About Place - Shetland Islands

Chris Malcolm, architectural director in Ryder’s Glasgow team shares insight into designing the new school in the Shetland Islands.

Good architecture is about place - understanding it, responding to it, making it, inhabiting it.

Achieving this requires sensitivity, engagement and empathy in our dealings with people and the settings in which they live.  These qualities and the approach to design and construction that this engenders are at the very core of what we value at Ryder.

After four years, as our involvement with the Shetland Islands draws to a close with the completion of the new Anderson High and Halls of Residence, now feels an appropriate time to reflect on this approach in practice.

The Shetland Islands are the most northerly part of the UK, by some distance.  Having been a sovereign part of Norway until the late 15th century, the Nordic influence on island culture remains strong.

Combined with the distance from the rest of Scotland, this creates a strong sense of self sufficiency amongst the population, and a desire to deal with matters at hand directly at a local level.  There is great pride in the quality of life and environment provided by island living – the largest island is known as Mainland.  Everywhere else in the UK (and one suspects by extension, the rest of the planet) is simply referred to by Shetlanders as, “Sooth”.

The remoteness of the islands, the open grandeur of the landscape, and the everchanging climate - at times staggering in ferocity, at others beautifully tranquil in the luminescent sunlight so unique to these islands, demand a sensitive, contextual architectural response.  

With a population of only 23,000 across 100 islands (7,500 of them in Lerwick), the proportional visual and cultural impact of two large public buildings and associated infrastructure on this place becomes highly significant.  This is a particular challenge when the school model is based on the four storey superblock exemplar model championed by the Scottish Futures Trust.

Our solution was to draw inspiration from the local vernacular, creating a language of simple agricultural forms to break down the mass of the buildings, and respond to the challenge of the Shetland climate by incorporating traditional roof forms and detailing.  Siting the buildings against the large mass of the hills at the western edge of Lerwick addresses issues of scale.  The buildings become subservient in size to the high, ancient landscape which forms the backdrop to the site.

Allowing the lower levels of both buildings to merge into the hillside itself roots them firmly in place, physically and metaphorically, echoing the character of the surrounding broch and burial cairns which appear to grow as natural extrusions from the land.  This also defines our approach to landscape and boundaries, blurring the edges between new and existing, man made and the natural, letting the local flora reclaim areas of land over time.

The geographical remoteness and harsh environment creates a culture where close collaboration is essential to daily survival.  This was to have positive impacts throughout the project.  The ability to make decisions there and then became a key feature of dealing with local stakeholders.  Once initial scepticism about the project going ahead had been dispelled (a new school had first been proposed in 1991), the drive from the community and statutory authorities to push the project to a successful conclusion was an inspiration to be involved with.

This was also reflected in the conduct of the team through the construction process.  To build in Shetland is not an easy task, yet despite the numerous challenges which inevitably presented themselves, they were dealt with in a genuinely collaborative manner.  The isolation of the site in many ways worked to the projects advantage – it fostered close links between subcontractors through sheer necessity, and once subcontractors arrived on the island, there were no other sites for them to transfer staff to, being effectively marooned until the arrival of the relief flight ten days later.

As architects, we are involved from the outset of a project, through design, construction, completion and beyond.  Because of the highly collaborative approach Ryder take, we interact with many groups and individuals at the different project stages, establishing enduring, close relationships.  This has been a particularly strong factor working with a small local population and site team, to the extent that it is with some sadness we see the team breaking up and moving on to fresh challenges.  However, we leave behind us a project which finally provides the Shetland Islands with a 21st century learning environment, a project of significant scale in the overall context of Lerwick, which still sits harmoniously with its magnificent setting. 

Letting go of a project can be difficult, yet regret is a strong indicator of a positive overall experience.  One of the enduring joys and privileges of architectural practice is our ability to leave a positive imprint on a place.  It is an even greater joy when that place leaves a lasting imprint on you.