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Wilson's Weekly Wrap

Getting debate into the press - or just sticking it in the cupboard

April 9 2010

Getting debate into the press - or just sticking it in the cupboard
It’s a strange thing – for the past two years the Wrap has provided a summary of the previous 7-10 days’ events in and around the sensitive world of architecture and urban design in Scotland with the odd snippy or inarticulate comment being the main visible response to this invaluable service. Since the last Wrap, however, a first: its commentary on the news somewhat bizarrely became the news, albeit only in the Scotsman, a paper once renowned for its quality journalism, but now long lost to the vicissitudes of the technological advance that has affected newspapers everywhere. Which is why two throwaway comments in the Wrap a few weeks ago made their slow way across the Canongate and down past the tank traps walls of Fortress Holyrood to the Hootsman’s operational bunker. Not that the Wrap’ comments had been offered to the paper - extraordinarily it managed to pick them up for itself – but its transformation of them was a sight to behold.

Now, I’ve long accepted the fact that if you write or do anything in Scottish architecture that is even marginally provocative, the forces of hell – as Alistair Darling so recently and charmingly put it – descend on you and you either develop very broad shoulders or you expire under the assault. It’s a facet of a culture that doesn’t expect or like criticism, a surprising thing to find amongst architects, perhaps, since their whole educational route is founded upon regular critiques of their work. Or maybe that’s why so many of them turn out to be such tremulous souls.

Anyway, such musings aside, my passing comment that Edinburgh’s councillors seemed happy to seek out and approve some of the most repugnant developments ever seen for the sake of some fast cash to pay for their Darien tram experiment found itself transmogrified into the headline “Repugnant – architect’s damning verdict on capital’s new buildings”. The paper even managed in its editorial in the same issue to call for further debate on the capital’s future. On the back of the latter I decided to give the Hootsman the benefit of the doubt and immediately penned 800 words intended to help it take its next tentative steps into a debate Edinburgh – and Scotland – certainly badly needs. For his part, the paper’s deputy editor found the idea “interesting” and promised he “would think about it.” Not for too long, obviously, since the subject has made no further appearance. And that, my friends, is the problem: outlets like the Wrap exist precisely because our national press is not up to the job and is slowly expiring because, like our political caste, it has disconnected itself from the lifeforces of the nation.

Not that the Scotsman is alone in this: I remember at the end of 1999 asking Keith Bruce, the Herald’s Arts Editor, how that paper was planning to address architecture in the future, only to find him looking blankly at me before stating: “We don’t need to - the Year of Architecture and Design is over.” Eleven year’s later our national papers remain happy to treat these subjects in a trivial and sporadic way and you have to ask, is there any way forward for architecture and urban design in Scotland without the critical culture needed to encourage it?

Three-legged stools
There are those of course who, having long given up on the possibility of their various professional institutions ever fulfilling this function, think/believe that agencies like S+AD are the way to nurture such a climate of critical discourse. The Wrap is a bit more sceptical, having watched the brothers in Bakehouse Close drive the organisation from its early obscure but faintly encouraging beginnings to the very edge of oblivion. In danger of being seen not to have delivered as well as it’s southern brother CABE (even though it nicked most of its few ideas from said organisation) and in the wake of last year’s damning-but-not-quite-damning-enough-to-dump-it-completely report on its performance, S+AD has been drawn back from this precipice and is being steered by its masters in the civil service towards a more obstacle-free path.

This new route flies a little in the face of contemporary convention in that it involves a swathe of new appointments at a time when the rest of the world is drawing in its collective belt. Some of these positions are replacements of course – chair, chief executive, design review members et al – but the ongoing expansion of its Glasgow branch office seems to tie in with the desperate pleas of Steve Inch and Gerry Grams, city council employees both, to save the Lighthouse. Steve and Gerry, you may remember, were charged by the honest and upstanding councillors of Purcellopolis to come up with a new business plan for the Marie Celeste of Scottish architecture – this after the Board of the Lighthouse Trust had manifestly failed over the best part of two years to come up with any solution to the Mitchell Lane enigma. After several more months of head scratching and pencil chewing, however, Steve and Gerry have proudly come forward with their big idea: they believe we should pour yet more public money over the cliff this redundant edifice stands on. And which particular pot of public gold do they think should furnish the readies for their imaginative ploy? Why, S+AD of course since it’s just about the only remaining tenant in the building.

No matter that after the general election public funding is likely to become a figment of addled memory – no, in Steve and Gerry’s world the public purse has always had some rainy day money concealed in its folds so why should the future be any different? Steve is, in any case, off to pastures new so, having cutely transferred the Lighthouse from his department to Bridget McConnell’s Culture and Sport empire, he can quickly forget this last unedifying task. Gerry, meanwhile, has taken to pleading with organisations that previously used the Lighthouse’s facilities to “use them or lose them”, a complete misreading of the reasons why former customers aren’t exactly rushing to come back. Perhaps Steve and Gerry’s time could have been better spent analysing these problems in order to better inform a business plan or, should I say, a plan for a real business. As it stands we have S+AD’s branch office plus a notion to have a better café and bookshop – not so much a business as a bunch of bits looking for an idea.

