Resisting proposals of an earlier plan, which advocated the use of a greenfield site to the east of the town, Irvine Development Corporation embarked upon a phased redevelopment of the existing town centre in the 1970s. The overreaching aim was to provide Irvine with amenities comparable to nearby Ayr and Kilmarnock, enabling the town to become a regional hub for the surrounding area.
The Irvine Centre was originally conceived as a continuous, elevated covered shopping complex, linearly connecting the dispersed town’s historic core at Irvine Cross to the railway station – bridging the River Irvine and a new dual-carriageway through-road in the process. Broader plans would have also seen connected linear developments extend westward as far as the harbour and beach.
The centre replaced a road bridge as the central river crossing. New road bridges were built to the north and south prior to its demolition. Being the only central river crossing, the Irvine Centre remains open 24 hours a day to allow pedestrians to pass between the east and west sides of the river.
However curious some of these ideas may seem compared to town planning and urban design sensibilities today (where existing patterns of movement and access are sacrosanct), the optimism, open-mindedness and freethinking of architects and planners at the time should not be forgotten.
Early iterations of the scheme for the Irvine Centre projected a vast, continuous structure stretching all the way from the Bridgegate to the harbour and beach beyond. 20-storey office towers are shown flanking development models of the centre, as well as elevated maisonettes similar in concept and design to the almost iconic penthouses at Cumbernauld Town Centre.
David Gosling, who designed the Irvine Centre with Barry Maitland, was previously a member of the design team for Runcorn Central Area. Keith Smith, deputy chief architect of Runcorn Development Corporation, appraised both the Irvine Centre and Bridgegate House in the Architects’ Journal in 1976. Smith was keen to underline the similarities between Runcorn, Cumbernauld and Irvine:
The Irvine Centre establishes a “coherent and flexible system of structure, services and circulation” in a megastructural manner, but perhaps less explicitly than its precedents and contemporaries.1
Primary 2.5 metre high “spine ducts” containing services run east-west across the roof of the Irvine Centre, the centremost of which traces the route of the principal pedestrian mall below.
Secondary service ducts run north-south, within the depth of paired 1.5 metre high steel roof trusses, and were originally expressed along the building’s north and south elevations.
The architects’ preoccupation with the ‘optimum’ dimensions for the structural grid – accommodating car-parking and shopping – is apparent in the 1971 Irvine New Town Plan:
“The structure is based on a 5m x 8m grid. This was chosen as matching the requirements of both shopping and car parking since it gives a 5m module along the main mall for shop frontages together with a 16m standard economic depth for car parking.” (Irvine New Town Plan p.235)
The existing level of Irvine Cross (12 metres above sea level) was to be taken all the way to the southbound train station platforms. This enabled storage, service & delivery yards, accessed directly from the dual carriageway through-road, to be located beneath the pedestrian level.
The principal pedestrian mall runs east-west and is eight metres wide. Secondary five metre-wide malls were to run north-south at 75 metre intervals, providing access to the riverside, car parks, offices, etc. Only one of these was ever built, and serves a multi-storey car park to the south of the centre.
The central mall has shopping units either side for its entire length with the exception of the river crossing where the north side of shops give way to sloped curtain-wall glazing, affording dramatic views northward.
Large, expressive cast in-situ concrete ramps each side of the river provide pedestrian access from the elevated mall interior to riverside below. Retail units here were intended for restaurants and bars, but are no longer occupied.
On the east bank of the river, the mall takes a diagonal step to accommodate Trinity Church, with which the centre axially aligns. Office accommodation above the centre’s east entrance was built in similar materials and design to Bridgegate House and forms the west side of Bridgegate Square.
To the west, the centre expands both north and southward to accommodate larger retail units. The temporary west elevation was “so well handled as to look permanent” – perhaps an unconscious premonition of the abandonment of phases two and three.
The east-west axis of the Irvine Centre is centred on Trinity Church to the east. This was originally evident by way of the expressed central spine duct, but since the centre was reroofed only an access stair in the landscaped area between the two structures demonstrates this relationship.
The contrast between the horizontal centre and vertical church spires of the two immediately neighbouring churches (one on each side of the river) is pleasing, and the proximity of the contrasting architectural expressions captures the essence of old town and New Town.
The underside of the centre at the river crossing is impressive: large circular-section concrete piloti support four substantial primary beams, between which exposed, shallower secondary beams provide satisfying visual repetition, which is echoed in the ribbed finish of the Irvine Centre’s few exposed concrete faces.
Originally, the secondary service ducts were expressed along the north and south elevations of the centre, and the roof covering followed their stepped profile.
“The frank expression of air input or extract points has given an appropriate three-dimensional profiling, helping to play down the inevitable bulk of the shopping halls. Of course there is some element of artifice here, which is necessary to lift these building types above that of the weatherproof box.” (Architects’ Journal 04.08.76 pp.220-1)
While it is somewhat regrettable that the service ducts are no longer visible (a fact that calls their original functionality into question), the unbroken band now provides the visual mass necessary to constrain the bulk of the building below, and emphasises rather than underplays the centre’s overriding horizontality.
The materials used at the Irvine Centre are not overtly Brutalist in expression, but when seen in conjunction with the Irvine Development Corporation’s earlier Bridgegate House, a distinctive Seventies flavour of transitional High Tech Brutalism emerges.
