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Wilson's Weekly Wrap

July 25 2008

Bring them on

Like everyone else, I normally bin the stuff that falls out of BD each Friday but a flyer for a seminar organised by that magazine and entitled ‘Design Develop and Unify – Glasgow’ caught my eye, particularly as it appeared to be supported by both the RIAS and architecturescotland.

The event is nothing more nor less than an overt promotion to stimulate developer interest in Glasgow, with everything from the city’s waterfront, its east end and the Commonwealth Games 2014 thrown into the pot as future opportunities demanding the attendance of “directors, partners and senior managers from both the public and private sectors who wish to take advantage of high value regeneration in Glasgow”. Certainly it has a packed speaker programme for its panel sessions and case studies, but the most eye-watering aspect of the event is its cost, a snip at £399 + vat for the day, with fifty quid off if you book in the next couple of weeks.

Not averse to a bit more support from the taxpayer, the organisers (publishers CMP) also cutely offer a 15% discount to public sector attendees. Now, I don’t want to wee on anybody’s strawberries here, but it occurs to me that marketing the event through BD is only going to reach a potential audience of architects, few of whom in Scotland, in my long experience of organising events, have the kind of money being asked for here, even if a cpd certificate is thrown in.

More to the point, if Glasgow really wants to attract more development capital in these penurious times, its public, business and professional sectors really need to put their hands in their own pockets, invite the key players to town and wine and dine them remorselessly until they cough up the readies. It’s a hard, competitive world out there and the notion that charging people through the nose in the hope that they’ll then do you a favour is unlikely to land the big fishes.

Sustainability starts with the money

Another example of just what’s needed at a time of financial belt tightening – architects pleading for more public money to be spent supporting their pet projects. Sure, the Highland Housing Fair has, pro tem, hit the skids but its financial model was always going to be a tough one, predicated as it was on the untested notion that even in a continually rising housing market, developers could both innovate and make a profit on a single demonstration unit.

Now that the rug has been temporarily pulled on the event, allowing time for some of the more innovative but less financially resolved projects to sort themselves out, the response from some of the other architects involved is to demand the Scottish government keeps things to the original schedule by underwriting the whole bang shooting match. Quite aside from the fact that said government in the shape of its Architecture Policy Unit is already one of the main financial supporters of the event, the idea that the primary beneficiaries – architects – should receive preferential support at a time when major housebuilders are laying off construction workers in their thousands is unlikely to read well in the tabloids.

Let’s not forget that this was intended to be the first of regular series of Housing Fairs around the country, so getting it right at all levels is essential to the concept’s future. If its first formative steps are to be taken in the protective hands of the state, its chance of being seen as the definitive role model for sustainable housing design in Scotland will simply evaporate. The opportunity arising from the delay is clear – let’s find more innovative financial mechanisms that people can buy into. That way lies genuinely sustainable housing design.

No place for misanthropy in Scotland’s architectural future.

Described in the pages of Architect’s Journal last week as “one of Scotland’s greatest living architects” (and the others are?...), Izi Metzstein’s mean-spirited assessment of Reiach and Hall’s Beatson Cancer Research Centre can surely do little to enhance this reputation. Having rather churlishly conceded at the outset of his review that the building “is a triumphant success” if it was the client’s intention to project an image of a highly specialised and expensive institute capable of attracting and retaining top quality researchers, he then goes on to denigrate almost every aspect of its design and resolution.

Towards the end, this savaging of the project is justified as being ‘”deliberately focused on its architectonics in contrast to the operational and social reviews currently in the ascendancy” as if somehow the former has some primacy over the latter, even if such a proposition had any substance in reality. Certainly, it’s an interesting technique to set out criteria to judge a building by that have no basis in either the client’s requirements or the architect’s response and then conclude – surprise, surprise – that the project fails to deliver against these parameters. Not only is this intellectually questionable, but the writer’s true intention is made clear by the extraordinary statement that the review “should be seen as a critique of the disturbing superficiality of current architecture”.

Why all new architecture in Scotland should be exposed to a UK and international audience as being below the author’s lofty standards – and presumably his own oeuvre - on the basis of a visit to one (actually rather good, but who’s to know since it can’t easily be visited due to the nature of the work being carried out there) building is open to question, but the final, barbed, comment that despite the foregoing criticism it is “a worthy, if tempered, contribution to Scotland’s future architectural heritage” suggests that nothing much better is likely to come along. Sorry Izi, but the Beatson Research Centre – and Reiach and Hall – deserve better than this, as does Scottish architecture generally. Of course there are many mediocre projects out there, but its hard to see how the misanthropic damning of the better ones is going to raise the architectural bar.

Good things come in threes

RMJM’s widely publicised intention to encourage more people from black and ethnic minorities to join the architectural profession is absolutely laudable for its social intentions, albeit that the three year scheme will see six youngsters win an intensive introductory architecture course at Harvard Graduate School of Design suggests some good old elitist selection will come into play at some stage.

Even more interesting is the company’s related agit-prop initiative ‘Architecture for Everyone’ in which the staff, of what is after all one of the UK’s top commercial practices, will run workshops in ‘underground’ venues in a host of British inner cities with the aim of discovering new talent through community and ‘street event’s’. Unquestionably character-forming for the staff involved, RMJM chief executive Peter Morrison admits the purpose is not altogether altruistic – ‘there’s going to be a global boom in the construction industry and if we don’t take action now we will not have sufficient architects to service demand and those buildings we do design will be built by white, middle class architects”, adding ”we will all be the poorer for this lack of diversity”.

According to the RIBA, only 2% of the UK’s practising architects are from minority backgrounds, but curiously the institution doesn’t seem to have a statistic on the proportion of the rest that come from what used to be referred to as working class or otherwise deprived backgrounds. From experience, the notion that the UK architectural profession is simply a home-from-home for the country’s middle classes is a nonsense that bears little scrutiny, but the real issue has to be the way in which large, multi-disciplinary commercial practices aim to attract high quality staff against stiff competition.

In the end, will future David Adjaye’s be attracted by a company’s social intentions, its ability to produce serious, world-class, cutting edge design, or simply by the highest salaries in the sector? Delivery on all three fronts may actually be the answer, in which case only two to go Mr Morrison.

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