The Big Interview: JMP founder John McAslan

John McAslan at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh,  the city where he studied architecture. Picture: Ian Rutherford
John McAslan at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, the city where he studied architecture. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Decades into his career in architecture, heading up his eponymous practice, John McAslan admits that the profession is “a very hard gig”. In his view, “you’ve got to keep going at it and not stand still because there are so many opportunities that you want to explore”.

John McAslan and Partners (JMP), which he founded in 1996 and which now has about 80 staff, certainly has plenty of work, with three current projects in Scotland alone comprising the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, National Galleries of Scotland and the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh. JMP also radically revamped King’s Cross in London as well as working on the Surgeon’s Hall Museums in the Scottish capital.

McAslan has received more than 90 design awards, was named World Architect of the Year in 2009, and in 2012 received a CBE. But when it comes to a career highlight, he chooses a project in the town he grew up in – the regeneration of B-listed Dunoon Burgh Hall.

The building dates back to 1874 and officially reopened its doors in June this year as a contemporary arts centre after lying empty for about 25 years. McAslan’s pride is evident at its rebirth, with the facility home to a creative workshop space, garden and cafe as well as a gallery and theatre.

The project came about in a roundabout way after his architectural practice, where he is executive chairman, had worked on London venue the Roundhouse. That building had been constructed in 1846 as a steam engine repair shed, and became a rock venue in the 1960s. “We carried out the transformation over quite an extended period and it was a really important project as a precedent for the Burgh Hall,” McAslan explains.

And when he commissioned a photographic project covering Scotland’s A8, he realised there were many “amazing” buildings lying empty with no purpose.

Glasgow-born McAslan wondered if a building like the Roundhouse could be found and turned into a venue for music and theatre – and destiny came calling when he found out that Dunoon Burgh Hall was about to be demolished or turned into a warehouse or offices.

He bought the building via the arts and education-focused charity the John McAslan Family Trust for £1 from Fyne Homes in 2008, a turbulent time to be taking on a property.

“It was literally the day the recession began, and here I was buying this building for £1, not really knowing what would come of it but I just wanted to rescue it. It would have just been another building in Dunoon that would have ended up just falling further into disrepair or being demolished or having a use that was inappropriate.”

He discovered that the most popular response in a survey on possible purposes for the hall was putting it to cultural use.

“There were lots of people who knew the Burgh Hall and who regarded it with great affection because it had been an entertainments hall,” he says, noting that he later discovered how far this affection extended with one woman telling him she had been conceived there.

And despite embarking on the project in financial high seas, he remembered what his client at the Roundhouse had told him, that “money will follow a good idea”. It took about three months to confirm ownership, having met the local group who he believes were slightly suspicious. “Although I was from Dunoon, I lived in London and I think there was a degree of trepidation that I was going to be some sort of shark.”

But he stressed his commitment to bringing the building back into use, and the project gained momentum, with interest from Creative Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund and raising about £3.5 million. It launched with an Andy Warhol exhibition that runs until 2 September and hopes to show works by Degas in the spring.

His ambition is for the hall to return the town’s “cultural heart”, growing within a couple of years to have the same kind of cultural appeal as the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, Orkney, which was set up in 1979.

But given the level of effort required to get the Dunoon project off the ground, entailing a decade-long renovation, it looks unlikely to spark a series of similar projects by the architect.

“The local engagement has been great, but this is very much a one-off,” he says. However, he does see scope for it to act as a catalyst to regenerate Dunoon itself, and even inspire similar refurbishments further afield in say, Largs, Stranraer or Portobello, helping create a sense of community and “momentum for change”. About one in ten shops across Scotland is lying empty, according to the Scottish Retail Consortium.

McAslan also sees the Burgh Hall as having brought out people’s better natures, requiring locals to remain engaged. “To keep that kind of mobilising and retaining interest is very hard and I’ve found it really enriching that people have hung in there and share the delight of seeing the project open and in use.”

As for what led McAslan into architecture, there was “nothing else I could really possibly do”, and he had initially been interested in geography due to an inspiring teacher at school.

But he switched to architecture, studying at the University of Edinburgh, obtaining an MA in 1977 and diploma the following year where he obtained the year prize.

Then, he trained in Boston with Cambridge Seven Associates, and says his time in the US provided a “phenomenal immersion” in American architecture, including the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

He joined Richard Rogers and Partners in 1980, co-founding Troughton McAslan in 1984. Now more than 20 years into JMP, one of its most high-profile projects has been its transformation of King’s Cross, modernising Cubitt’s original 19th century station. It opened to the public in March 2012 before the Olympics in London that year, now accommodates up to 150,000 passengers a day and has seemingly picked up nearly as many awards.

McAslan harks back to when the area was derelict and perceived as seedy. But it has now become a “magnet for activity”, he states, crediting the arrival of renowned art college Central Saint Martins as helping breathe new life into the area. “You walk through King’s Cross now – it’s absolutely fantastic.”

JMP has also submitted, with Lendlease and Arup, the £150m Belfast Transport Hub for planning and the practice is shortlisted for the UK Holocaust Memorial in London.

Additionally, its global work includes Kericho Cathedral in Kenya, The British School in Brazil and the Royal British Columbia Museum in Canada. It has also carried out work in Qatar, on the likes of the Park Hyatt Hotel and Msheireb Museums, and the architectural firm has an office in the country’s capital Doha as well as London and Edinburgh.

In the latter city, the practice is working with National Galleries of Scotland on a £75m National Collections Facility in Granton, aiming for everyone “to explore, discover, and engage with the national collection”. McAslan says: “It’s the museum of the future, I think, to get collections to be accessible and to engage audiences that might otherwise not be engaged.”

This idea also applies to his JMP’s work on the Burrell Collection, in a bid to help reverse the decline in visitor numbers and broaden “a sense of cultural ownership”.

He adds: “When it opens in 2020 it will hopefully have achieved that. Our job is effectively is not just to repair the building… but to try and find a way of re-energising the interior of the building and get it more in use.”

However, some have voiced concerns over the plans to transform the Burrell, with architecture critic Robin Ward recently saying that some planned aspects are not staying true to the “original architectural intent”.

But McAslan, speaking before Ward’s comments and said to have “expressed some flexibility” over the plans, deems the Burrell “one of the world’s great collections… the project is incredibly important to bring back. Making art accessible for all is what we try to do in this practice.”

The aim overall now is to continue to try to squeeze the maximum possible value out of opportunities, although he admits that the ongoing skills shortage in the building sector is “a real worry, no question about it”, with continued uncertainty as the post-Brexit landscape becomes clearer.

In summary, McAslan says: “Other people are better at other things, but our main focus is on big public, civic, cultural, educational projects.”

This strategy looks set to keep his hands full for a good while. “I have a very low boredom threshold so I have to be doing stuff – and often too many different things at one time.”