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Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Mea Culpa - twice & Mystery competition

July 1 2009

Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Mea Culpa - twice & Mystery competition
Mea Culpa – twice
After last week’s Wrap I found myself accused of becoming a professional journalist because I had apparently got a couple of my facts wrong. First, in my short update on Scotland’s Housing Expo I referred to the Sust project as being ‘Lighthouse-based’. I am now reliably informed that while Sust (largely bankrolled by Architecture and Place Division of the Scottish Government) is housed in the Lighthouse, it is not a component part of our national architecture centre (largely bankrolled by the Architecture and Place Division of the Scottish Government). Happy to clear that one up.

Of course for those unfamiliar with Sust and its work, a quick google will lead you to sust,org, a website that claims to be the first in Scotland dedicated to sustainable design in architecture and the built environment and which is the outward face of “an initiative that was developed by the Lighthouse in collaboration with the Architecture Policy Unit of the (then) Scottish Executive in 2002.” You could though, also go to the Lighthouse’s website where you will find ‘Sust: the Lighthouse on Sustainability’, the purpose of which is “to raise awareness of sustainable design and the contribution it can make in delivering a sustainable future and to improve understanding of sustainable design for those commissioning new buildings.” Such as Scotland’s Housing Expo.

Regular Wrap readers will recall my previous mention of the fact that ‘sustainability’ has more than 200 separate definitions on the internet, making it the perfect all-purpose word for politicians and certainly our governments - UK and Scottish – have more sustainable initiatives on the go than you can shake a stick at. Sadly a great deal of bad science and downright hocus-pocus have come to be associated with this highly fashionable term and all sorts of dubious consultancies now tout their wares in this field. Which probably led me to refer to those on the periphery of the Sust project as a “coven”. Sorry girls – I just got carried away with the idea of renewable broomsticks amongst the merchandising at Scotland’s Housing Expo next year.

Now to the other factual imprecision mentioned at the top. Over at A+DS it seems that the beadles on the board haven’t been given new two year contracts: they’ve been re-appointed under the existing arrangements for a further 12 months, a state of affairs that is, I‘m more than happy to agree, quite a different thing. Which of course means that you now have until next summer to tweak that cv in advance of any advertised posts. But let’s not look on it as a year of SAD’s life wasted (which it is), but more of an opportunity to ask why it also feels the need to hop on the sustainability bandwagon, as reflected in its recent publication, ‘People Places and Pap’. Oops, the last word there should have been ‘Planet’, as in “which one are they on?”

Mystery competition
So long ago is it since I first wrote about Edinburgh’s mystery arts venue competition that I had to wade back through months of previous Wraps to find the piece in question. In fact it was the end of August last year when I commented on the scheme, its £3m budget and its anonymous financial backer. For some time afterwards I received inquiries from architects as to where they could find more information about it but I was as much in the dark as they were and presumed that no further mention of it in the press meant that the idea had died as quietly as it had risen.

Not so it seems – this being Edinburgh, strange things happen behind the closed doors of the New Town and out of the blue a full page of the Scotsman has revealed that the shortlist is now down to three from a long leet of 13.  The three projects in question are for a major gallery extension to Edinburgh College of Art’s main building, a research centre and outdoor arena at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop and a home for a national literary quarter in the Old Town. It would seem this has become a two stage competition (the finalists now have six months and £10000 each to prepare detailed plans), although perhaps it always was, there being so little information previously known about it. So it is no surprise to find Charles McKean amongst the judges since - as we know from BD a few weeks ago when comments were invited on the Glasgow School of Art competition - Charles believes in having two stages and sniffs at competitions that only have one.

To be fair, he does have some experience on this having presided over the RIAS’ competitions programme way back when he was the Incorporation’s Secretary and Treasurer, but things have moved on a lot since then and he must surely have slept through the debacle of the competition for the Scottish Parliament building for him not to understand why multi-stage selection processes are no longer quite so de rigueur. In the same dim and distant past, Charles would have railed against any competition that failed his test of its bona fides (which was pretty much any competition not run by the RIAS) but then this isn’t really a proper architectural competition, being that it doesn’t exactly compare like with like: this one seeks only to choose “an arts facility of cultural and architectural merit in the capital, in either a new or refurbished building.”

