Architecture: Shaping the Background

Ross Aitchison | 11/07/2014 | 0 Comments

Architecture can play a significant role in the development of communities and wider society. It is architecture which provides the background for a nation; persistently it projects who we were, who we are and who we want to be. The last decade has changed Scottish society for the better, Scotland’s cultural output has grown and its architectural confidence risen.
It is perhaps particularly appropriate then that the background of Scotland was greatly enhanced the year before our national Parliament was reconvened. Scotland’s architects led the way for a post-devolution vision of what Scotland could be when the Museum of Scotland (1998, by Benson + Forsyth) transformed the architectural landscape, an outward expression of a nation stepping out of the shadows of Westminster Conservatism and into the light of a new social-democratic possibility. A wonder of the imagination the building is a maze-like entanglement of spaces expressing the complex forms and depth of castles and brochs whilst neatly addressing one of Scotland’s great streets. In merging the language of Scotland’s past with that of continental European modernists – especially recognisable are the forms associated with Le Corbusier – Benson + Forsyth set the tone for an architectural movement which allow the viewers to discover afresh the monuments of Scotland amongst a national architecture that is as much about looking out as it is in looking inwards.
The arrival of devolution brought with it fresh impetus to address Scotland, its society and its culture. Architecture was on the agenda as never before, the newly formed Scottish Executive adopting a national architecture policy (A policy on Architecture for Scotland (2001)) which recognised the value of our built environment. The document states:
We believe that it is a responsibility of government for three principal reasons. Firstly, because the quality of the built environment is important to the furtherance and delivery of our broader social and economic policy objectives; secondly, because a concern for the quality of new building is part of our responsibility for the maintenance and continuity of our built heritage; and thirdly, because the promotion of architecture is part of our responsibility for the promotion of national culture.”
A combination of policy and strong architectural heritage – with five UNESCO World Heritage Sites stretching from north to south across the country – was explored and exploited by a new generation of architects willing to express Scotland and her natural materials. Alongside contemporary Europeans such as Valerio Olgiati and Andrea Deplazes – who note the castles of Aberdeenshire as references in their revered work – Scots were re-engaging with a vernacular architecture. A generation taught by Andy MacMillan and the late Isi Metzstein (who practiced under the header of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia), were brought up amongst a culture of modernism with a socially-conscious northern outlook.
The addressing of vernacular forms has led to an architectural definition of two Scotland’s: the rural and the urban. Both define a background that has embraced a sophisticated and mature approach to our national architecture. Both highlight the distinctions of modern Scotland whilst expressing a new confidence found in an engaged and accountable community and nation.
The work of Rural Design and Dualchas on Skye have aligned themselves with the traditional forms of the Scots isles (and Scandinavia), manipulating the built heritage and giving new life to remote communities. Finding rich seams in the language of the ‘Black House’ these are offices wholeheartedly immersed in their context. They are small scale and socially conscious. The architects of Rural Design have engaged with the people of the isles, providing innovative solutions to build a number of projects that give young people the opportunity to continue to live on Skye. Alan Dickson of the office recently told a lecture at the University of Edinburgh that we must use our understandings of place and building as a palette off which to construct, by reinterpreting and re-understanding those traditional constructions our ancestors have perfected. Rural Design point the direction to a new understanding of material that forms a mature but still developing relationship between architecture and the land.
Fiscavaig. Rural Design Architects. 2011.
It is this relationship between the people of Scotland and the land that provided the basis for our the Scottish Parliament (2004) at the foot of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. Without delving into the deeply divisive politics of the decisions which brought it into being (of which I think we are all aware), the building at Holyrood has given Scotland an architectural wonder of world standing. Although a Catalan, Enric Miralles brought to life a building that is deeply Scottish in its character and its respectful (deferential even) relationship to the land. Whether exploring the crypt of the public foyer or gazing out of the committee room windows at a wild landscape one cannot help feeling proud of our Scots heritage and background. This is a building for all Scotland, a building hunkered into Salisbury Crags as if on a remote isle hiding from the rawness of the climate; respectful and subtle against the idiosyncrasies of the fishbone pattern of burgh Scotland. First First Minister Donald Dewar and his architect Enric Miralles left the people of Scotland a gift expressing their confidence in a new nation with the ability and foresight to step forward as a 21st Century democracy.
