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Wilson's Weekly Wrap: You don't have to lose an arm to be a bandit & Pinnochio Tower - extended version

June 2 2009

Wilson's Weekly Wrap: You don't have to lose an arm to be a bandit & Pinnochio Tower - extended version
Just in case readers of last week’s Wrap are in any doubt, the picture of the goofy looking guy in the checkerboard suit posing in front of some Doric columns wasn’t me – Piers Gough received a Fellowship from the RIAS in return for attending its Convention in Dundee, which may explain the smile on his face.

Moving on - despite last week’s Wrap being a bumper bank holiday edition, there still wasn’t enough room for comment on all the interesting stories that have emerged recently. I say this because – unusually – the general press seems to have had loads of architecture-related features, not all of which were tied to duck houses and MP’s expenses. The Scotsman even managed in one week to carry four quite different articles, two of which were actually written by architects, which either shows they’ve got time on their hands just now or feel it’s the right time to make their case on specific areas of interest.

Man of fission
At this point I’ll remind you of the old adage, “beware of vested interests posing as moral certitudes” because the first of these pieces was by Mark Fresson of Archial. Mark, you see is hyper-keen on nuclear power stations or, more specifically, designing them. He has an interesting viewpoint on this, believing that if only these edifices were designed by architects they would be aesthetically more pleasing and therefore more acceptable to the great British public. Indeed, our boy at Archial seems to be a born-again nukie (if that’s the correct term), having convinced himself on the basis of no empirical evidence whatsoever that there is “a renewed sense of optimism about nuclear” that “is set to find expression in the next generation of facilities.”

Further, he believes these new reactors should be “inspiring and expressive, reaching out beyond power plants to encompass a variety of support buildings.” And when he talks about support buildings he isn’t referring to the usual storage sheds for waste radioactive material – of course not – he means “design centres of excellence incorporating business parks or university departments with research and training facilities to meet demand for technicians, engineers and scientists.” Mark, though, recognises that some of his fellow professionals might not be quite as evangelical about the prospects for this third generation of “welcoming and open” nuclear facilities and warns us all that “inertia and, in some cases, hostility within the profession to nuclear energy is profound, with the result that these new nuclear facilities risk being engineering-led (sic) projects with the architectural element consigned to little more than an afterthought. Architects should be fighting to play a leading role in design and master-planning of these sites.”

So let’s get to the crux of things – quite why Mark’s musings merited feature in the Scotsman is anybody’s guess but you’d think his colleagues in the quintet of Archial offices here would have mentioned to him that not one of the four reactors proposed by French-owned EDF is scheduled to be built north of the border and that the Scottish Government is in any case resolutely opposed to further nuclear facilities being constructed here. His fellow Archialistas might even have pointed out to Mark that his conviction about the nuclear option is not exactly shared by his chums at EDF who have called for financial help from the state since “investors would still need convincing that investment in the sector made commercial sense.”

Now, given his interest in the subject, you’d think our friend with the green glow to his cheeks would have noticed that the UK government has so far insisted that Britain’s next fleet of nuclear reactors must be built without extra help from public funds. Moreover, last year’s financial collapse has meant that not only does the government have zilcho money for this or anything else, but has mortgaged the country to the hilt for the next 30+ years. And, given the state of Westminster politics just now, the notion that the government will find dosh for EDF this side of a 2010 general election seems as likely as the discovery of Elvis swinging a geiger counter across a Dounreay beach. EDF, of course, is playing its hand now since it has, apparently, “a final investment decision to make in 2011” and who knows what an incoming government will decide? From its point of view, it’s clearly a case of ‘better the devil you know’ but Archial is a different phenomenon altogether and whether it’s very own Dr Faustus has the buy-in for his nuclear ambitions from all the other parts of this fairly recently re-branded conglomerate is quite another matter. One thing is for sure – as long as Marko loudly touts the notion that public disquiet about nuclear power stations is simply an issue of styling, the longer it will be before the rest of his profession looks on his organisation with any genuine respect.

You don’t have to lose an arm to be a bandit
The second architect contribution came from Graham McCorkindale, director of healthcare at Keppie and headlined as ‘Better by design – how attention to detail is good for patients and hospital staff’. Aside from the excruciating ‘better by design’ tag – a phrase now so hackneyed that it has zero street cred no matter what subject it is applied against - this was a more informed, albeit fairly general, article on the importance of good architectural design in healthcare buildings.

What struck me immediately about it though was Graham’s first two sentences: “Over recent years, there has been considerable debate surrounding the financing of healthcare facilities. Less well-documented is the debate about the quality of the design of these facilities and the positive impact good design can have on the health and well being of patients and staff.” Now, to my mind, the second sentence is so self-evidently true that I find it hard to imagine anyone nowadays would actually argue against its sentiments. What many would question, however, is the impact of the first sentence upon the delivery of the aspirations set out in the second, a far more contentious area that is really the only matter worthy of debate. Anyone who has visited or indeed had the misfortune to spend time in the rash of PFI/PPP hospitals built in Scotland in recent years could, without stopping for breath, list a plethora of design issues that have very obviously been compromised by the procurement method employed.

