Wilson's Weekly Wrap
Wilson's Weekly Wrap
December 2 2009A little bit less vision, a little bit more action
So, step up to the plate, Fiona Hyslop MSP, Scotland’s 10th Minister for Architecture, or should I say Minister for Culture and External Affairs with a wee bit of architecture thrown into the mix. Last week I raised the question of what this new emperor’s clothes would be made of since, to all intents and purposes, we no longer have an architecture policy, but the smoke has cleared a bit since the first announcement was made and it’s now a bit more apparent what the job description doesn’t include. Constitutional matters for a start, and since the prime role of the previous incumbent was to deliver a referendum on the subject, this omission should leave a bit more time for the built environment. If only.
Maybe it’s just me, but the other parties in the Parliament having already ganged up on the trauchled woman to force her exit from her previous role in charge of the nation’s education and having loudly proclaimed that her new job is a demotion all seems to suggest that the joined-up thinking required to deliver schools with some architectural quality is a concept that still eludes most of our worthy politicians. The arts establishment in Scotland – if we are to judge form last Sunday’s Herald – are outraged that the idea that the culture job should be considered a demotion, pointing out the sector’s contribution to the economy in the fairly naïve belief that our politicians understand this aspect of our nation’s existence better than they do its cultural condition.
Lets face it though – it is a demotion, for in the ten years that the Scottish Parliament has been in existence, we’ve already had nine ministers for architecture and their overall impact – as with their budget - has been nigh on invisible. Fiona Hyslop may have as-yet-undiscovered skills to bring to the table on this one – and the c.v. on her website is certainly keeping them well under wraps – but in the decade that she’s been in the Parliament, I can’t actually recall her name being connected in any way with things architectural or events in the architectural calendar, other than turning up for the opening of the Holyrood doocot itself.
Still, she’s apparently “hugely enthusiastic” about her new role as Culture and External Affairs Minister, as indeed anyone who’s just been bumped from a job and manages to fall without interview, experience or skill into a well-paid new one would be, but as far as a new architecture policy for Scotland is concerned, I can only refer you to Fiona’s website and the mention there of her previous role as Cabinet Secretary for Education and Life-Long Learning. She was, apparently, “responsible for developing the SNP’s visionary policy in these fields,” a statement that might charitably be interpreted in any number of ways, but given that said vision had nary a single original idea contributed by her good self, I think it’s fairly safe to surmise that a similar approach will be brought to her new role.
Which brings me to the architectural profession – let’s not depend this time on the civil servants in Victoria Quay to guide the latest minister since they are surely exhausted from briefing new incumbents before witnessing their swift move from obscurity to oblivion. No, let’s bombard the minister directly with ideas that may even help salvage her political career. In doing so we might actually see some positive benefits for the built environment in Scotland. Just one thing though – please don’t mention any previous Lighthouse connection – however ephemeral – between architecture and education. The poor soul will probably just get confused.
A Guell of a guy
The architecture over in Catalonia, by contrast, does deal in visions. Or at least, the bits that Gaudi was responsible for and whilst I’ve always been convinced that his designs resulted from an over-indulgence in the local mushrooms, it turns out that they were in fact a consequence of his intense religious conviction. At least, that’s what some of his disciples believe, and who’s to argue with their determination to have him canonised by the Pope as the first true saint of architecture? All you sceptics and agnostics out there need to put to one side the St George and the Dragon stuff that populates his buildings – that’s a bit too parochial, being Catalan nationalist symbolism and all – and help the devotees come up with answers to the real obstacle that stands in Antonio’s path to sainthood: proof that he carried out at least two miracles.
Now as you all know, Gaudi was a contemporary (-ish) of our own revered Charles Rennie Mackintosh and I’m prepared to suggest that it is nothing short of a miracle that his eponymous fan club in Glasgow has so far failed to uncover information to prove that Antonio visited our second city to sit for a while at the feet of the one true master. It’s also a bit of a miracle that no school of architecture anywhere in the world has opted to take Gaudi’s name into its title, but I feel we’re veering from the point – the need for original miracles by Barcelona’s first architectural wunderkind.
The other well-known fact about Gaudi’s life is – paradoxically – his death, or at least the means by which he met his end. The poor chap was obviously so besotted by his achievement at the Sagrada Familia that he failed to detect a tram stealing up behind him and carrying out a loaves and fishes transformation of his slender frame. This phenomenon has re-materialised in Edinburgh this week where, with the re-opening of Princes Street, the city’s bicycling bampots have been directing their wheels into the new tram tracks in order to throw themselves over their handlebars in preparation for the coming of the trams themselves. This could be the act of God we’ve all been waiting for, and if so, I’m happy to give the credit to Gaudi and publicly acknowledge that he’s 50% of the way to eternal recognition.
Where there’s a Will, there’s a Will-A
Gaudi of course epitomised humility, a characteristic not often associated with today’s breed of architectural stars and a fact that allows me to segue neatly into mention of he who would be king. Yes, I’m talking about our friend Will-A, the P-Diddy of the architectural world who it seems wasn’t being entirely disingenuous when he told us all he was departing the good ship Ark-ial (you don’t have to leave Noah’s boat in pairs: word is you just have to be two-faced) to spend more time on his paintings. No, RMJM’s new boy really has had his brushes out and this week gets to open a show of his acrylics at the South Kensington and Chelsea Mental Health Centre, an until now little-known gallery displaying larger-than-life works from the School of Saatchi.
