Pollokshields Heritage

The Conversions of Pollokshields

The former director of the media lab at MIT, Stewart Brand became interested in the idea of how buildings learn and adapt through moving his department into new accommodation specifically designed for it. The recently commissioned building by a Pre eminent American architect proved to be painfully inflexible and unaccommodating of the labs requirements. Perplexed by this unsatisfying experience Brand set out to study why so many buildings fail their users. The product of this research was a book: ‘How buildings learn: what happens after they’re built’ and ultimately a BBC commissioned television series. Brand presented a humanistic and pragmatic case in both by arguing that a building must adapt or convert over time to meet changing needs of its users.

To illustrate his treatise he used two photographs of a terrace of Victorian townhouses in the Pacific Heights area of San Francisco. One photograph was taken before the great earthquake of 1906 and the other in the present day. On superficial inspection the photographs appear alike however a closer look reveals a plethora of appendages lacking in the turn of the century scene. Balconies, decks, dormers, eaves, escape stairs, windows, roofs and railings; all have been added, altered, extended, or removed. Curiously the ultimate effect is not that of a cacophony rather the appearance of the terrace has been enriched. This is due both to the flexible technology of the buildings shingle construction and the consistent architectural vocabulary employed. The beauty of this method of construction is that it lends itself to adaptability, while use of a common building language establishes a framework within which change can be absorbed without undermining the whole. Consequently these buildings have proved resilient and have avoided redundancy by adapting well to changing uses, economic circumstances, fashions, and building codes over the course of a century. Their façades have never been static, and can be read as a mini narrative of the experience of the community as a whole. The terrace no longer consists of a series of opulent townhouses for sprawling middle class families at the turn of the 20th century. Rather these have been horizontally split into flats or conversions to meet the requirements of the more fragmented middle classes at the dawn of the millennium. What is important is that, though intellectually we know it has been altered, on superficial inspection the appearance of the terrace still belies this. Though it has been through fundamental change both internally and externally the terrace hasn’t lost the essence of what we admire most in it and has therefore retained its value.

What is the relevance of this to Pollokshields in Glasgow? With the continuing upturn in the UK property market it is increasingly evident that a building can be more than the sum of its parts. For example take two adjacent villas both in good condition, one converted into two flats, the other still single occupancy. The market value of the intact house is now considerably in excess of the combined value of the two conversions. This is of course simple economics of supply and demand. Whole villas of the type and quality of those in Pollokshields come on to the market infrequently and this type of property is seldom built in Britain at present. With as many as ten potential buyers chasing this type of property inevitably prices have risen. The moral of the tale would seem to be if you’ve got a whole house you’d be foolish to convert as you would decrease the value of your primary asset.

Of course this is simplistic and while this may appear to be true at present it is unfair to the owners of conversions and belittles their important role in the preservation of the conservation area. Quite simply if it was not for conversions many of the large houses would no longer be here. The fact that these houses have proved adaptable and have lent themselves to conversions has been their saving grace. By the seventies these types of large houses where no longer fashionable. They were often viewed as liabilities being expensive to maintain and heat. Often in severe states of neglect what options where open to cash strapped owners other than at last resort demolition or mysterious fire (an all too frequent event when it comes to Glasgow’s architectural heritage)? Conversion was a pragmatic option, it made these properties affordable, practical, and introduced a richer social mix.By converting houses into flats developers have prevented the stock of remaining houses from being as depleted as it might otherwise have been and this adds value to the area as a whole. It is the overdeveloped plots with unsympathetic blocks of flats that go against the spirit of the garden suburb.

To return to Stewart Brand’s ideas of adaptability. While conversions have allowed houses in Pollokshields to survive the principal problem with many is one of quality and it is here that value is being lost. The simple template of the internal room layout found in the majority of the villas lends itself to conversion into flats but the exteriors often do not. It is here were some of the problems lie. Unlike the sense of continuity that has allowed the Pacific heights townhouses to adapt and flourish in Scotland we have seen a beak with the past. Vernacular construction techniques have been forgotten while our haste to appear modern has meant the architectural language employed by the villas has been held in contempt. Most of the quarries were closed by the time conversions occurred so inappropriate materials have been used in ways that are often out of character with the original house. Clumsily built external staircases of concrete and render or brick sit uncomfortably with the self confidently carved sandstone of many converted villas. Entrances to upper conversions tend to be awkwardly sited. On the whole these additions do not do justice to their villas. The architects, builders, and developers who have converted these villas have failed to rise to the challenge.

