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Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Bread for the board in the Bakehouse & On the Square, PartII

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June 10 2009

Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Bread for the board in the Bakehouse & On the Square, PartII
Bread for the board in the Bakehouse
Regular Wrap readers will recall my review a few weeks go of the Scottish Government’s review of A+DS, a document that proved to be thick only with the things it didn’t say and whose conclusions were difficult to comprehend on the basis of the things it did say. At the time (the end of April), the incumbents of SAD’s Bakehouse Close headquarters did what was expected of them and ‘welcomed’ the Review’s recommendations, Chair Raymond Young going so far as to say it would “enable us to move forward positively with the Minister and his officials and to focus on priority themes with the design and planning communities that help deliver a well-designed, sustainable Scotland.” Chief Executive Sebastian Tombs echoed these sentiments with “this Review gives A+DS a clear remit to champion the opportunities that planning reform offers to create better buildings and spaces in Scotland.”

The most telling comment, however, came from Culture Minister Michael Russell MSP, who was quoted as saying: “I am pleased that Raymond Young and his Board have welcomed the outcome of the Review positively. I and officials in our Architecture and Place Division will be working closely with the Board and staff to ensure the recommendations of the Review are implemented to ensure (sic) the full potential of the organisation is realised.” And so, just as a vote of confidence from the chairman of the proverbial football club is generally seen as being less than good news for the incumbent manager, Sebastian Tombs last week announced his resignation from the organisation he has served for the past four years.

In all likelihood you won’t read this anywhere else, but don’t be at all surprised to see each of the positions on the new Board advertised in the very near future. After all, if the Review’s proposal is that members are to be paid, it seems only sensible to ensure that the very best people are identified to sit on it. The current job market for architects being what it is, I somehow don’t think there will be a shortage of stellar applications.

On the Square, Part II
As predicted in the Wrap at the end of April, the ‘detailed’ feasibility study commissioned and paid for by Scottish Enterprise and wholly supported by Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future (the latter, in contradiction with its name, having no funds worth talking about) has concluded that the new £100-140m public square proposed by oil tycoon Sir Ian Wood could be a goer. Halliday Fraser Munro, the consultants appointed by the grandees of Grampian, were never likely to suggest otherwise and so the notion that furrybootville could have a new public space “to rival London’s Trafalgar Square” “within the next five years” continues to have some sort of currency. Not real currency of course – Aberdeen is after all a city of virtual economics in which the councillors have a fabulously rosy picture of things but sadly no comprehension of reality, And this is the problem, or one of them, because – as long-time Wrap readers will recall – Sir Ian wants no truck with Brisac Gonzalez’ competition-winning £15m project for Peacock Visual Arts that was proposed for this self same site and will only pitch in the £40m he has offered if their scheme is dumped in favour of his rather less than spectacular proposals. Oh, and only if the penniless council and you and me as taxpayers in Scotland come up with the other £60-100m required to fulfil his grandiose ambitions.  Nice one Ian.

As a Wrap reader you will by this stage of course have realised how things work in Aberdeen and its surrounding shire (be patient: more on the Donald next week) so it will be no surprise to you that the views of Sir Ian – a former chair of Scottish Enterprise – have taken a bit more precedence in the minds of the wide-topped wellie wearers than the eminently deliverable reality of the Peacock Visual Arts Centre (if in doubt, go to Brisac Gonzalez website - www.brisacgonzalez.com - to see international examples of this firm’s work).

So, just so there’s no confusion here: Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future (ACSEF) has agreed that the project should progress to the next stage – which, given the financial black hole the country is currently in – is sure to mean more public money being spent on studying the fine art of fantasy. That said, since this next stage is supposed to include public consultation “on the best viable options for creating a new heart for our city centre”, can I suggest that Wrap readers contact ACSEF and its board members (www.acsef.co.uk) with their thoughts on what most people understand by the word ‘viable’. While you’re at it, you could also write to the new leader of the Council, Barney Crockett (bcrockett@aberdeencity.gov.uk) and let him know that what he considers to be the “most magnificent public gesture of my lifetime” is not actually a project of a quality the rest of us feel inclined to underwrite to the tune of £100m. As John McAslan said at the RIAS convention, it’s time for architects to get more political – after all, if we don’t stand up for real quality in architecture and urban design, we can’t expect others to do it for us.

