The Beauty of Utility by Malcolm Fraser
I’m a great softie, especially for home and country matters: I can well-up just re-watching James McFadden’s wondrous goal for Scotland against France at the Parc des Princes, or at jangly pop genius Edwin Collins’ will to live and make music after a cerebral haemorrhage left him able to say only four phrases, repeated over and over: “yes”, “no”, “Grace Maxwell” (his wife’s name) and “the possibilities are endless” (the sweetest, and most practical, emergency toolkit of the soul I can imagine). Or when my old Mum tells me that bus drivers might just be the most important people in town, spreading good or ill-will as they go, and that Scotland must be becoming a nicer place as they seem more cheerful these days. So you might conclude that I’m a simple National Romantic, programmed by nature to grasp the opportunity to “image a better Scotland” full of cheery bus drivers, extraordinary footballing success and – in the world I inhabit – architects who will build a better Scotland by being set free to express themselves; but I’m also a pragmatist, with a deep suspicion of the Brigadoon this dreams us.
The younger me was wide-eyed and naïve. At Devolution I dreamed that a Celtic Nirvana of tolerance, mutual-support and fantastic buildings would open-up for us. Devolution has, I agree, let us care a bit more for key public institutions like the National Health Service, and a bit less for demonising the poor and disadvantaged; but it still feels like Neoliberal-lite, with a succession of Scottish Governments in thrall, first and foremost, to the financial geniuses of RBS and HBOS and the business models that powered Rangers, architects RMJM and Donald Trump’s golf empire, and to towers of moral integrity such as Cardinal Keith O’Brien.
And bus drivers might be nicer today but the way we build is not. A debt-led property boom has swept through Scotland with a bust behind it and has left, in its wake, dumb suburbs, placeless out-of-town sheds and shallow, meretricious public buildings. Architectural commentator Owen Hatherley wrote, of new development in Edinburgh, that it was “shameful in a city with an architectural legacy like this… in any city this would be a scandal, let alone one as rich as this, with architects as talented, in a capital that has not exactly been short of investment.”
Such Edinburgh comments could apply to all of Scotland, but there’s something rotten in how the whole of Britain builds. There’s frustration here at how many continental neighbours seem to expect, and achieve, new development of a superior quality to ours; but even on a pure cost basis it is often-remarked, but remarkably-unexamined, that the construction industry that delivers such questionable product is generally more expensive than our neighbours’: that every house or School costs more to build, as does every metre of new railway line. A river of money flows into the property industry, but by the time it gets to actually building something it’s a dry trickle, siphoned off by the financiers (Britain’s “Public Private Partnerships”, for instance, have been a racket which makes the corruption of building in Russia appear like value-for-money), lawyers and gatekeepers, consultants and boxtickers. Britain leads the world in proclaiming the primacy of process over outcome.
As for the status of Architecture in Scotland it has plummeted, from something that might, at its most socially-responsible, be understood to be about forming the places and spaces in which we are more or less happy, creative and economically-effective, to what the Scottish Government’s ex-Chairman of Rangers-led Procurement initiatives describe as a “supply chain component” (i.e. bare, process-focussed minimum, and nae joy, beauty or even craft), defined and led by bankers and massive construction conglomerates. We’re toiling, as a result: all large new public buildings in Scotland go to non-Scots architects; and, having no access to work, no young practices are emerging to challenge our brief, pre-Devolution flowering of talent.
So here’s the result of my examination of the bad we build, and my hope for building better, in a future Scotland. First, it is my contention that the single, simple reason behind our failure to make good buildings and good new places in Britain is that the process of making them has become the end in itself, and the actual, physical building, at the end of that process, incidental, or at best secondary. And that such change simply reflects the fundamental shift in Britain, post 1979, from a culture that values making things, to a service one: that the business of modern Britain is the slew of complex financing and financial instruments, deals and legal structures, asset-trading and bundling, marketing and spin-doctoring that underpins our Neoliberal economy; and that if we might label that as Thatcherite, then what Brownite New Labour added to it was a maze of consultation and micro-regulation (for after deregulating the big, important things, it’s a simple displacement activity to over-regulate the small).
