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Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Lighthouse keeper blows a fuse & Harbouring pearls

July 31 2009

Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Lighthouse keeper blows a fuse & Harbouring pearls
Lighthouse keeper blows a fuse
Well, I sure rattled someone’s cage last week with my reflections on the latest reported trials and tribulations at the Lighthouse. Hardly had the Wrap been posted on the web but an anonymous correspondent who appears to be an ex- or current employee of the troubled institution turned his rage on me with a diatribe almost as long as the commentary it sought to rubbish. Now, to be honest, it’s fairly unusual to raise more than a line or two of written response from anyone in the world of architecture and design to topics mentioned in the Wrap, so to be in receipt of some richly entertaining (at least to me) aspersions about my career history, writing ability and indeed even my personal appearance was a thing to savour. Yes, you need broad shoulders if you’re going to criticise one of Glasgow’s totemic institutions, but fortunately my frame is wide enough to absorb the slings and arrows of outraged foot soldiers.

The thing is, as Wrap readers will recall me noting before, you can make any reflections you like on the way we live, work and play and indeed politicise in Scotland as long as you don’t, absolutely don’t, criticise Glasgow and all things Weegie. And that includes the Lighthouse. As a native of the city myself, I’ve always found such sensitivity in a place that prides itself on its hard image to be especially piquant, but My Anonymous Correspondent (hereinafter referred to as ‘`MAC’) introduces a whole new level of paranoia to this condition in his defence of the Lighthouse’s staff and the institution’s supposed golden age pre-2007, the latter it seems being the world that existed in the days before the tenure of its current director.
Now, for the benefit of Wrap readers who haven’t met him, Nick Barley is an absolutely decent bloke with his own perspective on the Lighthouse’s way forward and a person for whom I certainly have no personal axe to grind (MAC please note: the Wrap exists to comment on what has recently appeared in the press – in this instance a quote elsewhere suggesting that Lighthouse staff dislike and distrust their director). I suspect, however, that Nick took on the post before fully appreciating the two pigs-in-pokes he was about to inherit – the Mitchell Lane building and the organisation’s unusual accounting methodology. In attempting to deal with the former, he moved quickly to sort out a few of the more obvious problems (like creating a shop in the previously uninviting entrance hall) but the sheer spatial inefficiency in what was originally intended to be a ‘design emporium’ has proved to be a more intractable challenge for him – as it would for anyone.

For MAC’s benefit, spatial inefficiency means cost, and lots of it. In this instance, money spent running the building has always meant finite funding being displaced from the creation of an industry-relevant programme (useful marketing tip here: first, focus on your obvious target audience), whilst money spent on staffing to ensure such things as basic security has meant large dollops of dosh directed away from the institution’s raison d’etre. And the Lighthouse is overstaffed. Vastly. If New London Architecture can run a dynamic, inventive and industry-relevant year-round programme with a core team of 3-4 people, then you have to seriously question why the Lighthouse has needed nearly 70.  

Not that any of this matters for MAC – the only thing in question for him is that the Lighthouse’s staff all keep their jobs and that more public funding is found (City of Glasgow, Scottish Government, European Union – it doesn’t appear to matter where from) to allow them to do so. A more worldly soul would perhaps have realised that in the changed financial circumstances we all now find ourselves in, such a scenario is no longer viable and that a new model needs to be found if Scotland is to continue to have its own architecture centre.

But then, MAC makes clear that he doesn’t actually believe the country should have such a facility – in fact he thinks Scottish architecture is too poor in quality to deserve one. Which only makes you wonder what is it all of the staff that will otherwise (apparently) take their talents off to not-exactly-paved-with-gold-these-days London will be doing should they keep their jobs? Not anything to stimulate the creation of better architecture it seems, for another golden age phrase gravitates around MAC’s logic-defying universe – the wholly nebulous and performance indicator devoid world of “creative industries”.

But then it’s not just logic that’s defied – gravity is too, if you count my new friend’s dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin notion that there’s a difference between the ‘withdrawal’ of public funding by the Scottish government and the cancellation by a changed administration at the Parliament of the contract that provided this self-same money. It’s not a political thing for MAC though – the ‘Six Cities’ project was it seems a “lunatic idea” generated by Jack McConnell and some “moronic” civil servants, but obviously not a flaw MAC considered worth highlighting whilst the nosebags were being filled.  

So there you have it – journalists, politicians, civil servants, the current director and the Board of the Lighthouse are all, in MAC’s eyes, either at fault or guilty of sour grapes, the latter group even being characterised as ‘chancers’ despite having given copiously of their time and energy as well as – in some notable instances – directing additional resources towards the place to help keep it going over the past few years. Yes, MAC really does think that everything at the Lighthouse would be hunky-dory if all of the parties he accuses would simply get off its case. Providing of course that they each (excepting the journos, naturally) keep doing their bit to ensure enough money continues to dribble in to cover the temple of gloom’s monthly bills.

Which leads us neatly to the crucial meeting on 4 August of the Lighthouse Trust, the charity that runs the place on behalf of the City of Glasgow, the building’s owner. The issue of interest is whether or not the Board, chaired by long-term Lighthouse supporter Eleanor McAllister and including professional heavyweights like Gordon Murray, will broaden the agenda beyond its planned six month review of the Centre’s finances in the full recognition that this staccato approach to things has never really worked and that a new, long term and far more focused business model needs to be found and adopted as a matter of urgency.

