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Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Another day, another architecture minister, Something to chew on & The biggest albino in the elephant herd

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February 16 2009

Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Another day, another architecture minister, Something to chew on &  The biggest albino in the elephant herd
Another day, another architecture minister
So farewell then Linda Fabiani. Having survived two years in the job, you were the longest lasting of Scotland’s architecture ministers. You took to the task with no little enthusiasm and indeed, unlike your seven predecessors, had at least some understanding of the design and construction process. But then, that was never a necessary credential for this particular government post, the most absurd of whom lost his seat at the last Holyrood elections. Depending upon opinion, you might even be said to have had some notable successes in the role, instituting a Scottish presence at the Venice Architecture Biennale being one and bailing out the Lighthouse when it crashed through the said project’s budget barrier being two.

No, your failure was not on the architecture side of your brief, but in not managing at the end of last year to secure Parliament’s approval for your plans to bring together the tragic-comic Scottish Arts Council and the almost invisible ‘Scottish Screen’ under the new banner of ‘Creative Scotland’. It’s ironic, therefore, that at the beginning of the same week in which you found yourself once again amongst the also-rans on the Holyrood debating chamber’s back benches, you finally launched the self-same super-quango, albeit without having managed to pull Scottish Enterprise’s creative industries budget into its funding pot. Nope, it’s another classic compromise of the type we in Scotland have turned into an art form in itself – the two quangos will now “co-operate”, a euphemism for pushing unwanted projects and responsibilities onto each other and ensuring nothing actually happens.

So why should this matter to the architectural fraternity? Well, Creative Scotland now embraces an auspicious 13 areas of alleged creativity and whilst all you Lovejoys out there might think the bizarre inclusion of ‘antiques’ requires a much higher level of creative activity than all of the others put together, it is of no small interest to discover that architecture also now sits within this exclusive grouping. Except that it doesn’t really, since the Architecture Policy Unit that resides within its building and planning division still holds the very small purse strings the Scottish Government deems sufficient to support and promote the discipline. Still, the posterior of one of the current administration’s brighter bunnies is now parked on the Culture Minister’s swivelling chair, so it will be interesting to see how much time - and resources - Mike Russell can divert to the subject whilst spinning the plates of a new brief that covers both culture and constitution. Able man that he undoubtedly is, it’s worrying to see his attention already distracted by the unsurprisingly simultaneous re-emergence of the City of Glasgow Council’s perennial whinge about funding for its art galleries and museums.

It’s not the roof-line, dopey - it’s the spending graph
The city might claim to have no money to run its cultural estate, but perish the thought such concerns should ever prevent it building expensive new facilities. After the gargantuan revamp of Kelvingrove, its big project has been Zaha Hadid’s ‘Riverside Museum’. Scheduled to open in 2011, the current anticipated cost is a mere 50% over its original budget, but almost certain to be taken on a more vertical trajectory as the building approaches completion.

Endearingly, Lawrence Fitzgerald, the manager for the project at Culture and Sport Glasgow, hopes that the contracting economy will help return the steroidally-enhanced budget to a more elegant silhouette, the scarlet complexion of which can be buffed to a more delicate shade of red in the final accounting. What can I say - the poor man clearly needs to extend his horizons a little beyond Govan and check out his architect’s track record on this front. Put simply, Mr Fitzgerald, Zaha has not built her stellar reputation by responding to other people’s budgetary concerns.

The Millennium Dome might have given you a clue: for reasons still unknown, a £7m budget for the design of one of the big tent’s temporary interior fit-outs became a £27m lump in the billion pound end cost, a trifling sum really when compared to the burgeoning bill for the London 2012 Aquatics Centre. Originally mooted at £75m, the anticipated cost (not, I emphasise, the final price) now stands at £251m, a mere £175m rise in the four years since the diva’s designs for the swimming and diving arena were first published.

So Mr F, don’t be downhearted if the cost of bringing your baby into the world doesn’t actually drop: you’re still some way from the 300%+ mark we critics now associate with projects by Iraq’s Imelda. But when you finally accept you’re going to be stuffed big-style, you can always adapt some of the Department for Culture Media and Sport’s let-out lines: in explanation of the stratospheric rise in cost of the Aquatic Centre, its p.r. geniuses suggest the contract price negotiations “reflect the development of the design” as well as “the lack of competitive tension in the procurement”. Funnily enough, these were, word-for-word, the same reasons given for the rise in cost of the Olympic Stadium (see below), but whatever way you decide to finesse it, please, please don’t try it on with “you get what you pay for” - Scotland already has a complete set of new clothes for the emperor, bought from the best of Spanish tailors.

The biggest albino in the elephant herd
Which segues us neatly into the London Olympic opera itself. I have to say I love it when government ministers announce their “latest vision” for the event when clearly it’s just a problem they have with the spelling of “hallucination”. This time it’s the main venue itself that’s in the spotlight – three years after promising it wouldn’t be a drain on the public purse, the UK Government has admitted that no football or rugby club was interested in becoming the anchor tenant after 2012.

