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Wilson's Weekly Wrap: The Last Emperor, Ce qui est Archial? & Return of the dopey detail

December 15 2008

Wilson's Weekly Wrap: The Last Emperor, Ce qui est Archial? & Return of the dopey detail
The Last Emperor
A couple of weeks ago I gave MAKE full marks for being upfront about the demise of its Scottish outpost but, as with all things on the public relations front, the important thing is to maintain an image once created and this Ken Shuttleworth, the outfit’s obergruppenfuhrer has spectacularly failed to do.

Quite what possessed him – only days after the press release about the closure of its northern studio – to announce that MAKE was now going to set up a base in China because “that’s where the opportunities are at the moment” is anybody’s guess but good pr it is not, especially amongst those still working out their notice in the Edinburgh office.

After fronting up Lord Foster’s design operation for so many years before departing to establish MAKE, it would seem Ken feels the need to maintain an impression of vertiginous success since anything else would reek of bad judgement and failure.  Such hubris is not uncommon amongst the megastars of the architectural profession, but one would have to question the timing of this particular announcement since, not only are times hard and getting harder in the UK, but they can scarcely be said to be more auspicious construction-wise in the People’s Republic.  Still, 7 February 2009 sees the start of the Chinese Year of the Ox and for those who might be seen to be too closely associated with 2008 and the Year of the Rat, a whole new pr beginning could be on offer.

Ce qui est Archial?

Speaking of the demise of practices, the announcement that the four Scottish firms formerly badged under the SMC banner will henceforth be part of a re-branded Archial group sees an end to some of the most familiar names in Scottish architecture. No longer will we see signboards from the likes of Davis Duncan, Jenkins & Marr, Hugh Martin and the Parr Partnership gracing building sites around the country and over the next two years their respective offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow will be merged into just one in each city. Distinctive talent pools – and architectural approaches – are, it seems, now to be regarded as homogeneous, a strangely dated and anonymous approach in an age when the quest for identity is paramount and local rather than global.

Aside from these questions of provenance, however, the issue of quite how the group’s directors ended up with the name Archial remains a matter for conjecture since it doesn’t actually appear to mean anything, or at least anything that anybody understands. No doubt some expensive branding consultants thought it an epic wheeze to add IA (‘intelligent architecture’ don’t you know?) to Arch to invent a dynamic new name for the operation, but I have news for Chris Littlemore, CEO of the Archial operation – the mnemonic may not communicate quite the image that he and his co-directors hope for.  A quick google would have told him that ‘Archial’ is in fact a user profile on, a “gothic-industrial culture social networking site” - an interesting but perhaps not entirely apposite parallel world.  Of course, ‘gothic-industrial’ may be another imaginative Jencks-ian term to describe the group’s collective architectural approach, in which case, I can’t wait to visit Archial’s first constructed outputs.

Fun and games in the East End
The Scottish Government’s approach to architecture of late might charitably be said to be on the lite side of equivocal, but the announcement by the First Minister that the Barcelona Olympics are to be the model for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow raises some interesting questions as to which parts exactly of the Catalonian experience are to be drawn upon? It’s difficult at the moment to see the City Council appointing a design leader of real stature and vision like Oriol Bohigas to oversee the development of new projects in the east end of Glasgow; equally it seems unlikely that at this already late stage the event will be the catalyst to transform the city’s waterfront unless radical action is taken.

Barcelona is of course still paying for its Olympic moment but if you ask any taxi driver in the Catalan capital about it they will tell you that they don’t care about the cost as there is now international recognition of Barcelona as one of the top cities in the world, it has a regenerated seafront as replacement for the rundown post-industrial landscape of Barcelonetta and a business and tourist economy that has not ceased to burgeon since 1992. Oh, and they have excellent roads to drive on.

