IN 1755 Robert Adam, the man who would become perhaps the greatest architect of the 18th-century, wrote a letter to his sister Nelly from Rome where he was studying. In it he lamented the fact that he had been born in Kirkcaldy. “What a pity it is,” he complained, “that such a genius [as myself] should be thrown away on Scotland where scarce will ever happen an opportunity of putting one noble thought in execution.”

Was that true then? (Adam may have made his name in London but he still built a few impressive buildings in his homeland, including Glasgow’s Trades Hall and Edinburgh’s General Register House). And is it true now?

Next month the architectural critic Owen Hatherley publishes his chunky new book Modern Buildings in Britain and in its pages you can find sufficient evidence that it is not. Hatherley’s book is an entertainingly spiky and opinionated gazetteer of the nation’s modernist and brutalist heritage.

Suitably inspired, here is my choice of 20 of Scotland’s quirkiest, most impressive, and sometimes controversial examples of modern architecture.

Stirling Boys Club, Stirling

The Herald:

Let’s start small. The top of the town in Stirling is a grab-bag of historical architecture. The castle, the Church of the Holy Rude, Mar’s Wark and Cowane’s Hospital are the obvious attractions. But around the corner is Stirling Boys Club. A crowstep-gabled building, it was designed by local architect Eric S Bell. As the sign above the door says, it was completed in 1929 and is a lovely example of architecture with a sense of serious fun. (Or is it funny seriousness?)

It’s the building’s lintels I love most. They contain motto panels including such glorious phrases as “Play the Game” and “Quarrelling is taboo”. Who needs plaques when you can write in stone?

The Hill House, Helensburgh

Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the poster boy of Scottish architecture, has to be in here somewhere. And, in the wake of the destruction of his masterpiece, the Glasgow School of Art, not once but twice in recent years, it’s worth remembering that we should cherish our architectural treasures while we can.

Which makes the current pioneering conservation attempts at Rennie Mackintosh’s 1904 construction The Hill House, overseen by the National Trust for Scotland, all the more interesting. Opened in 2019, the Hill House Box which now surrounds the original building is designed to permit the walls of the original structure to dry out after rain damage threatened Hill House’s future. It also allows you to view Rennie Mackintosh’s creation from a very different perspective.


Royal Commonwealth Pool, Edinburgh

The Herald:

“Edinburgh’s best modernist building,” Owen Hatherley argues in his new book Modern Buildings in Britain, “the only one perhaps of the first rank.”

That’s high praise indeed. The Royal Commonwealth Pool, or the Commie, as it’s known locally, was the work of architectural practice RMJM, and dates back to 1970 (a refurbishment by S&P Architects ,was completed in 2012).

The exterior sits low in the landscape, a stack-up of rectangular planes. Inside, it’s airy and expansive and swimming in light. Architecture as delight, in other words.


Sir Duncan Rice Library, Aberdeen

The facts and figures are impressive. Some 22,000 tonnes of concrete, more than 2,000 tonnes of steel, 760 glass panels and nearly 5,000 lights went into this library on Aberdeen University’s campus. But, really, to be properly dazzled all you need to do is step into the glassy building’s foyer and look up . The twisting atrium is (let’s really reach) the architectural equivalent of bebop jazz. All swirling rhythms and subtle syncopation.

Opened in 2012 by the Queen , it was designed by Danish architects Schmidt Hammer Lassen. The result is a pulse-quickening thrill. It also contains a lot of books.

Alas, because of Covid, access is currently restricted to students and staff.


Hippodrome, Bo’ness

The Herald:

Cinema, the greatest artform of the 20th century, once built buildings to match. Many survived to the latter years of the century (I still have memories of sitting in the vastness of the ABC in Sauchiehall Street watching Oliver Stone’s JFK). But the boxy Cineworld model has taken over in the 21st century, so we should cherish those beacons of 20th-century individuality that survive; the Glasgow Film Theatre, the Dominion and The Cameo in Edinburgh, Campbeltown Picture House, Birks Cinema in Aberfeldy and, of course, The Hippodrome in Bo’ness.

Reopened after major restoration work in 2009, this is said to be Scotland’s oldest purpose-built cinema. It is also one of its most beautiful. Designed by local architect Matthew Steele the art deco cinema was completed in 1912 and then refurbished and reopened in 2009. It is still a joyous place to see a movie (even if the legroom is a little tight).


National Museum of Scotland Extension, Edinburgh

The Herald: Photograph Gordon TerrisPhotograph Gordon Terris

Opened in 1998 (23 years ago now: bet that makes you feel old) the museum extension designed by architects Benson + Forsyth (and originally called The Museum of Scotland), is proof that the present can pay tribute to the past without falling into pastiche.