Why they should be at all surprised by this is anybody’s guess – the submerged bowl design was always going to be a hostage to fortune given that the running track around it would place spectators too far from the onfield action. Construction of course, is now too far advanced to change tack on its design, so the prospect of £800k + annual running costs continuing long after the Olympic cavalcade has moved on to its next sucker city seems pretty inevitable. And this on top of the current anticipated cost of £547m (up from only £282m) for a stadium that will be reduced in size from 80000 seats to lowly a 25000 at the end of its fortnight’s use.  Privately, Olympic chiefs have conceded that the stadium will never be profitable but amusingly, the forecast remains that other venues – including the Aquatic Centre – will generate enough money to offset the stadium’s losses. Even more laughably the suggestion now is also that the area under the stadium seating will become a ‘sports-themed’ school.

Now I know what you’re thinking, but its not what Tessa Jowell’s thinking: no, our Olympics Minister is still batting for Britain, insisting the venue and the area around it will “change forever with a sport, cultural and business park that will be a magnet for business and investment”. And what, pray gives her this confidence? Why, it’s the digital industry hub the government hopes to create around the £355m media centre. Yes that’s the media centre whose cost combined with the associated Olympic Village has so far increased by £225m to a bumper £846m and which will now only operate for 20-25 years.

Savvy readers will of course recall that these facilities are to be wholly publicly financed after (and this is only the latest, but certainly the most convenient, excuse) private investment disappeared in the credit crunch. Still there’s a silver, perhaps even gold, lining to every cloud – L’Equipe, the French national sports daily, obviously took some delight in commenting that “London had proved that Olympic bids could be artful works of fiction”, thereby opening up a whole new literary future for our Tess in her post-political career.

Something to chew on
But back to the Riverside Museum for a moment, because there just wasn’t space in last week’s Wrap to comment on the clunky commercial scheme that seems certain to encircle Zaha’s dockside squiggle. Meadowside Quay, as it is styled, is the £1.2bn brainchild of Chapman Taylor Architects, a firm it might charitably be said is hardly noted for projects likely to stimulate architectural tourism. This certainly seems to be the view of Architecture & Design Scotland’s review team - it has taken umbrage at the aforesaid authors for failing to respond to its criticisms before delivering revised proposals to the City of Glasgow Council for planning approval. “We are extremely disappointed that the level of design development has been minimal since the last presentation”, it bleats. Actually, its not so much a bleat as a blast, and had A+DS teeth rather than just soft gums, such an attack might actually have penetrated this particular architect’s thick commercial hide.

Whether or not this inability to seriously sink its gnashers into rogue projects is addressed in the Scottish Government’s review of A+DS remains to be seen. The review has just been completed but is so far unpublished – the settling in of a new culture minister may well delay things a bit but hopefully not for too long. One aspect of the A+DS set-up that surely has to be dealt with is the role of its board members. In the current debate about the functions and responsibilities of company non-executive directors, a board of 24 people of whom only three or four have any legal responsibility for the quango’s operations has to change if it is ever to be effective. And it needs some cojones.

Yes, I know the creation of an impotent organisation was the game plan of all those who worked so hard to rid us of the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland, its predecessor organisation, but A+DS in its current form lacks any effective authority. Not to put too fine a point on it, most people, including building professionals, have no idea what A+DS’ actual role or purpose is, so having failed this very basic communication test, it can hardly be surprised when its views are ignored. In any case, most of the few ideas it has ever proposed have been nicked from CABE, its southern equivalent so - were it not to exist – it is hard to believe anyone would actually notice. This is not to say that some critical overview of the planning process is not required - Meadowside Quay shows the desperate vacuum in strategic authority that currently exists – but to speculate instead as to whether or not the current review will radically alter the purpose and functioning of A+DS. We watch, wait and breathe deeply.

And finally…
I made brief reference to the paradoxes of PFI/PPP last week, so the latest news on this front should come as no surprise to regular readers of the Wrap. Yes, it’s the final admission that the UK government’s preferred sleight-of-hand to get capital expenditure off the country’s balance sheet has hit the skids. It was fine to take out no-deposit mortgages from venal lenders when the economy was apparently in rude health, but now that the consortia underwriting most PFI/PPP projects are unable to raise even the price of a Big Issue between them, the Chancellor, good old Alastair Darling, has stepped in to help these poor souls out.

Actually, it’s a bit more than a cup of sugar in his hand – he himself has had to borrow yet more billions from sources unknown to lend to these sterling chaps in order that they can build the £2.4bn of health and education schemes currently stalled for lack of finance. Back on balance sheet, of course, but there’s plenty of time between now and the Budget on 22 April to come up with an entirely plausible explanation of how this will benefit us all. My money’s on “double or quits”.

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