The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1917] Royal Exchange Square

United Kingdom

While walking with my newly bought goods as the early evenings light drowns in the broad skyline I endure the burn in my fingers of stretched plastic bags. Daily routine with an annual emphasis anticipates my knowing pace as I head home, through Royal Exchange Square. Before I never look up I gauge which way to pass the pillars. Which route into the square will keep me furthest away from the hunched beggar mumbling to anyone's everyone. Which way will shorten my guilt trip to the fewest of seconds. As I walk under the arch I bite my bottom lip and stare uncomfortably at the ground the fellow unknown has just left and forgotten. Behind my tightened stare I strive to concentrate on anything other than my slice of the endless murmur of a man diseased by need, the slab he rests on chills the soles of my feet through my comfortable shoes. Concentrate on the smell of someone's nowhere else to go.

Glasgow masses as a huge layer functioning around the city centre interacting and isolating from its heart. People like a flow of circulation carry life and memories all over the city. Memories embodied in temporary tales, altering, contracting and expanding. Culture ever developing but held in solid statements such as 'GOMA', The Gallery of Modern Art stands proud in the centre of Royal Exchange Square, held within the temple like walls of the gallery are exhibits always altering, contracting, expanding. Representations of Glasgow and its culture displayed in a literal setting known and experienced by all who call the City of Glasgow their home.

The visitor is dwarfed entering Royal Exchange Square both physically and in significance by the grandeur of the heavy stone arches separating the square from the city of Glasgow surrounding it. Layers of stone haled on top of each other, balanced and arranged to create an entrance fit for royalty. Each stone cut from some now forgotten slope in some now forgotten landscape sacrificed and mutated to create an element of beauty, to create feelings of respect and pride, sacrificed for a good cause.

Frosted air feeds the chilled visitors of the Square, freezing a second skeleton within every body carrying a new, un-blessed set of eyes. Eyes that sparkle in subtle conversation with the carpet of tiny white lights floating level with the eves of the sculpted stone facades capturing all Royal Exchange Square's contents in a dazzling harmony. A harmony of perfect transplants. The facades looking at each other across the rich texture of stone, each new facade like a cousin of the previous, but with its own chiselled features isolating its similarities from the adjacent. Our visitors caught tight in this infinitive stare, being watched or even studied by the historical anchors in stone around them. The square holds many statements of Glasgow and can be looked upon as an aesthetic of a smaller city within the city. A concentration of the buildings and culture that Glasgow thrives on melded into a public space in the centre of the City. It is when the Glaswegian alters his path to keep clear the flash of a precious shot from a tourist's lens he is reminded of the beauty towering round him in his day to day. When we look up to share the subject matter of the picture we are without fail captured for a moment, stuck in gentle contemplation by the beauty of what we call our home. Every time we walk with our heads high, we catch an open glimpse of our crafted urban landscape, a landscape of inhabited sculptures.

Looking down Ingram Street a glittering vista brings the solid facades of the City to life. None more solid than the ribbed pillars of the Gallery of Modern Art, known by most as GOMA. Above the pillars, where we would expect to find an ancient freeze carved from stone a glittering mosaic of mirrors shouts down Ingram street, for sporadic moments blinding us from the beautiful red monuments flanking us. GOMA is a beacon within Royal Exchange Square facing the open mouth of the space, where the city seems to line up in ranks. Ranks that could be forever occupied in their day to day purpose and function or ranks that stand in a united grid, respecting the texture of the great industrial city. Ranks that at this moment break to allow view of the knight with his glittering coat of arms, beautiful and rare, in place to inspire the city around it, in place as a symbol of prosperity.

My entry to GOMA is free, just as it is to anyone interested to explore this impressive public building within this integral central space. I slowly rise a step, then another towards the pillars and golden entrance to the galley. Steps performative by nature, resting as a few long seats for anyone to gather, gathering in this gap in the great grid of the City as if droplets of water attracted by the space of a missing tile from a bathouse. Individuals drawn from their varying existences and social classes, drawn to gather, gather to take a break, a cigarette, a sandwich maybe without a word of speech, but gathering with a sense of unity and belonging. The gallery represents a new age, expression and freedom in a modern world. On the famous steps to the Gallery of Modern Art, in the Square younger groups meet and socialise, some see the space as an opportunity to express their individuality and freedom, while others gather to have the experience of being part of something. Most of whom lounge amongst the heavy stone work want to, in their own way express a similar freedom. People latch on to this impressive statement and draw confidence and purpose from it. If something at such a grand scale can stand tall in a vast city and be accepted as an embodiment of this freedom then so can the individuals brought together by its presence.

Some while skirting the edge of the Square feel threatened by the mingled group of youths. Their long black coats slash at the ground as they stand in the chilled breeze wrapping round the gallery. Figures so dark that even on a summers day move as silhouettes against a backdrop of bright city life. I watch them from my quiet spot within the gallery, behind my goldfish bowl window, I feel hidden from the context of the city around me. Those who could be looking at me never notice my wandering stare upon the Square. I too pass the same ground each day with sometimes little more than a remembered breath, little more than the subconscious concentration applied to meander through the human traffic, all moving, moving to their place to go. A journey through the city like a dream, point of departure fall asleep, point of arrival awaken. All in between lost in a semiconscious lapse of need to think. A journey, forgotten moments after completion but if remembered has the power to draw a smile on our face, a smile of a new memory, of something beautiful or a smile for the realisation its over. I focus on where my lazy eyes rest, on one of the granite benches lining the edge of the Square, each with no direction, no guidelines on what to embrace or turn your back on, each aspect from such a small repetitive elimiment blessed with rich detail no canvas can match. Detail that moves like the teenager in her heavy flame print boots, fish net tights masking exposed pale legs just like black make-up which clothes her laughing face. Laughing with a group moving beside and around her. All laughing together with their black leather coats, flashing rainbow hair and black eyeliner vivid against highlighted white skin. The group stop and play almost like children in the space others are simply treading over, forgetting. As I leave the gallery I pass close enough to hear their laughter, excited words and expressions that makes them stand out for that moment more than the business men, shoppers and even their own silhouetted image. I'm not threatened, I admire their use and interaction with a space so diverse and unique as themselves, the urban parkland.

