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Wilsons Weekly Wrap Riverside Rubble and Missoni ary Position

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August 24 2009

Wilsons Weekly Wrap Riverside Rubble and Missoni ary Position
Riverside Rubble
I’ll start this week by sharing with you a web link sent to me by Willie Miller of WMUD (http://youyouidiot.blogspot.com) and to whom I am indebted for lightening an otherwise long day. I can’t pretend not to have been hugely amused by its eloquent despatch of one the laziest back-of-the-fag-packet designs ever to be realised – the Riverside Museum in Glasgow, a.k.a. the new Museum of Transport by Zaha Hadid Architects. It’s rare to see a building so comprehensively demolished (figuratively speaking) before it’s even complete, but don’t take my word for it – read the youyouidiot blog for yourself. Which makes me think: could this be the first candidate for membership of an as-yet-unestablished Pre-Rubble Club? Certainly, it’s already my runaway candidate for next year’s Carbuncle Cup (see below). Not that Zaha should worry overmuch - if track record is anything to go by, the Glasgow Institute of Architects will surely shower it with more conventional architectural awards the moment it’s finally finished.

Missoni-ary position
Maybe it’s another summer-silly-season thing or just the fact that too many architects have not enough to do just now, but two AJ building reviews by former Prospect editor Penny Lewis have provoked unusually high volumes of vitriol on the magazine’s online forum (Daily@architectsjournal.co.uk). The first of these projects – the Missoni Hotel in Edinburgh by Allan Murray Architects – was already getting pelters in the pages of BD and has been well out in front in the nominations for that magazine’s ‘Carbuncle Cup’ for the most hideous building completed in the last 12 months. The second is an uncharacteristically nondescript office building in Glasgow by gm+ad, a practice for whom Penny has already produced two outstanding examples of vanity publishing, thereby rendering herself open to (rather unfair) accusations of being a less than independent, objective observer of the growing g+mad oeuvre.

There’s not the space here to join the throng commenting on the quality or otherwise of the two buildings, their architects and the reviews and anyway my point in raising the issue here is a bit more Carrie Bradshaw-ish. As anyone who works in it well appreciates, architecture is a very small and bitchy world, and all the more so in Scotland where everyone knows everyone else. So (and this is the Carrie question), what is it that singles out particular architects for more blistering attacks than others?

I extend this musing more as a philosophical enquiry than as an invitation to Wrap readers to burst any blood vessels on the www.architecturescotland.co.uk forum but I do feel its proprietor, the Carnyx Group, is missing a trick here. With its ‘Rubble Club’, ‘Best Buildings’ and myriad other websites exploring the many facets of Scotland’s contemporary architecture, how come it’s not come up with an online league table of the nation’s most universally unloved architects? Of course, it may well be that the Carnyx crew has already looked into this and realised that – like Scottish football – the same two teams might conceivably win every year and it wouldn’t really be a contest after all. It’s almost worth encouraging Will Alsop back into architecture and north of the border to give the profession’s Old Firm a run for their money.

Brigadoon University
I’d previously understood that the whole point of the University of the Highlands and Islands – or the UHI Millennium Institute to give it its Sunday name – was that it was going to be a ‘virtual’ university, linking disparate FE colleges and other places of instruction throughout the region via the internet and other technological gimcrackery, but clearly those impressions were formed 20 years ago and not at all in accord with the aspirations of the institution today. It turns out that it has not actually been given university status yet, never mind any buildings that might offer up even the remotest impression of a place of higher education. True, it does offer some good courses and it has offices in Inverness labouring under an administration budget of £1.5m per year as well as a Principal, Professor Robert Cormack, on a salary of £150,000 which places him very favourably indeed when compared to peer group members who actually run real universities in real buildings.

I’ve included this information in the Wrap because it emerged this week that more than £160m has been spent on the institution since it was first conceived two decades ago. For that amount Inverness could have had a visible, as opposed to virtual, university but maybe if we wait another 80 years it will appear Brigadoon-like out of the Highland mists as a fully-formed campus environment. The trouble with that analogy though is that it might just as quickly disappear and we’ll once again wonder where all the money went. Still, for those who insist that architecture is a hugely expensive business, we can at least now point them towards our academic friends in the Highlands who are more than able to demonstrate that having no architecture whatsoever comes at a significantly higher price.

