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Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Prattle like it's 1999, Snuggle up to a warm tower & katona konsulates

January 13 2009

Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Prattle like it's 1999, Snuggle up to a warm tower & katona konsulates
Insulated from reality part II
Last week I happened to mention the UK government’s double standards on energy consumption, and the fact that while the report I’d been reading applied only to England and Wales, I had seen some thermal images of the Scottish Parliament building that were, shall we say, a tad hallucinogenic in their colour rendering. Well, bless me if one of these photographs didn’t scream loudly from the front page of the following day’s Scotsman in a supposed ‘exclusive’ story about heat loss in government buildings. Now I don’t want to claim any particular prescience here, but I do wonder if the demoralised scribes in Barclay House have taken to reading the Wrap before their editorial meetings in order to drum up the odd decent story.

Whatever the answer, they just couldn’t resist giving this one some unnecessary Scottish spin by homing in on those government buildings they could identify north of the border that play their own beneficent part in the warming of the globe. This naturally allowed them a stab at the apparent deficiencies of the current Scottish government, which, if I’m not completely mistaken has failed to build a blessed thing in the 20 months or so since it was elected.

The moral of this tale is that the Wrap tries to bring you the interesting stories first, and has no particular prejudice towards any political party being that it distrusts them all and is especially sceptical about the value politicians place upon architecture in the cultural and economic life of the nation. You’d think though that even they would grasp, in these uncertain times, the potential of architecture to provide something solid for them to cling on to.

Prattle like it’s 1999
The trailer to Newsnight Scotland said “10 years on, what is the legacy of Glasgow’s Year of Architecture?” – and even though I knew it would be a short and, in Newsnight style, fairly unforensic feature, I couldn’t help myself  - I just had to watch. And what did it reveal? No appearance from Deyan Sudjic, of course, the Year’s director who with £27m to spend, set the bar of ambition fairly low and then limbo-ed deftly under it on his way to pastures new at the end of the contract, but cameo performances from Eleanor McAllister, Janice Kirkpatrick and Pauline Gallagher, the troika behind much of the Year’s programme.

First up, Eleanor tried to explain why after a decade people in Glasgow still don’t know what an architecture and design centre is or indeed where they might find one; Janice with her characteristic exuberance explained that Glasgow – and by extension Scotland – had written the book on design education, an impressive assertion I’ve been trying ever since to follow up on the Danish and Finnish versions of Amazon; and finally Pauline, standing outside a building in Neilston (a banlieue in Renfrewshire I believe) which later in the piece revealed its interior to have been modestly modernised as a community café.

As bullish about the legacy as her colleagues, Pauline stated firmly that before the 1999 watershed “communities were not well served by architecture and design” a perennial bon mot that sadly bears scant scrutiny when set against the indolence of the city’s political nomenklatura in the commissioning of any decent public facilities. Newsnight’s “arts correspondent” Pauline Mclean, happily bought into all of this twaddle though, even to the point of suggesting that the country’s architecture policy was a result of the 1999 endeavour which even the most minimal of research would have told her it most definitely wasn’t.

The coup de theatre though was the appearance of our old friend, the ubiquitous Alan Dunlop, who made the fair point that the main benefit of the year to architects in Scotland was the self-belief it generated and the feeling that they could compete with anybody. That’s if the playing field is level, of course, and Alan’s entirely reasonable comments about the competition for the design of the nearly completed Transport Museum were sadly skirted over, no doubt before the idea could rise that the true legacy of the year might actually be somewhere south of sparkling.  

Glasgow, being Glasgow, has continued to plough its own furrow architecturally since 1999 and has a number of successful initiatives to show for the effort involved. Quite how many of these can genuinely be laid directly at the door of the Year of Architecture and Design or should be seen to have emanated from the new-found confidence alluded to by Alan Dunlop will probably have to wait for another day – and a more questioning television media than Scotland seems able or willing to support these days.

Snuggle up to a warm tower
It’s been a good few weeks since we last looked at la Liga Amoralista but news from the east made it apparent that, since it’s the start of a new year, we need to review who the table’s risers and fallers are. Now when I say east, I’m not referring to the golden sands of Portobello, but rather to those parts of Europe currently freezing (literally) to death for lack of gas to fuel the heating systems, a deficiency that seems to recur with dreary regularity each winter courtesy of Gazprom, the Russian Federation’s state-owned energy supplier. Whatever the why’s and wherefore’s of the dispute between Russia and Ukraine over payments for gas supplies, you don’t have to be a genius to see that (a) people all over eastern Europe are suffering badly from the dispute and (b) that Gazprom is not an organisation that includes the word ‘humanity’ in its mission statement. Which makes the re-emergence of the Gazprom Tower in St Petersburg such an interesting proposition.

