Wilson's Weekly Wrap
Summer’s gone – the Wrap’s back
September 24 2010
From Archial to bugger all in one swift move
Top of the list has to be the trials and tribulations of Archial, the much-misunderstood practice agglomeration that began its bumpy existence under Stewart McColl’s second empire-building plans before passing through a brief dalliance with the redoubtable Will Alsop before he jumped ship, before reaching its singular high point – receipt of last year’s RIAS Andrew Doolan Prize for the best building in Scotland. A more settled situation seemed to have been arrived at, albeit that the organisation was still trying to sort out some of the drossier practices McColl had bought into the fold under his chairmanship. McColl, however has been gone for some time, forced to walk the plank by a City of London unhappy with his flamboyant but questionable leadership. The larger-than-life maestro was still reputed to own a large swathe of shares in the company, however, one of only two UK architects listed by the stock exchange.
But, despite its post McColl improved performance, Archial’s shares rarely moved in price, a factor almost entirely attributable to their non-liquidity, the bulk of stock apparently being owned by an unforgiving hedge fund. Put simply, the conglomerate was never likely – even in the best of times, - to assuage the financial demands of its hedge fund master whose only interest was in how much it could quickly extract from its investment. Times change and the recent hiatus in the flow of public sector commissions has proved challenging for many practices but for one with multiple offices throughout the UK and overseas the impact on cashflow has proved to be disastrous.
Step forward Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs who – being reputedly owed £4m in back taxes – chose not to respond to Archial proposals for staged payments and instead elected to freeze the company’s bank accounts. Yes, this is the same government agency tasked with helping keep UK companies in business through the economic downturn, but with indebtedness to its bankers also running into the millions, the Revenue was clearly narked not to be first in the Archial repayments queue and so kick-started a process that has put 400 jobs on the line. Rumours abound as to possible future scenarios for the company – Aukett, the only other stock exchange listed practice is purported to be looking to buy up the outfit as a going (sic) concern, but this surely ignores the huge outstanding bank loans and the swathe of truly duff offices McColl had accumulated around the shires of England.
The damnable thing is that with half its work force in Scotland, the offices here were performing reasonably well in the current climate and certainly considerably better than some of their southern counterparts. Now a large number of architects and support staff in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow – the former offices of Davis Duncan, Hugh Martin, Jenkins and Marr and the Parr Partnership – now sit in fear of what the future holds for them. In other circumstances and other industries there would be a humongous outcry from the likes of the Scottish Government at the destructive behaviour of HMRC and strenuous efforts made by the enterprise agencies to secure existing jobs and business. But this is architecture, a profession and its institutions all too easily ignored by the powers that be. Having been founded upon the hubris of Stewart McColl, Archial was very far from perfect, but its descent into administration comes at a time when the whole profession is whispering “there but for the grace of God...” Certainly, architecture in Scotland can ill afford another 200 redundancies if that is what it comes to and we can only hope some inventive solution arises to salvage something from this tragedy.
Mind the credibility gap
For those of you unfamiliar with the tram-trashed boulevards of the capital, the journey into Spin City Central from RBS International passes one of Edinburgh’s more outwardly impressive buildings, Donaldson’s School by William Henry Playfair. Spin back a few years to the days when rapacious housing development was all the rage and you might recall a scheme by Richard Murphy to convert the main edifice into luxury flats and to build a crescent of new town houses to its rear. This kind of project was all the rage then and Murphy duly secured planning permission for his client, Cala Homes which, with this milestone reached, fairly promptly jettisoned the maestro in favour of their usual design drones. Since then, nothing much has happened other than a financial crisis, the complete collapse of the housing market and Richard’s occasional public rants about developers misusing the skills of talented (nay, trophy) architects in order to get their wicked way – plus ca change.
The development equation has changed dramatically since then of course and with hotels being just about the only building type upon which funds can be raised, what do we find? Lo, Cala is looking to sell Donaldson’s on to a luxury hotel developer, a proposition that squares fully with the City of Edinburgh Council’s plan to turn every available building in the capital into 5+ star guest accommodation. This particular marketing ruse comes complete with suggested precedents, providing you’re prepared to count the rather more rural situation of Gleneagles as one such. But it has to be said, the impressive setting of Donaldson’s lends itself more to this kind of thinking than the gated community of up-market private housing that was on the table before.
Or not, as the case may be. A five star hotel in this location may well affect the thinking of Irish development company, Tiger, who, a short distance along the road at the Morrison Street site beside Haymarket Station are still masticating on the idea of erecting a slightly truncated version of their previous Murphy-designed 17 storey extrusion (see Wraps passim). The City Council is doing its level best to lubricate the process, so to speak, with new policy guidelines for tall buildings that limit projects in sensitive locations to a mere 13 storeys, Which kind of misses the point of Unesco’s criticisms of the project and the need to more rigorously protect the edges of the World Heritage Site. But hey – did they really expect the Council’s planners to simply roll over when publicly confronted with their own double standards wherever the extortion of sky high levies for the tram system arises?
