Wilson's Weekly Wrap
Flying the flag for good housing shouldnt be a half mast activity
November 18 2009Flying the flag for good housing shouldn’t be a half-mast activity
What a strange, lack-lustre affair this year’s Saltire Society Housing Design Awards turned out to be. To be honest, I’d been in two minds about whether or not to attend the event, held as it was in – of all places – the Lighthouse, but a news item on the radio earlier that evening decided it for me and I headed for the Glasgow train in the hope of hearing the Minister for all things cultural and constitutional and guest of honour for the evening, Mike Russell, explain the Scottish Government’s latest bombshell decision about the venue itself. As it happens, Scotrail was in no particular hurry that evening so I missed the first few minutes of Mike’s speech. Not that it mattered, as he himself wasn’t actually there, but even I was surprised by the man’s considerable foresight in sending along a DVD to address to the capacity audience. As you might imagine, the assembled crowd didn’t quite know whether or not it was protocol to applaud at the end and certainly the poor chap who had to give a vote of thanks on the night to the various participants was a tad stumped too. Still, the Scottish Government apparently supports the Awards (presumably financially), which, I realise now, is not quite the same thing as wanting to be associated with them.
I’ll come back to Mike’s address in a minute, but for those of you who haven’t been keeping up, the Saltire Society Housing Design Awards have been running for over 70 years, so you’d think the organisation would have got the hang of things by now. Apparently there was a 22% increase in submissions this year, which, in the current climate, might seem a good thing if a total number had been given, but the fact on the night was some 16 projects had been shortlisted. Given the variety of the schemes on offer it might have been useful to explain the criteria used in the judging process but no such luck – a brief description of what the panel thought of each of the winners accompanied a fairly clumsy presentation of certificates. To be fair to Simon Winstanley, chair of the judging panel, the absence of the evening’s guest of honour kind of threw things out of kilter from the outset and he had the rather embarrassing task of outlining the virtues of his own design for a house at Portling, one of only two actual award winners on the night. Not that everyone else on the shortlist left empty-handed, for another seven of the 16 received either ‘a high commendation’, ‘a commendation’ or ‘a special mention.’
Into the latter category and therefore amongst the first to be announced was Richard Murphy Architect’s project at Moore Street in the East End of Glasgow. Up until that point, the eponymous principal of the practice had been sitting quietly – if a little ostentatiously – drawing in red felt tip what appeared to be endless variations on the plans of his Haymarket hotel project. As regular Wrap readers will know, Richard is an assiduous collector of awards, so not actually getting a whole one on this occasion – especially after the trauma of the Haymarket planning enquiry result – was obviously a bit much and I was only surprised that it took several more minutes before our hero packed up his pen and paper and departed the scene.
The event rumbled on – and I use the word advisedly because the closing act was a presentation on rural housing by Raymond Young. Now, as anyone who has been to one of Raymond’s gigs before will know, the still current chair of A+DS really only has one song in his repertoire, the refrain of which seems to revolve around English incomers and second home owners destroying the pastoral world in which he lives. Trouble is, after 25 years or more of this karaoke version of rural Scotland’s national anthem, the rest of us feel its time for some new solutions, not the same weary old dogmas of prejudice and class warfare pretentiously posed as if they are serious philosophical inquiries. Every other small country in northern Europe seems to manage the issue of second home ownership pretty well and the incoming chair and chief executive of A+DS – when finally appointed – would do well to get themselves across the North Sea to find out how our neighbours actually do it.
But back to the Saltire Society Housing Awards for a moment because the ceremony really was an evening out for old bufties and one would have to be a signed-up, flag-flying life member of the society to believe these awards in their current form still have any real point. Year on year they might be seen as a reflection of the quality of work that’s around, but housing in Scotland desperately needs an award scheme that demands an overall heightening of standards and leads the housing agenda. The judges really need to get out and about, see what’s around and select only the very best, not wait to see what happens to be submitted each year. If they can’t do that, they shouldn’t do it at all, since giving relative assessments to, for example, Foster’s Quartermile project in Edinburgh, Oliver Chapman’s social housing near Eyemouth or Rural Design’s one-off ‘Black Shed’ on Skye, laudable though each is, ultimately changes nothing.
Genius, sheer genius
OK, let’s return to the substance of Mike Russell’s speech, which was less about the Saltire Society Housing Awards and more about the latest effort by the creditor parties involved to salvage some semblance of street cred from the wreckage of the Lighthouse. Except that they cant: the Scottish Government and the City of Glasgow Council remain the Lighthouse’s largest creditors, but the more that emerges on the financial shambles that was Scotland’s Centre for Architecture Design and the City, the more reason there is to avoid any form of post mortem on either the actions of its inept management and board or the lack of scrutiny from its key funders.
With most of the staff now removed by the administrators, a small rump remained and these have now ingeniously been absorbed into the black employment hole that is A+DS. This latter organisation now not only has two sets of premises to run (having taken on responsibilty for a whole floor of the Lighthouse) it has also acquired a whole new set of functions that were never part of its remit when it was set up.
Just to be clear, A+DS originally had three roles, conveniently characterised as ‘Review’, ‘Enabling’ and ‘Research’ and these were to be complemented in a triangular arrangement by the activities of the Lighthouse and the Architecture Policy Unit of the Scottish Government. Wrap readers will remember the internal Scottish Government inquiry into the many failings of A+DS and the intention as a result to replace the Chief Executive and the Chair as well as completely reforming its board. These processes are still underway and unlikely to be concluded before the middle of next year at least, but – lo – the incoming senior personnel already have their task complicated by the decision to take on the Sust project and the Lighthouse’s education and exhibition teams. The first of these arguably has a complementary role to A+DS recent emphasis on ‘placemaking’ but the other two elements are more questionable, especially in the latter case as A+DS has neither funds, projects nor audience to justify the creation of regular exhibitions.