It is evident in the years since devolution and with the Holyrood project – either for good or bad – raising the profile of architecture in Scotland a series of public and private building’s of importance and quality have arisen that shape our collective background. Scots designed building’s such as Malcolm Fraser Architects’ Dance Base in Edinburgh (2001), Gareth Hoskins Architects’ Culloden Battlefield Centre (2008), Reiach and Hall’s Pier Arts Centre in Stromness (2008) and Page and Park Architects’ Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park HQ (2008) show a new maturity in large scale projects in various contexts across the country. This corresponded with world class architects placing buildings across Scotland, such as Frank Gehry’s Maggie’s Centre in Dundee (2003) and Zaha Hadid’s Riverside Museum in Glasgow (2011) which have further tapped into the national consciousness.
All of these are building’s that address the varied nature of Scotland, post-industrial wastelands, tight city blocks or soft landscapes of toil and turmoil. They act with strength and a knowing awareness of history, culture and society. In instances they are comfortable disappearing into the background, architecture at balance with the weight of history around. They have furthered a sense of identity and fearlessness, they are robust and innovative, they are uniquely Scottish and have shifted the architectural debate in Scotland.
As the architectural landscape has moved in Scotland, so has the political context. 2011 changed Scotland as the election of an SNP majority government provided a mandate for a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future. The debate has now begun and is gaining traction across all of Scots society. A major influence can be had in this debate in presenting a vision for a new Scotland by the nations architects with Jennifer Dempsie writing recently in ‘The Scotsman’ newspaper:
Looking forward to the referendum campaign, I just wonder what Scotland’s creative legacy will be from this period? Will our poets, musicians, film makers and gamers reflect on the challenges and possibilities of independence, in search of perfect progress to take Scotland forward. If so, what impact will that have on the political discourse and the people of Scotland?”
“Being able to visualize what an independent Scotland would look like is perhaps something that our artist friends are better equipped to do, painting a picture of Scotland which is independent with their creativity and inhibition.”
As Scotland embarks on a road over the next two years to debate the shape of the society we see ourselves in, the acts of our cultural ‘ambassadors’ will play a prominent role. It is perhaps fitting then that it was as the constitutional debate sparked into life that two of Scotland’s cultural institutions re-emerged following extensive renovation. Gareth Hoskins Architects’ National Museum of Scotland (20011) and Page and Park’s National Portrait Gallery (2011) have allowed the people of Scotland to re-engage with their past whilst imagining the Scotland they want to see in the future. These subtle and understated works reinforce the qualities of two Scottish institutions. The architectural character of both emphasise clearly a sense of what Scotland was, but most importantly the work of their architects has provided us with places to question what we want to be.
National Museum of Scotland. Gareth Hoskins Architects. 2011.
Scotland’s most prominent architectural historian and commentator, Miles Glendinning, has perhaps already pre-empted our direction of travel. In his assessment of Dundee House (2011) by Reiach and Hall Architects Glendinning places the development of a new home for Dundee City Council against its political and social context. This is a new building formed within the shell of a building that is Dundee; serving as both a former Jute mill and later as print house for DC Thomson, it is given new life as the civic heart of a city transforming itself into a world leading centre for bio-technology and computer science.
Dundee House. Reiach and Hall Architects. 2011.
The Modernist source from which they (Reiach and Hall Architects) sprang was not the ‘late Modernism’ that anticipated iconic individualism and a reliance on poetic solutions. It was the earlier form of Modernism from the 1950s and 1960s, shaped by socially-integrated precedents of early post-war Scandinavia. It was a phase of Modernism that took for granted a decorous balance of monumental public buildings, background architecture, and buildings of intermediate character – like Dundee House.
Reiach and Hall continued building in this way throughout, and despite the showy Postmodern and neo-Modernist years, they are still doing so today through the work of a new generation of designers led by Neil Gillespie.
The sense of integrity that pervades Reiach and Hall’s Dundee complex is not just the expression of yet another fashion, a suspicion that lingers around the work of some London-based practitioners of the ‘new sobriety’. It is an imprint in the genetic code of the practice. A sense of socially embedded decorum is not unique to Reiach and Hall but is shared by other contemporary Scottish firms such as PagePark or Malcolm Fraser.
It is not too far-fetched to see this new, confident sense of social integrity within contemporary Scottish Modernism as the architectural expression of a growing gulf between Scotland and England in social policy, as the SNP government stands aside from Westminster’s reckless assault on the welfare state south of the border.”
I am a child of devolution, a student of a devolved architecture, a young adult ready to practice in a nation discussing the future shape of our society. The years since devolution have taught us much, we must look back with pride at our built heritage but follow the lead of people such as Neil Gillespie and look out as well as in to move forward with purpose.
Let our architecture provide the backdrop to the early days of a re-awakened nation.
Ross Aitchison
Architecture Blogger
Glendinning, M., 2011. Dundee House, Dundee, by Reiach and Hall. Architects Journal, (2011, 21st July)
Dempsie, J., 2012. Art of creating an independent point of view. The Scotsman (2012)
A Policy on Architecture for Scotland (2001)

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