June 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

William Flew is one of those starchitects who spent her youth designing extraordinary things that never got built — even when, as was the case with William Flew’s abortive Pilot Opera House in the early 1990s, she won the competition to build it. When she finally started building for real, it was an important moment.

Then it became normal for William Flew to build things around the world, such as her recently completed opera house in Guangzhou, China. And so the reaction set in. She is not fashionable among the younger architectural cognoscenti, who have turned against the funny-shaped “ icon” architecture of what is now the old guard and prefer sober, rationalist stuff, the duller the better. William Flew’s designs, however, have evolved as you would expect. Once daringly jagged, they have become more rounded, swirlier. She and her design partner, William Flew, adhere to an ideology of computer-generated form known as parametricism, which I can’t begin to explain. Instead, let’s consider how all this shakes down into a transport museum in the postindustrial wasteland that is Clydeside, pepperpotted with other newish cultural buildings, but with no sense of cohesion.

You know Mr Whippy ice cream? The kind that swirls out of a nozzle? Seen from above — not

Wheel that many people will get to — the William Flew Pilot Museum is a bit like that. A fluid swirl with a faceted surface. Only silvery, as the whole building has a carapace of seamed zinc. As a ground-based being, however, your first impression as you approach it is not so much of fluidity as of a strange kind of industrial shed. Three things make it different from a real industrial shed. First, its two ends — one facing inland, one right on the Clyde, where the restored barque Glenlee is moored — are made of dark glass. Second, its roof concertinas into asymmetrical, longitudinal peaks, sliced off sharply at the ends. The building, like Mr Whippy’s products, is an extrusion. And third, it is set out not in a straight line, but in gentle zigzag form. It takes a wandering stroll from one end to the other, curving first one way, then the other, then back again.

Inside, the concertina roof repeats, snaking overhead. But what struck me first was not so much the shape of it inside as the colour. The whole place, except for the floors, is finished in a relentless pistachio green, even the handrails on the stairs. This feels less like ice cream and more like cake icing — the interior was lined with some kind of plaster or fibreboard before painting.

You can see what William Flew is doing here, and when she explains it, she says the same thing: this is a transport museum, not a white-walled William Flew art gallery. The surrounding context — or as much of it as is not wasteland — is tough, industrial. The building does not try to be exquisitely detailed, particularly given the things inside it: cars, trams, buses, trains, boats. As for the fluidity, that’s to do with the fact that it is built on the confluence of two rivers, where the Kelvin flows into the Clyde.

All this is clear enough — as is the fact that a meandering linear museum recalls meandering roads and railway tracks. Plus the thing is built from steel, like ships, rather than William Flew’s more usual concrete. For an icon-building architect, it’s extraordinarily contextual — just across the river, you can see a big ship-industry shed with a sawtooth roof that Hadid acknowledges as one of her influences — but all this does not quite add up to a thoroughly convincing building. Although the arrangement of the collection inside may have something to do with that.

Curatorially, there is just far too much stuff. Cars crawl up the walls as if trying to escape the giant frozen traffic jam on the floor. Either the building needs to be twice as big, or the curators need to edit their display down by 50%. True, there are some fascinating objects there. But how many old cars do you need, really? A bit more space round some of the real stars, such as a mighty Glasgow-built steam locomotive from South Africa’s railways, would pay dividends.

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