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July 4 2008

Highland Housing Fair, Part Two

It’s not often I get to see such immediate impact from something I’ve written and in truth it was probably more serendipity than prescience on my part, but following my ‘warning light’ comments last week about next year’s Highland Housing Fair in Inverness, the organisers seem to have taken my advice to heart and moved with commendable rapidity to postpone the event by a year. This is far from being a bad thing – the number of developers unable to raise bank finance for their individual projects was reaching a dangerously high level and the people responsible for the Fair have made the only prudent move possible in the circumstances. Far better to delay than to fail ignominiously and in any case the reasons for the postponement can be readily understood by all. What developer was going to proceed – even had they been able to secure the necessary funding – with construction at current Inverness price levels when the bottom is dropping out of the housing market and likely to pummel the post-Housing Fair sales values?

That said, invoking Plan B can only be seen as a necessarily reactive move and the need for a well thought through Plan C is now pressing. With a shade more time on the delivery side of the project, the need to reduce construction costs without diminishing the design quality of the individual houses needs some real creative thinking. Consideration could, for example, be given to the implementation of a professional sponsorship programme focused on in-kind provision of materials and products for all of the houses planned for the site. Hardly complicated, it is one of the few routes to overall cost reduction that are available in the current economic climate, but it will require co-coordinated - and speedy - action rather than allowing the projects to individually stand or fall. 2010 is not that far away. 

Olympian Dream, Pygmean Reality

The corollary to the sensible decision to postpone the Highland Housing Fair is of course the inexorable, tanker-like progress of the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Having let the budget ratchet up to a conservatively estimated £9.3bn, the Spinal Tap-like trick now seems to be to downscale all the projects to fit within this increasingly unlikely final sum. Never mind the twists and turns of Zaha Hadid’s ever-diminishing Aquatic Centre, Michael Hopkins’ truncated Velodrome or the dull-as-dishwater main stadium itself, it now appears the £1bn athletes village is to be reduced in size by 25% as developer Lend Lease struggles to find its £450m share of funding for the project. What can this downsizing possibly mean: 25% fewer housing units, 25% fewer athletes or perhaps quite a few that are not too tall? The latter may not be so far from the truth – the ODA has now done a deal with ‘Constructionarium’ whereby the latter will invite universities to team up with a contractor and a consultant before sending students to spend six days making scaled down versions of bridges, buildings and dams on the Olympic Park. Who’d bet against them being the final thing? 

‘You Just can’t Make it Up’ Department

I’ve tried hard to resist returning to Donald Trump’s takeover bid for the Councils of Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, but hot on the heels of Audit Scotland’s criticisms of the paltry sums raised by the former’s land sales we now find – courtesy of the Public Inquiry into Trump’s plans for a new town with golf courses attached – that Aberdeenshire Council had used a Section 75 Agreement to transfer publicly-owned land notionally (and almost certainly under) valued at £5m to Trump in return for 100 ‘affordable homes’ for local people. The Council’s current policy, apparently, is to ask developers to provide housing for low-income families in return for being granted permission to work on major developments. It being Aberdeenshire, democratic scrutiny of this transaction wasn’t required, with Council officers doing the deal in secret without oversight from elected representatives. Critically however, in return for the 100 affordable homes, Trump gets to sell another 52 that he is allowed to build on the land in question. This, within a grand design that presumes a development of 500 private houses, 1000 holiday homes, a five-star hotel and two golf courses at a conveniently estimated cost of £1bn. Clearly the Aberdeenshire Council officers responsible for this fantastic result slept through the class on negotiating skills – an investment of less than 0.01% of the anticipated total project spend on the affordable housing is hardly likely to trouble Trump, so why was it necessary to throw in the land as well? For a part of the country whose denizens have an international reputation for parsimony, such profligacy with public property seems strangely alien, but then, some would say this description also applies to the area’s local politicians. 

Facts are Chiels that Winna Ding

Hey-ho, it’s the RIBA Awards season again. Every year we wait to see if any projects north of the border have made it from the Regional Awards (around 90 of which are usually given throughout the RIBA’s 14 areas) to the National Awards (average one per region). This year two buildings from Scotland made the cut - the already multi-award winning Pier Arts Centre in Orkney by Reiach and Hall Architects and the BBC Scotland headquarters in Glasgow by David Chipperfield Architects and Keppie Design in the local executive role.

