Whither architecture in Scotland post 18 September?

Peter Wilson | 18/08/2014 | 0 Comments

Scotland is home to around 4000 architects, approximately three quarters of whom are members of the RIAS, their representative professional institution. Scotland has five schools of architecture, located in its four major cities. It has an executive, non-departmental public body, Architecture + Design Scotland and an architecture centre, the Lighthouse, in Glasgow. On the face of it therefore, the country has considerable riches in architectural talent and resources which, properly directed and motivated, ought to be able to make a substantial contribution to the economy of a nation of 5.33 million inhabitants* and gross domestic product of almost £130 billion (2010). 

We are, therefore, as the Yes campaign accurately maintains, a relatively wealthy country per head of population - if we look at things on a purely economic basis. Trouble is, the wealth is not spread evenly and, as regards the nation’s employment of its architects to deliver substantive environmental and societal change in return for its investment in their education, hardly measured at all.  Fundamentally, Scotland’s architects need to value their worth more effectively. 

The figures given above show that we average one architect for every 1332 members of the population, perhaps too many in times of financial downturn but, as we know from experience, not enough when the country’s economy overheats. And it is the peaks and troughs of the country’s economic wellbeing that so affect the fortunes of the profession and its ability to plan and deliver over the longer term, with recurring recessions seeming to affect the construction industry longer and harder each time. 

And so we wait patiently on these occasions for a return to what is considered ‘normal’, but this seems to be an ever more elusive target, with the circumstances of practice subtly altered for the worse with every economic bounce back. Does it really need to be this way? If not, why have we as a profession - and with little more than some self-indulgent and largely unheard whimpers - allowed circumstances to dictate our destinies so adversely? Is this new austere world without end really the dream of the future you had when you entered your architectural studies or has it simply overtaken you without you even noticing? 

As with so many other parts of society, we as architects seem to have blindly accepted the rhetoric of austerity, i.e. that there is no alternative and that the weak need to suffer over the longer term in order that the financial services sector survives. Trouble is, this latter part of the economy has been unable or inclined - despite colossal governmental support using the taxes you and I provide – to reform itself and find a way to rebuild the financial foundation it so casually and cynically destroyed. 

So what’s to be done? More importantly, what can we do to rectify the situation the profession finds (or has allowed) itself to be in and how can we ensure a stronger and collectively more stable and financially rewarding basis upon which to practice in future?  Before setting out some scenarios, I’d ask you to be open minded and indeed to ask yourself whether – even if the economy can be returned to its overheated pre-2008 condition– you think that was about as good as it could possibly get for you as a practitioner, or are you receptive to other propositions designed to significantly improve the overall position of architects and architecture in Scotland? If yes to the first and decidedly no to the second of these questions, stop now – nothing I will write is likely to bring you out of your stupor. If yes to both, read on. 

Since it’s the hot topic of the moment, let’s start with finance and the resources available that could conceivably be applied more effectively. Between your ARB Registration fee and your RIAS (or RIBA) membership subscription, you pay out somewhere between £240 and £465 per year depending on how many years you’ve been qualified. Looking at the most recent RIAS accounts (published in RIAS Quarterly, Summer 2014) it seems the Incorporation had a declared income of just over £1m last year, a little bit down on 2012. But it’s £1m nonetheless, which when added to the near £0.5m ARB takes from Scottish based architects in registration fees is, on the face of it, a reasonably tidy sum. I’ll ignore the current, perfectly legitimate, expenditure by each for the moment.

Then there’s A+DS, as described earlier as an executive NDPB, which to you and me is an arms length agency almost wholly funded by the Scottish Government. Now I know many of you will not have a scooby about what A+DS does, but it’s sort of linked to SGs Policy on Architecture and clearly aspires to be the agency for its delivery. Not that you’d know this because I’ll bet many of you haven’t ever read ‘Creating Places - the policy statement on architecture and place for Scotland’ that was published only last year. Too busy? C’mon. Seriously, there’s a lot of interesting information in it, albeit larded, as in its two previous iterations, with a fair amount of goody-two-shoes stuff. But back to A+DS, an organization I suspect hasn’t impacted too much on your life or practice. Last year it had an astonishing £2.211m in revenues, but once staff costs of £1.13m are stripped out, just under £1m left to apply to it’s task (a topic I’ll come back to in later posts). 

Now, it’s not my intention here to attack ARB, the RIAS or A+DS, but merely to show that, collectively, over £3.5m is being spent in Scotland on the administration of architecture in Scotland and to ask whether this is the most effective way to apply this total sum if we are seriously to improve the status and employment prospects of architects in the future? I haven’t taken the trouble here to add in the considerable resources that exist in our five schools of architecture since, being within universities, they’re fairly byzantine financial operations, but cumulatively they certainly have useful resources and my proposition in forthcoming posts on this topic will be how some of these might be applied more effectively to the future betterment of architecture and practice in Scotland.

As I said, please remain open minded here as the plan is to offer a series of propositions for discussion each day and through the coming weeks, and to then ask you if you still think you don’t have enough information or believable options or that the status quo being offered by Better Together really is as good as it’s ever likely to get for you. So, please stick with it and by 18th September I hope we’ll all be feeling a lot more optimistic about what we can do to take greater control over our professional lives and prospects in an independent Scotland. 

* By way of comparison, Norway has 4.986m inhabitants and 3600 architects whilst Denmark has 5.58m people and a truly astonishing 9800 architects. Finland, the third northern country of similar size (5.4m) has 3250 architects. Scotland is not therefore, substantially different from its northern neighbours. 


15 August 2014

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