So it’s start again time at S+AD; lights still out at the Lighthouse; and a lapsed Policy on Architecture. S+AD and the Lighthouse’s activities were, apparently, “informed” by the Policy on Architecture, (together, the much-vaunted triangle of delivery for Scottish architecture) so without any immediate prospect of an updated version of the latter it will be interesting to see what direction the new brooms at Bakehouse Close choose to take.

Fore Feather Falls
I see old Trumpy has been singing the praises of one of Scotland’s absentee grandees, the immortal Sir Sean. That’s after having a swipe at “bird-loving publicity seekers” a title I’d previously thought he and Frank McAvennie had been in serious competition for over the years. No, the Donald feels the nation’s twitchers lack any serious environmental credentials since they don’t agree with his plans for the dunes at Menie. “We’re going to make the area environmentally better than it was before” – again the same determination to triumph over nature itself that seems to govern his tonsorial ambitions – and that “the land is going to do better than ever once we have done what we are planning to do with it”. Don Combleone clearly has an inside knowledge the rest of us Scots have been denied, though, and we should be indebted to him for saving our feathered friends from ourselves: “Right now that land is a killing field. They shoot 25000 birds a year over it.” It’s not exactly Cambodia, Donald, but interesting to see you’ve been studying Pol Pot’s land management theories.

The man who would be king
But back to Shur Shon whom DeeTee has publicly thanked for backing his £1bn golf resort a.k.a. Trump New Town (a.k.a. TNT). Talking backstage at the ‘Dressed to Kilt’ fashion show in New York, the Donald praised the host of the event as a “powerful man” and claimed his support had tipped the balance in favour of his controversial development. The comb-over king went on to say “I’m here to back Sean Connery. Sean backed me in this big project I’m doing in Scotland. He came out in strong support of me and as soon as he did it all turned around. He’s a great man and he’s got great power so I’m here to honour him.” Not so much the power behind the throne it seems, as the power on the throne. King of Fountainbridge? I suppose it does have a sort of tinkle-in-a-milk-bottle ring to it. In a Mandelsonian sort of way.

Huts, mon
I mentioned Fortress Holyrood earlier so I should probably comment properly on the external works that are currently being implemented to completely separate our politicians from reality. You’ll be delighted to know that the project continues apace and that the south side of Edinburgh’s Canongate is now lined with steel posts to prevent any dodgy looking characters (previously know as tourists) actually walking down this part of the street. The diameter of these steel bollards is of course unrelated to the scale of any potential terrorist opportunity but is instead directly conditioned by the width of available pavement.

And so it is that the bollards with the biggest diameters are on the widest part of the public walkway, i.e. in front of what the politicos refer to as the “Canongate Wall’. Yes that’s the curved, solid concrete wall that was built into this part of the original design to prevent street level assaults. You’ll recall me mentioning previously that these additional protective measures were suggested by ‘the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure’ - a body with a vested interest in changing the face of our towns and cities if ever there was one – that also came up with the notion of anew security hut at the public entrance within which to screen visitors. Long gone, it seems, is the dream that Scotland would have an open and transparent parliament building for its devolved democracy to operate from. It can’t be long before the guard towers appear, And all because the wrong site was chosen in the first place.

Can’t pay, won’t pay
I also made a passing remark about Edinburgh’s trams so just to keep you in the loop it turns out that the City Council’s clever scam to extract lots of loot from would be developers hasn’t exactly delivered the goods. You’ll recall that the Scottish Government, set as it was against the whole wacky idea, was outvoted in the Parliament by the collected forces of the opposition parties who ganged together to ensure the project was given the go-ahead. Mightily miffed at this cavalier action, the SG capped its contribution at £500m – a sizeable investment nonetheless – with the caveat that there would not be a single penny more from central funds and that any additional dosh required would have to be raised by the Council. In the absence of local taxation, the bright bunnies in Market Street came up with a surcharge on development: no contribution to the trams, no planning permission.

Which was all well and good in the boom times, not so good in the current property sector bust. The councillors had targeted at least £25m from this ploy, but have found their golden goose not to be as fecund as first thought and in fact less than 50% of the anticipated monies have come in with major developers such as those for the St James Centre re-do offering up only a small fraction of the sums originally demanded of them. Which makes you think if it’s so negotiable, can it actually be backed-up in the courts? After all, the presumption has been that any development within a ten minute walk of the tram line (as originally designed) would, ipso facto, benefit financially from the new transportation system. Quite why this should be has yet to be legally tested, but as developers recalculate their sums downwards and indulge in some interesting games of poker with the Council, it’s clear who the eventual winners will be. After all, the less line there is (and it seems to be shortening all the time), the further many developments will be from it. And with future public funding of any sort now very much off the agenda it will be down to council tax payers to make up the difference. Surprise? Hardly.
A load of bollards
A load of bollards

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