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Saturday, 23 May 2009

Nord’s Alan Pert rediscovers Scotland’s Crichton Castle

Alan Pert reveals how a visit to Crichton Castle as a boy has been an influence on his most recent building — an electricity substation for the London Olympics

Inspiration: Crichton Castle courtyard elevation Completed 1585
Location: Crichton, Mid-Lothian, Scotland

I’ve been to a lot of castles in my time but the courtyard elevation at Crichton is quite amazing — a place that just sticks in my mind. It’s a consistent point of reference.
The castle and its stables are said to be haunted by a horseman and the ghost of William Crichton. I was eight or nine years old on my first visit and I remember sitting at the top f the hill overlooking the castle as my dad tried desperately to capture my brother’s and my attention with his tales of ghostly figures.

I visited the castle again when I was 14, only this time I was the one telling the story of the headless horseman, embellishing the story enough to convince my fellow schoolmates that I had actually seen William Crichton on my previous visit. We were asked to sketch a view of the castle and in the rain most of us found refuge in the courtyard space. We all chose to draw the same view of the decorative Northern courtyard walls; it had captured all our imaginations while sheltering from the extreme weather.
I had always loved the eccentricity of this castle, but I hadn’t known back then how unique and significant it was. Then when I was a first year architectural student at Strathclyde it was referenced in a lecture and I decided to revisit it. I found the 1585 alterations by Francis Stewart, which resulted in the diamond faceted courtyard facade to be even more curious on this visit. It’s so unexpected. Stewart (cousin to Mary, Queen of Scots), was sometimes described as a madman and finally banished from Scotland but maybe he was in fact a true visionary with an eye for detail. The geometric patterned facade is such a break from the familiar image of the castle walls and to many a first time viewer it appears as though it was added in the late 20th century. When I walked in I thought it was modern day addition, but it’s been entirely hand-carved by Italian stone masons. It is a fantastic insight into the personality of Stewart who on a trip to Italy was so taken by the facade of the Palazzo dei Diamanti at Ferrara that he returned to Crichton and recreated his very own interpretation in carved stone from a nearby quarry.
It’s just incredible when the rest of the building is so typical of any Scottish castle. Imagine the impact of the cloisters, the elevation, the window fenestration —castles just never had that symmetry. You always think of castles as protective spaces but here the alterations have created a decorative space, a celebratory space. The style and attitude is so different to the rest of the castle. It must have been so nice to have had that freedom and the confidence to exploit that freedom. We don’t see enough of that these days.
His work clearly broke new ground in Scottish architectural practice and presages what was to follow a century later. His replanning of the north range creates living spaces over three levels where a loggia of seven bays and a single bay to the west supports the diamond faceted elevation above. In the north-west corner we also see the projection of a stair, boldly breaking the classical rhythm of the arcade. Traditionally, castles used a spiral staircase within the thickness of the castle walls but at Crichton there’s the first ever scale-and-platt staircase to be found in Scotland. At my most recent visit I also noticed the relationship between this straight flight stair and the large picture window on the landing. The picture window appears to celebrate the view to the landscape. Or does it simply keep a watchful eye over the path leading up to the castle? My feeling is that Stewart had been so inspired by his trips abroad that he wanted to create a true Renaissance residence — the stair, the view and the extrovert nature of his additions all suggest this.

He also recognised the importance of the courtyard as not only a way of organising the plan and connecting the spaces within the castle but as a place to shelter while indulging in the pleasure and delight of the facade. The castle had changed from a defensible space to a house that expressed the character of the person living in it.
It was not until my most recent visit with BD that I was to uncover more drama with this facade.
We could not have picked a better day, and the true spectacle of the facade was laid bare as the sun started to reach the northern courtyard elevation at 11am. The carved blocks now appeared like a black and white kaleidoscope slowly changing as the shadows moved round the facets of the blocks. By midday the entire facade was bleached by the sun while the shadows cast a pattern strangely similar to the Minton-inspired patterned surfaces of a bridge in Stoke that Nord have been working on. He understood his material, he understood his site and orientation, he understood the drama of light and he understood his audience. More significantly he understood the emotional side of architecture.
At Nord we don’t sit down and consciously think about Crichton when we first approach a project, but there are Nord projects that reference it. We see ourselves as distinctly modernist but approach all of our work with a fascination and admiration for the past.
Similar to our fascination with Crichton Castle, our Utility Wallpaper Project embraces the craft, pattern, texture and permanence of the Glasgow tenement close, in particular the ceramic tiling.
In Stoke, where we are developing a masterplan framework which includes a new-build pottery for Emma Bridgewater, a canal footbridge, housing and a new pedestrian streetscape, we have chosen the familiar yet uncelebrated use of Minton tiles as a source of inspiration across the projects. There will be a richness of skin, texture and treatment in everything we do. The challenge is in finding the craftspeople with the skill and pride we see at Crichton Castle to implement the detail.
The project with the most obvious reference to Crichton, is our Olympic electricity substation for the ODA at Stratford, east London, which completes in June.
I’m interested in how the Crichton courtyard elevation is treated in one material, sandstone, but used to different effects whether structurally, as the stairs or as the arches. At the substation, we are also using just one material, brick, but in different ways throughout the elevation. There was a functional requirement to clad the structure of the substation and to provide a ventilated skin to roof enclosures. As a counterpoint to the perforated detail to the coolers, the upper areas will be completed with a similar pattern of brick that is either recessed or projecting. This gives a richness to the elevation despite the use of a single material and colour.
I could easily have picked from a handful of other buildings as a source of inspiration but there’s something about this courtyard that is consistent over time, whatever the project we’re doing.
I think maybe it’s because I saw it first as a child. Architectural education changes the way we look at things forever, and it is sometimes nice to have points of reference which stretch beyond these limitations.
The history of Crichton Castle
Though a ruin now, Crichton Castle contained some of the most sumptuous accommodation in Medieval Scotland. It was a lordly residence for about 200 years from the late 14th century to the late 16th century and became the home of the Earls of Bothwell including the fifth Earl, who was responsible for some of the grander improvements.

Using sandstone from a nearby quarry, the Crichton family built a 25m-tall Tower House in the late 14th century, one of the oldest built in Scotland. Further accommodation was built around it over the decades by the Crichtons and the Bothwells, who took over the castle in the late 15th century. By then, it had been turned into an impressive courtyard castle with a great hall for public entertaining.
When the notoriously wayward fifth Earl of Bothwell, Francis Stewart, took over in 1581, he set about improvements inspired by the styles he’d seen on his travels in Italy and Spain. These include the distinctive Italianate diamond-facetted courtyard facade of the North Lodging, which was quite unlike any other building in Scotland at the time. The style of rustication is thought to have been inspired by the Palazzo dei Diamanti at Ferrara, the Palazzo Carnesali in Verona, the Palazzo Sterepinto at Sciacca, Sicily, or maybe a combination of these. Crichton also boasts the first scale-and-platt stair to be built in Scotland with a wide staircase and landings, preferred in place of the more restricted spiral stair.

When the fifth Earl fled abroad amid a witchcraft scandal in 1595, the castle ceased to function as a residence of lordship.
By 1659 masonry was being taken away and used for other buildings. In 1815 the poem Marmion by Walter Scott drew attention to the neglect of the Crichton ruins, and in 1926 the castle was taken into state care. It is now a scheduled ancient monument and is looked after by Historic Scotland.

How Nord references the past
Nord combines a modernist approach with a fascination with the past. Its footbridge in Stoke (below) has a Minton-inspired pattern echoing the Crichton facade, while its Olympic electricity substation at Stratford has a brick pattern similar to that at Crichton Castle.

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