At architecture school, we learned about the canon.  Only the great, and a few of the good, made it into the canon.  Yet once we win a glimpse inside the decision-making process, we discover that someone has spiked the canon.

We ask ourselves, “Which is best?” 

The short answer is, “I like this building.”

The long answer is, “How do you answer a rhetorical question?”

Notions of “best” are based on our immediate responses: subjective, emotional, preconceived.   Beyond the gut reaction, choices are made on the basis of taste and discretion, both of which can be learned from publications and teaching.  However, the architecture which appears in books and on shortlists for awards represents a mere snapshot, and the decision-making process is rather less objective than it may appear from the outside. 

Not only will many folk disagree with the results of the Best Of, but some question why we need it at all.  Why do we need a canon?

Why do we single out certain buildings?   Should awards be there to reward excellence, or pour encourager les autres?   There are certainly far more competitions around than there used to be: the Scottish Design Awards, Saltire Society diplomas, the RIAS/ Andrew Doolan Prize, the Regeneration of Scotland Award…  Perhaps there is a danger that they become self-regarding, even self-congratulatory: it’s certainly true that there is an agenda at work in each case.  

Awards are the creation of philanthropists and altruists, as well as architects who want to keep their name alive – and journalists in need of copy.

Some buildings will make every list: St. Peter’s Seminary at Cardross is the prime Scots example of a serial poll-winner.   By contrast, there is always another architecture, often over-looked and under-represented – you stumble across these buildings, then try to find out more in books and magazines – only to discover that they are invisible.   Who decides whether these latter works should remain outside the canon – and by contrast, who will ensure that the iconoclasts don’t ignore good architecture just because it’s “too obvious?”  

Our critical faculties need to be sophisticated enough to distinguish between unfamiliar points of departure and merely bad buildings.

Likewise, it is worth considering why buildings which are regionally as well as nationally significant should be included: a Scottish list which only features architecture from a small part of Scotland would not only be unrepresentative, it would also destroy the listmaker’s credibility.   In this regard, Neil Gillespie of Edinburgh architects Reiach & Hall made an acute observation a few years ago: deep in some glen, there is probably work of international importance being produced.   In this and the pieces which will follow, I aim to put forward some examples which may counter the idea that much of the architecture in Scotland can’t be good, because it isn’t “canonical”.

That we don’t get to know about it is due to a lack of research on the part of the judging panel, rather than our unwillingness to open up to something new.

Goalposts must be set accordingly, too.   The architecture of capitals is not equivalent to that of provincial cities:  budgets are different, some ideas can’t be scaled down, and certain types of building are missing.   Therefore, how well a building works within its context must be a determining factor – and this is where Scotland can show off its credentials.   We have always had local architectures: the Art Nouveau of Langlands & Lamond in Dundee (which David Walker first highlighted in the 1950’s); the expressive Modernism of Peter Womersley in the Borders; the modern vernacular of Baxter Clark & Paul in the North-east.  

Finding out about them may not be so simple, but the research will reward you with something fresh to think about.

Scottish architecture has operated in a series of cycles – the emergence of a New Vernacular after the war; the Post Modernism which travelled north with Alan Phillips; and Robert Matthew’s creation of a National Movement of the late ‘50’s, are all cases in point, which lead in turn to reactions and reversals.  Awards march to a faster beat.  So it is that any considered list should be representative of the whole era in question, even though the cycle has low points as well as highs, since posterity will re-evaluate the work of unfashionable architects.  

Awards or publications which consider several years’ worth of buildings have an advantage, whereas annual contests suffer from periodic gluts and droughts.  They both serve a less immediate purpose, too: they can chart the progress of our architecture from the fashions of the Fifties and Sixties, to the fashions of the present.  In fact, the selection process becomes fraught once you consider recent architecture.  

Architects who are still in practice have a personal investment in the results: plaudits and publication are important for your reputation, since winning the bays will ultimately lead to both new commissions and peer recognition.  Too much is at stake, and these beauty parades are often just an extension of the practice’s public relations effort.  Too bad if you’re a small practice without a marketing tsar, or (imagine!) a designer who feels a blush of shame when promoting herself.  

Quite often one set of award judges will be loathe to acknowledge a building already recognised in a separate competition, and the panel may even wander past the display boards, whistling that old Bryan Ferry standard, “The In-Crowd”, as the habitués of the shortlist turn up yet again.

So, what drives the decision making process?  It’s worth considering the psychology of how we reach decisions.  Sometimes the reasons are less our own than we’d like to think.  Firstly there’s the “herd of independent minds” – architects have similar backgrounds, and most have passed through the same architecture schools, so we behave similarly and exhibit similar tastes.  As a result, we tend to think alike and often arrive, independently, at the same conclusions.  There’s also the heuristic of social proof, which says that folk copy each other, because each believes that the others may know something he doesn’t. 

On the other hand, there’s the so-called salience heuristic, which suggests that we suffer from cognitive biases such as wishful thinking, which is often buttressed by the “Lake Woebegon” effect – we believe that we’re smarter than all the other idiots out there.  Other factors at work may include our self-serving memory, which remembers success, but forgets failures, and tells everyone else accordingly.  The suggestible among us may also suffer from the “Halo” effect: our belief that all good qualities must be connected, magically, by some common factor. 

Architectural education also breeds a cult of individuality, which runs from the genius, portrayed in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”, to the bloody-minded individualism which many of us exhibit at some point in our career.  Finally, we all suffer to some extent from a love of novelty, and that sometimes means that we value the new over the good.  Are you still convinced in the worth of the canon?

In the end, reaching decisions through open debate is likely to improve the rigour of a short leet, and that’s exactly how we should consider any “Best Of”.  After all, only when your arguments are robust enough to present, debate and defend in public, can you really justify them, and that’s one thing the canon lacks, writ large as it is on tablets of stone.

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