To the Lighthouse

30th January 1998 at 00:00
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 #163;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.

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