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Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Placing the future in the trust, will it stay or will it go & Not so open doors

September 29 2008

Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Placing the future in the trust, will it stay or will it go & Not so open doors
Placing the future in the Trust
Over the years I’ve found visiting properties and landscapes under the stewardship of the National Trust for Scotland to be an increasingly dispiriting experience, the organisation’s direction and operations appearing to me to be more and more distanced from the original reasons for its foundation. Now, with membership standing at around 300,000, I’m sure its executive board and council members will be untroubled by my concerns but with the credit crunch apparently putting visitor numbers - and consequently income - under pressure, some new thinking on its future is desperately needed.

The Trust’s obsession at the moment is its financial position – with 128 properties in its care, legacy income over the past couple of years is down and its investments in the stock market in these current difficult times have taken what can only be described as a tanking. Both are important – the former to build the base of investment capital that generates the latter, the dividend income needed to maintain the properties.

Now, maybe this is a bit too simplistic, but in a funny kind of way, the difficulties of running the NTS are not much different from those encountered by the country’s football clubs – huge financial requirements to look after properties that are only open and generating income for a fraction of the year. Almost all NTS properties are shut from October through to Easter – almost six months of upkeep and maintenance and no income to speak of. Sure, closed buildings in theory have reduced running costs but with fuel costs up and a need to maintain temperatures within to prevent damage to paintings and furniture it seems mad in this day and age not to have a strategy that combats Scotland’s winter light and weather conditions in order to get people through the doors.

Shonaig Macpherson, the Trust’s chairman, is on record as wishing to “extol her vision of a self-confident, positive thinking Scottish economy”. Her ultimate goal is that “every child in Scotland should be a member” so she could do well to look to Spain for a way of delivering on this.

Years ago I noticed that every historic building I went to in winter in that country was awash with school kids. Then I twigged – the tourism infrastructure of coaches and hotels was being fully utilised out of season by the education system to keep the properties open and staff fully employed - the children were learning about their country’s culture and heritage and as a result, arguably more likely to maintain that interest in later life. I know the forces of darkness and oppression will whine that health and safety issues and increasingly overstretched teachers make this too difficult in our small country, but if we are really to preserve the country’s heritage and transform national attitudes to our history, then some joined-up thinking of this sort will ultimately be required.

Will it stay or will it go?
A couple of weeks ago I referred to the likelihood that BAA would be forced to divest itself of either Edinburgh or Glasgow Airports. Since then the company has announced plans to sell-off its thoroughly outdated and un-expandable Gatwick facility but indicated it would argue to keep both of its Scottish central belt shopping malls. Irrespective of my own preference that Edinburgh be sold to allow it to develop properly as a capital city instead of its current role as a feeder to BAA’s Heathrow cash cow, the delay puts on indefinite hold the investment necessary for its future expansion. Anybody who passes through RBS International on a regular basis realises that Edinburgh desperately needs a second runway – the delays at peak times due to planes queuing up to take off or land are economic and environmental madness not to mention utterly frustrating for travellers.

BAA’s low-budget investment plans for Edinburgh were hardly inspiring but the current credit crisis and indecision over the airport’s future mean that land purchase plans for the second runway have effectively been kicked into the long grass. This is bad news for the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, who had been playing fairly amateurish hardball over the ridiculously inflated price it was demanding from BAA to shift from its clapped-out Ingliston showground (acquired for £55k in 1958).

With land values having crashed and no likelihood in the foreseeable future of BAA either selling the airport or investing in a second runway, the RHASS’ plan to relocate to a new location on the opposite side of the A8 looks to be dead in the water. This is also extremely dispiriting news for MAKE’s Edinburgh office whose convincing masterplan and designs for new buildings on the RHASS’ proposed site were fairly far advanced. Given the impasse, it is surely time the Scottish government stepped in with some serious strategic decision making about the country’s transport infrastructure. If Scotland is to prosper commercially and economically it needs to be directly linked to the rest of the world. Flat earthers who think we can operate without air travel will of course be delighted by the current farce.

Not so open doors
One of the few contemporary buildings open to the public in Edinburgh’s ‘Doors Open Day’ this past weekend was Elder & Cannon’s new school in the city’s rapidly regenerating Craigmillar quartier. Or should I say its two new schools, an arranged, inter-denominational marriage of St Francis and Niddrie Mills Primaries into a single purpose-built facility. The building itself exhibits all of the hallmarks normally associated with the work of Elder & Cannon - rigorous design coupled with great care over detailing, materials and construction – and the overall quality of finish makes clear this is not a PPP project intended to last precisely thirty years before turning to dust.

