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Fraser sees little New Year cheer ahead

January 16 2011

Fraser sees little New Year cheer ahead
It may be the start of a new decade but Malcolm Fraser sees nothing but a continuation of past mistakes in the years ahead. In this downbeat New Year’s message, first printed in the AJ,  Fraser ruminates on some of the architectural follies of the past 12 months, contending that only craft based architectural practices and institutional reform can stem a creeping malaise.

There’s scant New Year cheer up north.  Workloads are shaky, with the effects of chronic underbidding yet to feed through.  (There’s a story about a practice who won a project with a fee bid well over four times higher than all others.  The private client took the view that the low bids would harm both project and architect – but other private and public clients will not or cannot take such a view.)

Last year’s big, glamorous competitions – the Dundee V&A and the new Glasgow School of Art – were won by teams led by non-Scots.  While cultural-exchange is valuable, Scottish architects are not exporting well:  with exceptions like Graeme Massie in Iceland and Sutherland Hussey in China, it’s the unadmired corporates like Keppies and rmjm who win work abroad.

Of course rmjm tells its own story.  The nailing of their colours to the Fred Goodwin turbo-capitalist mast sends shivers down the spine, the parallels between Scotland’s largest practice and Goodwin’s rbs self-proclaimed.

Scotland still posesses a big bundle of small-to-medium, craft-based practices, bursting with talent and awards.  But we’d be forgiven for thinking that the Establishment doesn’t particularly care for our desire to make contributions to the wealth and beauty of the nation.  For example, the Scottish Government has bundled-up 10 and 20 years of public projects into its vast, monopolistic “Hub” procurement stream.  So if there’s a wee community centre to be built in an Edinburgh neighbourhood – or, indeed, a huge hospital – I need to go and plead for the architectural work as a subbie to a massive English construction conglomerate, the size of the contracts being so great that Scottish contractors feel disadvantaged.

I’ve written about the evils of the Hub and been invited, by its programme manager, to “apply to join the supply chain”.  How my heart doesn’t soar at the clear promise to make public architecture cheaper and cheaper!

Elsewhere our Government seeks to impose “New Urbanist” orthodoxy on us, official policy implying an English-model superblock over the endemic market-and-close pattern.  New Urbanist superstar Andres Duany is favoured, at vast expense and without the requirement for the ojeu processes that dog the rest of us, to jet in and tell us grateful natives what Scottish architecture and “placemaking” really is.

I hugely regret sounding like Dad’s Army’s Private Frazer (We’re Doomed!) and remain a passionate optimist – the darkest hour is just before the dawn, isn’t it?  Our vigorous, crafts-based practices share a remarkably-consistent vision of the significance of care, simplicity and integrity in architecture.  We are not well-represented by our institutions in Scotland, which range from the distracted to the ineffective.  Maybe we need to do something about this?


#1 Posted by h.a. on 17 Jan 2011 at 09:53 AM
totally agree. Even if we survive recession the future afterwards is in hands of greedy uncaring super offices. The built environment will feel it. Sad
#2 Posted by AL on 17 Jan 2011 at 10:27 AM
What utter rubbish

I for one am totally fed up with Frasers whinging

Mr Fraser should feel free to get on the bus and depart

(and no i don’t work for a “super” practice)
#3 Posted by Onthetram on 17 Jan 2011 at 15:52 PM
AL is free to write columns for Architects' Journal (where this appeared last week) putting forward well-argued alternative views.

Until then, AL has the comments section of Urban Realm to do that. Stop whining and tell us why you disagree?

I think h.a. is right.
Bored now Malcolm
#4 Posted by Bored now Malcolm on 18 Jan 2011 at 13:06 PM
Amazing!!! He’s whinging again!

Complaining incessantly about "a wee community centre to be built in an Edinburgh neighbourhood” yet sees nothing wrong with marching over to Glasgow and taking design work from local Glasgow practices. If you are going to bleat on about folk "stealing your local work" then practice what you preach and don't do it yourself Malcolm.

It's hypocritical.
#5 Posted by CS on 18 Jan 2011 at 13:25 PM
Clearly 'Bored Now Malcolm' hasn't bothered to understand the issuesor even the article before banging away at the keyboard. Try and be informed in future before making such a prize idiot of yourself.

Those of us who do understand the seriousness of what he's raising agree with him.
#6 Posted by AL on 18 Jan 2011 at 15:43 PM
I understand exactly what his problem is, he doesn’t like being a mere “supply chain member”

“ I need to go and plead for the architectural work as a subbie to a massive English construction conglomerate ”

The problem is his ego at the end of the day

Comments like “the unadmired corporates like Keppies and rmjm who win work abroad.” Also don’t help his case either
#7 Posted by tcg on 18 Jan 2011 at 16:59 PM
It is excellent to see debate on this issue. It is important and it demands proper scrutiny but it does need to be informed debate and i think that Malcolm doesnt fully understand how Hub works. This particular article also fails to make any real positive suggestions about how things can be improved and when you place it in context of a history of complaints against other procurement methods it does all seem rather unhelpful.