But Will is the real deal in this world – in fact, he’s been patron of the Nightingale Project*, the charity organising the exhibition, since 2007, which is very possibly the longest time he’s spent with any outfit before electing to move on to pastures new. Still, in the spirit and season of charity we should mention that Will-A did in fact lead a series of workshops last year with in-patients at St Charles Hospital in North Kensington and the resulting set of large paintings now hangs in the ward there. It may not quite be ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ but I’ve every confidence that if there’s ever a remake in the offing, our boy will be up there as a hot tip for the Jack Nicholson role. In Will’s world, after all, the lunatics really do get to take over the asylums.
Four strikes and you’re out
And of course in any discussion of such institutions, the City of Edinburgh Council’s headquarters on Market Street must feature large. Today’s hot news courtesy of Brian Ferguson of the Scotsman, customarily seen by many as the bete-noire of all things architecture or heritage-related in the city, is that the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust is to have its grant funding run down over the next four years to – well, nothing actually. This, at least, is the recommendation of Dave Anderson, the city’s very own Director of Development and a man who has featured before in the Wrap for his insightful ideas for the capital’s future. The EWHT currently receives around £100k from the city’s coffers and it would be a churlish soul who did not agree that the organisation achieves a good deal for this fairly paltry sum. But the organisation has been known to be critical at times of some of the Council’s rather more exotic development notions and this has not been forgotten by the worthies down at the City Chambers.
And so it is, now that our various governments are speaking the language of penury, that reason can be found to financially emasculate detractor bodies. I’ve mentioned before how little the politicians of Edinburgh understood the obligations that Unesco World Heritage Site status conferred on the city, preferring to regard the title simply as a useful stimulus for the tourism sector. I’ve also mentioned before the lack of transparency in the City of Edinburgh Council when it comes to planning and development, a fact that emerged all too clearly (sic) at the Haymarket Inquiry and was a substantial feature in the debacle over the no longer extant Caltongate project. Director of Development Dave is a man on a mission, however, and this latest suggestion on his part can at least be regarded as a totally transparent act, but one that might not be seen to be in the best interests of his employers, we the citizens.
A Book for Xmas
But back to the nation’s architects and, more particularly, one who could give Dave DoD a few lessons in the fine art of public relations. Richard Murphy Architects’ excellent e-newsletters owe nothing in their conception to the aforementioned Antonio Gaudi’s renowned lack of hubris and the latest issue is thankfully no different. For any of you architects out there still struggling with the notion of actually marketing your skills to an eagerly waiting world, I heartily recommend Richard’s missives since not a whisper of equivocation exists in them as to why any client should not benefit from his practice’s many talents.
I am especially taken by Richard’s largesse in the current issue since he points out that the entire print run of 3000 copies of his oeuvre complete up to 2001 has now nearly all gone and that Amazon is quoting an astonishing £425-97 for a perfect copy and an equally jaw-dropping £394-02 for a second hand version. As there is apparently a new and totally up to date volume of RMA’s work in preparation and due for launch next summer, I feel no shame in scouring my bookshelf to find one of the originals. Given the international fame of its author, it clearly won’t sit for more than a couple of weeks on Amazon or E-Bay and the proceeds will surely add some esprit nouveau to the celebrations chez Wilson this Christmas, so thanks Richard – the tip is much appreciated.
I was away last week so didn’t make it through to Glasgow last Friday for the opening of ‘The Thinking Hand’ at the University of Strathclyde’s Department of Architecture. It’s only on until the 17th of this month so I’ll be making my way up Cathedral Street later this week to have a look-see, given that Scotland’s various schools of architecture don’t exactly put themselves about to put on exhibitions of anything other than their individual end of year shows.
This one intrigues me, however, being described as “an exhibition of the simple art of drawing” and featuring such brutalist luminaries as Louis Kahn, Paul Rudolph and Alan Dunlop. It also appears to include works from a 1976 thesis, ‘Shipbuilding on the Clyde’ by Alan’s gladiatorial partner in GM+AD, Gluteus Maximus and, whilst not on the face of it perhaps offering the most contemporary of architectural investigations into Glasgow’s riverside industries will, I am sure, give some context to the practice’s long engagement with the city’s waterfront. In this respect I’m sorry to have missed Prof. Murray’s introductory talk at the opening event and his explanation for the exhibition’s quirky but otherwise wholly inscrutable title. No doubt all will be revealed by the drawings themselves, but it being a school of architecture in Glasgow, I can’t help thinking that the ‘th’ in the second word of the exhibition’s name is a misprint. It should be ‘dr’.
Postscript to Where there’s a Will, there’s a Will-A
* The Nightingale project is not the same thing as Nightingale Associates, the practice that recently won the £840m Southern General Hospital job in Glasgow and which appears to have no ethical dilemmas about most of the drawing production being carried out by the considerably cheaper labour force available in its South African office. Of course, there’s always the possibility that Will-A could join Nightingale Associates in the nano-moments between me writing this and the Wrap appearing online.
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