Graham, I suspect, would argue with me on this, but then Keppie has been one of the main advocates within the architectural community in Scotland for PFI/PPP and has worked hard to secure a place for itself within the fewer and fewer consortia able to afford to pitch for such projects. And make no mistake about it: being a consortium player brings with it rich rewards if the team’s bid is successful, but that does not necessarily mean that the presence of an architectural practice within the team will ensure the triumph of good design over the desire to maximise profit. And no matter how many articles Graham writes about the need for better design, this latter aspect of the prevailing procurement route for healthcare projects is the one thing that consistently mitigates against it being delivered.

Pinnochio Tower – extended version
Now that the first week of the Public Inquiry into Richard Murphy’s Haymarket hotel project has elapsed, one has to wonder whether these drawn out events have any real merit given that most of the ‘evidence’ presented is merely opinion rather than factually accurate information. Sure, there’s a great deal of supplementary written material that the Reporter has (in theory) to wade through before reaching a conclusion, but to the outside viewer all that has happened to date falls into the category of very expensive, publicly-funded slapstick.

First up was Richard Murphy who, unsurprisingly felt his project was an international quality attempt to drag poor old horizontal Edinburgh into the bright, shiny vertical world of the 21st century. Sadly Richard doesn’t appear to read the Wrap, else he might well have moved on from his earlier daft argument that his proposed 17-storey hotel was at the peak of the architectural Himalayas alongside capital edifices like the Balmoral and the Caledonian hotels - both of which he appears to think are world famous. On further questioning from John Campbell QC, however, he agreed the Balmoral wasn’t really a very good piece of architecture. That said, our man in Katona Close thinks all modern buildings in the capital (except his own presumably) are “unspeakably ugly, sad imitations of our heritage.”

More pertinently, Richard’s client, Tiger Developments Managing Director John Nesbitt, pronounced that the proposed building had the “iconic status” demanded by his client, the Intercontinental Hotel Group, and - tellingly - that “a hotelier of this magnitude had an input into the design.” Asked if Intercontinental would come to the city if the hotel was significantly smaller, Mr Nesbitt replied “I don’t think they would come to a mediocre building’, thus neatly avoiding a straight answer to the actual question. Local residents were given their moment at this point, but with scant resources to set out a compelling case, their input was largely subjective and was as easily skipped over in the Inquiry and the subsequent press coverage as it now is here (note: never live adjacent to a development site in Edinburgh unless your next-door neighbour is a friendly QC).

The first real surprise emerged the following day when it became clear that UNESCO (the body that dishes out or takes away World Heritage Site status) had actually - contrary to City of Edinburgh council spin- strongly criticised this particular proposal, saying that it had “considerable concern about the height of the proposed hotel” in that it would have “a major visual impact” on surrounding buildings in the capital. At this stage the written comments of Ken Williamson of Hurd Rolland Architects (in support of the developer) were questioned by John Campbell, given that - in the former’s opinion – objectors in Edinburgh to individual proposals that have undergone the full scrutiny of statutory planning process had in recent years “sought to bring additional external pressure from the World Heritage Committee in the form of threatening inclusion in the list of World Heritage in Danger or indeed removal from the World heritage list.” Campbell’s point was to the point, viz.: “Aren’t there very strict criteria for inclusion?” to which Mr Williamson could only impotently accede.  

If you hoped it would get more entertaining than this then the next day was definitely brighter, with Izi Metzstein  - Murphy’s mentor – confidently announcing that “Edinburgh Castle’s prominence on Edinburgh’s skyline was over-rated” and that although the castle was admired worldwide it “did tend to give the impression that everything must be subservient to it.” Having thus demolished any reputation he might previously have had for urban design, Professor Metzstein went on to postulate that the Murphy project was “provocative, interesting and stimulating…. In modern times we don’t build cathedrals and churches: something has to come along to leaven the bread”, presumably inferring that hotels are the new religion we all should defer to.

Next up the day after was Lord McCluskey, a notable and highly publicised objector to the project. In a strongly worded statement to the Inquiry, Lord McC criticised the City of Edinburgh Council for abandoning its long-standing skyline policy on the eve of granting planning permission to the developers (regular Wrap readers will recall that the project was called in by the Scottish Government because the Council had previously owned the land upon which it was awarding development permission). “The underlying truth about the apparent changes of… policy by the City of Edinburgh appears to be the excessive cost of the tramway (including cost overruns) plus the massive cost of complying with the recently restated law requiring equal pay for men and women, have created a serious financial problem for Edinburgh and the Council is prepared to sell our heritage to find the necessary funds.” Going on, he asserted that “tourists do not come to Edinburgh for the weather or to stay in hotels that would better grace Sharm el Sheikh or Lloret de Mar.”

