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Wilsons Weekly Wrap: A right old Barney? & Windy Definitely windy

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August 13 2009

Wilsons Weekly Wrap:  A right old Barney? & Windy Definitely windy
A right old Barney
It’s a good few years since one of the doyens of Scottish architecture, Izi Metzstein, came up with the idea of the Macallan Club, a loose grouping of architects who had seen at least one of their completed buildings demolished within their own lifetime. More recently, the outfit has been given a new lease of life by the Carnyx Group in a rebranding exercise that has removed associations with a certain make of whisky and renamed it as ‘the Rubble Club’. The membership structure doesn’t appear to be any more formal than before and indeed it’s difficult to gain any impression that this elite band actually ever meets but, courtesy of Carnyx, there is now a website to highlight the many notable but (sometimes sadly) no longer extant buildings that qualify their authors for election to this particular bar.

It seems strangely ironic, therefore, that having initiated the idea, Metzstein - together with his former partner in the practice of Gillespie Kidd & Coia, Andy Macmillan - could well be the first members to see the bulk of their completed oeuvre demolished within their own lifetimes, a quintessentially Scottish sort of achievement and one that would certainly be worth entry in the Guinness Book of Records. I say this because the latest of the duo’s modernist projects to feel the approach of the wrecker’s ball is the A-listed residential blocks on the outskirts of Bearsden that were once home to the priests and students of Notre Dame College of Education (which, for reasons beyond the Wrap, has been referred to as St Andrew’s College in all recent articles on the subject). The buildings have been disused for quite some time – a characteristic common to much of GK&C’s work for the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland (the most notable example being the ruin of St Peter’s Seminary at Cardross) – and indeed the campus has been mostly empty for the past decade.

This last characteristic has provided Manchester-based Muse Developments with the entirely understandable argument that the buildings have “outlived their usefulness”. More to the point, the developer’s regional director, Stephen Turner (it’s always nice when a company nobody has ever heard of seeks to classify a nation as one of its regions, but that’s by the way) added, “no-one can tell us why they were listed in the first place. They stand out because they are on a hillside and are not loved by anyone in the area. It would be better to have a nice sensitive design scheme like the one we are proposing.” For the record, said sensitive scheme comprises houses, flats, offices and a care home. Historic Scotland’s response to Mr Turner’s charge is that the student accommodation was listed because of the “cubic“ design of the blocks, - exactly the kind of rigorous academic assessment we’ve come to expect from of an organisation that ex-RIAS President Gordon Murray recently assured us had the intellectual apparatus to provide sound judgement on the quality of the nation’s built heritage.

It’s not the first time of course that the Notre Dame College buildings have been mooted for demolition – a 2003 proposal to do just that was opposed by a local campaign group (imaginatively called ‘Save the Campus’) that wanted them used for educational purposes. Six years later, no such function has emerged and the place is that bit more derelict. So, are the buildings worth saving? Sure, Historic Scotland listed them as category ‘A’ in 1998, but at that time there were five residential blocks. Two have since been demolished and the teaching hall and sports blocks were also taken down in 2007, leaving only a rump of the original scheme, so it’s hardly any wonder the developers regard what’s left as unusable. From the more objective perspective of architectural-history, the point of retaining this small part of what is now a completely emasculated project is entirely elusive.

Which brings us neatly back to MacMillan and Metzstein who must surely – by a considerable margin – be the Rubble Club’s top dogs and the remaining Notre Dame buildings seem certain to be added to the duo’s now considerable list of qualifying projects. I’m as familiar as you with Groucho Marx’s famous aphorism that he wouldn’t join any club that would have him as a member, but the Rubble Club is clearly different – nobody presumably wants to be a member of it in the first place. There’s little point in being sentimental about it though: by its very nature, most modern architecture turns out to be temporary – demolition is definitely permanent.

Windy? Definitely windy
I don’t know whether it’s just a summer thing, press silly-season and all that, but Historic Scotland hasn’t exactly been covering itself with glory in the papers recently, so much so that I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find Longmore House, its Salisbury Place headquarters, listed in the culture pages as a Fringe comedy venue. Aside from my passing reference above to the organisation’s predilection for art-historical interpretation rather than sound architectural analysis of the built environment, its inability to define what is relevant context-wise to said analysis is becoming increasingly worrying. As is its capacity to apply its listing criteria consistently.

To illustrate these points, lets tootle up to Duff House in Banffshire, one of William Adam’s finest works and a building that now sits comfortably within the portfolio of the National Galleries of Scotland. It’s just a pity that it no longer sits comfortably in its relationship to its surrounding landscape, for despite being a category-A building and landscape, Historic Scotland managed to find itself with no opinion whatsoever on the siting of three fairly sizeable wind turbines in close proximity to it. Nearby, another category-A building, 16th century Inchdrewer Castle, was afforded slightly better consideration, it being an uninhabited ruin and all and just the kind of edifice the organisation really gets off on (of which more later).  The turbines are a mere 700 metres from the castle’s main façade so Historic Scotland clearly thought that was close enough to object to the granting of planning permission. Trouble is, the objection was so hidden in its long letter to the Development Control Office in Banff that it could – and was – easily ignored.  

But back to Duff House, because although Historic Scotland’s grandly styled ‘Development Assessment Team’ managed to agree with the Environmental Report that the impact on the building and its landscape will be high (unlike at Inchdrewer where the Report considered the visual impact to be ‘low to medium’) their officer on the case, one Rosalind J. Campbell, somehow couldn’t find the will within her to offer any further comments on this aspect of the application. Yes, you understood that correctly: in the case of one of Scotland’s finest country houses, Historic Scotland couldn’t think of a single reason to oppose the siting of new structures that would unquestionably impact on the house’s designed relationship to its landscape.  And its explanation? A spokesman said the turbines were too far away from Duff House for it to object on the basis that they would interfere with the setting of a listed building. “The setting of things is quite tightly defined. The setting of the Scott Monument for instance is probably just the ground it sits on.” So there you have it E.ON – slap in an application for a line of windmills along Princes Street, because sure as hell Historic Scotland won’t put up any resistance.

