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COMMENT by Peter Wilson - The common wealth within

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October 15 2004

Now that the tiresome non-tussle over which of Scotland’s two principal cities should represent Scotland in bidding for the 2014 Commonwealth Games is over, the architectural profession needs to get its head round the huge opportunity the process represents. Aside from the possible economic benefits to Glasgow, there is a real chance – if it is grasped early enough – to affect the way in which we consider the future development of towns and cities throughout the country and the way in which the architectural profession itself is structured.

Consider first the masterplanning aspects of the project – areas of Glasgow’s East End are already being designated by the city fathers as appropriate locations for athletes’ villages and other facilities. Before thrashing on with their development, however, the many lessons that should have been learned from the Garden Festival (1987), the Year of Culture (1990) and the Year of Architecture and Design (1999) need to be taken on board. Principal among these is the need for planning beyond the event itself to ensure any new interventions produce lasting value to the city and the country. Looking back at the three events mentioned, a pedestrian bridge, a gallery of modern art, the Lighthouse and “Homes for the Future” are individually laudable, but not enough in total to show for a collective investment of several hundred million pounds.

Compare and contrast the relatively small expenditure at Lillehammer for the 1994 Winter Olympic Games – in a town of 24,000 people an architecture and design strategy was set in place to present Norway to the world as a modern nation with a design culture to suit. The event was used to create not only a series of unique structures that made innovative use of indigenous materials, but its coherent design framework for everything from signage to buildings ensured the overall image presented was both stylish and immediately redolent of a very modern Norway.
More importantly, the cultural benefits of the design guide were recognised by Norway’s politicians and subsequently formed the basis of that country’s first architecture and design policy. It also provided the foundations for Norskform, the national architecture and design centre. The economic value of both can be seen in the substantial political support given to Norwegian design companies, which has enabled them to compete successfully in the international arena. Snøhetta’s winning entry in the competition to design the Great Library at Alexandria in Egypt, for example, was a catalyst for exports by Norway’s manufacturing industry, resulting in everything from the door handles and lighting used throughout the building to its very contemporary furniture being of Norwegian design and manufacture.

The lesson is clear – the bid for the Commonwealth Games provides the opportunity to finally implement many of the wish-list items in Scotland’s first architecture policy and to give legs to the soon-to-emerge “Architecture and Design Scotland”. Fundamental to the future worth of both will be the formulation of a properly independent structure for architectural competitions in accordance with EU procurement rules. With this, architectural standards in Scotland can be raised and can ensure that home-based architectural talent is allowed to compete on an even playing field with its peer groups elsewhere.
None of this is rocket science, but it does require a change in the parochial mindset that kept the Garden Festival and the Year of Architecture and Design from seriously impacting on the world stage and which ensured that the infrastructure of talent so expensively assembled for the Year of Culture was carelessly allowed to disperse after the event. This time, let’s be different and plan long-term solutions of benefit to the whole of Scotland.

Peter Wilson

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