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August 8 2008

Credit where it’s due

It might be the silly season for news, but the Prince of Wales is certainly way out in front when it comes to publicising new initiatives in architecture in Scotland. Since the beginning of June a stream of announcements has emanated from the Prince and the various Foundations and Trusts he has established to deliver his built environment ambitions.

Regular readers will recall my scepticism over his speech in early June at Holyrood Palace when it seemed he was hoping to win over the First Minister and the Scottish Government to the virtues of ‘New Urbanism’ but he put his money where his mouth is by not only funding the purchase and opening to the public of Dumfries House, but putting forward proposals for an adjacent Poundbury-style housing development at Knockroon which he hopes will focus regeneration in what until now has been a severely deprived part of the country.

Hot on the heels of that initiative came his Regeneration Trust’s ideas for the future of Kinloch House on the island of Rum and now this week in an even more dramatic assault on the nation’s complacency about its built heritage - an ambitious scheme to breathe new life into more than1000 redundant buildings scattered across the north of Scotland.

Instrumental in the plan is Andrew Wright, a former RIAS president, who has catalogued 1343 buildings in Caithness- everything from early croft houses and byres to harbour buildings, school houses and drill halls. The plan now seems to be to establish their economic potential and the skills and resources required for their restoration.

With all the organisations that exist in Scotland to look after the country’s built heritage, one wonders why such a survey has not been carried out before, but with few of the structures ever having been listed by Historic Scotland, their likely future until this initiative was unquestionably bleak. The report makes 50 recommendations for the potential regeneration of the buildings including the establishment of a programme with objectives, priorities, timescales and budgets – to all intents and purposes an action plan.

Now all it needs is for the various existing agencies to pull their collective digits out, get together and support the project. Some may see it as a necessary part of the Prince’s annual foray to the Castle of Mey and simply yawn, but if the initiative proves to have legs it may well give this vast under populated landscape the kind of economic and social kick-start that has been missing since the Clearances. As a model for rural regeneration in Scotland it could prove to have no peers. 

Tulloch or Toytown: a dilemma too far

Meanwhile the New Urbanism crusade is progressively taking over those very few areas around Inverness that have not so far been colonised by Tulloch Homes. The project in question is at Sandown Farm on the outskirts of Nairn, not a million miles from Tornagrain where a township of around 5000 houses is proposed by the figurehead of New Urbanism, Andres Duany.

Developer Deveron Highland proposes to add another 550 homes to what is fast becoming a massive expansion of the residential sector in the area, all apparently to be modelled on the principles embodied in the Prince of Wales’ interesting but ultimately misguided development at Poundbury. One has to ask whether Highland Council’s Planning Department have any real conception of the cumulative scale of proposals currently on the table – the Sandown Farm project, for example, also comprises offices, businesses and a garden centre – all within spitting distance of the proposed new business park at Inverness Airport.

The sheer amount of new development in the area – and lets not forget the other massive housing project planned for just along the coast at Whiteness – is nothing less than transformational. As things stand, however, the future, is far from being inspirational – a choice between Tulloch’s endlessly repeated and architecturally barren housing clusters or the toytown, touchy-feely world of the New Urbanists. Can this really be all that the future can offer to this part of the Highlands? 

Award–winning doesn’t mean job winning

Regular readers will know I have a thing about the ephemerality of awards, believing firmly that architects are only as good as their next job, not their last one. Today’s announcement in the Scotsman that Malcolm Fraser’s practice is to shed a quarter of its workforce (a far more dramatic headline than simply saying that a total of eight jobs have been lost) is peppered with phrases like ‘award winning’ and ‘high profile’ and shows clearly that when the going gets tough, a wider but generally unspoken suspicion of the merits of architectural awards and the buildings selected to receive them is quickly turned into a pejorative headline.

Quite why Malcolm finds himself singled out for a half page of negative publicity is open to question – newspapers in Scotland don’t exactly carry regular features on matters architectural and while there are plenty of practices struggling at the moment, its hardly the sort of thing they issue press releases about – especially when the far bigger story is of massive, and potentially long-lasting, job losses throughout the construction industry in Scotland.

This is particularly so at a time when Fraser’s office has just completed what is arguably its best project in years – the exquisite new home for the Dovecot Studios within the envelope of the former Infirmary Street Baths in Edinburgh’s Old Town. No doubt the project will in due course receive accolades and baubles from fellow professionals, but that is no consolation to the eight people now seeking alternative employment.

Now, if only bona fide recent awards were to carry points that counted on pre-qualification questionnaires for new projects, we might see some quantifiable benefit to those practices most consistently trying to deliver built excellence. In the meantime, however, good luck to Fraser and his team in securing new commissions, and to the redundant staff in finding new employment. 

Murphy’s House

And so it came to pass. City of Edinburgh Council’s planners, as widely predicted, recommended that Richard Murphy’s designs for a new house for himself in Hart Street be rejected. Richard will no doubt appeal and, with a strikingly modern house immediately opposite – should have little problem in convincing an inspector of the precedent that already exists for a design that chooses not to ape a fairly pedestrian Georgian terrace at this extreme edge of the New Town.

This is hardly damage to the World Heritage Site by accretion as some have argued – especially so since the site in question has not previously been built on – but the kind of thing that in any town in Spain (a country with considerably more World Heritage Sites than the whole of the UK, never mind Scotland) would see the introduction of strikingly modern infill projects that emulate rather than imitate the existing buildings.

Murphy’s work in other parts of the city - for example in the Canongate or Fishmarket Close – amply demonstrate his ability to work within the genius loci of Edinburgh and while illustrations of this project to date perhaps indicate the need for a more critical client to draw out a less fussy solution from the architect, the important issue is one of societal confidence in the profession. When even the most interesting and creative practitioners face continuing and consistent opposition, it is difficult to see how real architectural quality can ever triumph over a mainstream of mediocrity. 

All aboard

After last week’s request for information on any unusual modes of transport used by architects to get to and from site and other meetings, I’ve decided to extend the search to include unusual offices and practice bases. The reason for this is the imminent arrival at Lochrin Basin in Edinburgh’s rapidly regenerating Fountainbridge area of Crew Architects new home. It’s a custom-built canal boat that former ‘Scottish Design Awards Young Architect of the Year’ Gillian Hanley commissioned to house her growing practice, an unusual and indeed brave choice, but one that proved affordable when compared to office costs in the capital’s previously booming commercial property market.

The move has some notable precedents – not least in Edinburgh where the sadly deceased David Stamp practised successfully for many years from a boat moored in the water of Leith, but perhaps more famously by Ralph Erskine who worked for most of his career out of a canal boat in Stockholm. As outright owner of its sleek new home, Gillian’s practice should be able to weather the vicissitudes of architectural and economic life in Scotland. Whether or not it gets used to travel to site meetings, however, remains to be seen. 

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