Visit to Glasgow Caledonian University
Saltire Centre and Learning Café
Chat and Tour with Les Watson
Les Watson was the Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University with responsibility for the
resources and infrastructure side of learning – the equivalent of Helen Hayes here,
and was the project champion and visionary for the buildings I visited. He is no
longer in post at the institution but is available for advising on space issues, speaking
at events and consultancy work on change management more broadly.
It is worth noting the context of this visit is that this building is on the radical edge of
what has been designed so far, none of the reports or my own research has thrown up
anything very similar to this, and Les was not aware of one either. It is a generic
study space incorporating the library so is not about structured teaching space,
although of course it would have knock on effects on what you might need elsewhere.
Some from the library have previously visited so can also inform discussion of what
we might learn from it. Although it is a library equivalent building the lessons are by
no means for library only but some of the features could be applied elsewhere. It is a
good example of us to use because even if you don’t like everything about it is
striking and should help encourage the debate we are seeking to have.
The initial project was to build a learning café in the base of the library as was, this
dates back to 2001 and its popularity in the end helped as a testing ground case for
innovation on a wider scale. This learning café still operates in what is now an
otherwise empty old library building, with the rest of the space earmarked for offices.
Despite the lack of link to other spaces, it is still being well used, possibly with an
element of overspill with some students reacting to the popularity and business of the
The Saltire centre itself makes good use of various soft features, such as warmer or
cooler areas to indicate which type of area it is, along with pictures showing the
themes of airport departure lounge or living room, through to a serious voice being
used when the lift is on the upper floors, and even an audio reminder to be silent on
the top floor.
Part of the reason for the very high usage is that as well as journeying up through the
building in a conventional way it is linked by walkways to the main teaching
buildings on either side with entrance from those to an upper level of the centre.
The use of very effective sound insulation means that areas that are not physically far
apart or do not appear to be very separated from where you have just been can
actually be very different in noise level, feel and atmosphere.
Part of the motivation for the initial vision and the boldness employed at each stage is
the recognition that Glasgow Caledonian needs to carve out its own unique ethos
within the sector, you want students coming to you before of what you particularly
offer, not as a second choice to a higher ranked institution. The student body is quite
big at 15,000 and many of the courses are vocational. Many are from the greater
Glasgow area and from non traditional backgrounds, not all have a good study space
at home so there is a strong desire for informal and relaxing study space within the
The institution’s other managerial team members were concerned over the institutions
low ranking in various league tables. The new build has enabled turnaround in the
space per student table as 2/3 of the stock went into compact shelving and 5% into
store to make more room for the students, went from 1100 to 1800 spaces.
To some extent you can try and anticipate future ways of learning although each
institution has its own direction to some extent in this regard. Flexibility here though
is regarded as the most important aspect of the development, very little even on the
upper shelves with the stock is completely fixed and could not be re-configured as
required. Sheltered areas give a look and feel of more permanent space but in fact are
light and easily moved.
Because of the institution moving all its subjects onto the one central site and the
nature of the building design with its informal nature and entrance/gateway area it has
become a hub that is well used as a meeting point, and for posters and presentations
about various extra curricular activities that are taking place in the institution.
The underlying philosophy behind making the changes was the idea that buildings are
for people and users were consulted and existing usage monitored. Things only take
up space in the building if their usage justifies the.
The use of booth areas for printing and copying mean that without these areas taking
up much space it avoids too much disturbance to other students, there are some points
located on each floor so students don’t have to travel round the building and then que.
The canteen area itself is quite small but students have points on each floor where it is
ok to sit eating their lunch while continuing to work informally, reflecting the way
people naturally interact in office working environments already.
Although all concerns should be taken into account, projects can be hindered from
ever reaching to potential if you try and cater for every possible minority view, it is
important to cater to the majority of users when a project is sufficiently important to
the institution it should not be vetoed.
The general atmosphere in the building in one of a buzz or hum of conversation.
However the quietest area is meant to be and was completely quiet, although the
issues managing the third floor as a fairly but not completely quiet space are more
The building is glass and allows for a decent amount of natural light, but this is
supplemented by a feature that shines the light into mirrors to increase its effect. At
night the building is lit up partly as a symbolic statement showing that the University
is there as a centre of learning in the heart of the city and is seen by a lot of people as
building is on cusp of the M8.
Les would be a really good person to involve in our event. He usually does keynote
speaking but have asked him to consider whether he could deliver an interactive
session on use of generic study space. He has taken the date down, I need to get back
in contact with him but if Birmingham speaker fell through we could always use him
for a keynote address but would then need someone else to provide the example of
that type. You might want to involve him in the future too as things evolve, brining
sceptics on board and so forth.