In truth the transfer of staff is a bit of a paper exercise: the Scottish Government was already effectively paying their wages and had a lease on a floor of the Lighthouse for their activities. The City of Glasgow Council is, to all intents and purposes, desperate to keep this key tenant, since otherwise it would be extremely difficult to explain to Council taxpayers where their money went and equally difficult to explain why Glasgow had managed to lose one of the few national institutions it had. Hence the flannel about the Lighthouse remaining Scotland’s Centre for Architecture Design and the City. Quite what this non-organisation will deliver without staff, money or infrastructure remains to be seen and whether or not the notion will survive beyond the end of the lease on the second floor of the building is a matter of some speculation. The objective is clearly to keep all of the participating parties treading water around the Lighthouse until the next elections to the Scottish parliament, but meanwhile Scotland’s architecture policy sits in a holed lifeboat with neither paddle nor engine. Genius, or what?
Chary about charrettes
Since my last Wrap, several people who know about these things have taken me to task about my mention of Andres Duany, the reason being that they didn’t think I was anything like questioning / critical enough about the man and his Scotland-wide involvements. Certainly, I neglected to mention that the Florida’s finest community planning maestro and his new best friend, the Duke of Rothesay, met with First Minister Alex Salmond at Holyroodhouse way back in June at an event convened by the Scottish Government’s director of planning, Jim McKinnon. Andres appears to have become something of a guru* for Jimmy Mack and I understand much of the discussion revolved around crow-stepped gables (they being Alex’s preferred architectural featurettes) so expect to see more of these elements making appearances in future Duany charrettes north of the border – indeed, I fully anticipate all forthcoming Scottish Sustainable Communities Initiatives to be awash with them.
And for those of you who still haven’t got a scooby what a charrette is, get Googling and you’ll find a Wiki that was surely written by someone from of the Prince of Wales Foundation for the Built Environment. No, I’m afraid it doesn’t refer to ‘Charlie’s Charrettes’ - as I mentioned in my previous Wrap, their big thing is “Enquiry by Design” which is a less obviously Beaux Arts’ term for a community planning lock-in.
Postscript: I recollect my sister once explaining to me that the term ‘guru’ is used only by people who can’t spell ‘charlatan.’ I think she might have been a bit wide of the mark on this one though, since pretty much everyone in the architectural world knows that the term ‘charlatan’ is most commonly used to describe people who run charrettes with preordained outcomes that follow chintzy pattern book models.
Art for art’s sake, money for God’s sake
I’m beginning to wonder if the cold war that characterises all things architectural in Aberdeen is beginning to thaw or whether it’s just the law of averages kicking in and a few good schemes are actually managing to slip under the radar of the city’s Doric Council. Excellent recent projects by Bennetts Associates and Reiach and Hall have upped the ante and the proposed competition-winning scheme for Aberdeen University Library by Schmidt Hammer Lassen that featured in the Wrap as recently as the end of September will be the biggest Viking encroachment on the Granite City in several hundred years. True, the urban and democratic depredations being assertively promulgated by Sir Ian Wood have featured far more heavily in the Wrap in recent months, but the chances of that ever finding the necessary public funding are thankfully growing more remote by the day and we may well still see Brisac Gonzalez’ outstanding – and competition-winning - project for the Peacock Arts Centre triumphing, tortoise-like, over Sir Ian’s rather imperious hare.
And now, from left of field, appears a plan for another arts project – a £20m scheme to redevelop Aberdeen Art Gallery by Gareth Hoskins. As regular Wrap readers will know, Gareth has had an extraordinary run of success over the past few years, the recent culmination of which was being handed Don Combleone’s poisoned chalice – the commission to masterplan the maestro’s Balmedie Bunkers and attached new town. In this latest instance, however, Gareth apparently saw off five other unnamed short-listed practices in another one of those architectural competitions without rules that we excel at in Scotland. The project is not to design a building – no, it’s a “design study” that the sponsors hope will “transform the landmark into a gallery fit for purpose for the 21st century.” Oh, and the gallery hopes Gareth’s designs will “form the basis of a funding bid for external grants and funds” so I can only amplify the point I made above: another one of those architectural competitions without rules or any obvious funding that we excel at in Scotland.
If I was Gareth or his new client, I’d be looking carefully at Sir Ian’s vainglorious demands on the public purse since their continued existence will inevitably stymie your own more modest – and in normal circumstances, achievable – requirements. Time to take sides, chaps.
The Scottish National Institute for War Blinded has commissioned Page\Park Architects to design its new facility at Wilkieston, West Lothian. Nothing unusual there you might think (and carefully avoiding any cheap jokes about having to be visually-impaired to spend any time in West Lothian) but I couldn’t help noticing the similarity of the building’s plan to that of the practice’s successful headquarters’ building for Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park, the curvature of which somewhat prosaically radiates from the centre of the adjacent traffic roundabout. By contrast, the published visuals for this project indicate the formal influence of P\P’s Maggie Centre at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness. But it is the practice’s admission that the scheme has been inspired by a “hand carved Chinese celestial dragon” that fairly takes the breath away. Precisely what the nature of the design discussion was within P\P that connected West Lothian, War and Blindness with China and celestial dragons may never be known, but it is surely an outstanding example of too much information. Unless of course the top pekingese at Page\Park believe that references to ‘choosing the dragon’ show them to be in touch with the local argot. If so, nearly right.
Back to November 2009
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