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Wilson's Weekly Wrap - Why gm+ad have gone down - under

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June 16 2009

Wilson's Weekly Wrap - Why gm+ad have gone down - under
On the Make

The downturn in UK architecture is perhaps most publicly reflected in the severe shedding of staff at the various London-based architectural magazines, but you’d think that with so few journalists remaining to turn out the weeklies they’d at least talk to each other to ensure reporting consistency. I am of course referring to BD which, still in the course of its catastrophic transition to a subscription-based circulation, managed a news item about the ‘Prime Minister’s Better Public Building Awards 2009’ on page 3 of last week’s issue. The essential point of it was that a 24-strong shortlist had just been unveiled for what could well be the most unwanted award – given the luck associated with the prize’s current sponsor – in British architecture. Tellingly, only two of the 24 received RIBA Awards this year, and amongst the education projects on the PM’s list is Make’s ‘controversial’ Jubilee Campus at the University of Nottingham.

Strangely, by page 9, the ‘Boots’ column had elevated said project to the status of a winner in this particular award scheme, suggesting either that our foot-fetish-friend has information the rest of us are not privy too or simply that BD’s left pedal is these days completely unacquainted with its right. Personally, I feel the association between this entirely meretricious project and our luckless Prime Minister is merely a reflection of the strange political times in which we live and a sure sign that this curate’s egg of an award scheme is unlikely to have any life beyond the next general election.


The boy done well down under

BD’s increasing distance from news Scottish becomes more apparent with every passing week. A small piece about the proposed demolition of Balfour Stewart House in Edinburgh’s Murrayfield banlieue includes a quote from Glasgow-based Alan Dunlop as a ‘local architect’, a suggestion of provincial proximity that must surely see a characteristically splenetic letter from Kansas State University’s recently appointed Victor L. Regnier Visiting Professor winging its way to BD’s Ludgate House eyrie.

We’ll come back to Balfour Stewart House in a minute – the point here is that gm+ad, Alan’s eponymous practice (the reference to genetic modification is as bewildering to me as it is to you), has picked up a commission in Melbourne on the back of its deservedly successful Hazelwood School in Glasgow, thereby catapulting the office into the bigger international sphere it has always hankered to be part of. In a previous Wrap I had the temerity to suggest that Hazelwood School was by far the best project gm+ad had ever done and it seems others now think so too, so much so that the Federal Government of Australia has awarded Victoria State’s new Glenroy Specialist School some $7.5m – the single biggest amount it has ever given towards the construction of this type of facility.

It should be pointed out that the success of Hazelwood School was no accident – the extensive research and development that gm+ad carried out as part of the design process for the building was published by ScotMARK (Scottish Matrix for Architectural Research and Knowledge) and Gordon Murray's breakthrough in Melbourne demonstrates exactly how valuable this kind of knowledge dissemination can be. In a nutshell, gm+ad’s achievement shows that specialist design knowledge can deliver serious export opportunities for Scottish architects – a far more likely and potentially more rewarding route to global success than the lottery of international competitions in which the names of our ‘local’ practices are completely unknown to the judges, a problem not entirely unrelated to the perennial metropolitan focus of London-based journals. Who knows though, if Glenroy Specialist School proves to be as remarkable as its Glasgow antecedent, we may well read more in BD’s pages about the antipodean exploits of Crocodile Dunlop.


Demolish and be damned or adaptive re-use?

But let’s return to Balfour Stewart House (formerly Ellersley House) and Archial’s intention to have the seminal RMJM building demolished. This isn’t the first time the architects have sought to blitzkrieg a building that many regard as one of the few positive additions from the 1980s to the capital’s built landscape and since the planning application to replace it with 119 flats that was thrown out by the City Council in February 2008 there is a notable upswell of sentiment in its favour from the wider architectural community (ie those whose project it isn’t) who wish to see it preserved.

Now, one would expect RMJM to want to see it protected lest it should secure entry for the practice to the newly-formed Rubble Club and Adrian Boot (no relation to the ‘Boots’ of BD mentioned above as far as I know), one of the practice’s directors, is vociferous in his condemnation of the proposals, asserting that they are both ‘predictable’ and ‘a one-dimensional response’ to a building he regards as ‘a part of our Scottish architectural heritage’. He did concede that its original purpose as an office block…is more questionable now than it was when it was built, but a lot of people recognise it as a significant building. Confusingly though, his understandable argument for some form of adaptive re-use a la Tate Modern was a little compromised by his added comment that “it would no doubt be pointed out that this approach doesn’t stack up financially, but then one should ask the question – should our architectural heritage have to financially stack up to exist?”

Now, before tackling this question of architectural existentialism lets deal with a couple of apposite issues such as the fact that the organisation that should appreciate its worth – Historic Scotland – is apparently incapable of recognising its architectural style, describing it as ‘a herald of new architectural ideals of the burgeoning post-modern period of the 1980s’, which in the current climate is as close to a death sentence as you can get. Equally perplexing, the ever more flamboyant Archial group director, Maxwell Hutchison, launched his own cruise missile at the building, describing it as “an arrogant architectural expression in the style of its day.” That’ll be around the time when you were fronting RIBA as its President then, Max?