To be honest i think that MF thinks that hub is more or less PFI by other means. It isnt. Nor is it a complete monopoly for public sector procurement. Not everything will have to come through the hub and indeed there are projects started outwith the hub that are being procured through it. The theory behind hub is to try and resolve some of the manifest issues that other procurement methods have raised over the years. There can be few architects who havent bemoaned the costs and risks associated with the OJEU bidding process. Hub *should* make the bidding process simpler and more efficient. It should remove cut-throat fee competition as rates are agreed.

If it becomes a closed shop then it is a problem but it doesnt seem that way. Yet. It actually looks quite flexible in how it will work and that has to be a good thing but the proof of the pudding will be in the quality of the output and that depends much more on clients and designers than it does on procurement. Good clients will get good buildings out of it. Those with low aspirations will get cheap buildings. In that sense Hub is not the right target to take potshots at. The real villain is our national failure to value and understand quality.

#8 Posted by CS on 19 Jan 2011 at 00:37 AM
Anyone who thinks Malcolm Fraser doesn't understand exactly what he is writing about and why clearly doesn't appreciate the subtleties of plot.

Accusations of ego are juvenile, and unworthy.
#9 Posted by km on 19 Jan 2011 at 14:38 PM
I can see many perspectives above however is this a new problem? Surely generations of architects went through the same issues ie there are always the recognised award winning design practices who desire the opportunity to build fantastic buildings, and do so and there are the other architects who always manage to make a living, sometimes a good living, by not wishing to partake in the constant fight to achieve great architectural advances. There has always been a lot of the 'ordinary' out there and sometimes the ordinary is sufficient.

I am not a design architect infact more and more I am commercial trying simply to make a living and keep the roof over my family.

Perhaps every single one of us should be giving some more thought to how the profession and construction industry can survive the next 5-10 years and give less thought to winning awards and massaging each other's ego.

To me its very disheartening to see too many professional bodies and the media pumping on daily sometimes hourly about design design design when they themselves are having to pay off key and valuable staff.

Is design really the most important issue in today's climate?

I suppose that's my opinion expressed!
#10 Posted by SD on 19 Jan 2011 at 15:42 PM
Arguing that there is no time for design is fundamentally flawed. Design is the most important issue in today's climate.

Our Clients demand it in some way whether they say they do or not. The process of creating buildings requires design to be the driver for each stage of the process to completion.

We design building layouts, building details, tender documents and contracts and our clients rely on us and the unique skills that we have as architects professionally to deliver their projects and to bind these elements together.

Whether you get paid enough for the services you provide is a matter for you. You accept work at fees that you ultimately agree with your Clients whether through bid or negotiation.

In my experience, If you ignore design you probably don't spend time on the other important elements of the services you are contracted for as well.

On another matter Scottish business in general (and our design industry in particular) needs an international market and we should be pleased that firms like Keppie and RMJM are able to work in an international market (pretty patronising to describe them as 'unadmired corprates').

Would Malcolm Fraser accept the implied criticism levelled against the V&A and GSA in the article above if Malcolm Fraser Architects had been commissioned to design the Asplund Library Extension in Sweden?

It is as great that architects like Steven Holl are working in Scotland as it would have been if Malcolm Fraser Architects were working in Sweden.
#11 Posted by RMJMGLUM on 19 Jan 2011 at 18:11 PM
They are unadmired corporates; deeply unadmired.
#12 Posted by icameron on 19 Jan 2011 at 21:01 PM
SD...why if as you say, 'Design is the most important issue in today's climate.' are clients unwilling to pay architects a decent fee when we can add substantial value to their investments through good design. Why are these clients prepared to pay a lawyer or accountant £300/hour or a Project Manager £100+/hour. Architects have lost their place as the lead consultant. And if design is so important why does the Planning system allow the Planners to interfere in design when they are clearly unqualified to do so. Planners should stick to Policy matters and allow architects to do our jobs. I suspect many architects have become like km who just wants to earn a living. The profession needs people like Malcolm Fraser or Alan Dunlop to speak out even if you don't like them.
#13 Posted by SD on 20 Jan 2011 at 09:07 AM
I do not say anywhere that I do not like Malcolm Fraser or Alan Dunlop and in fact greatly admire their work. You need to read what is written. This is not or should not be a polarised debate. I have not made any reference to Alan Dunlop.

My point is that, as a profession we have allowed our position to be eroded over a considerable amount of time and that although pressure has come from outwith the profession we have been complicit in allowing this to happen.

Regardless of this when you accept a commission you have duties that you need to fulfill and good architects still manage to produce good architecture in spite of this (this is to be admired and is often the result of a massive personal commitment by the staff of te practice involved for which they receive little or no compensation).

This should not be a debate about big and small architectural practices but about the quality of architecture produced.

The profession needs to strive to deliver good quality at the same time as striving to rewarding architects commercially for the contribution that they make.

#14 Posted by icameron on 20 Jan 2011 at 10:57 AM
SD...I was not suggesting you personally. It was a general remark. I agree 100% with your last post.
matthew ansell
#15 Posted by matthew ansell on 21 Jan 2011 at 14:02 PM
Issues of ego and whinging aside, at least Malcolm is getting his point accross and not hiding behind an alias. Its time people stopped hiding........
Torturous Logic
#16 Posted by Torturous Logic on 22 Jan 2011 at 21:48 PM
I'm pretty new to this site, but the bitching that goes on here is pretty awesome!. Shit! someone just threw a stone through my glasshouse!

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