in the "Workshop". That is another large space where education workshops, in-service training, talks, lectures and summer holiday activities will take place.

"I want teachers to use us as a resource centre," says Ms Fenby. When Glasgow 1999 is over, the Lighthouse will inherit many of the materials that have been amassed throughout the year, and Ms Fenby is keen to share them with as wide a cross-section of the population as possible.

At the end of Glasgow's architectural annus mirabilis, the Lighthouse will have to keep the design lights shining. Plans for 2000 remain at an early stage, but Ms Fenby hopes lottery funding will allow her to organise architecture and design residencies in schools all over Scotland, and she wants to create outreach projects that will pull in all sorts of people, "not just those already interested in architectureand design".

More than fine art or music, design affects us all. The Lighthouse wants to make it something we can enjoy and understand rather than ignore or fear.

The Young Designers Gallery opens on July 17. Education workshops at the Lighthouse begin on August 2. For details of booking and charges contact Julia Fenby, Education Manager, The Lighthouse, 11 Mitchell Lane, Glasgow G1 3NU, tel: 0141 221 6362

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