Now the curious thing in all this is that the options being examined for the future of Balfour Stewart House seem extraordinarily narrow. The prevailing view of the developer Rumney Manor, the investment arm of multi-millionaire Trevor Hemmings (owner of the rights to Postman Pat, as if you didn’t know) seems to be that having comprehensively failed to let the building for office use the only alternative is demolition, thereby freeing-up the site for the construction of 80 flats - a reduction of 39 since the previous planning application. Trevor has no doubt taken his architect’s recommendations into account on this one - Archial director Cameron Walker feels that parts of the building are ‘fatally flawed’ with a structural layout that makes open plan use impossible.
At this point some might conclude that another form of cellular activity - a hotel, for example, or some financially viable educational/cultural function – might have been looked at, but Cameron seems a bit fixated on the length of time the building has failed to find a new commercial user. He does have some extremely sound experience to draw on, however: Waverley Gate, the practice’s conversion of Edinburgh’s huge Post Office building at the west end of Princes Street into 217,000 square feet of prime open plan office space has been pretty much unoccupied since it was handed over in 2005 – roughly the same length of time the unconverted Balfour Stewart House has also been unable to attract a suitable tenant. 


The real deal

Still in Edinburgh, more news on the Caltongate front, this time as a result of a Freedom of Information request to have Council papers on the project released. The substance of these documents – following hard on the revelations from the Haymarket Hotel Inquiry – is that the capital’s city fathers expected to net £5m from the sale of land and buildings to the developer, Mountgrange Capital, who needed these elements to complete its ambitious plans for the site. The Council, already facing a £13m shortfall in the amount of money it expected to raise from land sales in the city over the next few years as a result of the economic slowdown, had in fact already banked a payment £2.4m in lieu of buildings that were central to local opposition to this project before the developer went bust.

Quite what makes this project different therefore from the Haymarket site (where, because the Council had previously owned the land it subsequently gave planning permission on, the Scottish Government called in the proposed development for a Public Inquiry) is hard to say, but Holyrood chose not to get involved this time, ergo freeing the Council to pursue its land sale strategy to the full. Given the information now in the public domain it is not too hard to see why the City Fathers have been so keen – nay, desperate - to resurrect the Mountgrange project since who else in a flattened market is going to stump up another £2.6m to them for some property it has visibly let run down?

As things stand, the Council insists that until it receives the money the various buildings and chunks of land in question will remain in its ownership, a position that no doubt already has the Mountgrange administrators scrutinising the fine contractual print. Meanwhile, the released documents also show that the city’s ‘professional services industry’ (architects, engineers, etc to you and me) is down £14.5m as a result of the project being stalled. 


Trumped

Last week I promised more news on our follicly-challenged friend in the North, but I’m afraid hotter news from furrybootville has trumped that particular story so I’ll hold the Donald’s doings over for another week whilst I check out the latest curious developments on the Union Square front. Be assured, news on both next week will be worth the wait. 


Not even on the fringe of the Fringe

The thump on the doormat of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival brochure had me thumbing through its pages to see what was likely to be on exhibition from an architectural point of view. The answer is zilch, unless you count a small display about Arne Jocobsen and Poul Henningsen in a Howe Street showroom. In times past at least the RIAS and the no longer extant RFACS held small exhibitions in their own premises and there were invariably at least a few others from the likes of the Cockburn, the AHSS and the EAA to denote some contemporary presence of the subject in city whose architecture and urban design has long been high on the list of its tourist attractions. Not this year: recession and apathy seem to have combined to kill off any enthusiasm to illustrate the endeavours of the profession.

This has to be the worst kind of cost saving – Edinburgh virtually doubles in size population-wise during August and for one time in the year metamorphoses from sleepy hollow into international hub status. At a time when the architectural profession is crying out for work, some indication of the skills and services available to such a sizeable global audience wouldn’t go amiss. It’s not too late to do something about this (guerrilla exhibitions are always an interesting challenge) so anyone interested in pulling together a show of current and proposed work please fire an e-mail to me. Of course, this really ought to be the sort of thing the Lighthouse does, but it appears to be pre-occupied with money-generating distractions to actually get down to what it was actually set up to do – the promotion of excellence in Scotland’s architecture. 


And finally….

The Inquiry may be over, but before Scottish Government reporter Donnie Onn has actually delivered his findings on Richard Murphy’s Haymarket Hotel a letter in the Scotsman makes clear this particular show has some way yet to run. Andrew Wolffe, a well-kent Edinburgh graphic designer now resident in balmy Gatehouse of Fleet takes us back a mere 25 years to a previous occasion when a high rise building on the Morrison Street site was proposed. To demonstrate the impact of the project, the (no longer extant) Royal Fine Art apparently put up balloons to establish the height and width of the proposed building in relation to the view of the Castle as seen from the approach into Edinburgh from the west.

One can only remark on how much simpler, cheaper and indeed obvious a solution this was when compared to the cost of the recent two-week Public Inquiry but – and I know this is a teensy bit out of context - the final sentence of Andrew’s letter does I think provide a far more succinct summary of the event than achieved in the Wrap’s commentaries on it over the past couple of weeks, viz.: “Balloons to show the current proposal would help us all to appreciate what may be in store for us.” They already have, Andrew, they already have.

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