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August 22 2008

Wilson's Weekly Wrap

Northern Rockets

It’s only two weeks since I commented on press reports about Malcolm Fraser Architects’ having to make several staff redundant so it’s good to see the practice bouncing back in style with a win in the RIAS-run competition for the redevelopment of Stromness Pierhead in Orkney. The success is particularly striking when the two other short-listed practices are considered – Graeme Massie has been building a serious international reputation with his several successes in competition’s in Iceland and elsewhere, whilst Reiach and Hall Architects already have an outstanding track record in Orkney with their multi-award-winning Pier Arts Centre.

All three practices represent much that is good in Scottish architecture at the moment so it was good for once to see a shortlist that was appropriate and difficult to fault. The big surprise for me was the fact that Malcolm had actually entered a competition, having many years ago argued forcibly with me against the whole idea of architectural competitions, insisting that they didn’t provide the chance to establish an early working relationship with a client and no opportunity of influencing the development of the project brief.

Both arguments are fair enough in their own way, although at the time Malcolm confided that part of his antipathy to competitions was the fact that he never seemed to do well in them. Thankfully Fraser’s North Bridge office now seems to have shed its previous reticence and have come out sufficiently forcibly to triumph against quality competition. Let’s hope the other argument against the only really democratic procurement method – that competition-winning projects often don’t proceed to a built conclusion – will not materialise here and that Orkney will see yet another project of real class emerge on one of its pierheads. For the practice the win is clearly timely and just the sort of encouragement needed for it to look more favourably on the architectural competition process.

Lobby Fodder

Try as I may, I remain absolutely baffled by the RIAS awarding one of its Honorary Fellowships to MSP Robin Harper. True, dear old Robin has been Convenor of the terminally ineffective Cross-Party Group on Architecture and the Built Environment over all six years of its existence, but what is a very well-paid list MSP to do to fill his time when he has no voice in actual decision-making?

Arnie Dunn, the current president of the RIAS, suggests on the Incorporation’s website that Robin has lobbied tirelessly as a critical voice on the environment, but the records at Holyrood show that during the controversial process to build the Scottish Parliament, Robin had an outstanding record of abstention on all of the votes taken on the subject: clearly a figure with a strong and influential take on architecture.

But then, such sitting on the fence seems to be the modus operandi of the Cross-Party Group, a position matched only by the RIAS itself. Unable to take any real political position for fear of offending – and perhaps losing – some of its members, the Incorporation seems to hope that political favour can be curried by rewarding those politicians that are never likely to upset anyone. To his credit, the Green Party’s very own Mr Pastry seems genuinely surprised to be singled out for high honour by the RIAS, but the net effect of this decision must surely be to significantly diminish any value the award might have had, particularly amongst previous recipients.

It would be nice to think that in the future the RIAS could develop some spine and consciously use its awards and fellowships to generate real and powerful political support for the promotion of architecture or, failing that, to recognise those who have actually made important contributions to the raising of quality in the built environment in Scotland. Anything else is just pandering to C-list nonentities, but then, even that would be a few notches above G.

Airport sell off

Nobody – other than Scotland’s Chambers of Commerce for whom BAA surely produces substantial membership fees – could argue against the break up of the monopoly of airport operations north of the border. For years the airports at Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow – as gateways to Scotland – have been nothing short of national embarrassments. But then, the investment made in them – even, or especially - before the Spanish building contractor Ferrovial took over their operation, was pitifully small.

For years all of the profits generated by these three airports were siphoned off to feed the gaping maw of Heathrow, a not unfamiliar story perhaps in this country’s relationship with its southern neighbour, but one that has been substantially more visible than the predations of the Inland Revenue.

More to the point, however, than the low levels of investment has been the spectacular lack of architectural ambition in the development of these gateways. At the simplest levels of planning, Edinburgh and Glasgow are shambolic – the former being possibly the only airport in Europe where anyone can walk in from the street and remove luggage from the domestic carrels. Glasgow at least began with some interesting architecture but over the years it has been emasculated into a Lidl-like retail melange that deliberately prevents you from exiting security to your flight without passing through the Duty Free shop.

