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Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Angus Sheikhouse, By yon bonnie banks & The name's Bond, Catalan Bond

January 19 2009

Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Angus Sheikhouse, By yon bonnie banks &  The name's Bond, Catalan Bond
The road to Inverness begins with single step
The original schedule for completing the Highland Housing Fair – sorry, Scotland’s Housing Expo – may have been blown out of the water, but the project lives to rise another day. That is, if the Scottish Government can be convinced to underwrite it on the promise of payback from later housing sales. Anyone who attended the reception in the Scottish Parliament last week, however, would be forgiven for thinking that such support was a cut and dried affair, especially with Robin Harper, chair of the Cross Party Architecture Group declaring on the night his love for the subject and announcing that the Expo would be ‘fully supported’ by the Parliament.

Now astute readers will appreciate that the Parliament is not the same thing as the Government, the latter being the one in charge of a fast depleting purse of public funds, but like his namesake from Sherwood Forest, our greenest MSP had the wit to ambush a Minister on his way home and get him to deliver a speech to the assembled throng. Light on his feet, Stewart Maxwell also declared that the Expo had ‘full support’ and in fact made a very articulate speech given that it was ‘on the hoof’. For the punters who had turned up to support the case for project funding this was all good news, which, together with the Parliament’s fine wine and canapés, made for some sparkling bonhomie in Holyrood’s Garden Lobby.

Except that the declarations of full support are not yet either full or supporting – there is apparently, discussion still to be had on the subject with John Swinney who, as Finance Minister, is not only currently trying to battle his second budget through the Parliament, but is being prevailed upon from all sides to find money in support of multifarious special interests. So let’s go back to our favourite Green MSP, Robin Harper, at this point and ask: £100m for loft insulation and not a mention of Scotland’s Housing Expo in your negotiations with Mr Swinney? There’s still time to show us your love for architecture and add it to your wish list Robin.

Angus Sheikhouse
Still in the Highlands, two interesting tales this week from the world of planning. The first concerns the application on behalf of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Crown Prince and ruler of Dubai, to add a two-storey lodge to the 14 bedroom mansion on his Inverinate Estate in Wester Ross. Not just any old extension, mind you, but one split into three blocks containing penthouse chambers, a dining room, kitchen and a further 16 bedrooms with en-suite facilities and living areas. The local planning officers, bless their cotton socks, felt the design was “inappropriate and insensitive” next to the Victorian mansion and recommended that the application be refused.

The same officials had some more interesting comments attributed to them in the press, not the least of which was that the proposals were “more akin to development found in business parks or halls-of-residence”. And of course there was a single objection from a member of the public who thought the proposed buildings were “like something you would find in the Arabian desert”. Fortunately the members of the Ross, Skye and Lochaber area committee are made of sterner stuff and approved the plans by nine votes to three on the basis that “the sheikh and his family are tremendous landowners and buy everything locally when they visit”. In any case, according to councillor Biz Campbell, “design is in the eyes of the beholder”.

Which brings me on to the second part of the story, an unconnected application lodged this past week for 5000 new homes on the Earl of Moray’s land at Tornagrain, between Inverness and Nairn. Designed to “new urban” principles by Andres Duany and scheduled to house 10000 (2 per unit, so clearly all DINKY’s* - new urbanism indeed) the £1.3m new town is due to begin on site in 2013, with developer Moray Estates expecting construction to continue for a further 35 years. Naturally, given the sheer size and impact upon the local environment, full and rigorous scrutiny of the application will be the order of the day and I expect the good Highland councillors to take the kind of pragmatic approach pioneered at Trumpton in Aberdeenshire and echoed at Inverinate Estate when making their decision. Astonishingly, some business people in Scotland actually want to reform the planning system.

* Double Income, No Kids

By yon bonnie banks
I’ve probably articulated my despair at the state of the Scottish press in previous Wrap’s, what with its sleepy determination to dumb down – sorry, contextualise - every story, no matter what the subject, but this week’s example is irresistible. Writing in Scotland on Sunday about a new sonar survey of Loch Lomond by the British Geological Survey, Jeremy Watson clearly found discussions about the depth of the Loch wholly inappropriate for the normal football pitch / London bus sort of comparison, these examples being horizontal and the distance to the bottom being sort of, well, vertical. In order to convey the significance of the Loch’s new found depths, Jeremy dropped - metaphorically – a few notable structures into Scotland’s largest freshwater pond: the obvious (and usual) candidates being hardy perennials such as the Eiffel Tower and London’s ‘60s Post Office version. The one that caught the SoS imagination, however - being more local - was the Science Centre Tower in Glasgow. At 127m high, it wouldn’t be the one I’d stand on top of in the 190m deep Loch, but no matter, it’s in Scotland, so obviously recognisable to the paper’s more unworldly readers.