So when I’m asked why a new building or built environment is no good my response is that nobody asked it to be any good – they asked it to deliver a whole load of other things, some of which (through Planning and other Statutory processes) had an oblique relationship to making a good building but many of which, including its financial, legal and procurement components, may well have been actively parasitic upon it. Process leads and demands precedence over product, so that a multi-million pound building project that generates complex deals and vast consultancy fees and financial profit, but produces shiny rubbish that serves its future occupants badly for a bare minimum of time before falling apart, has done the job that was demanded of it. (And sometimes a successful process might produce even less than that shiny rubbish: an empty city centre site is often a grand, financial success, having generated large profits and consultancy fees as it’s traded ever upward, until there’s not even a tiny trickle of money left to build on it – thus requiring the developers to demand the release of cheap greenbelt farmland from the Planning system, so the trading cycle can start again.)
My contention, then, in summary, is that we have developed an institutionalised, British and Neoliberal contempt for making in general: for manufacturing and industry as for the simple craft of building well. My vision for Scotland is for us to recover our joy in craft in general and, in the built environment, the simple utility of building. Utilitarianism is a beautiful philosophy – far from the dreary meaning that the word “utilitarian” has evolved – that embraces anything that puts the maximum amount of happiness, for the maximum number of people, as its aim. It gets the basics right, thus letting good, or even great, architecture flourish in its fertile soil. Here are some examples of what utilitarianism in the built environment does and where we fail it, today:
In hospital design the Victorians understood the simple utilitarian value of sunshine falling on a bed, a window that opens for fresh air and a view out that window of a tree, and recent research in the United States has demonstrated that hospitals that have these qualities assist people to recover, and so be sent home, around 17% quicker, as well as take the same amount fewer painkillers. Such reductions across the NHS would save billions, as well as returning us to home and productive work earlier; yet while the old, city centre Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, with its fingers of Nightingale-plan wards stretching out to the sun and green of the Meadows park, demonstrated these qualities perfectly, it has been replaced by a new Royal Infirmary in a dank hollow out by the ring road, composed of zipped-up wards (no opening windows allowed) enclosing sterile courts, with views out of nothing but endless car parks; while the proposed new Royal Edinburgh Hospital – the region’s main psychiatric facility, for goodness sake! – features the same sterile courtyard planning, guaranteed to wither the poor souls committed to it. The briefs for both these buildings would have been vast, dense and complex documents, delivered by truck, but nowhere have they established the simple, healing utility of: sun; fresh air; a view of a tree.
You see the same disengagement in the new homes we build. Look anywhere in Scotland and you see tightly-packed new suburbs, without any engagement with the landscape they sit in or awareness of the importance to us of our occasional, welcome sun. So when I design homes I do it around the utilitarian simplicities of sunshine and gathering places: a south-facing living room, a garden to tumble into that’s sunny and good to kick a ball in, and somewhere to meet your neighbours for a barbeque. But my practice is designing Council Housing (such a nice thing, given the failures of the market!) and have a confusion of around eight different briefs to follow – all mandatory but all contradictory. The simple imperatives of sunshine and gathering space are incidental to them, as to the blizzard of consultation and validation processes that we have to wade through. And although my practice has built communities that deliver these homely, utilitarian things – and are, as a result, loved, and whose homes sell well – it’s very hard to win work on this basis when quality of output is incidental to the primacy of the process. It’s not the quality of buildings and communities we make that counts here but the quantity of those utter incidentals, such as my office’s environmental emergency response processes (whatever they are)… or, more accurately, not even them that matter but the “innovations we have made in them over the last year” and the certificates we can supply to prove such innovations and – most of all – the reams of nonsense we must write to spin it all. What’s gone wrong with us that we are so unsure of things that are real that we make important choices based on such incidentals?
