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Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Science? Not as we know it, Jim. Hitting the high notes & High, that'll be right

March 31 2009

Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Science? Not as we know it, Jim. Hitting the high notes & High, that'll be right
Science? Not as we know it, Jim.
So, the Glasgow Science Centre is to axe “one in ten” (i.e. around 12) jobs in response to the economic downturn - to be honest, it’s hard to be surprised by this, so I won’t even pretend. The management, bless it, blames a general drop in revenue and, in particular, a fall in spending by visitors in its cafes and shops, but in a very un-Glaswegian turn of eloquence, describes the process as “streamlining the workforce”. In anybody else’s interpretation this would mean no more chips for the staff in the Centre’s café, but this is the second staff reduction in the past 12 months (28 went last July), so the problems can’t all be down to that now universal panacea, the Credit Crunch. Indeed since it opened eight years ago, the Science Centre has hardly had to look far in search of trouble, not the least being its world-renowned non-rotating, non-ascendable Glasgow Tower – a genuine international first. Amusingly the Scotsman referred to it as “a top attraction”, the paradox surely being that no matter how attracted you ever were to it, you couldn’t for most of its short life actually reach its top.

When the full history of this type of visitor attraction is written the symbiotic relationship between over-ambitious local councils, development agencies, the National Lottery and the kind of economic consultants so regularly called upon by the tourism sector to pronounce the number of new jobs and mega-millions these developments will bring to an area ought finally to be made clear.

Indeed, an analysis of all the projects funded under the Millennium Lottery scheme in particular should reveal the UK’s overprovision of hugely-expensive but commercially-insane edifices – the Millennium Dome most obviously, but let’s not forget ‘The Big Idea’ at Irvine or the ‘National Centre for Popular Music’ at Sheffield, projects whose demise wasn’t even sufficiently prolonged to be termed, charitably, as ‘lingering’. There are also a few Alsopian projects such as ‘the Public’ at West Bromwich that have recently been completed and for which a real use has still to be found – all with similar staffing levels to the 120 strong Glasgow Science Centre. The latter was of course to be the first of a Starbucks-style chain of related job centres across the nation that were intended to bring science to a wider audience. That notion has proved to be as ephemeral as the promised jobs, so presumably schools will once again have to pick up the slack on this educational lacuna; meanwhile, there remains some thoroughly bad architecture to commemorate one of the most excessive periods in the economic history of Britain.

Hitting the high notes
The news that QC John Campbell is to represent the opponents of Richard Murphy’s proposed 17-storey hotel at Edinburgh’s Haymarket in a legal action aimed at rescinding its planning approval can’t have been welcomed in the maestro’s Fishmarket Close bunker. Campbell, you will remember, was the terrier at Lord Fraser’s Holyrood Inquiry who forensically deciphered the full shambles of the Parliament project but was prevented by his boss from delivering the well-merited coup-de-grace to each of the principal participants. This time Campbell is driving the bus himself and it looks very much like no prisoners will be taken on board.

All this should of course prove to be a compelling tale and while it might not make Newsnight Scotland the viewing ‘must’ that it became during the Parliament inquiry, it will surely occupy quite a few of the remaining pages of the Herald and the Scotsman before the country’s main broadsheets finally disappear from daily life. I say this because the developers have engaged an equally able QC and the city fathers, not to be outdone, are shelling out good Council Tax money on another of this ilk as they beaver to explain why they gave the project full planning permission in the face of collective heritage group opposition.

The argument hinges on the proposed height of the new hotel and whether or not it breaches planning policy. The Council has of course looked at which of the so-called nodal points in the approaches to Edinburgh could merit the application of a ‘taller buildings policy’, and never one to shy clear of controversy, Richard seems to have jiggled the shape of his project around on the site enough to ensure that the only way it might achieve the aspirations of its brief was to look up and beyond said policy.

Believe it or not, there are others out there far more sceptical than the Wrap and who have been voluble in their suspicion that this is just another manifestation of a recent planning phenomenon: the über-application. This type of submission requires an element of brinksmanship: propose a scheme for more storeys than needed and well above the notional planning limits; then go through an appeal process that shaves a few storeys off but leaves a project still exceeding the previously permitted height levels. In this case, since the project received the necessary permission first time round, no such spectacularly unsatisfactory compromise is required nor indeed can Scotland’s self-confessed premier architect possibly stand accused of such uncharacteristic and decidedly underhand machinations. We’ll wait and see whether results from this particular court case change things but - either way - it is hard to view this expensive process as the preferred route to the world-class architecture Scotland’s capital city so desperately aspires to.

