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Wilson's Weekly Wrap

Wilson's Weekly Wrap

November 25 2009

What a load of bollards

Down Holyrood way, political distrust of the nation’s architects seems to have found new expression. Or so it seemed, for when guests arrived for the RIAS Andrew Doolan Scottish Building of the Year Award ceremony on Friday night they were confronted by six foot high fences in front of the world’s largest doocot. But no, this was just the first indication that some of the most pointless building alterations ever conceived were about to begin.

Way back on the mists of time, you’ll recall that MI5 (them that used to do flat pack kitchens before they went bust) reported that the Parliament’s security arrangements needed improvement and that this could be achieved by replacing the concrete pixie perches at the public entrance with larger bollards, I thought it was merely an April Fool joke since there isn’t a vehicle in the land short of the type of Caterpillar truck used in open cast mining that has an axle height capable of passing over the existing obstructions. This fact did of course pass over the heads of the Parlie’s patsies who felt obliged to respect the security man’s wishes – he had, after all, come all the way from London to show them how to protect themselves and their building.

So, on top of the £430m plus already spent (we shouldn’t forget the near £250k cost of the equally pointless “triangular” roundabout and chicane at the Holyrood Road entrance to the car park), another £1.5m is now being invested in 162 new bollards and 18 concrete benches which, you don’t have to be a forensic accountant to realise, works out at over eight grand a pop. The bright boys from MI5 also recommended a new security hut in front of the Parliament so visitors can be screened before they enter the main building but this doesn’t appear to be part of the current contract so we may well still have that visual joy to look forward to.

I can’t help thinking this is all a bit of a sledgehammer to crack a nut. After all, with his unsuccessful campaign in the Glasgow North East by-election now sadly behind him, couldn’t we get John Smeaton to fill a useful political role by patrolling the exterior of the building on a daily basis and at considerably less cost? Not only would Smeato scare away any likely terrorists, he’d attract a lot more American tourists to the foot of the Royal Mile than Kenny McAskill and his fellow MSPs are ever likely to do.

Architecture by numbers

Speaking of which, I see the Parliament recently awarded its two millionth visitor with a really useful tray. Now, as we all know from the Lighthouse experience, the collation of visitor numbers is a really odd way to assess the success or otherwise of a building’s architecture but, again, the mists of time reveal this was the criterion ex-Presiding Officer George Reid told us would be the measure of the Parlie’s public appeal. I confess that when I first skimmed this recent story I thought the 2m visitors referred to were the pigeons now residing on and in the Doocot but the accompanying picture showed a real person clutching her shiny new tray, albeit in a cuckoo-like kind of a way.

Mind you, all is not quite what it seems, for when Reidy was making his ambitious projections, the Parliament was under attack on all fronts for its cost and time over-runs. So, in order to meet the then-anticipated and ever-since all-important target of 400k visitors per annum, everyone that enters the place who is not an MSP or has a Parlie staff card is counted, so if you go to a Cross Party Architecture Group meeting or even attend the annual RIAS Andrew Doolan Scottish Building of the Year Award ceremony, you qualify as a willing visitor.

And in these economically troubled times, those who are actually willing to undergo the protracted security process for a guided shuffle round the place no longer have to pay to do so, if recent advertisements in the press propounding free entry are anything to go by. The previous entrance charge was of course justified to us as being necessary to cover the costs of providing tour guides and, whilst their highly imaginative and marvellously inaccurate accounts of the building’s design evolution and function were priceless before, they quite literally are now.

Minister trapped by floods, but we have Ark-ial

But I digress, for the real intention behind these tales from the Royal Mile was to set the context for the RIAS Andrew Doolan Scottish Building of the Year Award ceremony on Friday night. In truth, the Parlie’s not a particularly good venue for this kind of thing for, despite the assertions to the contrary by the chair of the Cross Party Architecture Group, Robin Harper, the building’s Garden Lobby feels more like a small airport concourse when it’s filled with anxious architects trying to look over each other’s shoulders to see if their flight, sorry project, is showing on the low level plasma screens set up for the occasion.

This, coupled with the fact that architecture minister Mike Russell followed his no-show at the Saltire Housing Awards the previous week with another no-show here (trapped by floods in Whithorn, apparently), meant the event lacked a little of the stardust normally so lovingly sprinkled by members of the government on our largely supine profession. Still, at least we were spared the kind of strangely virtual speech filmed by a four year old with a mobile phone camera that so enlivened the Saltire event. In his absence, Robin Harper gave us a resume´ of the building’s fire drill before passing over to RIAS Secretary and Treasurer, Neil Baxter, to read the nominations.

Now, Neil’s an old hand at these things and having related the judges thoughts to us on each of the short-listed projects, astutely handed the all-important gold envelope over to Kath Findlay and Ian Ritchie to announce this year’s winner. I say astutely, because this meant the runners-up (or losers, as Neil so succinctly put it) couldn’t collect their certificates and disappear in a strop before the top project was revealed. Not, of course, that most of them would have, busy as they were with hoovering up the free fizz on offer.

So to the result and the loud whoop of delight that accompanied its announcement. Archial has not had its troubles to seek since transmogrifying its member practices name-wise from SMC-this-or-that into their current all-inclusive and totally mystifying moniker. Things have been on the up of late, though, what with having off-loaded British architecture’s most pompous practitioner to another outfit (that was also on the evening’s shortlist) and winning the Glasgow Institute of Architects’ Supreme Award for 2009 only a few days before, so it was no real surprise to see its state-of-the-art Small Animal Hospital for the University of Glasgow come from behind to do an unusual double. As an aside, I don’t know if the building’s customers have to go in two-by-two, but one of the publicity shots shows a reception area with two dogs and their owners: very Noah, very Ark-ial.