In November the impoverished St.P. city council withdrew its financial support from the project, and at that time the Wrap reported that it looked a goner. Not so – like Lazarus, the RMJM-designed Okhta Centre has come back from the dead with the promise from Gazprom that it will fund the project in its entirety. Never ones to miss a press release opportunity, its architect for the project, RMJM, has bounced forward early in 2009 to lead our league table with its managing director Europe, Hugh Mullan, quoted as saying: “Gazprom’s commitment to the Okhta Centre project has been fantastic throughout. It’s going to be an exciting year with submissions for state planning approval in the spring and the first foundations laid before the end of 2009”. That’ll be just before another grim eastern European winter for the customers then, Hugh?

Katona konsulates
Before we move on from la Liga Amoralista we really ought to mention the possible emergence of an aspirant home-grown player. True, he isn’t up there yet with the top echelon performers in this seedy competition, but the signs are beginning to emerge that he wants to play with the big boys, and the Wrap speculates as to whether this is one to watch for the future.

It was last week’s BD that brought the possibility to my attention – Jonathan Glancy on the back page reprising the sad demise of democracy and diplomacy as reflected in the defensible structures the US government is now building in place of embassies and Richard Murphy’s disappointment articulated elsewhere in the publication that as a non-American he wasn’t able to apply for these commissions. Now, many of you will know that Richard not long ago completed a small, rather cuddly group of buildings in Sri Lanka for the UK government, a commission that clearly established a track record for his practice in embassy design.

The problem for our boy in Fishmarket Close is that – aside from a very benevolent UK that doesn’t have a scooby as to how to play EU procurement rules - most countries only use their own architects to design this particular building type and the US is no different in this respect. Except, of course, that it now commissions seriously forbidding fortresses from which to promulgate the virtues of liberty and democracy, its vast Castle Gormenghast in Baghdad being the most obvious recent example.

Now I have to say that la Liga Amoralista is a bit of an exclusive band of brothers amongst whom there are a good few well versed in the type of national commissions for which some flexibility over the notion of ‘borderline’ is permitted.  For these architectural galacticos there is no disadvantage in being unable to apply for US embassy commissions since there is, after all, still the People’s Republic of Katona-stan to work for. Whether or not Scotland’s leading embassy architect will find a way to get a share of the action remains to be seen.

Not such great expectations then?
Good news for Stewart Milne Construction – the housing market may be dead on its feet just now but the general contracting side of the business still seems to be pulling the contracts in. The latest is for a £3m headquarters building for Aberdeen-based ‘Active’ that will include ground source heat pumps, solar panels and a wind turbine in its design. Active expects the building to be “one of the most energy-efficient and sustainable buildings in the UK”. And what is it exactly that Active does? The company’s website reveals a slight contradiction in what, up until this point, you might have expected from its business plan: “We are experts in the provision of air conditioning, ventilation and building maintenance services for both domestic and commercial markets”.

Still, despite its obvious affection for the technology of a previous age, the description of Active’s new home seems to indicate the company is not resistant to the changing energy concerns of the modern world and its website suggests there is in fact a more sustainable side to its business. Or at least I think that it thinks that there is, but its hard to be sure given the piquant Bush-ism offered on its website: “With the sustainable energy bandwagon now in full swing there are inevitably many systems and promises out there with some not meeting expectations. That is why we have aligned ourselves with the world's leading manufacturers of such technology.” In the right hands a little knowledge is never a dangerous thing.

And finally…
It’s good to see that with his forthcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, Andrea Palladio has been able to return to his English roots. At least that’s what I’ve managed to take from the many glowing reviews of the starchitect’s work that appeared in this past weekend’s press. Yes, I know all of his completed buildings happen to be in Venice or the Veneto, but that doesn’t - in the eyes of the London architectural press - make him any less Anglo Saxon than, say, Zaha Hadid who has also had to go out and find the big jobs elsewhere.

OK, so he never actually set up residence in this country (or, as far as I know even visited) but lets not diminish Andrea’s importance to the nation’s architecture just because he’s the bees’ knees down south – after all, like Maureen Lipman’s nephew in the BT ads who got an -ology in his exams, Palladio gave his name to an –ism, the only architect apparently to have done so. And, as so many of the articles have been determined to tell us, his influence on the output of the UK’s volume housebuilders has been profound, a somewhat less than meritorious achievement it has to be said for a man who prided himself on impeccable classical scholarship and attention to detail. Still, with the pound against the euro the way it is, it’s going to be considerably cheaper to queue up for the exhibition than to queasy-jet it to Venice to see the genuine article. More’s the pity really.

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