So Alex, if the Commonwealth Games are to be a design-led success story as opposed to simply a vehicle for demanding EU and Westminster funding support for a nebulous project that has yet to set anybody’s heather on fire, then I suggest you use the early part of the Year of Homecoming to get some of the brightest émigré Scots architects into Bute House along with the best of the home-based profession to thrash out a real and deliverable vision for Glasgow. This is a project of global importance to the city and its economy and it needs an approach of truly international quality to ensure its success. Scotland has a real depth of design talent and not to use the Games to showcase it to the world would be a catastrophic political error.  After all - and at a much smaller scale - Lillehammer in Norway used the 1994 Winter Olympics to transform international perceptions of Norway’s design sector: are we really incapable of doing likewise? Sport, remember is a devolved matter.

Return of the dopey detail
I promised myself I wouldn’t comment on this week’s news that the Scottish Parliament has been voted the eighth ugliest building in the world, so I’ll restrict this report to the return of its dopiest detail: specifically the reassembly of the oak laminated poles (a.k.a. bamboo) on the building’s entrance canopy.  Way back in June when the previous, badly-weathered versions were taken down, I questioned the strategy of those who look after the building to seek new resin-based coatings to protect the wood when the end cap detail to each pole was a pathetic Heath Robinson affair, the ‘design’ of which was only likely to accelerate the weathering process. Well, the poles were re-installed last weekend and have clearly been impregnated with some heavy substances as their colour is now several shades darker than before. Trouble is, the metal washer end cap is back too in entirely unmodified form so my money’s on the whole bang shooting match being expensively taken down again in a couple of years time. You read it here first.

Imperial visions: Diocletian or just diabolical?
On the subject of dopey, author Alexander McCall Smith, film-maker Douglas Rae, sculptor Sandy Stoddard and former National Galleries of Scotland boss Timothy Clifford have not entirely covered themselves with glory this week with the suggestion that Allan Murray’s scheme for the Cowgate fire site (remember it?) would – if implemented – prevent the completion of Robert Adam’s grand European vision for Edinburgh’s South Bridge. The group insist the new project will “destroy the integrity of one of the great monuments of the classical world” and that the design of the ickily-named ‘SoCo’ development pays no respect to the “rhythm and elegance” of the Adam project. Quite where this crew have been since the 2002 blaze is anybody’s guess, but surely not spending time in Edinburgh’s Central Library swotting up on the city’s architectural history.

Sure, Bob the Builder completed Register House and the Old College of Edinburgh University but other Adam projects such as the Riding School that was previously on the site of Surgeon’s Hall have long since disappeared and precious little else was started, a fact not unconnected to the Lord Provost of the time, James Hunter Blair, taking great umbrage at the architect’s grand and haughty manner and thereafter going out of his way to prevent the great man implementing his big ideas. Quite why anyone should take Bob’s Roman notions on now – especially when an even more grandiose vision for the city is only partially complete – is anybody’s guess. As another part of Murrayburgh begins to emerge from its scaffolding overcoat on the corner of George IV Bridge and the High Street, I confess I would be entirely unsurprised if McCall Smith, Clifford et al go on to seek the reincarnation of James Hunter Blair in their fight against SoCo: it would be about as credible a move as actually completing Adam’s grand projet.

And finally…
After commenting last week on the Sheffield University academics who deemed Edinburgh’s Holyrood precinct to be the loneliest place in Britain, it occurred to me that they may just have visited during one of the interminable periods when the Canongate is being resurfaced and the area has its ‘stand-in-for-Beirut’ film set look, what with its barricades, burst sandbags and the occasional bit of tarmac providing the connective tissue between the water-logged craters. Once this year’s International Festival was over, of course, there was no longer any real need to maintain this appearance, and the lower end of the Royal Mile, for the first time in about 200 years, finally had a decent topping to drive/cycle/walk upon and allow the local citizens to once again participate in the early evening passeggiata during which they delight in the sight of MSP’s scurrying away from the Parliament to catch their early trains.

It couldn’t last of course and if a week is reputed to be a long time in politics, it is an absolute eternity for an Edinburgh road surface, so it was no surprise the other day to hear the familiar early morning alarm call of the road-diggers’ pneumatic hammer ripping up the Canongate’s pristine tarmac once again. Lonely it may be, quiet it is not.

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