Strange bird shooed from the Doocot
The only person who could possibly have been surprised by her non-inclusion on the shortlist for the Scottish Parliament’s new £5m security extension has to be Benedetta Tagliabue, widow of Enric Miralles. Sure, she made a strong argument that it made sense for the original designers to be involved, but the distance these days between Barcelona and Holyrood is about 200 light years and the very last thing the powers-that-be in the Doocot want is any return to the pelters of the past. Mind you, it might reasonably be argued that, at every difficult turn in the past, they did find it all-too-convenient to wheel out la bella Benedetta to charm the Parliament’s supine press corps.
No, the fascinating aspect to the news that five firms have been shortlisted from the dozen that submitted applications to tender for this totally unnecessary project is the sheer lack of practices – from anywhere - willing to be skewered on Scotland’s political rotisserie. All 12 supplicants did apparently submit information in their applications “that demonstrated ability and experience against a set of criteria.” There can be few architects out there who don’t feel their stomachs churning when they read the inevitable, meaningless phrase: “each submission was subjected to a standard rigorous procedure and the companies whose submissions ranked the highest were selected.” Question though: who out there has in-depth experience of what is pretty much a one-off building type? And who made it through the final cull - and indeed who were the secret seven who couldn’t quite cut it? I cant help you with the latter, but the famous five is made up of the altogether diverse skills of Atkins, Jordan & Bateman, Lee Boyd, Nicoll Russell Studio and Reiach and Hall.
I can certainly understand local boys Lee Boyd being on the list – they have, after all, been quietly scheduling the extensive range of remedial works necessary to curtail those pesky Parly plip-plops which, given the sheer amount of awkward junctions in the building’s design and the capacity of the original contractors to ensure our inclement weather could take full advantage of these points of entry,* has been no mean task. But is this experience enough to put the practice ahead of its four competitors in the race to win the shake-down shelter job? It may be me and my hard-won experience of the weird and wonderful way things work down in Doocot Wynd, but the now regular appearance of newspaper advertisements in which past clients extol Lee Boyd’s virtues could be viewed by some as an interesting profile raising stratagem designed to butter up the public in advance of an announcement. We can only watch and wait and look forward to having our flabbers glasted by the final choice.
But I fear I’ve strayed a little from the point here: at a time when the construction industry is on its knees and every architectural practice from Ticino to Tipperary is desperately trying to stay afloat, here was a reasonably sized opportunity that few in the profession seem to have wanted to touch with a hanging chad. Clearly something is amiss. Benedetta love, - trust me - you’re far better off out of it.
*Note to potential terrorists: these are the easiest places to penetrate the Doocot’s security – more so even than the myriad pigeon portals.
The Sultans of Spin
At the opposite end of the ill-starred design team responsible for the Doocot, RMJM hasn’t entirely been getting the type of press it desires. Certainly, I knew something was up when three separate journalists in different parts of the country rang me within the space of an hour one day to ask what I knew about the departure of five senior directors from the firm. Clearly the rumour mill (the Forked-Tongue Wheel?) was spinning furiously and everyone wanted to find some connection between the directorial departures and Shred. RMJM of course was firing out denials in all directions to the effect that the man with the multiple Zeros in his pension plan was not on a kamikaze mission to destroy another of Scotland’s best-known companies. Nope, the boys in Bell’s Brae were much keener to highlight the expansion of their band in the sand, viz their new Bahrain office. It’s not too difficult, though, to guess which of the following stories captured the most column inches: ‘The Fabulous Burqah Boys’, or ‘Five Flee From Fred’s Firing Line’?
Not so much takeaway as runaway
But then, the new, banker-brite RMJM could never be accused of failing an opportunity to profit from the misfortune of others. As the storm clouds rage over the incomplete building works in Delhi, step forward our bold buddies in Bells Brae to tell us that they always knew India’s ambitions for the Commonwealth Games were a disaster in the making. In a clear case of “it wisnae us, mister”, RMJM – who had originally won the contract to masterplan the event and some of its building projects – have been fast off the athletes blocks this week in announcing to the press that the company had pulled out shortly after gaining the commission because of fears that there were “issues” with the job. Especial emphasis was placed on the fact that RMJM was in no way any longer involved in the design and construction of the truly squalid athletes’ village.
Whatever the reality of the company’s apparent prescience in this matter – it being several years after all since India won the bid to host the event and even the Wrap can’t be bothered to look back through its library of old BDs to see what the pre-militarised RMJM said at the time it won the job – surely only a total cynic would connect this timely statement with fears that any failure of athletes to turn up in Delhi would inevitably spark a boycott by the less well-heeled Commonwealth countries of the next games in four years time. Which, as we all know, will be in Glasgow where RMJM, funnily enough, is currently in a very strong position – some would say the favourite - to secure the bulk of the work on – yes, the athletes’ village.
Hats off to the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen for its decision to award an Honorary Doctorate to Donald Trump for his still-to-materialise stellar contribution to the local economy in that part of Scotland. It’s certainly true that it’s a modern-day convention for universities to seek out big hitters to give honorary awards to in the hope that such recognition – indeed approbation - will result in some subsequent sizeable financial largesse in their direction but, given the controversy surrounding don Combleone’s, plans for the north east, this announcement seems particularly brazen and not one that might normally be connected with the mores of higher education. It can only be a short wedge from here to US-style golfing degrees and a visiting professorship for the man who’s putting the mean into Menie.