The question now is if there is a sell off, which of the central belt duo will escape the clutches of BAA? At present Edinburgh has been expanding more rapidly – in terms of passenger numbers – than Glasgow and is mooted for a second runway at some time in the near-ish future. Glasgow on the other hand could have a decent rail link (Edinburgh is going for trams) to the city centre and many would find this an attractive alternative to the endless roadworks on the M8.

BAA’s plans at present indicate expenditure of £500m over the next five years on its three Scottish airports, but it is hardly likely the same level of finance will be directed into the two it gets to keep. Moreover – as newspapers have not been slow to point out – this pales in comparison with Copenhagen Airport (already exemplary) where £100m is being spent this year or the relatively recently built and architecturally elegant Gardermoen, north of Oslo, where £500m is being spent on expansion over the next few years.

Denmark and Norway – as only two examples – recognise the value of first impressions when entering a country and see the airports serving their capital cities as critical aspects of their national identity. Edinburgh and Glasgow airports, by contrast, have always been regarded by BAA as places in the provinces you travel to after arriving at Heathrow’s shopping terminals.

Selling one or the other off and introducing competition between them can only be a good thing investment –wise and from the point of view of architectural improvement. I confess a real fear that the capital’s airport will be the one that BAA gets - or decides - to keep. In those circumstances and on the evidence to date, the chances of it becoming a high quality, architecturally literate representation of all that is best about modern Scotland must be exceedingly low. There is now going to be a consultation period lasting several months and it is a debate the Scottish Government (in the guise of its Minister for Architecture) must enter, but will it have the bottle to act strategically or will we once again have our two major cities squabbling for primacy?

Scottish architects need to send out more

Call me sad, but every week I receive an inordinate amount of e-mail newsletters from architectural magazines, centres, festivals, practices, institutions and websites around the world. Fascinating as they can be, the thing that strikes me every time I look at a UK e-newsletter is how little of the news they carry emanates from Scotland. Obviously this isn’t true of home-based websites like or and its Glasgow twin, but the London based biggies like AJ, Building, BD etc just don’t seem to carry much on architecture north of the border.

Now, writing regularly as I do for several of these and more, I find it hard to see this as a metropolitan bias – it’s simply that they don’t receive much in the way of press releases or other material on any consistent basis from practices here that merit inclusion. Those architects that have got their act together tend to also have their own e-newsletters from which general press material is culled.

The point though is that there are an astonishing number of practitioners out there who still think other practices get published because they are favoured by the journals. Nothing could be further from the truth but journalists, like everyone else, are busy people and the simpler you make life for them the more chance there is of your latest, most exciting project being featured or reported upon. It’s a rare occasion when the journalist will call you, so you need to send information out regularly in order that your name becomes familiar to them.

It’s not really that difficult but you’d be amazed at the number of architects who glumly apologise to me for not finding the time to produce updates on their work. In part its because all too often they think their projects aren’t terribly exciting, a not-always-accurate self-assessment, but its also because they have no confidence as regards the production of simple marketing and public relations material.

With this in mind, I’ve decided to include regular tips in the Weekly Wrap on how to get your work mentioned in the press. That way you can read, apply the information and count it as useful continuing professional development. So there you have it – a legitimate reason for logging into every Friday! The series will start next week so that you can hit the ground running with the London press when they return from the August Bank Holiday and are scratching around for things to fill their pages.

And finally….

The hot news of the week must be that the average Briton wastes 5.7 years of their working lives on meetings, almost half of which are pointless. Typically, each person has 6.4 meetings a week lasting on average 75 minutes, but with 39% delivering no end product, new ideas or initiatives worth implementing. The survey that produced these startling statistics covered 5000 workers, none of whom, clearly, could have been architects.

The inordinate time consumed in meetings over the course of an average building project – whether with clients, planners, building control officers or contractors – would surely have skewed the outcomes of the survey into the realms of the unreal, at least in the eyes of most normal people. The only lesson to be learned from this in terms of architectural practice is to charge all meetings on an hourly rate rather than have them contained within a percentage fee. That way, if 39% of your time spent in extended or unnecessary meetings proves to be abortive, at least you can console yourself that this shortening of your lifespan has been recompensed financially.

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