The clarity and discipline with which the limited material palette is used also places the building within the Brutalist canon, as well as the open and candid expression of structure, circulation and servicing.
The base of the centre, those volumes touching the ground and containing service and delivery yards, are clad in dark-brown brickwork with bullnose ‘specials’ and soldier courses articulating transitions to the materials above.
The single, continuous mall level of the Irvine Centre is expressed and rendered readable on the building’s exterior by way of an unbroken band of white vitreous enamelled steel panels. The white colour here can be seen as an analogue of the white glazed tiles of Bridgegate House.
The vast size of the Irvine Centre precluded the laborious application of individual tiles, and the expansive unarticulated surfaces are better suited to large panels, as opposed to the expressed columns and beams of Bridgegate House. The office accommodation above the east entrance does, however, employ similar materials and design as Bridgegate House, providing a graded transition between the two.
Above mall level, what appears to be an overhanging storey clad in brown corrugated metal sheeting lends the centre an unarticulated skyline. This band now conceals originally expressed air intake and extract ducts.
In summary, the centre’s underlying organisation is expressed externally through a continuous single pedestrian mall level in white panels sandwiched between delivery & storage areas in brown brickwork below, and service ducts in brown colour-coated corrugated metal sheets above.
Exposed concrete is limited to the substantial structural spans across the river and through-road, and the structurally expressive riverside pedestrian ramps. Internally, exposed columns were tiled akin to the structure of Bridgegate House.
The mall reduces to a single side of shops as it crosses the river, leaving the north wall open for sloped curtain-wall glazing and an impressive view, now somewhat obscured by a chain coffee shop kiosk.
Originally, extensive ceiling- and floor-level planting was used throughout, and custom-made glass-reinforced plastic (GRP/ fibreglass) seating, planters, bins, display columns & telephone kiosks provided a suitably bold and comfortable environment.
The internal ceiling height of the pedestrian thoroughfare was originally quite substantial, and was enlivened by beams crossing the generous space, above which continuous clerestory glazing either side of the central spine duct provided natural lighting.
The primary “spine” and lateral secondary service ducts within the depth of the roof trusses were visibly articulated above the pedestrian thoroughfare – demonstrating the integration of services, structure and circulation.
However, much of this is now concealed by a suspended ceiling system which has deprived the rebranded ‘Rivergate Shopping Centre’ of much of its original interest. The transverse secondary ducts remain visible, but no longer read as ducts, and all clerestory glazing has been covered over and is no longer visible.
The north-facing sloped glazed aperture which provides impressive views down river at the centre of the river crossing is the only remaining internal feature of the ambitious and considered interior.
Phases 2 and 3, which would have seen the Irvine centre extended to the railway, were never realised. A large uninhabited open space was consequently left between for several years, overlooked from the north by Cunninghame House, a large office building also designed by the Irvine Development Corporation.
“…the formerly derelict open space awaiting the next stage of the lineal plan is a sad area of ground level parking, and the office block sits there in isolation, waiting to be joined up to its neighbours… it is unfair to condemn the design on this aspect alone; it must be hoped that the objective of the plan to link and unify two previously separated parts of the town will be realised.” (Architects’ Journal 04.08.76 p.218)
Needless to say, the public desire and commercial investment necessary for such a large development was by the late 1970s conspicuous by its absence.
The temporary western end of the Irvine Centre was eventually concealed sometime during the 1990s with a white-painted steel and glass supermarket, and much of the other land occupied by chain-stores deaf to the urban inimitability of the town.
The east end of the centre was also left unfinished, and a proposed cinema, hotel and office complex intended to connect the Irvine Centre to Bridgegate House was never built.
The recent remodelling of Bridgegate House casts doubt over the longevity of the ambitious and considered but now misunderstood Irvine Centre.
Phase I included around 23,000m2 sales and storage space across five “large space users” and 50 other units.
1300m2 additional office space is located above the east entrance (now known as ‘Rivergate House’).
The development originally contained 1200 car parking spaces, 500 of which are located within the multi-storey car park.
Contractor: Robert McAlpine & Sons Ltd.
Developer: Ravenseft & Murrayfield Scottish Developments
Structural Engineer: Ove Arup & Partners
Electrical & Mechanical Engineers: Seymour & Rooley
Quantity Surveyor: Gardiner & Theobold
Irvine Development Corporation architect’s department staff:
chief architect: David Gosling, succeeded by John K. Billingham
principal architect: Barry Maitland, succeeded by R.S. Bell
senior architects: J. Russell, succeeded by A.G. Kerr, W.A. Brown
assistants: R.C. McGregor, D. McDonald, J. Marshall, H.M. Cooper, C.J. McDonald, A.J. Scobie, T.R. Donnan, A.J Willoughby, S. Gilchrist
chief engineer: W.G. Conchie
deputy engineers: E. Prince, H. McCall
structural engineers: F. Anderson, R. Nicol, J. Greenhough
electrical & mechanical engineer: Donald Smith, A. Hamilton, M. Vincent, C. Pyle
chief quantity surveyor: P. Thompson
quantity surveyor: A. Nicol
(Information taken from Architects’ Journal 04.08.76)
Article based on http://www.scotbrut.co.uk/archive/irvine-centre/