January 10 2007
Nick Barley has just started his new job as director of The Lighthouse in Glasgow. He wants to position the centre at the heart of something he describes as a ‘support infrastructure’ for design professionals. He has a vision for an architecture and design centre where the public can rub shoulders with creatives who are developing and debating new ideas. It’s a strong vision – let’s hope it works...
PL Throughout its life, The Lighthouse has had many roles: it’s been an exhibition space, an entrepreneurial hub, an educational resource and a conference centre. What role do you see it fulfiling in the future?
NB The Lighthouse has spent the last seven years finding out what it is for. I’m left with a really interesting legacy – my predecessors have done the difficult work. Sometimes, they would admit themselves, it has failed, and sometimes it has succeeded. They have left me with a platform from which to grow. What they have created is a mechanism for providing a support infrastructure for architecture and design in Scotland. If you rewind to before The Lighthouse was launched, Scotland was really lacking that infrastructure. It is easy to pick out the flaws of The Lighthouse – and there are many – but it’s really worth looking back. Before The Lighthouse it was a dire situation. With The Lighthouse it’s a better situation.
PL Is the role of The Lighthouse primarily in relation to the design industry or the public?
NB I think it is about the interface between the industry and the world. That interface is a complex thing. Of course you have the interface between Scottish design and architecture and the international world of design and architecture, but there’s also the interface between Scottish design and architecture and the Scottish public. The Lighthouse needs to be really clear about which constituency it is trying to communicate with. And it shouldn’t necessarily favour one over the other.
PL You have been criticised for talking about London in your first public appearance at the RIAS Andrew Doolan dinner. How do strike the right balance between taking ideas from outside Scotland and promoting work inside Scotland?
NB I talked about London, because I wanted to let people know where I come from. I have spent most of my career publishing, editing and writing about architecture and design in London. I was trying to say that I had been inspired by something that I saw happen in London. That doesn’t mean I am bringing London values to Scotland. Clearly they are very different places.
One of the criticisms of The Lighthouse is that it’s done really well talking up its role in the international arena, but that doesn’t really impact on what happens at home.
I think you are right. In many respects, The Lighthouse has been seen as more successful outside of Scotland than inside. We have an important job to do to win over the public and the professionals here. I think there are all sorts of ways of doing that – we need to enthuse the whole organisation with a sense that we are open. Openness is a key theme – we are open to criticism, open to ideas and open to praise as well. That’s the point of a resource – it’s a communicating body.
PL Have you looked at other architecture centres in the UK and internationally? What have you seen that works?
NB It is interesting to look at The Lighthouse on an international basis and to look at its own specific environment in Scotland. Dealing with both architecture and design is unusual. There aren’t many organisations that try to do both, and it’s tricky to find the balance. There are many members of the architecture community who say that The Lighthouse is too focused on design and vice versa, so it’s falling in between the two stalls to some extent. On the other hand, you have the Design Council which says it thinks The Lighthouse is an exemplary format for the architecture and design centre.
The London model is the most familiar to me. You have the Design Museum, the Architecture Foundation, the Architectural Association, the RIBA Exhibition Centre, and the Royal Academy all exhibiting design and architecture shows and a plurality of views about architecture and design. By concentrating the power into one organisation in Scotland, it is difficult to achieve that plurality, but I think it’s essential that we try.
What I think you get in London is an overlapping structure of debate and support, so criticism is held within a crucible of support. London architects are nurtured by the debate, whereas in Scotland criticism is difficult to make and difficult to receive because it is isolated. I’d like to try to create a crucible of debate and a plurality of views that allows us to have differences of opinion and to critique what people are doing in the knowledge that it takes place in a framework of support.
PL Should The Lighthouse be a place where professionals learn new things? While the schools educational programme is important, should it be looking more closely at inspiring professionals?
NB Absolutely. It’s early days yet, but I have this idea of creating a material resource centre where professionals and clients can come and look at materials, their applications and their performance in use. There would be no sales reps, but professional researchers instead. It would also need academic support. As an architect, you could take a client in and talk about material. As a client, you could find out what a material might look like in 20 years’ time. There is a centre like this called Material Connexions in New York, and there’s one in Switzerland. This would be the first in the UK. It’s an aspiration I am not sure I can deliver, but I’d like to try.
PL A bookshop and library are important parts of a good architecture centre. The architecture centre in Paris is scholarly in its intent, while the Berlage Institute in the Netherlands takes research and intellectual debate very seriously.
NB Absolutely. Berlage is a fantastic extraordinary organisation. One of its great inspirational features is that they have Alejandro Zaera Polo (of Foreign Office Architects) in there, so they are listening to the outside world. They are not saying: “Look at us, we are the best in the world.” It is an international mindset that I find incredibly attractive. The Netherlands is a beacon of hope for people interested in architecture – they have had such fantastic successes over the years.
PL Funding has always been an issue for The Lighthouse. How do you see this situation?
NB As I understand it, 97 per cent of The Lighthouse’s income is project funded. There is very little core funding, which means that in three years’ time we may have no funds. This means The Lighthouse has to spend a lot of time on projects established by the fund holder, and this may not be the right model for The Lighthouse to move forward and take risks. Having said that, if we were core funded, it would probably be by Government. I believe being funded by Government does not mean you are politically compromised as proved by the National Theatre of Scotland, which has shown it can be radical and critical.
PL The Lighthouse was conceived as the main legacy of 1999 UK City of Architecture and Design. How do you feel about the festival and its impact on the city and the creative industries?
NB I think 1999 was a more ambitious project than anyone realised. I go against the grain when I say this, but I think Deyan Sudjic is brilliant. He didn’t always consult, but he was a bit like an architect – he would make things happen come what may. For all of its flaws, Home for the Future was a great talking point. I’d like to do more of that sort of thing.
The Lighthouse is a legacy of the year. It’s a great building, but the organisation has had to shape itself to fit the spaces provided. I’m very sad it wasn’t viable to maintain the best exhibition space. It’s an ambition of mine to change the economy of the building so that we can re-inhabit that space for exhibitions. In the meantime, we’ll make the best of what we have.
PL How will you measure your success?
NB I believe we can make The Lighthouse much, much better than it already is, but that’s not forgetting the amazing work that has gone on to get it this far. If The Lighthouse isn’t at the centre of a support infrastructure helping design and architecture to improve, then it is not doing its job properly. If we sit down in five years and you can say it failed to be part of that infrastructure, I will have failed. It’s my key criteria for success.
I’m arriving at a time when the programme for the year ahead is very strong. If there was one thing The Lighthouse had to achieve in its first 10 years, it was a Gillespie Kidd & Coia exhibition – we are now doing that in partnership with the School of Art and Metzstein and Macmillan. We are also linked to the Basil Spence exhibition, so we are looking at two of the key practices in architecture in Scotland over the past 50 years.