Quite apart from the fillip this win will give to the Archial Group’s staff throughout the UK, it also hopefully reminds the predominantly London-based professional press that there are more than half a dozen practices in Scotland capable of exemplary work when the opportunities presents themselves. And make no mistake, there were good quality contenders for the prize – the Beatson Institute’s Cancer Research Facility and Stobhill Hospital, both in Glasgow and both by Reiach and Hall would be on anyone’s list of excellent projects and will surely go on to garner many other awards; McKenzie Strickland’s Boathouse at Balnearn on Loch Tay is an exquisitely-crafted visual gem that would surely delight the eye of even the most jaded assessor; and the conversion of Infirmary Street Baths in Edinburgh into new premises for the Dovecot Studios by Malcolm Fraser is one of the best new gallery spaces to appear on the capital’s arts scene since the now, almost forgotten halcyon days of Lottery funding.

The chances of the Missoni Hotel by Allan Murray taking the trophy can’t have been helped by its high rating in BD’s ‘Carbuncle Cup’ and much the same could be said for North Glasgow College by RMJM whose case was surely given the kiss of death by a visit from our luckless Prime Minister during the area’s recent by-election. The final project on the list, Niddrie Mill and St Francis Joint Primary School by last year’s joint winner, Elder & Cannon, was the real cuckoo in the nest, however: no matter how well constructed or designed (as opposed to planned) the facility is, no self-respecting professional institute should be giving credence through its awards to the continuation of sectarian division in Scotland’s society dressed up as educational advance.

As for the monetary value of the Award: Andrew Doolan always recognised the press value of a larger pot of money being on the table than was offered by the Stirling Prize. More importantly, he also appreciated how big a difference £25k could make to the average Scottish practice as opposed to a large well-established London operation for whom the kudos of the Stirling title is always likely to be more than enough. Sad to see, therefore, that in the same week as the announcement of the Award in his name, Andrew Doolan’s former flagship, the Point Hotel, should find itself on the market again. It’s five years since Andy’s untimely demise, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that it was the success of Edinburgh’s first real designer hotel that provided the wherewithal for the extraordinary largesse that created the UK’s most valuable architectural prize.

Shining some light through the financial mist

So, now we know what then-director Nick Barley must have known when was punting out his job applications earlier in the Summer. Administrator PriceWaterhouseCooper has just revealed that in the year to the end of March 2009 the Lighthouse racked up a loss of £700,000 – that’s almost £60k per month or the best part of £2k every 24 hours. Which suggests that by the time the board members of the Lighthouse Trust finally decided to do the decent thing and call it a day at the end of August, the total financial haemorrhage is likely to have passed the £1m mark. That’s some achievement on a turnover of around £5m but still there’s not so much as a whisper of an investigation into what went so disastrously wrong. Nope, that’s not the way we do things in Scotland. Indeed, only this side of the border could we even be talking about a new, long-term plan for the Mitchell Lane premises as “an architectural centre for Scotland” without any attempt - or desire - to learn any lessons from the experience of the last decade (and especially the past three years), but the City of Glasgow Council is doing just that. Sure, it owns the premises so can do what it likes with them, but the presumption that things can just carry on much as before, i.e. that this white elephant of a venue can continue to be regarded as the nation’s centre for architecture, is surely a prime example of Glaswegian chutzpah.

Lets not forget a couple of things here – the principle reason given for the Lighthouse ‘suddenly’ finding itself with a £250k funding gap that couldn’t be bridged was the decision by key tenant Vitra to pull out of the place, but the massive losses to March 2009 were accrued well before that company’s departure. Sure, recession may have affected its other commercial income but this was never a major part of the Lighthouse’s revenues and can be seen - as in so many other aspects of business at the moment - as a hugely convenient excuse for the not inconsiderable failings of the operation. In reality, the bulk of the place’s money came in various shapes and forms from Scottish Executive (now Government) and it is only the complexity of extracting itself from the mess that has produced the interim strategem of housing a branch office of S+AD in the building.

The latest element in the grand plan is for Glasgow’s urban design champion, Gerry Grams, and the Council’s Executive Director for Development and Regeneration, Steve Inch to carry out a review and report within four months on how they plan to “keep the Lighthouse as an architecture centre for Scotland.” Steve was of course a long-term member of the Board of the Lighthouse Trust, the group that so spectacularly failed to keep its eye on the financial ball, and so we really need to ask why, with all the time that he and his colleagues had to sort the problems out, he believes by flying with Gerry as co-pilot he can come up with entirely new and believable solutions by March of next year?

And finally…

Stand by for the stampede – the ads are out for the appointment of a new board for S+AD and with the princely remuneration rate of £165 per day per head nobody could possibly suggest the Scottish Government isn’t serious in its support for architecture. lt is work for two days a month though, so it’s four grand a year for four years and although still not a sum likely to permit successful applicants to finance a second home in Edinburgh it may help a few currently redundant or underemployed souls to keep the bailiffs at bay. Don’t for one minute think this is an easy gig though, because before you get to be considered for entry to the land of milk and honey, you first of all have to submit a 21 page application form – a sort of PQQ that requires you to offer at least two examples of your ability to handle complex information (I kid you not) as well as details of your public relations skills. Yes, it will be interesting to see who this box-ticking exercise throws up and whether or not it will improve the quango’s ability to be “the national champion for good architecture, design and planning in the built environment.” We watch and wait.

1 Comment

robin webster, cameronwebster architects
#1 Posted by robin webster, cameronwebster architects on 1 Dec 2009 at 09:35 AM
I realise that our wee office in a Glasgow back lane disappeared below Peter's vision, but we were very pleased to be nominated for the Doolan Award too.

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