It would be nice to think the organisation was playing a long game here – the negative visual impact of the turbines hardly advances the positive case for this form of renewable energy, after all – but sadly it’s all too clear that the lackeys in Longmore House are far from comfortable with the technologies of the modern world. Its equivocation in this instance hardly gives a dependable steer to planning departments around the country tussling with the contradictory political imperatives of renewable energy and heritage tourism. Time please, Historic Scotland for a clear and consistent policy on wind turbines.

The road to ruin
And then we get to the long-running saga of dear old Castle Tioram on Moidart, owned by Lex Brown, a man both wealthy and mad enough to want to restore the building to habitable condition. Now the one thing you need to know here is that if you want to do anything to a listed historic property in Scotland, you need to plan to live a very long time indeed because the forces of darkness and oppression will be ranged against you all the way. In Mr Brown’s case it’s been 12 years and a great deal of money (we’re talking millions) spent so far to achieve absolutely diddly-squat.

I won’t bore you with the history of the many run-ins between proprietor and quango (as well as with left-of-field guerrillas such as the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings)– suffice to say that Historic Scotland’s general position is that ruins such as Tioram should be ‘consolidated’, i.e. expensively propped up to ensure their tendency to crumble and fall on people’s heads is slowed a little. The intellectual paucity of this standpoint has long needed serious discussion in this country, but – still in thrall to a myopic Romanticism dating back to the 18th century – the nobility of the ruin remains the dominant, establishment position.

Helping to consolidate this archi-historical fascism, we have long had the RIAS Directory of Conservation Architects to help us distinguish those members of the profession who are happy to have their skills in this particular field (and it’s a small one) assessed and graded by their peers, so its peerless to note that the protagonist architect and the principle and most voluble opponent to the Tioram project are both members of this elite band.

That aside, however, matters have recently taken an even more questionable turn: Historic Scotland has commissioned renowned conservation architects Simpson & Brown to prepare a guide for the restoration of castles and tower houses that will outline “best conservation practice to prospective owners, developers and architects.” The venture is – apparently – intended to stimulate investment in historic buildings, “providing them with a fresh lease of life whilst outlining proper materials and construction techniques.” Historic Scotland already makes it difficult enough to carry out work to a listed building if you don’t employ an RIAS accredited conservation architect, so don’t even think about applying for a repair grant if you don’t want to sign up to the forthcoming guide’s directions. Before we go any further let me say that I’m not against specialist skills per se - indeed we have some of the best conservation architects in the world here in Scotland – but the presumption now seems to be that there is a right and a wrong way to go about things and that the pure conservation route is the only correct one. Except of course at Castle Tioram where widely differing views within the conservation fraternity are at war over which “correct” route is the “right” one.

Now I can’t pretend I’m a fan of the proposed ‘recaptured-moment-in-time’ sort of architectural intervention proposed at Tioram by Mr Brown and his architect, but if even his carefully researched and historically-specific restoration is a no-no for the lictors of Longmore, what chance have we of ever rearing a Caledonian Carlo capable of conceiving and delivering the kind of conjunction of old and new that Scarpa so spectacularly achieved at Castelvecchio in Verona? That seminal project - to take but one of a host of outstanding examples of historical re-use to be found throughout Europe – and the lessons from it date back as far as the 1960’s (the project having begun in the decade before) but I’m afraid the larghetto lads and lasses at Historicus Scotticus slept through those particular classes. Like its beloved ruins, the organisation is held captive in a time warp, but the tragedy of this Rip van Winkle condition is that many fine (and indeed quite a lot of nondescript) buildings that could still have a life and make an economic contribution to the nation are condemned to a kind of architectural purgatory, their sin having been to so carelessly mislay their original purpose.

As it exists, Historic Scotland has a confused role in our society – responsible for more than 300 buildings in its direct care, it also lords it over those buildings it chooses, in its rather arbitrary way, to list. At the same time the Scottish Parliament also requires it to deliver a financial return from tourism and events programmes – hence the eye-wateringly high entry charges to places like Edinburgh Castle. Publicly funded, the way in which the organisation currently wields its power can hardly be seen as an adequate way to manage the nation’s built heritage. Time for a radical rethink down Holyrood way.

And finally…
I wasn’t going to mention the Lighthouse this week since, like you, I feel a break is needed from its endless trials and tribulations. But then its Board didn’t in fact meet on 4th August as indicated in the last Wrap and I thought you’d want to know why, given the apparent urgency of the institution’s financial situation. Trouble is, I can’t – Eleanor McAllister, the Board’s Chair and a woman not known for hiding lights under bushels when there’s a positive story to spin to the press, refused to speak to my contact at Prospect magazine when he called her and referred him instead to the Lighthouse’s external p.r. company who presumably are instructed by the Board on the stories they can put out.

From long experience I have to say that if there’s one thing guaranteed to generate bad publicity it’s a refusal to speak to representatives of the press and Eleanor surely has enough experience of her own to know this. But then, had there been a good story to tell, you can bet your bottom dollar she and everyone else at the Lighthouse would have been hitting the phones by now to reporters the world over in the hope of getting their message out. It’s not a credible press strategy, Eleanor, but then your p.r. people have probably already told you so.

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