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November 21 2008

Weekly Wrap 21.11.08

Pure golf is surely more refined
Another week, another Aberdeenshire golf club captain taking up the pen instead of the putter. Not content with filling the letters’ pages of their local fish wrappers, these sterling chaps now see the national dailies as the forum within which they can demonstrate their support for ol’ Trumpy. This time it’s Robert M Baird, captain of the Fraserburgh club who’s busy espousing the charms of the existing, and we are told, historic, courses along his part of the coast, a place where patrons of the game “have the opportunity to play the purest form of golf”. The Donald’s scheme has, according to the good captain, centred attention on said coastline and therefore - in the curious logic that prevails in that part of country - deserves to be successful. Yep, the idea up there is that all those unable to afford entry to Trumpville will bring their bulging green fees to Fraserburgh instead. Now, I’ve no idea what the Fraserburgh clubhouse looks like or even who designed it but if, as Cap’n Bob Baird suggests, the area’s golf courses have been neglected by tourist industry marketing, then I’d say it’s a safe bet to presume that the upkeep of Fraserburgh’s 19th hole has been equally forgotten by its denizens. Quite how the club intends to attract Trumpton’s rejects is a marketing enigma I’m sure it hopes will be solved by the flood of spondoos into the area from the Donald’s treasure chest. Then again, given that it’s within the First Minister’s patch, the clubhouse could be a previously unrecognised architectural gem just waiting for reappraisal and listing by Historic Scotland. Like ‘Whisky Galore’ and ‘Local Hero’ before it, this amusing cameo of rural presumption could run and run.

Obscure objects of desire
So the World Heritage Site is safe. Phew, that’s a relief – Edinburgh’s city fathers would have been on their high horses had all the wining and dining of UNESCO representatives Dr Mechtild Rossler and Professor Manfred Wehdorn that took place last week failed to produce a result. And what result it is – in advance of the dynamic duo’s report scheduled for next June, it seems fairly certain to presume they will propose the status quo be maintained. So, the future’s bright the future’s likely to be more whining from the city’s Chamber of Commerce that continual resistance from opponents like the Cockburn Association and the World Heritage Trust is denying the rights of rapacious developers to enliven the city’s economy and landscape with buildings that – to paraphrase Woody Allan – have a certain intrinsic otherness. Sadly, the determination of the good folks at the Chamber of Commerce to support the worst kinds of urban excrescence in the name of mammon seems more mediaeval than the closes and wynds of the Old Town and makes even the capital’s heritage organisations appear enlightened.

A tsar is born, but not necessarily paid
Some people, we are told, are born great whilst others have greatness thrust upon them, but whichever of these descriptions applies, there is no doubt that Sir Terry Farrell’s tsar has risen to unimaginable heights following his appointment by mayor Boris Johnson to be the Outer London Commission’s design guru. The job gives Sir Terry overview of development in five London boroughs and, along with the similar positions he holds for the Thames Gateway and the City of Edinburgh surely make him the country’s most powerful adviser on all things urban.  Now it would be churlish to carp that his impact on Scotland’s capital has been – shall we say – rather less than meteoric, especially as he takes no fee for the position, but it seems probable that Scotland will see rather less of his bushy eyebrows now that he has so many plates to spin in the south east’s extended metropolitan area. Still, you get what you pay for in this world and no pay, no design guru - Even tsars have to earn a crust these days. Personally I’ve always been rather troubled by Sir Terry’s determination to contrast Edinburgh’s waterfront with that of Hong Kong, but maybe I misheard his references to junks and what he really meant was Leith’s potential to harbour groups of distinctive Farrell Towers.

The mighty rise, the mighty fall
Several times over the past few months I’ve mentioned RMJM’s new-found p.r. zeal and indeed barely a week (sometimes even a day) goes past without some new announcement from Scotland’s largest multi-disciplinary practice. The past fortnight has not, however, been one of its brighter periods, with the company having to watch balefully as the credit crunch began to take a heavy toll on it projects around the globe. First it was the seriously unloved Gazprom Tower in St Petersburg that had the sword taken to its budget by that city’s administration, so much so that there is now considerable doubt as to whether or not it will ever rise to cast its shadow over the benighted inhabitants of this beautiful (yes, yet another) World Heritage Site. The announcement, it has to be said, didn’t come from RMJM itself, and the company was quick to express its ignorance of any change in circumstance with the project, but then that’s Russia: you’re always the last to know when the pistol is squeezed against the back of your neck.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, a dramatic drop of more than 30% in the Dubai Financial Market compounded the sad news and the consequent squeals from sheik-ish local developers that projects were immediately being put on hold or cancelled altogether. As a result, down at RMJM’s branch office the Arabic P45’s have had to be dished out – mostly, the company insists, at architectural technician level. Now I don’t know whether this latter statement was intended as a sop to the press, but in most architectural souks it is the technicians that are worth their weight in shekels, not the architects since they usually have a very low monetary value. Whatever, it now seems that the company’s financial projections for this year – made only in February – of £110m turnover and profits doubling to £8m, may be a bit (ok, a lot) short of the mark. Not that it should worry Chief Executive Peter Morrison whose salary increased by 37% in the last set of accounts to £373k: even if his income were to drop back to its previous level, he should still be just about able to keep his Wolf fairly far from his door.