Make no mistake, getting two projects onto the list is good and a 100% increase on last year when the Bridge Art Centre by Gareth Hoskins got through and, with only seven of the 14 regions getting any National Awards whatsoever this year, no mean achievement. But what chance does either building have for the Stirling Prize? All RIBA National Award winners qualify for the prestigious title, together with the 10 successful projects in this year’s RIBA European Awards, making a total of 26 contenders. Given that RIBA Awards are apparently given for “high architectural standards and for making a substantial contribution to the environment” it’s troubling to see that only eight of the 26 are outside London or mainland Europe. Indeed eight are in the London region itself, the same number for the whole of the rest of the UK, and with goliaths like Wembley Stadium by Lord Foster and Heathrow’s Terminal 5 by Lord Rogers on the list, the Pier Arts Centre will need more than a couple of slingshots to knock them out. Chipperfield has three projects on the list but BBC Scotland’s design-build headquarters is undoubtedly the weakest of the trio and in any case his reluctance to even visit a building whose finished quality he himself considers well below his usual standard is well recorded.

Astute readers will already have spotted that the names mentioned so far have won three out of the last four Stirling Prizes. Another former winner on the list is Wilkinson Eyre but previously shortlisted practices such as Zaha Hadid, Grimshaws and Foreign Office Architects are there again, so 9 of the 26 finalists have some form in the contest and, again, outnumber those UK projects that are not in London. Overseas entrant Coop Himmelb(l)au could be this year’s Herzog & de Meuron, winners in 2003, but their new and spectacular HQ for BMW may not be the environmentally sensitive choice.

Given these facts and the prize’s perplexing judging history, which way is the smart betting likely to go? The Prize dinner will be in Liverpool, this year’s joint European City of Culture, on 11 October and on several previous occasions the award has gone to the host city (e.g. Edinburgh: Scottish Parliament, Newcastle: Millennium Bridge). Nothing in Liverpool is on the list, however, and it may be locally contentious to give the award to either the Hilton Tower by Ian Simpson or the Civil Justice Centre by Denton Corker Marshall, both of which are in its north west rival Manchester.

Kevin McCloud will no doubt once again be asking whether or not it will be Zaha’s year, but despite the extraordinary quality of her entry this time (Nordpark Cable Railway, Innsbruck), the suspicion remains that they just won’t give her the Stirling until she builds something substantial in the UK. There are of course a few quirky projects such as the East Beach Cafe in Littlehampton and the Sackler Crossing at Kew Gardens by the Heatherwick Studio and John Pawson respectively to spice up the Channel 4 preview programmes, but from the experience of previous years, the European Awards is the main jolly for the judges and the prompt for predictable comments such as “these things can’t be done in the UK”. That said, Bijlmer Station in Amsterdam by Grimshaw Architects would surely be a serious contender were it not that a high-tech, timber ceiling-ed overseas transport terminal (Barajas Airport in Madrid) secured the prize for Lord Rogers two years ago and it’s doubtful if even the ingénues who invariably comprise the judging team would make the same limp political statement again.

So what’s left? Some schools, some housing, a few arts and sports projects and a couple of unremarkable bridges. Were the plaudit to be judged on the same criteria as for the RIBA Awards themselves, i.e. “high architectural standards and a substantial contribution to the environment”, Reiach and Hall’s Orkney project would have precious few peers (sic), but this is the Stirling Prize and politics with a small and fairly pathetic ‘p’ are involved. With three times as many shortlisted entries as there are from Scotland, the hegemony of England’s high-tech wizards is statistically more likely to prevail, and, in any case, we blotted our national copybook with the RIBA by not finishing the parliament by the year they’d originally penciled it in for.

If I were a betting man, my shortlist of three for this year’s Stirling Prize would be Zaha Hadid, Grimshaw and Denton Corker Marshall with the Sackler Crossing at Kew a strong outsider simply for its very well connected backers. Leopards could of course change their spots, but in the end does it matter? - the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney has already accrued a wheen of Scottish Design Awards and has the RIAS Andrew Doolan Prize tucked under its belt. And, with its accompanying £25k, the latter is five thousand smackers more useful than the RIBA’s less-than-transparently-judged annual farrago. 

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