In lotteries with no obvious rules or conditions, anything goes and in this instance a betting person would look to the known prejudices of the judges for some insight into who might be the final winner. So, aside from Charles, who are they? Willie Prosser, former Chairman of Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland and Isi Metzstein, a former professor at Edinburgh University School of Architecture are the other eminence grise, the panel being chaired by Bob Benson, a trustee of the Scottish Community Foundation (the organisation administering the competition on behalf of the anonymous donor) with Colin Liddell, a charity law specialist and Foundation trustee, completing the group. The competition also now appears to have a title: ‘the Arts Funding Prize for Edinburgh’ which some may think a bit grand given that it’s a one-off. Or at least I think it is, but you never know given the enigmatic history of the project. The result, we are reliably informed, will be announced next summer.

Seville lemon
It’s reassuring to know that Scotland hasn’t completely cornered the international market in barmy local politicians but whilst we can offer up some genuinely world class contenders we may have some way to go to compete with those on the council of Seville. Down in the south of Spain the elected heroes have managed to convey a distinctly provincial image to the world with their view that the capital of the Andalucia region needs a Zaha-designed university library to do for the city “what Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum did for Bilbao.” This, they believe will provide it with “a new cultural icon and perhaps attracting a new kind of tourist” which makes you question whether they’ve ever been beyond the city boundary, given that Bilbao was previously a run-down, grubby post industrial town whilst Seville is one of the most attractive urban centres in the world and hardly in need either of a one-off iconic statement or indeed of visitors from Mars. And quite why they think Zaha’s project is the one to do it – given that she currently has nine projects on the go around Spain is anybody’s guess.

Except for Zaha that is. Burdened as she is with an uncomfortable over-provision of humility, the irrepressible Ms Hadid believes ”this is the type of ambitious project which turns a city and a university into a reference point in terms of public spaces.” Now as we all know, Zaha produces two types of projects: either they exhibit rounded jelly-mould forms of the tellytubby variety or they have the disturbingly jagged edges of a stealth bomber. The proposed library is in the latter category and in the architect’s own words is “a sculpted bar of stone with a great contrast between solidity and transparency.” Now whether she meant a bar of soap as opposed to one of stone is incidental, but you have to wonder at the fabulous audacity of the solidity and transparency bit given that Seville hosts the largest and certainly one of the finest Gothic cathedrals in Spain, a style that pretty much defined the architectural relationship between materiality and light.

Be that as it may, the locals are unimpressed by the flannel and have got the Andalusian high court to order work to be halted on the site since the project violates measures designed to protect the Prado de San Sebastian, a green area that many Sevillanos gravitate to in order to find shelter from the summer heat. And why did the high court have to do this? Because the council had taken it upon itself to change the rules so that zones within which building work was banned could become permitted areas. By this stage of course Wrap readers will have been overcome with déjà vu, the story being a tad familiar, but there could be a way forward for all parties. Can is suggest that Sevillastan be twinned with Aberdonistan, and that Zaha be brought in on Sir Ian Wood’s proposed plans for the latter city’s Dorky Park?

And finally….
To the latest twist on the Haymarket and Caltongate sites in Edinburgh. Meeting in Seville, Unesco has passed strongly worded resolutions urging the Scottish Government and the city of Edinburgh Council to scale back the proposed plans for both projects, the latter coming in advance of any final outcome from the recent planning inquiry into Richard Murphy’s proposed hotel development. Unesco, having studied the issues involved on the latter project, has called for the creation of a ’buffer zone’ to introduce strict controls over developments just outside the perimeter of the city’s World Heritage Site area as well as a robust policy for protecting key views in the city. And to give notice of how seriously it views current transgressions, it has served notice on the UK government to produce a progress report on its recommendations by 2011.  

So far the Scottish government has responded by saying that Unesco’s recommendations will be taken into account in the final planning inquiry decision, the developer has effectively said, bugger off, and Gordon Murray of gm + ad has exploded with rage at the very idea of any (external) body interfering with the right of (external) developers to completely knacker our cities in the name of mammon. Indeed Gordon has got himself into such a froth in the AJ’s daily bulletin as to lump Unesco, Prince Charles, the City of Bath Council into a huge conspiracy against local democratic processes. The best bit of the tirade is when he cites Historic Scotland, the National Trust and the Royal Commission of Ancient and Historic Monuments as the agencies that provide us with the intellectual basis from which to appraise our own heritage, his point being, I think, that we don’t need Johnny Foreigner lecturing us on the value of our culture. Just a pity that none of the agencies he lists has ever been known to demonstrate any democratic instincts whatsoever. But then, Gordon appears to see the purpose of World Heritage Site status as an enhancer of tourism, a viewpoint the City of Edinburgh Council has certainly taken in the past, not having bothered to read the bit of the Unesco citation that conferred responsibility upon it for the future protection of the capital’s Old and New Towns. Time, lads to read the small print of the contract.

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