There are ways around this. As Frank Lloyd Wright would suggest deft use of landscaping can conceal many an architectural faux pas. Alternatively there is now a generation of architects who thrive on this type of challenge. Previous generations of architects have either seen house conversions or extensions as bread and butter jobs that keep them afloat at the start of a career or have left these fields entirely to builders and developers. Often as not this has given rise to badly conceived conversions. However, the present generation of architects thrive on the possibilities domestic planning offers. They do not regard existing buildings as impediments to a solution but rather seek to exploit their dramatic potential. These architects are especially interested in the dialogue arising from the juxtaposition of old and new that results when these buildings are extended or when new interventions are inserted inside an existing building fabric. Typical of this generation are young contemporary Scottish architects such as Richard Murphy , Page and Park, Anderson Christie, Kinnear and Crotch, Chris Platt, Paul Stallan and Alan Dickson of RMJM , McKeown Alexander, and Zoo Architects to name a few.

A good case in point is Richard Murphy Architects. Murphy’s career has been marked by a series of well known extensions to nineteenth century houses in the Inverleith area of Edinburgh. These extensions are variations on a theme but the architectural approach implicit in each of them has valuable lessons for properties in the Pollokshields area (the extended properties in Edinburgh being contemporaneous with houses here). Similar problems exist for old properties in both cities and it is these that Murphy attempts to address. His interests lie in how we inhabit structures built for the demands of a different era. The original houses express a lifestyle that relied upon domestic help. The rooms concerning these uses were suppressed to the rear of the house while the set pieces of the reception rooms dominated the front. Nowadays this makes for a restricted relationship between the rear of the house and the back garden. Contemporary family life tending towards the informal revolves more around kitchens and gardens. With his extensions Murphy attempts to link the two in order to provide a balance to the formality of the public rooms His conceptual approach is fundamentally romantic and is indebted to such mid twentieth century masters as the architect Carlo Scarpa. The house to be extended is conceived of as a ruin that provides a heavy base against which to build the lighter tectonic construction that will be the extension. The results are a series of delicate ephemeral garden rooms that can be slowly ‘unpeel’ to suit the climate. In the middle of winter they are cosy snugs but over the course of the year they slowly transform into airy loggias and balconies for the height of summer. These extensions are poised and elegant. The materials they are built of : glass, lead, reclaimed stone, western red cedar panels; complement the sandstone built houses and age with dignity. As with the gradual transformation of the San Fransician townhouses the end result is not a jarring cacophony but something much richer.

The importance of this to Pollokshields is that nothing of this nature has yet been attempted here.The approach by Murphy and his contemporaries offers much more than the simplistic conversions that have taken place here to date i.e. out with the stair, fill in the stair well, plumb in new kitchen and bathroom, add cheap external stair opening awkwardly into where the old maids room was or worse were the stained glass bow window accommodated the old stair landing, and eh voila two flats in the place of one house! Murphy’s criticism of nineteenth century modes of domestic planning applies here too. Turn of the century plans allow houses to be simply converted but do they allow for late twentieth century modes of living?

To return to Stuart Brand’s treatise and the town houses he uses to illustrate it. This terrace has adapted and learnt in the process of adaption and could therefore be considered a successful piece of architecture as it has managed to retain its value and relevance. Could the same be said for a typical conversion here? Have houses been converted to their full potential? Does the domestic planning offer an improvement on the nineteenth century model or is it inhibited by it? Has the conversion added value or is it simply doing the best of an awkward job? Murphy’s extensions have successfully addressed these issues, so well in fact that he’s built a career on the back of them. This is because in spite of the initial costs the extensions have ultimately added value to these properties as they have solved previously unresolved domestic planning arrangements.. Furthermore unlike some architects who move away from the scale of projects they worked on in the early stages of their career, he’s keen to do more. Indeed the ultimate accolade would be that his clients are so pleased with his work that their houses are open to the public for Edinburgh’s doors open day.

Conversions have provided a useful role in the Pollokshields conservation area. They have been a pragmatic option and have helped retain houses that might otherwise have been lost. By sub dividing houses developers have allowed people a foothold in the area who may not have been able to afford or have needed a complete semi or detached villa. This has in turn led to a greater social mix than might otherwise be the case. If a criticism can be levelled at local conversions it is that the quality of appearance of external stairs and appendages required to make them function fails to take cognisance of the local vernacular. In addition to this while the simplicity of their internal planning has lent some houses to conversion the resultant flats may not necessarily be as accommodating to late twentieth century modes of domestic living as they still are to the nineteenth century.

Niall Murphy 9th August 1999

Reading list:
Brand, Stewart:
How Buildings learn : what happens after they’re built.
Paperback reprint edition (October 1995) Penguin USA (paper);
ISBN: 0140139966

Richard Murphy Architects:
Buildings and projects: the work of Richard Murphy Architects.
published by Richard Murphy Architects 1997