Scottish Architecture Unlimited - unleashing the talent

Peter Wilson | 10/09/2014 | 0 Comments

We live in times of constant change, but change is not the same thing as risk and if we want to have assurances about the future we really need to be in control of our own destiny. The starting question for architects in Scotland therefore has to be is this as good as it gets, or can we do better?

More than any other profession, architects are trained to anticipate, plan, design and implement change. We are also trained to lead the way in developments or ideas and as such have a unique opportunity to be in the vanguard of the construction of a new Scotland. A stronger, wealthier and more influential profession is possible as a result. So what’s stopping us? 

Since this discussion has been brought about by the imminent referendum on independence for Scotland, we should probably begin our answer with our political position. It would be fair to say that the profession’s traditional apolitical stance has hardly been to its benefit over the past 35 years (since we last had an opportunity to vote on independence) and as a consequence, architects in Scotland currently have no collective strength, little lobbying influence and are frequently sidelined by the industry they work within. 

Yes, we have an architectural policy - ‘Creating Places’ - that aims to “put the design & development sector at the heart of a low carbon economy; provide greater international recognition for the Scottish design industry; and encourage greater involvement of young people in the built environment & creative design sector.” The ambition underlying the policy is to “embed design and place in a variety of policy areas and working practices” but unfortunately it has no statutory deliverables. Having extensively lobbied in 1999 for a policy on architecture for Scotland, I now believe that after this current, third iteration concludes we need to ensure our next policy on architecture works for architects. Fundamentally, we need a policy that is closely aligned to the country’s industrial policy – ‘Re-Industrialising Scotland for the 21st Century: A Sustainable Industrial Strategy for a Modern Independent Nation’ (June 2014) - and use the Architects for Yes manifesto as our starting point.

So what is this manifesto? Architects for Yes believe good architecture and design are essential elements in making people’s lives better & that Scotland’s architects can make a positive & significant contribution to the way in which environmental improvement is conceived & manifested. In doing so, our architects can deliver substantial added value to the nation’s economic & social wellbeing. The provision of substantial numbers of new and affordable homes lies at the heart of this ambition to create a new and visibly better Scotland, followed closely by the design of our schools and healthcare facilities since these have a profound effect on people’s lives: done well these resources can improve the wellbeing & vitality of the nation but done badly they become a drain on the country’s economy & an impediment to people achieving their full potential. The nation’s economic health is also strongly dependent upon the quality of environment that people work within and poor quality workspace design is not conducive to employee satisfaction and productivity.

To deliver on these manifesto aspirations, we need to look beyond conventional building types to different forms of architecture that are fully integrated with the country’s renewables strategy. Rethinking the way we construct our built environment can provide a significant contribution to the re-industrialisation of Scotland - new approaches to building design require innovation in material & product development that can bring fresh stimulus to the country’s manufacturing sector. These new paradigms can support an export strategy that, led by architectural services, can take our manufacturing & construction sectors into new and valuable international markets. 

Scotland’s rich resource of architectural talent can provide much of the vision & energy needed to create the better built environment envisaged here, but the opportunity to deliver it requires the country to have full control over its own decision making, fiscal arrangements, resources and welfare system. Only independence is likely to provide the essential components we need if we are to effect the changes necessary to unleash the talent that exists within the profession. Fundamentally, we need to create new opportunities for the many and varied constituencies that exist within the profession and in doing so we need to make sure we properly reward excellence – bunce, not baubles.

In following this path, we need to make the practice of architecture fit for the 21st century to ensure the profession once again has a value to the broader community. We urgently need to demonstrate new & innovative ways of creating housing, workplaces, health & education facilities. Put simply, we need to take charge of our own destiny & create projects that can take the profession in Scotland towards full and sustainable employment. 

Creating projects is easy to say but less easy to deliver, but we have an abundance of skills that should allow us to look outward, not inward and to direct our energies towards identifying new market opportunities into which we can export our services. 
Doing so can also stimulate our manufacturing & construction sectors into these new markets: if we allow - and support - our architects to take the lead on this, other sections of our economy can follow and prosper. 

There are bigger markets than Scotland and the Commonwealth is the most obvious large open door, but to enter it Scotland needs to be accepted as a member (which is not possible under current arrangements, despite us having our own team in the Commonwealth Games) - a development that is only possible with independence. Similarly, the EU’s open market requires many of the specialist services we have to offer, but we need to look harder at those OJEU opportunities that exist outside of Scotland and further develop the skills and experience required to successfully enter these international markets. 

More opportunities to practice these skills are therefore essential, with a need for more demonstration projects such as those provided by the Scottish Scenic Routes initiative on which young architects can gain technological knowledge and expertise. The related student projects are giving our future architects experience of a consistent competition system, something that has been sorely lacking for a very long time. And the fact that low cost projects developed even at this level are generating considerable international press coverage indicates the added value of this kind of integrated initiative to our tourism, design and construction sectors. 

But we need to initiate many more opportunities of this sort to ensure other sectors of our profession can also develop the skills to respond to new opportunities: genuine continuing professional development based on real projects instead of manufacturers’ spiel. More than 70% of practices in Scotland are comprised of ten people or less (and consequently considered by public agencies as micro-businesses) and we need to develop new ways to mobilise this rich resource to gain maximum benefit from the many synergies possible. Independence offers us the opportunity to galvanise the profession and shake off the last 35 years of relative torpor that have passed since we last had the opportunity to vote on this subject. 

The decision’s simple: you either believe the current state of affairs really is as good as it can ever get for architects in Scotland or you can vote for real & lasting change. This is not about party politics: it’s about creating the circumstances in which architects can once again make a positive contribution to the society we want to be part of. 

Peter Wilson is an architect, writer and director of the Wood Studio, a specialist research centre within Edinburgh Napier University’s Institute for Sustainable Construction

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