Time to move from the past
1 Jul 2006
Last month, the RIAS council made the decision not to move from Rutland Square, Edinburgh. Alan Dunlop feels the incorporation needs to modernise.Fifteen Rutland Square is a beautiful, listed Georgian townhouse, gifted to the RIAS by Sir Robert Rowand Anderson. It is also damp and cramped with inadequate office provision and poor exhibition space. It is inaccessible to disabled people and dangerous, with limited fire escape routes from the top floors. As the headquarters of an organisation representing architects, it anchors us firmly in the past.
Council members who voted against moving did so in a co-ordinated attempt to maintain the status quo, taking the advocates of a move by surprise. After ten years of working groups and much deliberation, how could such a stalemate arise? To some, the townhouse represents everything that the RIAS stands for: it has a faded grandeur, it is listed and it is in Edinburgh. It has status. To others, it is no longer fit for purpose and the decision not to move reflective of an organisation highly resistant to change.
Some of those who rebuffed the move now want heads to roll. Mutterings in the Edinburgh press demand resignations, often from architects with little experience of large-scale development but who feel equipped to reprimand the profligacy and financial naivety of the proposers.
Naive they may have been in underestimating the forces of conservatism and they should have suspected something was afoot when articles appeared in Scottish newspapers suggesting that a move to Evolution House was a quick-fix relocation to a banal commercial development. Reiach and Hall’s building is in fact an award-winning, fine contemporary work in a city where such a thing is rare.
The whole situation is symptomatic of the change-resistant and fractious nature of the RIAS council, a fight between the conservationists and the modernists.
What would have been the reaction to a suggestion to site the headquarters elsewhere? Why not Glasgow, Stirling or Dundee, where the likelihood at least exists of an innovative world-class building getting planning approval and being built without a design compromise forced by the conservation and world heritage lobby.
Another option is to somehow adapt 15 Rutland Square but this is no easy route and will be a poor compromise, constrained as it is by listed status. Recently the RIAS had planning permission refused for a new doorway, to make access to the bookshop from the exhibition room easier, so what chance for radical alterations to add functionality, such as proper fire escape provision, state of the art exhibition and auditorium spaces, a library and access for people with disability?
So what happens next? Well yet another RIAS HQ working group has been formed to further consider options, including revisiting the possibility of an open competition for a new building. The RIAS ought to be seen to be promoting excellence in new architecture.
All of this is going on against a backdrop of change in leadership with Sebastian Tombs leaving and Mary Wrenn taking over as chief executive. The RIAS needs to modernise and to ditch its image as a closed Edinburgh gentleman’s club. The move to Evolution House and the link with the Edinburgh College of Art, which would have shared the same building, was a positive opportunity now lost.
Those celebrating this ‘victory’ should really consider what they have achieved and what the whole debacle says to the world outside Scotland. How can the RIAS continue to represent architects when a majority on the council show such persistent and deep-rooted aversion to change?
Architects in Scotland need an organisation which encourages new ideas and which has an international outlook. We need a headquarters building that reflects our aspirations and is more suited to the needs of the 21st century.
Alan Dunlop FRIAS