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Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Lights out at the Lighthouse?

July 23 2009

Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Lights out at the Lighthouse?

Well, shockeroonie – the Lighthouse is in financial doo-doo again. Or, to be more accurate, replace ‘again’ with ‘still’. Some things never change, and after my comments last week on the trials and tribulations of the architecture centre network down south, the Lighthouse has done what it always does best – trump them all and show that when it comes to burning through public funding support, it really is the Olympian to the others’ puny Commonwealth Games level of effort.

The Lighthouse has of course always maintained – in its quirky, financial plate-spinning sort of way – that its level of grant support is tiny, counting only the not insignificant direct grant that it gets from the City of Glasgow Council as qualifying for inclusion in this category and conveniently stuffing the substantial sums it gets from the Scottish government’s Architecture and Place division into the drawer marked ‘project funding.’ Last year of course this was not enough to prop up the edifice that has been so loosely constructed over the past ten years and long term Wrap readers will recall the piggy-bank crisis last time round when the almost completely anonymous Six Cities project team were found to be still inhabiting the Mitchell lane premises and having their nosebags filled every month irrespective of performance. The withdrawal of said project’s funding led to ‘Scotland’s Centre for Architecture Design and the City’ going cap-in-hand to its city council landlord, a move that led to the cash-strapped authority doling out another £250k just to keep the doors open wide enough to let the cleaners in.

Trouble is, this additional quarter million was proffered as a loan, a fortuitous cash injection given that the organisation’s rather meagre income streams would hardly have suggested there was any short - or indeed long - term possibility of this money ever being paid back. One has to presume that, given the prohibitive cash strictures they now have to work within, even the generous councillors over the road in the City Chambers have realised this is not an initiative they can justifiably repeat this year.

The Lighthouse is likely therefore to have to look to other sources of salvation, but initial quotes from the temple of doom can hardly be said to inspire too much confidence in the leadership’s grasp of the realities of life since the latest excuse given for its difficulties is the organisation’s charitable status that requires it “to balance its books each and every year” and which prevents it seeking a commercial loan. The worry is that this pap is also being served to the staff whose jobs are under threat, but even they must realise that if larger and infinitely more viable companies cannot currently find anyone to extend their overdrafts or provide commercial funding at anything other than usurious rates of interest, then the Lighthouse – even if relieved of its charitable status – is hardly likely to be able to raise a laugh never mind a bean from the financial institutions, given that it cannot show any means by which it could repay a loan. Let’s not forget either that charitable status has conferred considerable financial benefits on the organisation over the past decade, not the least being its evaporative effect on local rates payable.

Fact is though, the Lighthouse has had it good for a long time and had expanded its staffing to dizzying levels, at one point reaching around seventy full and part time employees, a figure few architectural practices in Scotland could match. Many of these of course were (are) employed on individual projects and it can be of no real surprise to anyone that if “grant allocations are tightened” many of these will reduce in size or even disappear altogether. Talk at present is of 44 staff being made redundant, leaving only a core team of 13, which, when compared to any facility down south or even in Europe would still be a fairly sizeable complement. In truth, the staffing problem should have been faced up to at the time the current director was appointed but wasn’t and now the chickens have come home to roost in the building’s many crannies.

And it is the building that is the fundamental root of all the problems. Expensive to run and too complex in its arrangement of spaces to control and manage efficiently, the Lighthouse has from day one simply been too big, too grandiose in its ambition, to ever be able to successfully marry function to funding. Attempts to create additional income streams have simply meant leasing off space surplus to its financial resources and the recent decision of one large commercial tenant (presumably Vitra, since it’s the only sizeable one) to give notice to quit has prompted the latest crisis.

It seems therefore that there are two ways forward: yet another business plan built on inadequate and piecemeal public funding allocations – a model that has failed consummately to work over the past decade and which in its earliest days saw the Lighthouse merely as an outpost of the Netherlands Architectural Institute until public funding cuts in that country saw a halt to sending its exhibitions abroad; or the board and its funding masters can be more radical and for the first time ask some hard but necessary questions. The first being does Scotland merit having a national architecture centre and if so, what do we actually mean by the term and what should the function of such an institution be? The consequent second question is what size it should be and what resources are needed to allow its programme and activities to be planned well ahead. And the thorny third question is where these resources are to come from.