High, that’ll be right
Not to be outdone, Glasgow also continues to reach for the sky, this time with plans for an £80m, 30-storey development to replace the two-storey Savoy Centre that has blighted the city’s Sauchiehall Street since first constructed in the early 1970s. Naturally the proposed development includes the inevitable hotel, this one with 221-bedrooms, restaurants and “panoramic views” of the city. Not to mention the small matter of 6000 square metres of attendant office accommodation that will – in the words of Damien Mitchell of Belfast developer PNB Properties – “create a new landmark building for Glasgow city centre”. Of course there’s the usual guff about the number of jobs created during construction work and the potential for 900 more on completion of the scheme, employed by companies and organisations as yet unknown. The rent-a-quotes from the city’s Marketing Bureau are equally unable to contain themselves – as the organisation’s Scott Taylor points out, “if Glasgow is to compete and win on a world stage, it needs to continue to attract major investments such as this (sic) and the inclusion of a hotel within these plans will enhance the city’s ability to meet growing demand, especially in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games in 2014”.

Unlike the Edinburgh example its not the project’s height that is the issue here - the shoplifting capital of Europe does, after all, love a tall edifice – no the big idea that caught the planners’ attention this time and which proved to be the box-ticker par excellence was the hitherto (it seems) un-thought of notion to remove the clunky footbridge across Renfrew Street from the Savoy Centre. It’s just a pity that the bigger project picture is one of the most execrable images the Wrap has seen in years but one which all too well complements the architectural merit of the nearby cinema tower.

As the Wrap has pointed out a few times now, we don’t seem to be getting much value from A+DS or the various city Design Champions in raising the bar for this type of proposal in Scotland. Glasgow, of course, has a long history of accepting almost every duff design put in front of it on the basis that somebody out there apparently loves the city enough to pump a few bob into its economy, a forelock-tugging political impulse made worse with every passing day of these difficult investment times. That, however, should not be foremost among the considerations of our various design gurus, but I don’t recall seeing a word of criticism about this particular honker from the boys in Bakehouse Close (although I’m sure I’ll be assured it's somewhere on their website) or indeed from Gerry Grams, Glasgow’s very own design guru. Unless you actually like this one, Gerry?

Another kind of high
Still on the subject of new hotels – the only kind of development that seems able in these inclement financial times to be able to raise construction funding – we turn again to the city fathers of Auld Reekie and their stated aim to raise the number of beds available to visitors by an additional 4000 by 2015. This is in line with targets to increase tourist numbers and if we ignore for a moment the inability of said tourists to either reach or get around the capital in its current despoiled state, the fact that the best part of 3000 of these rooms have already been developed, are being developed or have planning consent (ok, knock off for the moment the 210 previously mooted for the Caltongate project, but add in other budget hotel proposals from Easyjet, Premier Inns and others for Princes Street) suggests there will be no problem reaching that temperature on the Council’s hand-painted hotel room thermometer.

Which makes it all the more unbelievable that the Council, as owner of the Royal High School, is proposing that the building that was largely responsible for securing for the city the appellation of ‘Athens of the North’ should be turned into yet another lodging house for people wishing to visit the capital’s most visible attraction, the tramworks. Not that anyone who has ever actually entered the small spaces of the building would consider it for such an inappropriate purpose, but the good men and true that inhabit the City Chambers are desperate to offload it and, with the evaporation of the chimera that was to be the National Photography Centre, they’ve come up with an ever so cunning plan that involves – yes, you guessed it - the creation of yet another ‘boutique’ hotel.

The main building, designed by Thomas Hamilton has, it must be said, not exactly seen a lot of fun since its construction in 1829, but ever since Donald Dewar decided to wander down the hill and put his Catalonian corker on the site of an old brewery instead, the casually renamed ‘New Parliament House’ has been a bit of a burden on the Council’s coffers. In any other city in Europe a building of this historical and architectural merit would be restored and given new significance as a public facility, but being skint and having no discernible understanding of what it is that actually attracts visitors to the city, Councillor Tom Buchanan, the city’s economic ‘leader’, and his chums think it “will be interesting to see what ideas the business community come up with as we seek the most appropriate way to bring this landmark back to life”.

Such faith in the business sector from the poorest civic representatives in generations is admirable but spectacularly misplaced – one only has to look at the recent transformation of the Neues Museum in Berlin by David Chipperfield to see the kind of thing that needs to be done here and can be achieved when political leaders actually choose to lead. Yes, the financial tea-leaves are not too auspicious at the moment, but the building has lain empty for several years now and with reasonable maintenance can certainly survive until a plan that properly recognises its national significance is put into place. There are a lot of idle hands in the architectural profession just now, so what better than an ideas competition to throw up some serious solutions for the Royal High’s future? If the Council can’t even find the money for that then, Houston, we really do have a problem.

And finally…
If after all that you have a desperate need to get out of town – any town – you could do a lot worse than pencil the open day at Dunoon Burgh Hall on 2nd May into your diary and get yourself over there for a fun time – the promise is of live music, a café, exhibitions and competitions – and the opportunity to see what can be achieved when there is a will. Erected in 1874, the building is being  transformed into a community arts centre by the John McAslan Family Trust and the friends of the Burgh Hall in partnership with the local community itself. John, despite being London-based, has had a life-long and fairly well-publicised connection with the area and it’s good to see this manifesting itself in such a visible - and financial -commitment to a town that, if we’re honest, has been searching for a new purpose ever since the US navy departed the Holy Loch. Now, if we could only establish a McAslan family link to Edinburgh’s Regent Road and the old Royal High School…

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