Whilst Lord McC’s comments might be interpreted by some as the true measure of the international quality alluded to by the project’s architect, the hotel operator itself was in no doubt about what will bring the crowds to Edinburgh and it isn’t the capital’s historic architecture or its castle – heaven’s no – it’s the new Intercontinental hotel that, according to Kirk Kinsell, the group’s ‘President for Europe, the Middle East and Africa’, will “attract tourists who would not otherwise come to the capital.” So that’s it then: we need to build this or Edinburgh’s tourist industry’s completely f***ed. Now, don’t laugh - Kirk’s clearly a man who knows a thing or two and is firm in his conviction that the planned hotel will not go ahead unless it has 200 rooms which means “it has to have 17 storey’s on the current site otherwise the project will be commercially unviable.” Further, our man from the manse doesn’t know anyone “willing to pay a couple of hundred quid to stay in a subterranean hotel” which, since the previous option was 12 storeys, suggests that - unbeknown to them - most of Edinburgh’s inhabitants are currently living so far below ground that the use of conventional eyesight is as irrelevant as any discussion of what the new hotel might look like.

The best bit of the whole story though, was saved for the Inquiry’s Friday session when it became clear that the City of Edinburgh Council had bargained with the developer over its contribution to the tram project – and lost. Papers lodged with the Inquiry show that in May 2008 the Council said consent should not be issued until the developers entered into a “legal agreement for the sum of £4,137,258 towards the Edinburgh Tram Line”, but when questioned on this by Ken Murray, chairman and chief executive of Blue Planet Investment Management (who had initiated a 2000 signature petition against the project), Elaine Robertson, a principal planner and Council witness, stated that the developer’s contribution would only be £2.5m and confirmed that planning permission was contingent upon the Tiger developments stumping this up. Mr Murray then asked: “do you feel comfortable with a system where the judge gets a bonus for sending you to jail?” to which Ms Robertson responded that she would not answer questions that “called into doubt her and colleagues’ integrity.”

As a conclusion to the first week of the Inquiry, this last statement would be hard to top and I can only presume that Ms Robertson based her indignant stance on the definition given in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, viz.: “Integrity is one of the most important and oft-cited of virtue terms. It is also perhaps the most puzzling. For example, while it is sometimes used virtually synonymously with ‘moral,’ we also at times distinguish acting morally from acting with integrity. Persons of integrity may in fact act immorally—though they would usually not know they are acting immorally. Thus one may acknowledge a person to have integrity even though that person may hold importantly mistaken moral views.” But then again, maybe she didn’t.

It’s not Rome that’s burning and it’s not Nero that’s fiddling
Maybe it’s the imminence of the festival season, but apart from the above farrago, Edinburgh seems to have more Fringe performances running than seems usual at this time of year. The City Council – an organisation that has never knowingly run anything at a profit – has decided to merge several of its property vehicles with its holding company, imaginatively titled ‘CEC Holdings’. Notionally this will bring forward the city’s regeneration plans, but as it is £92m in the red this year you have to wonder quite what skills it will bring to the table to do so. Previous Wraps have highlighted how Waterfront Edinburgh Ltd was all but belly-up as a result of spectacularly bad management and economic downturn induced land revaluations but it is the effective demise of the EDI Group that is the most troubling aspect of this decision since it was the one area of the Council’s adventures in the property sector that has consistently given the city a substantial dividend on its activities.

True, some of EDI’s current areas of involvement – such as PARC Craigmillar Ltd – have been hit by the economic downturn, but the group’s performance over 20 years hardly justified this latest move –unless it is to disguise the Council’s gargantuan losses on its incompetent waterfront operations. Indeed the sudden emergence of CEC Holdings into the limelight brings to mind the old pre-Perestroika joke about what would happen if Russia invaded the Sahara? (Answer: nothing for ten years and then a shortage of sand) – but it’s genuinely hard to see this as anything other than an asset stripping operation in response to other pressures on the Council’s finances. EDI was widely regarded as an exemplary client to the many talented architects it chose to employ but the big question now is not whether this enlightened commissioning policy will continue (it won’t) but for how long the placemakers and p***takers in the Council’s Market Street bunker will run the show before it all turns to dust?

And finally…
When you add all this to the many schemes listed last week for which the City of Edinburgh Council has not a penny piece to pay for, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the lunatics had actually taken over the municipal asylum, but we’re not finished yet – there’s that old hardy annual, the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, to consider. The figures for this particular Quixotic project have always been an odd mix of actual earnings and estimated economic benefit to the city, but the latest plan to extend the building is priceless since it will, apparently, be redeveloped by – yes – the City of Edinburgh Council itself without a private sector developer involved. Yes, I know Cala and AWG were going to do it, but they pulled out a while back and even though the budget has now gone up another £5m to £85m the undaunted Council has submitted a planning application to itself which it expects to green light by November.  Thereafter a 30-month build programme will, we’re told, see the project completed by 2013, so only a four year delay if all goes to plan.

Except that there’s no indication of where the money will come from other than jacket-now-on-shaky-peg Scottish Enterprise who have already been stiffed for £18m to get the job to the planning stage. Oh, did I mention that the project the Council’s new team of development advisers has come up with requires the construction of an eight-storey commercial element? This in a city currently hugely overprovided with empty office accommodation and a dramatic rise in unemployment figures amongst –you’re ahead of me now – financial and legal sector workers, the very people who fill the desks in those office buildings that are still occupied. As Bob Dylan once so pithily put it, “there’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.”

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