Of course it’s always possible that SoS has inadvertently stumbled onto a new way to promote the tourism potential of Loch Lomond. It’s been a good few years since the Science Centre Tower was moved from its original proposed location in the city’s St Enoch Square and design-built on the banks of the Clyde instead, so shifting the ill-fated structure a few miles further up the road and pitching it into the Loch doesn’t seem any more unlikely or indeed unkind, given that it’s lift has never really worked properly and its rotating mechanism has not exactly been a headturner. Now, just think what financial magic Deep Sea World could do with this bit of the National Park – especially if it had a snappy sci-fi underwater structure from which to view the fishes or, more excitingly, the creative side of the car insurance industry.

The name’s Bond, Catalan Bond
“Mackintosh and Gaudi represent a long-standing architectural bond between Scotland and Catalonia”. Discuss. No, not a trick question in an architectural history examination, but a quotation from an unnamed spokesman for the First Minister, who apparently believes that “there are so many opportunities for productive partnership” between the European Union’s two chippiest regions. What these opportunities might be remains to be seen, or indeed what the supposed architectural bond may be comprised of, but it was the previous administration’s need to maintain these particular myths that ensured a Catalan architect secured newly-devolved Scotland’s most important commission. Oh, and and we shouldn’t forget the cunning plan of MBM’s David Mackay to turn Buchanan Street into a kind of Ramblas del Hoodie, a striking success if ever there was one, Since then, of course the invitations have simply not stopped flooding in from Catalonia to Caledonia for our architectural practices to get out there and return the compliment.

OK, you know I’m only kidding. – apart from a European artistic wave that brought the architectural symbolism of Gaudi and Mackintosh to the fore at a roughly similar time, it’s hard to see what other connection there is between a devout Roman Catholic Catalan nationalist who obviously ate too many of the local mushrooms and a hard drinking Glaswegian of no known political persuasion whose devotion to the city of his birth and education saw him head off to sunnier climes in France. Oh, and one built one of the world’s most extraordinary cathedrals and the other didn’t.

Walk the Mock
You’ll have guessed from the last bit of the Wrap that I’m not in the CRM fan club. Actually, that’s not strictly true but I’m certainly not part of the CRM Evangelical Society or its marketing wing, so it was with a very long spoon that I supped this week’s news that Glasgow is to be rebranded ‘City of Mackintosh’ to boost tourism and “celebrate the legacy of the designer”. According to the Sunday Times, the new campaign is being coordinated by the ‘Mackintosh Heritage Group’ (sic) with support from Visit Scotland and Scottish Enterprise. This of course is another dimension of the wheeze mentioned above (the First Minister visited Barcelona recently, as if you couldn’t tell from the new-found enthusiasm for all things Catalan), but you would think Scottish Enterprise had more than enough on its hands trying to promote Scottish business to the world in the current downturn than to spend time and money on marketing a handful of century-old buildings.

Especially as you know the campaign will be – in Murray Grigor’s well-known play on words – more Mockintosh than anything that might remotely be related to the true cultural history of Scotland. Wouldn’t it be nice if the supposed confidence that exists amongst Glasgow’s current cadre of architects (as mentioned in last week’s Wrap) was fully supported into the export market by our Government and Enterprise agencies? But then, that would require them to have some vague interest in, and understanding of, architecture and its economic potential to the country. You can but dream.

And finally…
I’m beginning to realise there is a real and present danger in the architectural profession, what with the downturn and all. I’m referring to the massed ranks of former back of house architects who happily beavered away in practices up and down the land and who, through no fault of there own, are now out on the streets looking for the source of their next crust. Many have chosen to set themselves up in practice, there being little alternative on offer, and thereby adding to the disproportionate number of small architectural offices that already exist. Trouble is, the principals of many of these new practices (and already there are some taking on the acronym lifestyle) have been far from the coalface for a very, very long time and are, in any case, not what one might describe as being among life’s leading job getters. If ever there was an urgent case for specialised ‘how to run a business’ CPD then this has to be it, even to the point of having an online or end-of-phone helplines to prevent unnecessary catastrophes. Come on RIBA and RIAS, what are you waiting for?

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