The Highland Housing Fair has raised expectations for the rest of Inverness – just as it has brought low energy/ high ecology construction to greater prominence throughout the rest of the country.  It’s commonly held that Inverness suffered from rapid growth, as much as benefiting from it, and the city is often referred to as the fastest-growing in Europe.  Aside from this catchy strap-line, an objective look around Inverness suggests that growth has resulted in homogeneous retail and housing estates on the outskirts: whilst they’re not wonderful architecture, they are no different to what you find in every other Scottish town and city.

Stepford Wives Retail Park at the Inshes

In search of what prompted someone to nominate Inverness for the Carbuncles, you may come to the conclusion that (apart from the architectural zoo of the Housing Fair) the town suffers from a low standard of ordinariness.  The argument has been made that what urbanism – as opposed to architecture – wants are large numbers of good quality but polite buildings, which slot into a masterplan.  In so doing, they will contribute to a district or town enjoying a “high standard of ordinariness” and as a corollary, they might avoid the iconic buildings which can sometimes lift the whole area, or just as easily date quickly and become an eyesore.

Inverness railway station – the gateway to the capital of the Highlands – is rather squat and lacks the generosity you might expect when seeking the Great Highland Welcome – especially in the wake of the Homecoming.  In fact, Perth station feels much more like the gateway to the Highlands, with its many platforms and airy barrel vaults, plus Brief Encounter platform clocks.  As a result, the station at Inverness and neighbouring Falcon Square shopping mall peg your expectations at a low level: beyond them, there are several blocks’ worth of decent Victorian buildings and the inevitable pedestrian precincts which make up your typical, ordinary town centre.  None of it is remarkable, though, and the real character of Inverness only emerges when you go towards the river.

Acres of slabs and bollards.

There is Leakey’s cavernous bookshop, housed in the conversion of a former kirk, with a blazing wood stove in the centre of the nave.  Beyond lies the Ness, with a bouncy footbridge which predates Foster’s Millennium Bridge by a century: it is one of several graceful river crossings, and these differentiate Inverness from the solid masonry arches over the Tay at Perth, or the Wacky Races efforts over the Clyde in Glasgow which appeal to structural gymnasts more than structural rationalists.  Further along the bank of the Ness are a couple of neat conversions from a few years back – the former Art TM gallery, and Pask & Pask’s glass-fronted restaurant.  Apart from the concrete block underneath the castle, there are few real carbuncles in the centre.

Move further out and Inverness continues its dialogue with Perth: where the latter has its “Motor Mile” along Dunkeld Road, Inverness has a monoculture of car showrooms on Harbour Road.  Whilst their contents embody high technology, with the integration of steel, alloy and composites into expressive shapes … the containers are tin sheds dropped from outer space.  If a masterplan had been put in place, the showrooms could have been a series of pavilions in white and silver with a common eaves height, and set on the same building line, each with a colourful totem out front identifying the dealership.  I’ve seen it done in Germany, and it need not have cost any more than the random boxes on Harbour Road today.

The realm of the car, not the person

Elsewhere are stand-out buildings, both relatively bad, relatively ordinary and relatively good: Page & Park’s copper vortex-shaped Maggies Centre in the grounds of Raigmore Hospital; the nearby Gala Bingo hall at the entrance to the Beechwood Medipark; Inverness College’s blank concrete box across the road from the car showrooms; the big, dumb, abandoned sheds of Gray's Sawmill; and the burnt-out hulk of Craig Dunain Asylum, which awaits conversion into flats.  Given Inverness’s growth, and how busy the town appears even during this recession (there were no hire cars to be had mid-week, for example), perhaps investment will sort out the bad in due course, and bring it level with the standard of ordinariness in the rest of the city.  As it is, the Inshes Retail Park shown in the photos is typical of Inverness’s periphery: none of it is terrible, but if you travel even half a mile outwards, the character of the old town centre has been surrendered completely to very ordinary retail sheds and car parks.


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