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OSA Review: In Conversation With... Neil Gillespie, Reiach and Hall

"Art is something that lies in the slender margins between real and unreal..." (Chikamatsu Monzaemon, 1653 - 1725)

This lecture, led by Neil Gillespie of Reiach & Hall Architects, sought to reflect that slender margin through his poetic take on architecture. Gillespie's architecture, in his words, tries to hit something almost intangible, the blurring of lines between the dichotomies of vertical vs. horizontal, reality and ritual.

Reiach & Hall is an architectural practice based in Edinburgh, of which Neil Gillespie is Design Director. They work on a wide range of projects, from master-planning to arts venues to offices and redevelopment. We were led through a variety of interrelated projects in this lecture, focusing on the inbetweens and the dichotomies in each one.

One of Reiach & Hall's landmark projects is their Maggie's Centre, located at University Hospital Monklands in North Lanarkshire. The site was once a stately home, gifted to the community for a hospital, with the Maggie's Centre completed there in 2014. Maggie's Lanarkshire was designed to be a simple and modest building, which aims to be welcoming and encourage men to visit Maggie's. Its primary focus is on its gardens and walled courtyard, with the courtyard creating a secret space as a sanctuary for visitors. Since its completion it has been shortlisted for 20 awards, winning 14 of them.

Maggie's Centre Lanarkshire at dusk, showing the courtyard wall and the brightly-lit interior

There is an evident physical dichotomy in Reiach & Hall's buildings in how each one responds to day and night. For example, at Maggie's Lanarkshire the windows which mirror the surrounding trees during the day become lanterns by dusk, transforming the quiet building into a beacon. This effect is illustrated again in their Pier Arts gallery refurbishment on Orkney, where a long, ribbed gallery is transformed from a building blending in with the grey stone of its neighbours to a phare of light.

Reiach & Hall are also fond of the contrast between solid and void. They create buildings with simple, diagrammatic layouts, and a focus on angles and views, treating their buildings as if they were sculptures. It's a very poetic approach, and the way this approach is explored in-lecture is equally reverent and poetic.

Somehow, Gillespie makes an archive for the British nuclear industry sound inspiring and beautiful - and the building is, unexpectedly, just that. Based in Wick, the NDA Archive was named Scotland's best new building in 2018 by the RIAS, and is a surprisingly sculptural response to its brief. It follows an angular plan which focuses on three triangular courtyards along the building, clad in glass and aluminium slats. These slats reflect the changing light conditions throughout the day, so the building is bathed in silvers and oranges and pinks as the light transitions.

The angular facade of the NDA archive as it catches the light from a golden sunset

In the Q & A session after the talk, Neil Gillespie urges all of us to make our own mark, to be passionate about our future. When asked how he could follow through one idea from concept sketch to finished product, he said: decide on what's important and hang on to it, but you may have to concede some things along the way. He is a pragmatic idealist in what can sometimes be a cynical world.

Neil Gillespie's closing thoughts were summed up with a quote from William Turnbull: "I used to be uncertain of my confidence, now I am confident in my uncertainty", a strangely uplifting end to a gently poetic tour of projects and ideas.

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