And just so no there’s no confusion on this, I personally have no desire to see the Lighthouse disappear but, having spent more than 20 years examining architecture centre’s around Europe, I am absolutely clear that Scotland needs a national facility that delivers nationally and stops being so irritatingly Glasgow-centric. The whole of Scotland needs a centre that properly engages in the kind of intellectual discussion and appraisal that takes place in other countries on ways and means to raise design standards in the built environment. And if this means rethinking the Lighthouse’s role – and if necessary combining it with other organisations – so be it. I know MAC and I are never going to see eye to eye on this, but ‘Spanish practices’ are just not what the rest of us have in mind when looking to the Lighthouse to demonstrate a more industry relevant national and international perspective.

Joking aside
The other interesting diary date for the coming week is that for the much-anticipated result of the Haymarket Inquiry. The Wrap has long taken an interest in this project, principally because it demonstrates all too clearly the deficiencies of the current planning system in Scotland and the contradictory overlaps that exist when historic buildings are anywhere within the vicinity of a mooted project or - in this instance – when said project is near to the delineated boundaries of a Unesco World Heritage Site.

There’s no doubt the Scottish Government’s Planning Reporter has drawn a pretty short straw on this one since whatever conclusion he comes up with the ‘losing’ side will no doubt choose to battle on if the slightest manoeuvrable legal space is allowed for them to do so.  Of course, he could play his Joker and require significant changes to the design, thereby producing the kind of ‘compromise-meets-mediocrity’ solution that makes up so much of modern Edinburgh.

It’s certainly a capital tale, but one that I suspect could so much more easily have been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction (and with much less expense) had the City Council’s planning department had a bit more bottle (sorry, objectivity) in their first responses to the developer’s intentions. As it is, their representations to the Inquiry were simply lamentable and left many of us wondering whether or not a project more suited to the conditions of the location might have emerged had they not been involved in any way at all.

Harbouring pearls
Still in the city where every road pothole and crater (and there are many) now has a Fringe Venue number in readiness for the Festival season, another old trooper has stepped up to the stage for yet another revival. Yes, I’m talking about Princes Street, the capital’s principal boulevard that is now used on a regular basis by any film producer requiring an image of post-nuclear urban disaster. Yet another City Council report on the subject is this time trying to raise heads beyond the first floor parapets and focus on the empty spaces in the upper levels of buildings. This is on top of a previous feasibility study that indicated the creation of new hotels, offices and department stores on the upper levels was likely to be (surprise, surprise) impractical along the thoroughfare due to the nature of the existing buildings. It will be no jolt to the cranium either to know that the conclusion to this pearl of wisdom was that only those buildings likely to be demolished could become home to new commercial developments.

I use the term ‘pearl of wisdom’ advisedly, because the City of Edinburgh Council already has in place a ‘ String of Pearls’ strategy for Princes Street, an almost imaginative title were it not actually code  for ‘no-ideas-whatsoever’ as to what to do with dowdiest old dowager in the capital’s urban landscape. The latest report though, has been produced by a ‘taskforce of experts’ including architect Malcolm Fraser and Edinburgh World Heritage Trust and examines one block (Q: does a block constitute one pearl or several?) in detail. I won’t bore you with all the flannel in the report since the general conclusions would be self-evident to even the most gormless of citizens: much of the upper floorspace along Princes Street is lying empty and is being used for storage space; access to the upper floors is a problem; and underuse and vacancy have had a negative impact on the function, maintenance appearance and vitality of the city centre. Adam Wilkinson, the director of EWHT is more upbeat about the possibilities though, believing that “the study shows that by working with the historic buildings on Princes Street it is possible to create attractive and practical ways of accessing the underused upper floors. This makes their use commercially viable, adding life and vibrancy to the city centre.”

Now I know where Adam is coming from on this but really, truly, why after eight long years of City Council reports on the subject are we still faffing around the edges of the problem? Let’s face it, there are only two, perhaps three, buildings along the full length of the street that anyone would consider to be of real architectural merit and none of the others should be considered in any way sacrosanct. Any thoughts for Princes Street should have a fifty year span since it will take at least that length of time to eradicate some of the dross along the way, but eradicate it we must if the street is ever to have any real urban value again. So, City Council, stop stringing us along with this low threshold piecemeal stuff and hold a competition with a really big and ambitious plan for the full length of the capital’s most major space. That’s what other European capital’s would do. And then they’d implement it – pearl by precious pearl.

And finally…
Belated congratulations to Sutherland Hussey Architects on the completion of their first project in China. OK it’s not the big museum they won an international competition for a while back, but as a toehold in a hugely challenging international marketplace the completion of the first part of the practice’s canopied entrance to the Xiling ski resort near Chengdu is an important step forward for one of Scotland’s most talented architectural teams. Yes, there are other Scottish practices (most notably RMJM) looking to share in the enormous development potential that China has to offer but what makes Sutherland Hussey’s achievement so remarkable is that they are still a relatively small office and certainly without the kind of huge resources and multi-locational infrastructure that many would consider necessary to carry out work on the opposite side of the world. They weren’t amongst the speakers at the recent RIAS convention on ‘Scottish Architects Abroad’ but they are one of a very select band of small practices that in recent years have been putting themselves about to put Scottish architecture talent on the map in some less than obvious international locations.

Of course, the box-ticking procurement wonderland that exists here at home ensures that small but able practices like Sutherland Hussey are all too rarely considered for major projects in Scotland and so it has to be hoped that, having finally captured a serious commission, their proposed visitor centre on the banks of the River Ericht in Perthshire actually gets built as part of the £23m plans by the Blairgowrie and Rattray Regeneration Company to stimulate tourism in the area. It’s one thing to try to build a strong portfolio of projects around the world but quite another to have to explain to overseas clients why there are so few examples of your work in your home country.

1 Comment

#1 Posted by poemicott on 3 Mar 2011 at 17:11 PM
I have found that being honest is the best technique I can use. Right up front, tell people what you're trying to accomplish and what you're willing to sacrifice to accomplish it.

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