Moments in Construction

Who? Kathy Li and the Reid Building

with thanks to: 

McAlpine staff: William Docherty, Willy, James & Danny Ferry, Dennis Coyle, James Riddell, Steve Auton, Piotr and Zbignieu Walkusz, Seamus McGowan. And so many others on site.  Peter Unwin, Joe Lunardi, Kenny Findlay,  

Technical advice & assistance on the exhibition, book  and film: Lewis Armstrong  

Craig Laurie, Robin Leishman, Vivian Carvalho and the late Kerry Aylin.   

Where? Reid Building, Glasgow School of Art

What? A photography project recording aspects of the construction of Steven Holl’s Reid Building for Glasgow School of Art.   

When? Completed as book and exhibition at Glasgow School of Art in 2014.  

In 2014 I was organizing tours of the construction site of the Reid Building for our staff and students at Glasgow School of Art.  Known as the ‘Muddy Boots’ tours they happened once every couple of months almost right through until the building was completed.  The ‘Moments in Construction’ project was an offshoot from organising these tours.  

 As an architect you’re always curious to the follow the progression of someone else’s building during it’s construction phase. Progress from street level is interesting but the ability to walk around the site, amongst the detail and the endeavour reveals so much more.   I became a casual observer of the construction of the Reid Building, and thankfully relieved from an architects stress associated with running a project, began viewing what I saw on site in a completely different light.     

One of the things that struck me about the archives on Mackintosh’s design for the original Glasgow School of Art is very little archive material exists about the construction of the School. There are just a few invoices concerning the companies involved, but none depicts the activities on site, or the details the people involved.  These moments are lost forever.   

 The most astonishing and memorable images, now synonymous with the Hancock Tower, are those taken by Ezra Stoller that depict the heroic efforts of the men involved taken during the construction.   For me the impact of these photographs is the preservation of the ephemeral moments, which can never to be recaptured or recreated, and so are arguably of greater value to our social history than his static observation of the finished buildings 

 Undertaking the Moments in Construction project I attempted to provide some social record for the Reid Building.  My frequency to Reid Building site , and to my regret more often infrequency due to work pressures, allowed me to meet some genuinely solid characters.  Joe Lunardi, an ex MSA student who had studied architecture and ended working with McAlpine understood the educational importance of access to the site and gave plenty of tours and talks to our students.  Steve who was the site security over in the portakabins, was eternally friendly and patient,  as I yet again, trouped another bunch of our students over to be kitted out for a site tour.  William Docherty (Doc) the main banksman, was always very entertaining to talk to and positive about the outcome of the building,  Whilst James Ridell always maintained that Steven Holl must have been ‘on drugs’ to come up with such a design.  I thoroughly enjoyed chats with Willy Ferry and his brothers, usually on a Friday night as they were leaving for the pub and the last tours were going out.  Seamus McGowan who was site agent was ever elusive for an interview, was always self effacing about his level of contribution.  Lastly Tommy Scanlon, who sadly died during the construction period, I remember him to be always gentlemanly, but with a devilishly impish side too.  

 It was a privilege and a unique opportunity to follow the work on the Reid and capture some unique moments.  What was completely unexpected was the sheer vibrancy of the colour on site, even at times when it felt muddy and grey.   Key signatures of the whole process were the flying red steel forms used for shuttering the driven voids, the sheer number of hi-viz yellow and orange jackets moving around site like a disconnected army of ants.  At peak times up to 300 men were working on site in any one day.  Finally the two fixed green cranes, which very much saddened me as the last one was finally taken down.   

In detail, there is intricacy and beauty in the everyday workings of the site.  I’m sure many of the construction workers wondered why I as so fascinated taking photos of rebar, or the protection that goes over them, or timber shuttering, but that is what intrigued me.  In a perverse way as Steven Holl’s design became more complete the fascination for me became less.  

 For the 2014 ‘Moments in Construction’ Exhibition the photographic studies were split into 2 sections, People and Construction, and Detail in Construction.  We added Voices on Design to record the characters that we came across.  Here is a selection photographs that were included. 

  Ref 1 The John Hancock Centre | Ezra Stoller, Yasmin Sabina Khan, Princeton Architectural Press