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Wilson's Weekly Wrap

June 27 2008

Wilson's Weekly Wrap
Highland Housing – Fair?

On the surface, things seem to be going not too badly at the moment for the Highland Housing Fair, given the perverse local opposition encountered at the outset of the project and the high drop out rate of developers who found innovation and profit on a single house plot to be incompatible concepts. Down at the coalface, however, a number of the selected architects are finding the going considerably tougher.

Time is flying, and deadlines for Building Warrant applications, for example, are being missed due to the shifting economic times in which we live. Several of the projects are still without either client or developer, never mind a contractor, and with building work for most projects scheduled to be on site by late Autumn, some critical decisions need to be made at a more strategic level if we are not to see a half-constructed built landscape when the Fair opens its doors to the public next August.

A number of the project designs are predicated on imported components such as massive timber panels, now made infinitely more expensive by the £’s poor showing against the €uro and without significant alteration at this late stage, the houses may simply fail to emerge. Obviously the credit crunch was not on anyone’s radar when the idea of the Fair was first mooted, but life is not as it was a year ago and the project sponsors need to radically - and rapidly - revise the business plan if the Fair is to be a success.

In Finland, the first Housing Fairs were publicly-funded with small towns competing for the privilege to build: the model used here presumed that developers could be encouraged to innovate (without subsidy) and even profit from the construction of a single housing unit, a questionable approach anyway given the concept’s first outing in Scotland.

Now that the tectonic plates of banking have shifted inexorably to a position of financial denial to housing developers, the Fair’s initiators at government and public agency level need to dig deep into their pockets to make sure the project does not become an architectural disaster zone: should the project fail, there will be no second chance to learn from the experience. And, be assured, as the various previously-interested parties cover their tracks, it will be the architects that will end up carrying the can for their supposedly un-fundable designs. The reputational damage to the profession just doesn’t bear thinking about.

Another year or the same one repeated?

Yes folks, it’s Groundhog Day - that point in the calendar when Scotland’s schools of architecture reveal what they’ve been doing all year. And yes, the Annual Exhibitions look pretty much the same as last year. And the year before, for that matter. If ever there was a case for a substantial review of what the country needs from the architectural education process, the exhibitions at the six schools make it all too eloquently.

This is not to say that the work on show is not good – in one or two instances it is excellent – but rather to ask why we continue to duplicate the basic requirements six times over? The system as it exists is self-perpetuating – external examiners are selected from other schools to review the standard of work on display whilst at a staffing level new tutors often seem to have been students themselves at the institution in which they are now employed.

The combined result is that few have any new views to put on the table on the direction architectural education should be taking in post-devolution Scotland, with the status quo of RIBA recognition strictures continuing unquestioned.  Is it really beyond the wit of the Architectural Policy Unit at Victoria Quay to initiate a review of the schools with a view to instituting a national framework of postgraduate courses that complement rather than duplicate each other? That way arguably lies a far more efficient use of resources, with greater choice offered to students.

Let's face up to the fact that not everyone entering a Part II course is – or is going to become – a good designer, and that the profession and the construction industry urgently need many other skills. Far better surely, to create postgraduate specialisms in complementary areas towards which students can gravitate after Part I and which in time can create a far stronger and more industry-responsive profession. Instead of more generations of frustrated designers, we could have people whose early training has given them a real understanding of what actually constitutes good architecture, and the skill-base required to support good projects to fruition.

Who defines ‘World Class’?

The term ‘world class’ has almost become as misused in architecture as ‘iconic’ and ‘sustainable’ and just as redundant as a descriptor of a building. Apart from the latter which is just about assessable within the extraordinary wide parameters and definitions given to it, the others are subjective descriptions based on no known or meaningful criteria.

More importantly, when they are applied to projects as yet unbuilt, we can be fairly sure they are being used simply to promote the design in question. So to Edinburgh’s Haymarket, and this week’s decision by the city’s Planning Committee to approve Richard Murphy’s scheme for a five star hotel on the long-empty Morrison Street goods yard next to the railway station.

Views on the merits or otherwise of the 17 storey development have been fiercely divided and, as usual, the threat to central Edinburgh’s continuing status as a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site has been flagged up by those who oppose the project. Given that the proposals will have to secure final approval from Scottish Government Ministers as the City Council still has a financial interest in the ownership of the site, the stakes are high with pejoratives and platitudes being bandied around in equal measure.

It is the comment of the Planning Convenor, Jim Lowrie, however, that attracted my attention – with no known experience of drawing anything other than legitimate councillor’s expenses, he still felt able to describe the published images of the project as “a superb development that will bring vitality to the area… the five star hotel is a world class building”. Far be it from me to say, but assessments of this sort are usually made by gauging a project alongside similar building types around the world and against their ability to successfully meet their brief and enhance the context within which they have been constructed.

Murphy himself makes no such grandiose claims for his design, instead modestly suggesting that it will emulate the success of landmarks like the Balmoral and Caledonian hotels. Readers seeking some guidance in the debate might well refer to the ‘Buildings of Scotland: Edinburgh’ – the Balmoral (formerly the North British) is described as “Quadrangular in plan, aggressive in bulk… its bulbous 58m clock tower never fails to shock because of its intrusion into a townscape which did not need a large new feature at all – even a better one than this.” The Caledonian, on the other hand merely “rivals the North British in size if not in ostentation.” Funnily enough, neither description goes on to use the tern ‘world class’.

Architecture hidden, not lost

Speaking of Richard, the shift this year in the dates for the Edinburgh Film Festival has surely wrong-footed Scotland’s foremost architectural self-publicist. I may have missed it, but so far there seems to have been no sight of his project to build new premises for the city’s Filmhouse.

This is a shame – for many years now it has been one of the certainties of the Festival season that his large circular model for the proposed building would make a public appearance, with many accompanying pages of synthetic controversy in the Edinburgh Evening News and the Scotsman.

Given the project’s high profile history, surely it’s time it became part of the Capital’s tourist trail? The city fathers should be encouraged to commission Richard to design a visitor centre devoted to the many outstanding architectural proposals made over the years for Edinburgh that have failed to see the light of day.

With major public projects by architects as widespread in time and design style as Robert Adam and John McAslan, there is clearly a real opportunity to create a virtual centre of Edinburgh’s architectural history as it might have been had it not been for the urban rectitude of successive generations of the City Council and the Cockburn Association.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall

Finally, congratulations to City Architecture Office in Edinburgh and its director Moray Royles whose project for the Little Theatre on Mull is finally about to open its doors to the public. Despite the project’s long gestation time, invited guests to the opening night might still have to think twice about what finery to wear to the event – the midge season is well under way on the island and comfort throughout the first performance may well require some protective layering. But then, the hot spots on Mull were never about fashion.

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