Don’t cry for me, Achiltibuie
Still on the joys of Highland life, my attention was drawn to a recent article on forthcoming changes mooted in the wonderful world of crofting. Now as you know, this is a bit like watching endless TV repeats of ‘Groundhog Day’, but in theory some sort of transformation in this never-never (literally, unless there’s a grant available) land is afoot, what with consultation having just concluded on the draft Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill and all. This, for those of you who don’t avidly follow these things, is the Scottish Government’s proposed legislative response to the Committee of Inquiry on Crofting that published its report on the future of crofting in May 2008. The draft bill proposes that the Crofters Commission be renamed the Crofting Commission (see what I mean about Groundhog Day?) and also that a new Register of Crofts be established.

That’s seven uses of ‘crofting’ or variants thereof in one paragraph, which I can assure you is but a trifle compared to the number of organisations and pressure groups that represent the “crofting way of life.” Without boring you to death with all the detail of the proposed bill, what caught my eye was the fact that in the space of about 500 words, no less than 3 different organisations claimed to represent the views of crofters and clearly there are others out there. Apart from quotes from Professor James Hunter, director of the Centre of History at the University of the Highlands and Islands (sic – see ‘Brigadoon University’ above) the viewpoints of the ‘Scottish Crofters Union’, the ‘Scottish Crofting Foundation’ and the Crofters’ Reform Committee’ were all included, suggesting there are as many interest groups as there are actual crofters. And, this being the Highlands and Islands, none of them have any desire to agree with each other. In fact, it seems crofting is not too different from the church in Scotland – endlessly schismatic and with a built-in self-extinction gene.

All of this has led to predictions that a traditional way of life in the Western Highlands and Islands will be lost within two generations if smallholdings continue to be sold off as holiday lets or as retirement homes. What, no skeletons of old cars rusting by the roadside, no hideous kit houses scarring the landscape? Heaven forbid that these highlights of our hielan’ heritage should disappear just because changes to EU subsidy rules have obliterated the economic case for livestock management as a staple of crofting activity. Not that there ever was such an economic case if it required subsidies to survive, which is why many crofters are far happier to build holiday homes that bring in upwards of £40k a shot. And which also allows them to then complain about absenteeism and market-driven speculation destroying the crofting way of life.

But let’s give the final word to Prof. Hunter – “It doesn’t mean there won’t be flourishing communities in the Highlands and Islands 50 or 100 years from now, but they won’t be crofting communities and crofting by then will be just as much a part of history as the days of clans and clanship.”  Now I don’t know what kind of dictionary they use up at the UHI bunker in Inverness but mine says “flourish: to grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly favourable environment” which makes me – as an acknowledged and unromantic outsider – wonder what it is about the crofting lifestyle that makes it so much more desirable and worthy of retention? One thing’s certain: it can’t be its architectural ambition.

Belts tightened at Holyrood
It’s a fact of life that some people can accumulate twenty years experience whilst others manage only to repeat the same year twenty times. Unfortunately the Scottish Parliament managed to corner the market for the latter crowd when they appointed facilities managers and IT geeks for the Holyrood Doocot. How else can one make sense of their recent decision to spend £300k on 380 new PCs for MSPs and their staff? Not that the decision to “refresh” (they really mean replace but it doesn’t sound as techy) the existing equipment can be faulted in itself – the poor souls have had their existing kit since the Parliament opened, after all, so it’s a bit slow now for the latest computer games.

Trouble is the old stuff had 15-inch screens (yes I know we’ve been using the metric system for the past 28 years, but let’s not rush our politicos) and the hard drive was tucked into a slot at the side of the desk. Now, a bit of inside info here before we proceed any further: the eensy battery hen cages that pass for MSP’s offices have precious little desk space for staff (narrow benches really) and only a slim slot in which said staff are supposed to sit when working. So, knowing this, what have the Parliament’s IT and facilities bods come up with? Yes, you got it – 22-inch high definitions screens with the hard drive attached to the back. With the whole desk now taken up with the new kit, there’s zero space to lay anything down and – worse – with not an inch (sic) of room to move their seats back, the MSP’s assistants are now only a nose-drip from their new screens.