Anchoring architectural practice in utility recovers for us a way of valuing the usefulness of architecture: for instance, if we build nice, sunny offices, with windows that can open, then our office workers are happier – and we can measure this as they are off sick less and are more productive. Or we might note that pupils in schools with lots of daylight are better behaved and learn faster. And it’s extraordinary how buildings from the past demonstrate these truths so much more clearly: as an architect with a record in finding happy new uses for old buildings I get asked by Local Authorities in Scotland to do this for the old Victorian Schools they have abandoned; and I look at these sturdy buildings’ solid stonework, with hundreds of sustainable years of life left in them, their large, learning-promoting windows and their locations at the heart of their communities and I report back to my Local Authority friends: that they would make great Schools – far better than that glitzy, teeny-windowed, 20-year lifespan thing that they’ve built out past the ring road, that pupils can’t walk to anymore.
I get skelped. They don’t want to hear – as my industry doesn’t want to hear – that these old buildings are worth renewing, as there is not enough process that can feed on simple renewal: not enough deals, land transfers, consultancies and funding mechanisms, and educationalists lecturing us about new curriculum models or design advisors with their urbanist doublespeak. My industry loves its landfill-cycle: build, ignore, demonise as “unfit for purpose” (the roof needs thousands to repair… so we must spend millions to replace) then send to landfill; build, ignore, demonise, landfill; and on-and-on – see how Glasgow, in particular, tears at itself every cycle and note, most recently, the community evicted and beautiful red sandstone tenement streets demolished for the Commonwealth Games Village, all for the sin of being insufficiently “aspirational”, and the attempted Red Road Flats Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony international self-abasement.
The landfill cycle, with its absurd “regeneration” bluster, destroys community to enrich the process industry that drives it – and nowhere more clearly than in its disgusting tax regime, which penalises repair and renewal with 20% VAT and rewards demolition and newbuild with a 5% or zero rate. For reasons of simplicity, sustainability, jobs (repair being more labour and less resource-intensive) and real regeneration it is essential that we equalise VAT on newbuild and renewal – and research shows that a flat 5% would retain, or even improve the tax-take. In a world of resource depletion and man-made climate change a simple, utilitarian view of the built environment would view it as a precious resource, that must not be squandered but needs nurtured, repaired and renewed, by the joyful re-use of sound, old buildings but also by the protection and enhancement, with beautiful new buildings, of our existing urban centres, which are under threat from car-dependant, dispersed out-of-town developments and new, branded, green-washed “eco-towns” that are seldom more than car-dependent suburbs built on cheap farmland and whose purpose is to sook the middle class money out the old town nearby.
Architecture, as we practice it today, is horribly torn between a wide-eyed, romantic view of the creative artist and the mind-numbing sterility of the process-drone. The first sits on a pedestal, occasionally indulged for the odd trophy building but more likely deployed as a sort of attempted magic dust, to sprinkle over the rubbish that process spits out, in a vain attempt to bolt-on some scenic qualities. I distrust this idea, of architecture as magic dust, just as I distrust the romantic notion I might have once had that what Scotland needed was for its architects to be set free and unhindered, for experience tells us that there is little more damaging to the built environment than architects guided by nothing but their own egos. The best, truest form of freedom – of course – is the one that, like a parent’s, is prescribed by responsibility. I believe in an architect’s responsibility towards society, and how a nation that defines its ambitions towards the built environment in utilitarian terms can set a context within which the art of architecture can flourish. As for the delivery of this our existing Planning System is a mess of boxticks, with no clear idea at its heart of what it is asking for. The beauty of utility is that it can answer that big question, of why we build.
Our buildings, villages, towns and cities are a precious resource which should be nurtured with care and renewed with joy, our focus always on the utilitarian simplicities of sun, nature and gathering places. The beauty of utility – the possibilities are endless.
comments : Very sound, responsible and utterly inspiring read. Good on you Malcolm