Architecture in Scotland's garden of cultural delights.

Peter Wilson | 31/08/2014 | 0 Comments

Given Andrew Marr’s known perspective on the independence debate, his conclusion to last night’s illuminating profile of Hugh McDiarmid was remarkable: “Scotland today is culturally - never mind the politics - culturally - a nest of singing birds, a garden of delights. It is crammed with wonderful poets, novelists, writers of all kinds, artists, sculptors, composers, musicians. Culturally, Scotland is as self-confident as anywhere in Europe. And this was certainly not the case when Hugh MacDiarmid got started. Scotland is on fire. Who set the blaze? He did.”

Now, you’ll have to watch the programme on iPlayer to learn all of Marr’s caveats about MacDiarmid – that’s not my purpose in quoting the above. Whilst far from disagreeing with him about Scotland’s cultural position today, I was totally unsurprised that he failed to include the country’s architects in his list of positive contributors to this state of affairs. Unsurprised, because architecture is almost totally absent from the cultural sections of our newspapers and the programming of our radio and television companies - daily media that see no problem with reviewing art, cinema, literature, music and theatre but find great difficulty in distinguishing between run of the mill buildings and those that make a significant contribution to the cultural life of the nation. But also unsurprised because the architectural profession itself has been wholly deficient on two fronts: first, in creating enough outstanding buildings that in themselves demand wider public awareness and discussion, and second in failing to foster a climate in which such discussion can take place. 

The first of these points can be argued as being the result of lack of opportunity, but every one of the other groups of cultural contributors Marr listed has largely got on with the job, whilst architects have been conditioned to wait for that elusive perfect client. It’s time to ask ourselves the difficult question: has the profession fought hard enough to ensure the circumstances exist for outstanding architecture to be regularly commissioned and for our best architects to be employed in its creation? I think we all know the answer to that one – the profession has passively sat by and allowed design-build, framework agreements, PPP/PFI and other managerial constructs to pervade the procurement process before impotently complaining that these are all detrimental to the emergence of good architecture. Trouble is, when arguing against the slick advocates of a low-cost world that proposition places ‘architecture’ neatly on the side of high-cost and any case for its cultural importance and value simply evaporates as a result. 

Politically naïve and ineffectual, it’s high time to review the way in which the profession makes the political and public case for its role in society and the economy, a review that simply won’t be possible as long as it blindly accepts outmoded rules created by others with their own financial or professional interests to safeguard. Put even more simply, the status quo isn’t offering architects any future worth a damn and if we don't want to go the way of the dodo, we need to change the rules. Independence offers us that opportunity, and I’ll expand on how this might be achieved in forthcoming posts.

The second issue highlighted above – the failure of the profession itself to stimulate wider awareness and discussion of architecture is manifested in its total inability to produce material suited for application in the digital media world we nowadays inhabit. Not only does the profession need to get up to speed in creating its own broadcast material, it needs to get out there and sell it to a waiting digital world carnivorous for new protein with which to satisfy its 24-hour scheduling appetite. It can be done: architect manqué, Brad Pitt, produces excellent programmes on great architects and buildings for public broadcast television in the United States and whilst he undoubtedly has access to resources and contacts significantly greater than those collectively available to the architectural profession in Scotland, there are other, creative and affordable ways with which to skin this particular cat. 

What is required, however, is a strategy that joins up the dots of the resources already available to us – the Scottish Government’s architecture and place division, A+DS, our schools of architecture and the film making, journalism and event management courses and departments in our universities, to name but a few. Edinburgh Napier University has, for example, been producing outstanding film material at low cost (in fact, sponsored) for use on the Edinburgh International Festival’s website and there is no reason why the architectural profession couldn’t adopt a similar approach. The point here is to produce material that not only promotes discussion of new architecture and its creators but, importantly, promotes Scotland’s architectural talent to a wider world and to potential new commissions, whilst driving clients to not only appreciate the economic benefit to them of good architecture but also that they have a civic responsibility to ensure that it makes a positive contribution to the cultural vitality of the nation. 

Certainly - but if in any doubt, ask yourself again whether you think the current state of the profession is as good as it can ever get, or whether you think it possible to introduce positive change.

Certainly - presuming a collective will on the part of the profession to look outward and upward. Far more than money, this requires us as a profession to recover our ambition and confidence. 

Certainly - we just need to change direction and get off the apathetic, unimaginative path the profession has been following for far too long. 

Does all of this require Scotland to be independent before it can be achieved? 
Not entirely, but ask yourself why none of this has even been talked about to date?  Independence provides us with the catalyst for change the profession so urgently needs. It has to be grasped with both hands. 

31 August 2014

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