As ever, a Parliament spokesman was wheeled out to justify his colleagues’ chronic inability to deal straightforwardly with even the simplest things in life: “due to the increasing age of the current computers, we are beginning to experience an increased support overhead and it is becoming more difficult as well to source spare parts. As well as performing better, the new computers will cost less money to support and offer energy savings which can reduce our environmental impact.”

I’ll resist the temptation to make the obvious pithy comment about him being a fine one to talk about a lack of spare parts when he’s so obviously surrounded by them, because it’s much more interesting to reflect on the complete lack of embarrassment at the sheer stupidity involved here. Nobody this time can castigate the politicians or even the building’s architects (if we leave aside office desks designed for skinny lattes only) – no, consciences can be salved in this instance because it’s all to do with saving the environment really. Meanwhile MSPs and their staff will just have to pull their belts in – literally. If the Parliament spokesman had any savvy he’d issue a press release to the effect that MSPs and their staff are leading the drive against obesity.

Cult Fiction
The past twenty-five years has seen a veritable industry emerge around everything Mackintoshy, so you’d think that all that could be said about the man and his work already has been. And you’d be so, so wrong, because over at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery there’s a-whooping and a-hollering at the announcement by the Arts and Humanities Research Council that it’s given the inmates a grant of £650,000 to conduct “the first in-depth study of Mackintosh’s architecture at a level of detail so forensic that even its pedantic subject would surely approve.” Over the next four years a team of experts will pore over all 600 known architectural drawings “as well as many more expected to be uncovered by the project”, the latter an interesting assertion and one I look forward to the results of with complete ennui.

I suspect my boredom with the subject is partly to do with the wholesale, continuous over-promotion of the architect’s talents by aficionados of his work, and partly by the nonsense so many of them seem to feel compelled to come out with. A good example of this could be found in the Scotsman last week, a newspaper whose sad decline into cultural vacuity is characterised on an almost weekly basis by its inclusion of an absolutely rubbish map of Scotland’s battles/massacres/myths or an equally useful booklet of Scottish recipes/words/names/place-names/jokes. On this occasion it was a two-page spread, ostensibly about the grant but really a chance to occupy multiple column inches with done-to-death trivia about Mackintosh the master. Amongst all the usual tosh, however, was a real cracker – according to Stuart Robertson, director of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, “it was Mackintosh who pioneered the idea of a holistic environment. Places for people to live, study and work. His grasp of the effect that a building has on the human psyche was extraordinary.”

Thanks Stuart: I’ll keep that in mind the next time I’m schlepping round a Romanesque monastery and find myself marvelling at the monks’ abilities to synthesise their way of life and religious beliefs in their architecture. Just think, their efforts might even have merited the term ‘holistic’ had Toshie been able to travel back in time to enlighten them about the symbolic use of forms found in nature. With a bit of luck though, the £650k grant will be well spent over the next four years to ensure that members of the Wacko Macko cult are a good deal better informed in future on the treasure chest of architectural history from whence the maestro’s ‘unique’ genius sprang.

And finally…
Almost exactly ten years after it opened, it looks like the Lighthouse could be closing its doors for good after tonight’s meeting of its board.  The word on the street is that whilst the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council will throw more good money after bad to clear the centre’s existing debts, there will be no rescue package on the table. As a result, it’s expected the conclusion of the meeting will be to put the Lighthouse Trust (the charity that runs it) into administration forthwith. Wrap readers will probably long have realised that this was the only likely outcome for an institution that lived well beyond its publicly-funded means – in 2007-8 it received some £2.97m in grants but generated just £470k from exhibitions on which it managed to spend an astonishing £3.19m to mount. Of course, there is always the chance of a last minute reprieve, presuming there’s an as-yet-unknown funding source out there prepared to take on an unworkable building and the centre’s humongous staffing numbers, but in the cold financial times in which we currently live I somehow doubt it. Inevitably, I suspect, I’ll be writing more on this next week.

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