Tote: just an abbreviation of Totalitarian?
Some weeks ago I mentioned the Wrap’s plan to create a league table of practices working in countries whose democratic instincts are what might charitably be said to be of the manquÈ variety. From the outset there were a few obvious names – Lord Foster and Zaha Hadid, for example, appear more than happy to work for enlightened administrations of countries with names ending in -stan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekhistan being two notable examples. Both, indeed even have projects on Glasgow’s waterfront, although it might have been a dialect thing that attracted them to Scotstoun. Even Sutherland Hussey Architects, whose neglect by building commissioners on their home turf is a national disgrace, have found themselves working in China, a country not exactly renowned for the democratic impulses and tolerance of its ageing leaders. It’s not yet possible to tell how far RMJM has dropped down the betting order until full confirmation of the above project cancellations emerges, but with ongoing work in China and Libya the company can at least take heart that this is one competition in which its head and shoulders remain well above most of the opposition. The league will reach its conclusion at the end of the year, but at this stage the strong money still has to be on the boys from Bells Brae.

The train now at Mount Olympus will not be continuing north
Financial woes also continue to emerge in London at the Olympic Development Authority: not content with having to deal with Tessa Jowell’s recent revelation that had the UK government been able to anticipate the economic turmoil now descended over the land, it would not have supported a bid for the 2012 extravaganza, Captain Coe and his crew on the gravy train have to cope with news of yet another proposed venue biting the dust. This time it’s the temporary badminton facility that was mooted for construction at Greenwich, but the list of absent, presumed dead, projects continues to grow by the week. From within its Stratford redoubt, the ODA maintains its staunch defence of the indefensible: fewer and fewer venues, more and more demands for public money.

So, with only one or two athletes’ houses, a handful of venues and an imaginary ‘legacy’ being built, is it any wonder that the much promised £500m spin-off to Scottish companies - as heralded in last Saturday’s Scotsman - has failed to materialise? NORD is just about the only architectural practice from north of Hadrian’s Wall to get a sniff of work – in its case the design of an electrical sub-station – but the more extraordinary statistics are those that show only 900 of the 40,000 suppliers so far registered on CompeteFor, the ODA website, to be based in Scotland and only 10 of the 801 firms so far employed by the Authority to carry out work coming from this side of the border. Politics being politics, the London Government blames the Edinburgh one for failing to embark on any “real drive” to “maximise the benefits” available, but it does seem that companies up here have been uncharacteristically slow off the mark in getting their fingers into this particular public funding honeypot. With time flying towards 2012 and most of projects that will actually be built already well advanced, the main benefit now being touted from London is the unquantifiable possibility of some spin-off tourism. Oh, and a couple of preliminary football matches at Hampden Park, that well known monument to Scottish success. As Bob Dylan famously put it, “it takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry.”

Show us the money
Still, amongst all the financial doom and gloom in the construction industry, two tales of new and imaginative financing solutions in Scotland are beginning to come out of the woodwork. The first is the Scottish government’s dogged determination to put flesh on the bones of its plans for a Scottish Futures Trust (SFT) as a replacement for PFI/PPP funding for major projects. Much derided as unworkable before any real details of it existed, the SFT is moving forward in the form of a new ‘hub’ concept that will “bring together local authorities, NHS boards and other community planning partners to provide purpose built premises”. The first test hub will be in south-east Scotland, followed quickly by another in the north. Both will have financial support from the Scottish government with the “aim of bringing public bodies together in joint programmes of infrastructure investment”. Time will tell how effective the hub thing will be, but it does at least show that innovation in public funding is possible when the will is there.

The same can reasonably be said of Glasgow City Council with its ‘build now, pay later’ initiative that has the admirable aim in these difficult times of encouraging development and revitalising Glasgow’s economy. The main element of the idea is to defer the upfront payments that are usually demanded from companies developing on green space and is more flexible policy the authority hopes will promote development, safeguard businesses and protect jobs. By removing barriers to developments as a means to help projects off the ground, the Council is inevitably taking a greater share of the risk since developers will only be asked to pay after an upturn in the economy, a brave assumption to be making at this stage. Nevertheless, like the Scottish Futures Trust, the idea at least demonstrates some real imagination - and action - on the part of our public servants.

It may be too much to hope for the same degree of flexibility and financial flair to be brought to bear on the Highland Housing Fair, a project many believe to be in a terminal state and for which the only current plan appears to be a wake-like presentation to the Scottish Parliament’s less than dynamic Cross Party Architecture Group (CPAG). Communication between the organizers and the participating architects and developers is shockingly bad, so much so that many of the project’s natural supporters are in despair for its future. The HHF needs serious investment, not the dribbles that have emerged so far from the Highland Council and Forestry Commission Scotland, most of which in any case will disappear up the marketing chimney. The leaders of the architectural profession urgently need to be banging at the doors of the highest levels of government and not at the committee room containing the worthy but ineffectual operation that is the CPAG.

And finally…
Good to see Oliver Chapman Architects reaching the second stage of a major architectural competition in Ireland – its high time the practice got some meaty commissions upon which to demonstrate its undoubted abilities.  It’s proposal to design the new headquarters’ building for the Irish gas board’s National Distribution Control Centre in Finglas, Dublin is a low rise “series of folded planes set within a triangular form” that “is well integrated into the site topography and takes advantage of orientation and solar gain (where appropriate)”.  I Now, aside from the fact that the lushness of the site is probably due to some other, more Irish, weather condition that sunlight, I have to say I was intrigued by the part of the practice’s submission text that refers to “new flexible ways of working based on inter-change and connectivity”. It’s good to see architects coming to terms with the conventions of life in large, corporate organizations and designing-in the conditions within which office affairs are able to flourish.

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