Decoding Caltongate
Equally contentious and equally political is the Caltongate site in Edinburgh’s Old Town. This particular story has been running for a while now, most recently because the developer Mountgrange went belly up. This caused a moment of consternation at the City of Edinburgh Council since it had bent over backwards to accommodate the company - even to the point of throwing in a parcel of Common Good land for them to make some money from – but the worthy councillors and officers have clearly decided to keep their heads down for a little while until the dust settled on the ultimate ownership of the site. So, in a world where building duck houses and cleaning moats is apparently well within the prevailing rules it should not be a surprise to discover that the previous owners of the development company could be allowed to buy back the land at a much reduced price from the administrators and thereby ensure everything proceeds as before – unless of course you are a Mountgrange creditor in which case you’ll be mightily dischuffed that such cowboy action could be permissible.

On top of this, the Council has been distinctly quiet on the fact that Unesco has produced a damning report on the impact of the whole development on the Old Town World Heritage Site and has demanded the scheme be returned to the drawing board. The Council actually received this report as long ago as February, but emu-like it has kept its collective head in the sand in the hope that this particular storm will pass it by. Unfortunately, it won’t as the report will be tabled at the World Heritage summit in Seville next month and if – as expected – it is approved, the chaps in the Chambers will have a bit of a public dilemma to resolve. Whilst others such as James Simpson of Simpson & Brown Architects – a leading critic of the project - are calling for a bit of reflection and humility on the part of the Council, its Planning Convenor Jim Lowrie seems more than a little sanguine in stating that “a decision on the Caltongate has been considered and agreed by the planning committee. We are of course aware of the comments made by Unesco in their draft report and we await the outcome of the World Heritage Committee later this month.” All of which is code for “if the ex-Mountgrange guys come back to the table with the re-purchased site and the funding to develop it according to the plans already approved, we as councillors will happily kiss goodbye to World Heritage Site status since it has in any case only been a continuing source of bother to us.”

Tall tales at Pinnochio Tower
The other project in the capital with Unesco troubles is of course Richard Murphy’s Haymarket hotel scheme, the public inquiry about which continued last week. Now Richard is no stranger to controversy and the Wrap has often remarked on his genius for generating pr in adversity – indeed it would be a remarkable project of his that didn’t command some press coverage about the public’s inability to understand the genius of (and behind) the particular proposal – but it has to be said he has attracted some strange and not too effective bedfellows on this one. First up last week was Edinburgh Council ‘design advisor’, Lawrence Dowdell who had the misfortune to be cross-examined by former Solicitor General Lord McCluskey who, armed with skyline charts happily provided by the Cockburn Association, showed that the sun would not rise above the 17 storey hotel in the winter months, thereby consigning nearby Grosvenor Street (and the ‘exclusive’ Hilton Grosvenor Hotel) to eternal shadow. Lawrence, agreeable chap that he is and an architect of 27 years experience (not, of course synonymous with the same year repeated 27 times), conceded that such an outcome was “likely”, thereby demonstrating handsomely why some consider the Council’s planning response to this project to have been a mite less than scrupulous.

He did however argue against the suggestion that Council had ignored its own rules by approving the scheme even though a local plan for the area showed that recommended that any new landmark in the area should be no more than six storeys high. Despite the local shadowing problem, Lawrence insisted the Murphy design would enhance the city’s skyline, create a new major landmark for the capital and would not have an impact from the best known viewpoints in the city, including Edinburgh Castle.

