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Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Surveying the damage, No reflection on Mackintosh & More than one way to skin a cat

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March 24 2009

Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Surveying the damage, No reflection on Mackintosh & More than one way to skin a cat
Surveying the damage
I couldn’t actually discover from the RICS website how many surveyors there are in the UK (no doubt the figure is there but, as usual, not obvious if you haven’t got all day to look) but according to the relevant section about its northern outpost, there are 9000 RICS members in Scotland. That’s around three times the number of architects that pay £1 a day for the privilege of having the letters ARIAS after their names. You may wonder, but the reason for these fairly elliptical ruminations was the news this week that the RICS had suspended pay for staff at every level of the organisation and was making 18 redundancies.

Now, I wouldn’t wish the pain of redundancy on anyone, but the RICS is the one outfit in the construction industry that has made its members’ monetary diligence on behalf of clients its raison d’etre, so when it finds itself up to oxter level in its own financial merde, something has fairly obviously gone awry.

Let’s face it, members of any professional body pay an annual subscription for a range of services and, I suspect, generally presume that the extent of those services – and the number of staff required to deliver them – depends entirely upon the total amount of fee income generated. Not so: down at RICS Central, it seems they’ve been living high on the hog. What other possible interpretation can there be for the fact that whilst subscriptions have apparently remained steady, commercial activities such as book sales, advertising and events have tailed off with the consequent need to de-employ 18 sorry souls?

This, on top of 5% cuts already carried out and the pay freeze for the bods that remain suggests these commercial activities were hitherto making enough profit to subsidise all the other costs and salaries.  Zut alors! Can it be true that the RICS has been teetering all this time on the tightrope of financial happiness? If so, its public relations team has clearly been far more adept in rapidly changing circumstances than its in-house Micawbers since it’s the dropping revenues that have taken the blame in the press for the cost-cutting measures and not the organisation’s inability to live within its means. Yes, whoever it was that said they’d half a mind to become a surveyor was absolutely on the money: half a mind, self-evidently, is still all that you need if you remain confident that the people running your professional organisation are up to the job.

That’s just champion – another talking shop
Despite my remonstrations over the past week or two about the plethora of Design Champions emerging in Scotland, Edinburgh – not content with one – has popped up with another body to carry out pretty much the same function as its current Don Quixote and Pancho Villa team. Yep, “city leaders” (have you noticed how they’re always described this way when they don’t want to be identified?) have set up a new committee “to try to raise the design quality standards of new developments in the capital”. Quite how often the ‘Edinburgh Urban Design Panel’ will meet is anybody’s guess, given that almost all of the developments previously mooted for the city are either on long term hold or have been kiboshed altogether (see below), but this is clearly intended to be visionary stuff given that its remit is to “give a particular emphasis to addressing design issues early in the process in a bid to give applicants greater confidence that their proposals are understood.” Aside from the fact that we all thought this was the role of A+DS (and no, I’m not having a go at them), the killer line in the press announcement was the final one: “the panel will comprise relevant organisations”. So we can all relax: it’s same old, same old as they say and we can be confident in the knowledge that will still take 200 years to change anything for the better in Edinburgh.

City centre site now available – world class architecture wanted
The news that Mountgrange Capital, developers of the widely unloved Caltongate development in the heart of Edinburgh, has gone into administration will not come as a shock to regular readers of the Wrap (where the company’s problems were highlighted several weeks ago), but in these hyper-recessionary times it can hardly have come at a worse moment for the various architectural practices involved.

The project is - to all intents and purposes - dead, despite the optimistic noises being made by Manish Chande, one of the Mountgrange directors that he has another investment vehicle that could buy the assets out of administration. Given that nobody is lending money for commercial development just now, It’s difficult to see new finance being raised to simply carry on with the development as is. And that doesn’t get away from the brutal reality that nobody other than the city’s ingenuous council and that regular backer of lost causes, the Chamber of Commerce, had bought into this particular project.

The trouble is, times have changed, even during the gestation of the ‘Caltongate’ scheme. People know when they are being offered cod consultation and resent it. They are also – despite many architects’ views to the contrary - able to recognise quality when they see it and nowadays expect it, especially in a city with the architectural and urban credentials that Edinburgh has. Which brings us to the nub of the problem – the many drawings published for this project illustrated a commercial style of architecture so unremarkable that it could have been in any city in the world. This may be unfair to the architects involved, but they produced the drawings so they can’t complain if the public isn’t convinced by what is put in front of it. What was required here was a modern form of architecture distinctive to Scotland’s capital and we can only hope that out of the Mountgrange ashes a phoenix will arise that is both appropriate for Edinburgh and genuinely world class in terms of its architectural quality.