Light sandy stone slowly starts to fade, patchy cracks grow under each windowsill as any warmth stolen in the stone is reclaimed by the night. The trendy cafes that by day invade the square fold into the walls leaving large walkways for the diminishing crowd. Red turns to grey, grey turns to black, all with a defining, bright blue glaze from the sleeping sky. As if for a last gasp for breath the tiny lights hung in the sky switch on, throwing a silent wave of colour over the bright blue and grey of the insomniac Square. The few people left, closing a shop or heading home able to count the distant stars through their own glittering blanket, like a net catching all the falling stars from above. Their own artificial shadow streaming over the square in front, behind or to the side of them. In many cases leaping onto the nearest facade, as if trying to escape irrespective of the open exits. Features highlighted or casting their own elongated copy turn the flattened surfaces into a chiselled rock face, filled with bright crops and black gaps in its complety. A designed, geometry of patterns within patterns lost for moments mutating to reveal flashbacks of its past. Flashbacks of some now forgotten landscape.

Now a trickle of people like a miss-fit stream wire through the vast, shadowed square, nothing compared to the volume of shoppers, workers and students that flourished before. The shallow stream of people turn like a tide from late leavers to early arrivals. With a different breed of purpose they gradually pass through and inhabit Royal Exchange Square. The trendy cafes closed, the book shops windows dark and even the Gallery's great doors appear as if been shut for centuries. The beauty of day has left yet the beauty of night is taking over, restaurants illuminate, not from bright lights but from the activity within and around them. The stream of people grow into wandering groups and couples, lovers, hand in hand managing to loose themselves in one another's eyes while slowly dancing each step across the Square they have known longer than each other. The restaurants and bars spill warm smells and gentle beats into the transformed qualia of the Square. Most who visit the restaurants or bar are well dressed, some look although they are due at a theatre or guests at a wedding, dressed to compete with anything they can, trying to be modern people in a modern world. Contrasting with the quiet couples in their own special little worlds are the pubbers and clubbers who are not with a partner but in many cases out to find one. Loud lads bantering to be heard, surveying the square like a predator would scan a grassy plane for prey. Trying to intimidate with their presence as a sign of authority, or safety in numbers. These young men walk shoulders back, heads high, not to admire their world but to find a mate and size-up the competition. Yong men striding loudly through the square starting a game of blatant gender roles, roles where Royal Exchange Square exists as the perfect stage.

The restaurant fills and continues to emit is warm glow into the nightfall of Royal exchange square, like a mature Agga, giving off a scent of what succulent buffet lies inside. In front of the restaurant or bar the young women mingle, meeting in the brightest parts of the glittering night of the Square. Girls dressed as bait, using there friends as comfort, security, as a status symbol but at the same time competing to see who can draw the longest second glance, competing to see who can make 'classy' look 'daring' or 'daring' look 'comfortable'. Under each light, as if in a giant shop front or catalogue, shaking their hair or striking a suggesting pose, some of the young women join the nightly resurrected game of cat and mouse or maybe, in this game there are no mice.

Time, the constraint in this Space of changing identities moves on, from late dinners at the later hours to the next transformation in Royal Exchange Square. The large frontage of the bar becomes masked, lost behind a sea of chit chat, lost beneath a curtain of white shirts, branded trainers, short skirts, and fitted jeans. Closing time for the bar, when the clock strikes twelve and the well lubricated crowed wait in line, forgetting the expanse of the Square around them, focusing not on the rugged beauty of stonework but on one plain doorway. Suited night club doormen out-scale the small doorway peeking through the space between, where the stonework breaks just enough for an entrance of the night, only ever open in hours of darkness, when unwelcome windows sleep and have no purpose for the next hours. Behind the door plummets a staircase, swallowing the crowd, couple by couple, group by group. Swallowing the line of eager bodies into a hungry, nocturnal underworld, an underworld, feeding only at night.

Faint footsteps fade from the final echo of the bolted door, a noise marking the beginning of the silence. Silence holding the still air, shaping it into a gentle breeze or tossing a prolonged gust over the chilled paving with only the calm, solid walls with their sculpted intricacy to divert its course. No soul wanders alone, no couple left waiting on a late ride home, no body to witness the square and all its grandeur and beauty emptied of its audience. Plunged darkness rests around the heavy stone arches, the gallery leaning on its huge pillars embracing every noise its without, the mirrored mosaic effortlessly joining the blues and greys of the unwitnessed sky. Royal Exchange Square briefly at rest, awaiting the dawn of a new day, a day lost in the infinity of relentless function, waiting in the dark for the colourful cross section of its many users. Users for but an unconscious moment or for a crafted delve into the slice of city culture and history embodied and experienced in this, for now silent public space of Royal Exchange Square.

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