The elegance of the design resolution however, only makes the absurdities more apparent – walk through the entrance doors and find reception areas to both left and right, one for St Francis’ school and the other for Niddrie Mills, an expensive duplication of resources that manifests itself throughout the project. Much is made of the new building’s facilities that are shared by the two schools – the double height entrance foyer, dining hall and gymnasium (although even this has been designed for sub-division when required) – but the abiding impression is one of wholly unnecessary schism.

Like the work of Terragni for Mussolini, outstanding architectural design will always be stigmatised by those with whom it is associated and by what it is intended to represent. In this instance, talented architects have been employed to paper over outdated and unresolved religious divisions and the result is as anachronistic as the separate entrances for girls and boys in 19th century school board premises. To still be behaving in these primitive, tribal ways - and perpetuating them through our education system - is a shocking indictment of life in 21st century Scotland.

Addendum 1- running for cover
It’s only three weeks since I last mentioned the City of Edinburgh Council’s clumsy attempts to present itself as a credible property developer on ground currently occupied by the criminally-neglected Meadowbank Stadium, but the land in question is finally - as expected - beginning to reveal the richest source of worms in this particular local authority’s history since the repair grant scandals of its housing department in the late 1980s.

Audit Scotland is now poised to investigate the Council’s curious acquisition of a substantial parcel of land next to the stadium for a paltry £100k, just 1% of its actual market value at the time. Now you might think this was an astute piece of business by the Council from which it could generate a large profit on behalf of its beleaguered local taxpayers, but since there doesn’t appear to be a scrap of useful paperwork connected to the deal, questions as to whether this extraordinary coup is connected to other land sales rather more advantageous to the private development sector are proving a little difficult to find answers to. At this stage there appear to be no details as to how long Audit Scotland’s inquiry will take, but I feel fairly confident this show will run and run, which is more then you can say for young athletes wishing to use municipal sports facilities in the capital.

Addendum II – Picture House or chimera?
Last week I mentioned the plans of Dave Anderson, Edinburgh’s Director of City Development, to create an expanded ‘cultural quarter’ in the west end of town, said plans to include the creation of a new 1500 capacity venue “suitable for everything from classical concerts to pop, folk and world music gigs”.  Now I know Mr Anderson is fairly recent to the job and hasn’t yet had the corpuscles of career advancement removed from his bloodstream, but somebody in his department might at least have offered him a buckshee ticket to the Travis concert held the other night to christen the ‘Picture House’, the city’s newest live music establishment. It’s capacity? Fifteen hundred. It’s location? Lothian Road, right in the heart of Edinburgh’s west end and barely a pebble throw from the Lyceum and the Usher Hall.

PR Tip # 5 – A good picture’s worth 1000 words
It may seem obvious, but if you want publicity, providing magazines and newspapers with good illustrations or photographs is essential. I was reminded of this the other evening when I bumped into Keith Hunter, one of Scotland’s foremost architectural photographers whose work has graced many a publication to the benefit of the architects who have commissioned him. Now you may not believe this, but there are still architects out there who think magazines commission pictures for features and that they themselves don’t need to, but not only is such ignorance self-deluding, it denies the building’s authors the opportunity to shape the way they wish their project to be represented. More astute architects carefully brief their photographer as to the shots they want and work with together to edit them further once taken – digital photography and Adobe Photoshop allows the kind of censorship that serious architectural propagandists like le Corbusier practised regularly with scissors and paste, although in most instances it is the removal of bins and unsightly cabling that is the object of the exercise.

A word of warning: don’t be tempted to think that your own digital images are good enough – invariably they’re not, being either too low in resolution for publication or too poor in graphic quality and lacking simple things like perspective control. And don’t be cheapskate about it either – the cost can be shared with other members of the design and construction team who have their own promotional needs. I once wrote an article about quite an interesting building and in the end illustrated it with my own images as the architects (who shall remain nameless, but they’re in Glasgow and they know who they are) hadn’t bothered to have it photographed professionally.

When the feature appeared, I got a call from them asking if they could use my pictures for an award they were applying for. I was happy to do so, even though I didn’t think the images were especially good, but clearly they were happy enough with the quality. The point here though is that magazine editors  - and indeed judges on award schemes - are faced with reams of photographs, most of which are of exceptional quality. The former will often make a selection based on graphic design considerations, the latter (who invariably will not have visited all of the buildings in question) will rank projects according to the impact the images have on them.  In both cases the decisions made are, to all intents and purposes, based on instinctive reactions, so you can either manage the psychology involved or you can leave it in the lap of the gods. If you choose the latter route, just don’t complain if the feature isn’t all that you’d hoped for.

And finally…
Kerry Katona appears to have been on holiday this week. Hopefully more on that front in the next Wrap.

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