Drawing on the work of modernist architect Le Corbusier and clearly influenced by Scottish vernacular architecture, it is a bold, imposing piece of work; a convincing neo-brutalist take on the monumentality of medieval castles that also manages to be sinuously seductive.


Council Headquarters, Hamilton

The Herald:

“What is it doing here?” Hatherley asks of the Council HQ on Hamilton’s Almada Street in his book Modern Buildings of Britain. “How did the Scottish construction industry, which otherwise mangled most everything it touched during the sixties, manage to build an International Style tower complex of the absolute first rank? How is it in such good condition, in a town which otherwise is conspicuously neglected?”

How indeed? What is clear is that the 17-storey tower (with its accompanying council chamber), originally named Lanark County Buildings when it opened in 1964, is a slice of architectural sleekness that seems to have come out of mid-20th-century Manhattan and been dropped in central Scotland. It’s the kind of building you can imagine Cary Grant leaving to jump into a yellow cab.

V & A Dundee, Dundee

Although it only opened in 2018,Kengo Kuma’s V& A Dundee building (which is, in fact, two; a conjoined pair of upside-down pyramids) is already an icon of 21st century Scotland. The exterior somehow manages to be both ecstatic and restrained whilst the interior allows you privileged glimpses of the city and the River Tay. Oh yeah, it’s a pretty decent museum too.


Glasgow College of Building and Printing, Glasgow

The Herald:

If you walk to the top of Queen’s Park in Glasgow’s Southside and look out over the city, it’s possible that the most easily identifiable city centre structure is Glasgow College of Building and Painting near Queen Street Train Station. The giant “People Make Glasgow” sign in the windows near the top of the building may help (Hatherley does not approve), but this 1964 building, designed by Wylie Shanks & Underwood, is a reminder of post-war optimism. Hatherley notes that it was the country’s first curtain wall office block.

Plans to transform the building into office space and a hotel are ongoing.

Kylesku Bridge, Sutherland

The Herald:

Scotland is pretty good at bridges. You may have noticed. There are three monumental examples side by side near South Queensferry.

But scale isn’t everything, as you can see if you travel north almost as far as you can go on the mainland. Travel up the A894 to the north-west of Sutherland and you come to the Kyelsku Bridge.

Proof that strength does not rule out beauty, this gracefully curving bridge, built in the early 1980s by Ove Arup & Partners, is buttressed by sturdy yet refined V-shaped concrete supports. If Ruud Gullit had been an architect instead of a footballer, he’d have called this “sexy architecture”.

St Bride’s Church, East Kilbride

The Herald: Photograph: Geograph Willie MairPhotograph: Geograph Willie Mair

There is no hipper name in the lexicon of Scottish modern architecture than Gillespie, Kidd & Coia, the practice behind some of the most ambitious architecture of post-war Scotland. The practice’s star architects Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein saw their most ambitious building St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross fall into ruin in their lifetimes, but, thankfully, there remain examples of their work in use in the 21st century. And none are more notable than this brutalist red-bricked box in East Kilbride.

The campanile was demolished in the 1990s, but the church is a perfect architectural example of muscular Christianity. Restoration work completed last year has helped restore the church’s ascetic power. The interior may be restrained in its use of materials, but it is a powerful, much-loved space.


Maggie’s Glasgow, Gartnavel General Hospital, Glasgow

The Herald:

Charles and Maggie Jencks’s inspired idea to combine cutting-edge architecture with cancer care has resulted in some of Scotland’s quirkiest and intriguing contemporary buildings. Starchitects such as Frank Gehry (Dundee) and Zaha Hadid (Kirkcaldy), local architectural practices such as Reiach & Hall (Airdrie)and London practices like Garbers & James (Larbert; the Maggie’s, I’m afraid, I know best. My late wife was a regular visitor) have all turned their hand to care centres. The results are as different as could be, but all share the same goal, to provide a healing and comforting space for those dealing with cancer.

OMA, the design practice Rem Koolhaas and Ellen van Loon (who was partner-in-chief on this project) amply fulfilled that brief in 2011with their cool, calm ring-shaped building with an internal courtyard at Gartnavel General Hospital. Proof that, when it comes to caring, small can be beautiful.


Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, Orkney

The Herald:

In 1979 Levitt Bernstein converted a house and a warehouse in Stromness to display the art collection of Margaret Gardiner. An extension by Reiach & Hall Architects in 2007 proved both a contrast and a compliment to the original building.

