Get closer to the project with architect Stuart McKellar


Help us make this space spectacular

Stuart McKellar of LDN Architects is the lead architect for Inverness Creative Academy. We spoke to him about exactly what makes this space, and Wasps’ Inverness Creative Academy project so special, and how we can go even further in restoring it to it’s former glory with every £1 we raise.

How did you get involved in the project and what does it mean to you?

LDN Architects has a long relationship with cultural heritage projects in Inverness, dating back to the original Eden Court Theatre building in the 1970s. Inverness Creative Academy has been a fantastic project to work on. Seeing the impact of Phase 1 on the creative industries in the Highlands has been really, really, good, especially as an Inverness resident. Any project that’s so close to your doorstep has a special significance, and this one has been 6 years of my life so far. I know I’ll use the building when it’s finished, and look forward to visiting for exhibitions or a coffee!

Inverness Creative Academy Phase 2 in development, 2019. Credit: Paul Campbell

Have there been challenges restoring this central space, and why did you design the lighting this way?

In approaching this space there were a few things we wanted to achieve. Firstly, it had been compromised in a number of ways over the years by fire partitions and modern partitioning and was all subdivided, so the assembly hall had lost that grandeur that it used to have. We wanted to find a way to bring it back to what it was originally intended to be – and the challenge there was finding a fire strategy that really worked. We had to do was a make a few tweaks to how you circulate around the building so that we could take the fire partitions out and return it to one space – and it took us quite a while to reach that solution. With it back as one space all of a sudden the upper galleries, the bridge and the staircase all reveal themselves again, and they are really beautiful with decorative ironwork, so we didn’t want to distract from that. So once we’d done that the question was, how do you light the space?

Architectural Sketch of the Assembly Hall, Inverness Creative Academy Phase 2. Credit: LDN Architects.

The main atrium was traditionally lit in a very different way, traditionally top lit by rooflights and oil lamps, and later very basic wall lamps. Being a school it was really used during daylight hours so you didn’t need much additional lighting. We were keen to avoid directional lighting which casts shadows and points light in one way or the other, so the globe lights give you a general presence of light, so you can light the space in the evening but still have that same feeling of a general presence of light.

There were actually some existing (quite bad) globe lights in the space, and we took the same approach in this development as Phase 1 – which I call a ‘make do and mend’ approach, in the best possible, and the most sustainable way. We use as much of the building fabric as we can, if it functions, keep it and improve it. So we decided that these lights which existed in the space would far more economical if we retained them and used them, and we actually took a bit of inspiration from these relatively poor globe lights. The atrium space, although it’s very rectilinear in plan, has lots of arches in it – the trusses are arched, there are arched openings on the gable walls, there’s a stained glass window at one end which is arched… there’s lots of curves in the space. So we thought, we could use these old globe lights and introduce much nicer versions to sit alongside one another, and by hanging them at different heights add a bit of dynamism to the space. It means it will also allow you to use the café at ground floor and there will be spaces which feel quite intimate, because the lighting is lower at one end of the room, but it also allows you to light the first floors, because we can have some lights hanging at the height of the galleries. So there’s lots of practical design led reasons the lighting is the way it is.

Assembly Hall, pre-renovations, 2018. Credit: Paul Campbell.

How do you think the original architects, Ross & Macbeth, would feel about it?

I think they would be really pleased, because what we’re doing is putting the building back much closer to its original intent. The building had been chopped and changed, and divvied up during its life and lost the clarity that was in the original plan. And whilst we're going back to the original intent for the building architecturally, the use is also very closely aligned. There are stone carvings on the outside of the building which depict the arts and the sciences, the foundation blocks of the academy. Wasps use is not quite education, but it’s about research and innovation and development in the creative industries, so it is kind of about breeding knowledge and education, and I am sure they would be delighted.

The first floor galleries had been completely lost by the partitions and the way the space had been divided up, and they’d lost that long, elegant, feel. Particularly there is one at the end which is effectively a bridge, but it didn’t feel that way at all. Because of the corridor it had become quite enclosed. These balconies/galleries/bridges being opened up will become quite special and you’ll find that quite a lot of people will congregate on those and be able to look down on the space below, and revealing them is quite exciting.

At the moment, the birdcage scaffold is still in place (as you can see in the video), but even with that you’re starting to get a sense of how open the space will feel. But when that comes down and the decoration gets completed, then all of a sudden you’re going to see for the first time the true volume of the space, and that’s going to be a big moment, which we’re hopefully not too far away from.

Assembly Hall, 1900 - Inverness Royal Academy

As the lead architect and someone living in Inverness, what excites you most about completing the project and fully opening the doors to the public for the first time?

The assembly hall is one of a few really important or significant interiors in Inverness which have all been essentially private for most of their lives. At Inverness Creative Academy, unless you went to Inverness Royal Academy or the college (and actually, even at the college you wouldn’t have got a real impression of the space because of partitioning) few people will have experienced this space. For me, one extremely exciting element of the project, and completing phase 2, is opening up this hidden gem, and I think people will be amazed that it’s always been there, in the middle of the city, hidden from them.

Another big thing for me as well as opening the the space, is that we’re creating a ramp, and set of steps at the front door (which for a listed building is quite difficult) but we managed to design a scheme which allowed us to do it, and that means that everyone, regardless of mobility will enter the building through the front door. And Wasps has also shared in that vision, so we’ve put in a lift (which we’ve also done in Phase 1), so with the exception of a very few spaces, the entire building [both phases] will be accessible for the first time in its entire 125 year history – not just publicly accessible, but accessible for different mobility needs.

Artist's impression of the Assembly Hall gallery. Credit: LDN Architects.

When we finally open the doors of Inverness Creative Academy, and the beautiful assembly hall to the public we would love for it to be fully restored to its former glory. Any additional funding we raise between now and 7th June will go towards achieving this goal, and, in lighting up great art in the Highlands, open up this hidden gem of a space for everyone to enjoy. You can get us closer to making this a reality by sharing our campaign.

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