In finding answers to each of these, it should not be a given that the Mitchell Lane premises are the ideal location for such a facility since the last decade has clearly shown them to be nothing more than a legacy of Glasgow’s tenure as UK City of Architecture and Design 1999 and a vainglorious one at that. If the building is to continue as the nation’s designated centre for ‘architecture design and the city’ then it has to be supported properly to do so and not remain dependent on the beneficence of the councillors in whose city it sits. Getting the nature of the institution right is far more important than propping up a white elephant. The current director has made noises in the past to the effect that the Lighthouse should be considered as part of the nation’s museums and galleries and funded accordingly, but this would merely disguise its inefficiencies whilst exposing its lack of a drawings collection and any real expertise in matters architectural.

The real solution lies in the hands of the Scottish government to whom the whole field of architecture was effectively devolved when the Parliament was created. Much faffing around by previous administrations meant the subject was never taken seriously, and whilst we had various forgettable ‘Ministers of Architecture’, existing duplications of staffing and functions were maintained whilst obvious alliances were eschewed. In the new world order where ‘bonfires of quangoes’ are all the rage, can our politicians  – will our politicians – finally get their act together and rethink (not review) the role of its own Architecture and Place division together with those of Historic Scotland, RCAHMS, A+DS and the Lighthouse, all of which, one way or another, we the taxpayer are funding.

Bringing all of the various functions under one banner (a department or ministry of architecture and the built environment) could produce substantial cost efficiencies whilst at the same time ridding us of absurd overlaps and irrelevant agendas. Such a move would once and for all position the built environment where it should be: as a critical element in our culture and our economy. At the same time politicians could do far worse than to look at the practicalities of absorbing the National Trust for Scotland (of which more next week) into this new agency before the country’s largest charity collapses under its own financial and management ineptitude.

Pending any radical thinking actually taking place in this matter, the Lighthouse has a matter of weeks to sort out some kind of solution to its own problems. The Board’s ruminations - due to be published in four to six weeks time will need not only to come up with some imaginative short and medium term solutions but also address the two issues evident from comments left on the architecture Scotland website in response to the news of likely redundancies: the understandable low morale of Lighthouse staff and what appears to be a related dislike and distrust of director Nick Barley amongst them.

Institutional Insurance
Over at Edinburgh’s Rutland Square, things are not exactly sweetness and light either, with reports of more redundancies and a 33% drop-off in subscription income. It would be fair to say that the RIAS has not had its troubles to seek in recent years but despite various reforms, reorganisations and redundancies, the organisation’s Council has somehow still managed to maintain its air of masonic indifference to the real needs of architects in Scotland. At a time when far too many members of the profession are finding their skills are not required, what has the RIAS leadership been doing to help them through these difficult times? No, sorry, I’ve heard nothing either. And that’s the problem – organisations faced with their own problems of survival are hardly going to be concerned with the needs of those they are supposed to represent and whilst one hopes that difficult times will stimulate fresh and imaginative ideas for new ways forward (and it has to be said that secretary and treasurer Neil Baxter and his team have been trying hard to make soup from the thin gruel offered by the RIAS Council) the worry has to be that not much will really change.

A passing thought though: were those who pay membership fees to either/both the RIBA and the RIAS to consider using the money instead to insure themselves against loss of employment, I am fairly sure both organisations would be working far harder to offer a range of support mechanisms in order to ensure architects maintained their subscriptions to them.
The RIAS has its own insurance service after all and it can’t be beyond its ken to include some such form of assistance within future annual subscriptions. I only mention this because other subscription-based organisations (AA and RAC being but two examples) seem to have read the financial runes and are more than keen to agree annual fee reductions in order to keep their existing members on board. But then, they don’t suggest the letters AA or RAC should be appended after their member’s names, do they?

And finally….
Congratulations to Craig Amy on his success in the Calderwood competition run by Stirling Developments. Craig, who used to be part of Richard Murphy’s team down in Fishmarket Close, has decided to use the win to announce the establishment of his own eponymous practice ( Craig deserves mention not only for being ambitious – or brave – enough to set up shop in these unusual times, but for situating said premises in Prestonpans, a location which has not previously – as far as I’m aware (apart from one unusual pub) – featured too heavily in the architectural guidebooks to Scotland. Every small town needs its own architect, though, and Prestonpans is as good a place to start as any, so the very best of luck to you Craig.

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