The result, according to Owen Hatherley in Modern Buildings in Britain is “a jewel of a building, architecturally the finest art gallery in Scotland that isn’t in Edinburgh or Glasgow – and in terms of its collection, too.”


Bernat Klein Studio, Selkirk

The Herald:

Ruin lust – the love of decaying buildings – is well served in Scotland. In Glasgow, Alexander “Greek” Thomson’s Egyptian Halls opposite Central Station have been empty for 40 years, while the aforementioned St Peter’s Seminary has, despite best efforts, been derelict for decades now.

There’s a more modest example to be found in the Borders. Designed in the late 1960s by Peter Womersley (who also gave us the brutalist Gala Fairydean stand) for the textile designer Bernat Klein, this now-empty studio near Selkirk is easily viewable from the road.

Klein’s own home, High Sunderland, which is also a Womersley creation, sits nearby. Sold in 2019 by Klein’s daughter, the house remains intact. But the studio, dating from 1972, is now on the At Risk register. A handsome, sharp-edged slice of once contemporary architecture that is now a sad symbol of neglect.

Scottish Parliament Building, Edinburgh

The Herald:

In 2004, not long before the parliament opened, I took a tour of the new parliament building with a pensioner, a single mum and a gallery director. We all had the same reaction to the building, a mixture of awe and irritation. There were spaces that thrilled and details that irked with their fussiness.

At the time architect Enric Miralles’ vision – which translated to a building that cost £431m – was castigated for going way overbudget. Some 17 years on it has become what it was designed to be, a parliament. A working place for the governance of the country and a physical symbol of that governance.

You could have fun debating whether the parliament building manages to be both a working building and a building that works, but, in the circumstances, it’s the first that really matters.


Stirling University, Stirling

The Herald: Photograph Geograph Graeme YuillPhotograph Geograph Graeme Yuill

As a Stirling graduate, I’m biased, but it’s difficult to imagine a more beautiful campus than Stirling’s. Owen Hatherley is also a fan. “The University of Stirling is a remarkable integration of landscape and architecture, of the highest international standards – and nowhere near as well known as it deserves to be,” he suggests in Modern Buildings in Britain.

Dating back to the late 1960s, the campus buildings are unobtrusive and unshowy; a quiet mark on the landscape if you will. Hopefully the current work to build a new covered courtyard at the heart of the Cottrell Building will not prove any noisier.


Glascarnoch Dam

The Herald:

A display of the might of man set against the even mightier backdrop of nature, the Glascarnoch dam is a reminder of the 20th-century’s capacity to transform the landscape. Built by the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board in the years after the war, it is easily seen from the A835. And it is worth seeing. A towering example of engineering ambition.

St Andrew's Ambulance Association & St Andrew's House, Glasgow

The Herald:

Built in the late 1960s and opened in 1970, these striking adjoined buildings in Cowcaddens were designed by the legendary Berthold Lubetkin’s practice, Skinner Bailey & Lubetkin. Unfortunately, they are looking very tired these days. Some care and attention are long overdue.

But they remain punchy examples of modern architecture, with the concrete piers decorating the exteriors offering vigorous decoration.

And that glowing giant red letter X – one of Lubetkin’s own ideas – on the front of St Andrew’s House is, as Owen Hatherley suggests, pure pop art.

Longannet Power Station, Kincardine

The Herald: Longannet Power Station in 2013 before demolition work beganLongannet Power Station in 2013 before demolition work began

A reminder of Scotland’s 20th-century industrial heritage and also the way architecture is a marker on the landscape. Longannet Power Station closed in 2016, after nearly 50 years of burning coal and generating electricity. Even now any drive down the Forth Valley is a reminder of how the station’s 600ft chimney – one of Scotland’s tallest structures– dominates a landscape that also includes the Ochils. Imagine the absence when that chimney is finally demolished either later this year or early next.

In its day Longannet’s turbine hall was at least three times as big as Tate Modern. But it is now a thing of the past, disappearing into history along with the rest of the 20th century.

Glenmorangie Distillery, Tain, 2021

The Herald:

The newest building on the list, and included as a reminder that architecture is a continuing story. The Glenmorangie Distillery, originally dating from the 19th century, has just undergone a major revamp thanks to Parisian architecture studio Barthelemy Grino.

The most striking visual of the work is provided by a glass-wrapped tower that glows at night and offers a glimpse of the whisky stills within, as well as providing a home for a brand-new research and innovation lab.

The tower is not open to the public, but the exterior itself might be worth the drive to Tain.


The Herald:

Modern Buildings in Britain: A Gazetteer by Owen Hatherley is published by Particular Books on October 21, £60