Still rules are rules as they say, and architect and planner Charles Strang wellied in at this point to state that, in his opinion, the proposed development was in contravention of no less than 23 local policies pertaining to planning and conservation in the city, a viewpoint compounded the following day by Professor Herb Stovel, reputed to be one of the world’s foremost conservation experts and who was behind a major study that led the city securing the bothersome World Heritage Site status in the first place. Prof. Stovel said it would be “hard to argue” that a development 30 feet from the boundary of said Site should not maintain harmony with immediately adjacent properties within the Unesco-recognised area and went into such detail on this that Roy Martin QC, representing Tiger Developments, accused him of “betraying his independence” by supporting the Cockburn Association’s oppositional stance, a suggestion the Professor countered by stating he was appearing at the Inquiry in a private capacity. All very civilised; all very Edinburgh.

And so to Mark Steele, a landscape planning and design expert who was engaged to speak on the Cockburn Association’s behalf and whose professional conclusion was that the project would indeed have a huge impact on famous views of the city and set a precedent for future developments. Quoting from a Council review of high buildings, Mr Steele delivered a telling statement, viz: “if the essential qualities of the skylines of the World Heritage Site are to remain visible from around the city, any further upward creep of roof-top height will need to be prevented.”

As with the first week of the Inquiry though, the true star was Lord McCluskey who, irascibly accused the developer and Council officials of producing “deliberately misleading” evidence about the impact of the proposed hotel’s height. As perhaps only a legal lord can get away with, he pronounced that there was widespread belief in the area that the Council and its officials had been “corrupted by the overwhelming desire to raise money somehow in order to fill the gap in the city’s finances” and, to top this off, he launched into an outspoken attack against Richard Murphy, accusing him of laughing off criticism of the scheme.” Lord McC’s actual words on this bear repetition: “The city belongs not to architects laughingly dismissive of public opinion and hoping to make a personal impact on the city… it belongs to its citizens, to the people of Scotland whose capital it is and to all who respect our history and its built heritage. It also belongs to our descendants.” All of which sounds as if Richard’s application to join the New Club is not going well.

McCluskey wasn’t finished though, albeit that the developer’s lawyer’s clearly wanted no more of his assault. No, in a remarkable – perhaps even unprecedented – challenge to them, the former Solicitor General accused the team representing the Council and the developer of failing to properly cross-examine him and thereby failing to do their jobs properly. Either Lord McCluskey knows something we don’t about shoo-in Public Inquiries or he was just miffed that, after all these years, his own moment in court was just that. Whatever, that was the end of the Inquiry and now we wait for Scottish Government reporter Dannie Onn to tell us whether or not Richard can start slapping out architectural award applications in advance of construction. After all this delay, our man in Fishmarket Close will want to get back on programme.

And finally…
Like you, I didn’t get an invite either to the opening of the Missoni, Edinburgh’s newest and swishest five star hotel now standing on the site of the old and unlamented Lothian Region headquarters on the corner of the High Street and George IV Bridge. Unlike Caltongate (above) this project has proved to be much less contentious for Allan Murray Architects and indeed has so far encountered only positive press coverage. Not much has been said about the architecture yet, mind you, an aberration probably due to the city’s glitterati being momentarily dazzled by the very idea of Edinburgh for once having something more outrageously fashionable than Glasgow, the city that sees itself as the trendsetter for Scotland. While I wouldn’t want to wee on the strawberries of the Harvey Nicks set, I feel it’s only fair to point out to them that the Missoni’s interiors are the work of the second city’s enduring design champs, Graven Images. Normally the GI team is used to its work being renewed as fashions change but, this being Edinburgh, school fees invariably triumph over trend-spending, so expect the Missoni’s interiors to be around for the next 200 years.

1 Comment

Liam Mc Naney
#1 Posted by Liam Mc Naney on 27 Feb 2010 at 12:28 PM
If from Finchley Gramm,give a messg.

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