No reflection on Mackintosh
One way of achieving genuine quality as well as democratic consensus is arguably the architectural competition process. I’m not making a case here for the Mickey Mouse approach to competitions that we have seen too many of over the years in Scotland and where neither the money nor the political will was in place before the process was put in motion. No, we’re talking about a more European model where public consultation on major urban sites is part of the brief building prior to the competition documents being produced and where political differences are settled well in advance of the judging stage in order that (a) the best and most appropriate design has a real chance of success and (b) the project can proceed to construction without further interference.

Such is my hope for the new £50m competition announced by Glasgow School of Art this past week to redevelop part of its Garnethill campus opposite Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s world famous art school building. For once, the competition is not being managed by any of the professional institutions, but by London-based Malcolm Reading Consultants who have a good track record of delivery in this field. Equally encouraging is the choice of chair for the judging panel, David Mackay of MBM Arquitectes in Barcelona. The Scottish press, however, in its long term commitment to provincialising everything north of the border, carried out a vox pop of well known names connected to the school or to the Mackintosh name, with some worrying consequences. Murray Grigor, described as “an architectural expert” was, for example, quoted as saying that a mirror fronted building could reflect the Mackintosh masterwork, a statement that not only showed a chronic lack of cultural confidence but also one lacking any real understanding of contemporary architectural imperatives.

There can be no doubt that this is the most important competition to take place in Scotland in many years and that the results will be watched in all parts of the world. Let’s hope that for once we manage to do it properly.

More than one way to skin a cat
And one from which nothing much has been heard of late, Scotland’s Housing Expo (the project formerly known as the Highland Housing Fair) has in fact been sending out some coded, but less than encouraging messages, providing of course that you’re an avid reader of the Inverness Courier. Those who are will know that this particular local rag has never taken much of a shine to the project and has been happy to lend itself to every slack-brained crank who wants to have a pop at it. This week was no different and although it didn’t exactly eat humble pie, it had to report that the attempt by one particularly rabid opponent to have criminal charges brought against the Highland Council planning officers involved in the handling of the event had been thrown out by the Inverness Procurator Fiscal because there was ”insufficient evidence.”

What that statement really meant was that there was no evidence whatsoever and that the allegation was entirely vexatious, but the hard fact is that the ongoing guerrilla attacks have contributed to the organisers not always having their eye entirely on the ball. Evidence of this was tucked deep into the article, where the Expo chairwoman, local councillor Jean Urquhart, expressed some optimism that he project would “be able to secure funding from the Scottish government”, but then blew any confidence that might have been instilled by this by going on to add “as well as developers, architects and sponsors,” the latter including the now tottering Dunfermline Building Society.

She did go on to admit that such support was “by no means a foregone conclusion” and that if the funding is not in place by May, the Expo will not go ahead. This will come as no surprise to the many architects who have committed huge time and energy to the project: communication with them - the project’s most natural supporters – has quite simply been lamentable, so much so that most have no confidence the project will proceed. But courage chaps – all is not lost and if I were a betting man I’d be getting those warrant application drawings out of the drawer and ready for action: when the green light starts flashing you’re going to have to accelerate at blistering speed to get on site in time to have this project up and running for August 2010. The final financial model may not be the one Councillor Urquhart has in mind, but – hey – as long as something moves the project forward, who cares?  Don’t say I didn’t give you advance notice.

And finally…
On a similar theme, even if it’s not quite a design competition, was the announcement this week that the 2012 Olympics – not content with competing with the banking system for the title of ‘most profligate chancers’ – is to give 12 artists up to £500k each to produce a “Cultural Olympiad”. Described as “the most ambitious and wide ranging art prize in the UK” it will provide commissions for nine artists from England and one each for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Aside from commenting that Scotland appears to have gone from its usual 10% status to being only one twelve part of the UK, the reason I mention it is that any art form can apparently be submitted, so if you’re feeling a bit low or underemployed, get on the website ( and slap in the 400 word description required of a project. Who knows, it could be you?

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