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June 23 2008

Wilson's Weekly Wrap
Headless in Gorgie

The publication of Herzog & de Meuron’s designs for Portsmouth FC’s new stadium are a stark reminder of those heady days not so long ago at Heart of Midlothian when unfounded ambition was the club’s motto and owner Vladimir Romanov was talking with Rome-based architect Masilimiano Fuksas about rebuilding its inadequate and outdated premises in Edinburgh’s Gorgie.
A couple of years on and the now manager-less team’s uninspiring performances last season have been matched only by dumbed-down designs for a housing and hotel development with stadium attached.
Naturally in a city governed by rabid supporters – sorry politicians - planning permission for even this architectural dog’s dinner was never going to be a problem, but it would be fair to say that neither the team nor the project have delivered on their much-trumpeted world-class potential.
As in life, things move on in even in football and it will be interesting to see whether or not, in the face of the current housing slump and a club overdraft of more than £20m, the project can raise the necessary funding to proceed. Of course, Heart of Midlothian’s owner is also its banker, so there is bound to be some financial leeway available but, as an ex-submariner, we can be sure Romanov will know how far things can sink before they become terminal.
As for the architectural ambition to regenerate down-at-heel Gorgie around a new stadium, the phrase ‘dead in the water’ seems sadly more appropriate.


The Playing Field Still Slopes, Part 42

So to Glasgow and the School of Art’s announcement that it has secured a major grant from the Scottish Funding Council towards a £50m redevelopment of its estate opposite its seminal Charles Rennie Mackintosh home.
The brutalist Newbery Tower is to disappear together with its neighbour, the Foulis Building. According to the SFC’s civil servants, Glasgow School of Art “provides Scotland with the creative industry entrepreneurs of tomorrow”. Head of School Seona Reid’s statement that “a world class school needs a world class estate” is a little tempered by the decision to hold a competition to find an ‘inspirational international architect’ to deliver the required level of design excellence.
Having read of the GSA’s extensive list of famous graduates in the popular press, even the most uninformed bystander might have thought that here was the opportunity to place the institution’s credentials on the 21st century map by giving alumni from its own architecture school the chance to compete on an even playing field to design the new facilities.
Sadly, remnants of the worst aspects of 20th century Glasgow survive in the GSA’s thinking on this matter, with forelocks already being tugged towards celebrity names from elsewhere in preference to home-grown talent. Before the selection process gets too far down the line, the School’s governors ought to be reminded that their world famous home wouldn’t actually exist had not Fra Newbery, the head at the end of the 19th century, taken a chance on an unknown and untested local designer.


What do you want to be when you grow up, son?

The same article in the city’s ever-reliable Evening Times revealed that among Glasgow School of Art’s School’s many successful alumni, one of its former architecture graduates, Gareth Hoskins, had ascended the ladder to stardom by become design director for Jaguar cars.
Clearly achievement in the UK’s now almost defunct automobile industry is far more laudable for Evening Times readers than being the author of any number of award-winning buildings around the country, but the story does give the lie to the old Bob Hope maxim that “there is no such thing as bad publicity, just make sure you spell my name right”.
Mind you, if the frenetically busy Gareth really has found the time to moonlight in a different area of design, we can surely look forward to the world’s first timber-clad sports cars rolling off the assembly line some time soon.


Troubled Times

The news that Watson Construction has gone into liquidation can only be another worrying sign that, despite outward appearances, all is not well in the Scottish construction industry and that the problems are now becoming more manifest. Contractors and suppliers alike are feeling the pinch of the credit squeeze, and with site after site being mothballed, advance orders from housebuilders for basic structural elements have virtually dried up, a sure sign that recovery in that sector is far from imminent.
Given the parallel cessation of supply in the mortgage market, it seems more likely that a return of confidence is at least three years away, particularly as experienced manpower is being laid off at sites all over the country.
With no immediate prospect of replacement employment, much of the skill base will simply move, some to East London’s promised land, the only place in the country assured of unlimited public expenditure on new build.
While rapid and decisive action from Westminster is not a characteristic associated with the incumbent administration, here in Scotland some leading with the chin would help, not least by the Parliament’s Corporate Body (SPCB) which is still withholding considerable sums due to trade contractors for work on the Holyrood building, almost three and a half years after the Certificate of Practical Completion was issued and 28 months beyond the expiry of the defects liability period.
Sadly this is proving to be a constructional Guantanomo for many of the trade contractors still owed money by the Scottish Parliament – chained up for an unspecified number of years in order to rectify defects that may or may not come to light long after the project has ended, these unpaid bills in the current financial climate may simply provoke the expiry of some of these companies before the work is completed or responsibility proven.
At which point, the remaining £2m of retentions may seem like small beer compared to the cost of finding replacement contractors.


Send more Poles

I promise I wont make a habit of writing about the world’s largest doocot but I confess to some small satisfaction that, long after predicting the oak poles on the exterior of the Scottish parliament building would be unlikely to last more than a couple of years, the relevant authorities there have announce that around 1000 of these expensively curved and laminated elements are to be replaced.
Naturally, it being the Parliament, the cost of doing so is undisclosed, but with a variety of different curvatures involved, the overall task – ignoring the added complication of scaffolding many of the building’s most inaccessible areas - is neither simple nor straightforward and certainly won’t be cheap.
The problem requiring remedial action is the differential weathering and decay of many of the more exposed poles. The protective coatings that gave them their initial golden glow have unsurprisingly been defeated by Scotland’s fairly unforgiving weather conditions, but this has unquestionably been accelerated by the dopey detail to the top and bottom of each pole.
Whoever thought a flat metal disc with a screw through its centre into the timber’s end grain was going to be anything other than a reservoir for trapped rainwater? Yes, step forward those responsible for looking after the building who were recently quoted as saying “the poles were capped, but the caps haven’t done their job – the Scottish rain has taken its toll.”
More worryingly, these same people still don’t seem to understand what the problem actually is and the simplicity of the action required to solve it since they apparently now plan to carry out work “to extend the lifetime of the coatings on the oak lattice….we’re testing types of resin.” Probably cannabis.




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