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The Lighthouse Centre for Architecture, Design and the City: a beacon of design

The Lighthouse Centre for Architecture, Design and the City opened its doors in Glasgow in 1999. Ten years on, it has gone into administration. Johnny Rodger surveys the lasting legacy, and shortcomings, of one of Europe’s largest architecture centres

Don’t let the successes of the Lighthouse fool you. ‘Scotland’s Centre for Architecture, Design and the City’ was always much more than just a gallery. Indeed, one of the main achievements of the blockbuster exhibitions was that they provoked major and everyday discussion in mainstream Scotland about the importance of design in the civil life of the country.

That’s no small feat in the post-industrial brownfield site that is the contemporary city of Glasgow. To get a public airing for arguments about the relation between furniture and building design through Marcel Breuer is stylish as well as strategic.

To open up a popular debate about whether John Lautner’s houses tell us something about architecture or just about being rich allows us a novel take on the heavy Glaswegian chip on the shoulder, and how we could perhaps design it to weigh a bit easier. And finally, to bring sectarian rantings into the light of day – not Celtic v Rangers in this case, but the fanatics of the ‘Gillespie, Kidd & Coia as modernist heroes v Gillespie, Kidd & Coia as designers of failed buildings’ game – is surely a most civilised operation in these parts.

The Lighthouse ensured that design was considered as a vital part of Scotland’s competitive edge

The truth is that Glasgow as a city was way ahead of the British government’s belated and half-hearted attempts to make creative and design industries a priority in the modern economy, and the Lighthouse was an integral part of the Glaswegian, and wider Scottish, long-term strategy. It all started when the faltering industrial city began to put great effort into promoting itself as a centre of design and culture through the Glasgow’s Miles Better campaign of the early 1980s, the Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988 and the European City of Culture Festival in 1990.

The year spent as UK City of Architecture in 1999 kept this momentum going. Festival boss Deyan Sudjic managed to pull off the flagship £13m conversion of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow Herald building into the Lighthouse by Page\Park Architects, which was opened by the Queen. With its seemingly endless circulation of corridors, landings and escalators, Scottish architecture and design had a home. It was to be an enduring and instrumental centre for the operation and promotion of the design industries.

Stuart MacDonald became the first director of the Lighthouse and guided the centre to became a hub for a network of design expertise, knowledge and talent, with a vast range of activities and involvements in the national economy.

The centre not only had numerous gallery spaces, and the permanent and delightful Mackintosh Interpretation Centre (by Gareth Hoskins Architects), but what was more important was its involvement in wider society through its excellent outreach team in schools, colleges, universities and the profession itself; its links to commerce and industry; its engaging website, which gained over 300,000 hits a month; and, most of all, its direct involvement with Scottish government initiatives and decision making. This ensured that design was considered as a vital part of the country’s competitive edge.

A huge reservoir of talent began to hang-out and network in and around the Lighthouse and its operations – not only architects and designers, but painters, sculptors, musicians, writers (I should know), and theatre folk. So much so that the Lighthouse could be said not just to reinstate architecture’s ancient claim to be ‘Mother of all the arts’, but to the much more cutting-edge ‘Mother of all creation’.

There was a distinctive local identity to the place, but it was sited, with its Javier Mariscal signposting, in a firmly international context. Its model as a hub for a network of thousands of creative entrepreneurs has been exported around the world by the British Council.

But let’s not get carried away. There were problems with this institution, and Nick Barley inherited some of them when he took over as director in 2006. The centre had, rightly or wrongly (and despite massive viewing figures), gained a reputation as elitist and unfriendly to the punters. It proved unable to attract a major retail name for its large first-floor space and was ultimately unable to pay its own way under the original terms, having to keep coming back to the public purse for more subsidy.

Perhaps its intimate involvement with government (as mentioned above) meant that it was always be seen as something of a political football, and indeed many people believe that the £3 million subsidy for the successful Six Cities Design Festival was axed by the incoming SNP government in 2007 because it was a project closely associated with the Labour establishment, and with its leader Jack McConnell in particular.

Ultimately, whether financial mismanagement or dirty politics are the real motive behind the centre’s failure, the fact is that Scotland’s successful design forum and strategy is in tatters.

In August 2009, the Lighthouse ceased to be, and 40-odd people at the centre have since lost their jobs. The remaining nine staff are now working on projects for Architecture and Design Scotland (A+DS, the Scottish equivalent of CABE).

In many ways, the funding structure for the Lighthouse was always inadequate to the importance of the role it played in the economy. The recession surely ought to be the time for restructuring, rebuilding networks and connections and easing the way for the vitally important design and creative industries in the new economy to come.

Instead, we have a collapse of infrastructure. Sure, a significant knowledge of economy around design has already been grounded in Scotland, but it is ludicrous to imagine that it can weather the financial storm through informal connections and online social networking sites. The Scottish government has said it is committed to some form of ‘National Centre for Architecture’ in the Lighthouse building. That may sound seriously unconnected, but let’s see. The fear is that if the Lighthouse was already a political football then, with imminent cuts in public funding, a possible incoming Tory government in London and an existing SNP government in Edinburgh, the squabbling over policy and funding is liable to become all the more shrill, drowning out any sensible long-term proposals.

Johnny Rodger is a critic and teacher at Glasgow School of Architecture. He co-wrote the book accompanying the Lighthouse’s 2007 Gillespie, Kidd & Coia exhibition

The highs and lows of the Lighthouse

Highs

  • Vitra Design Museum, 2002 The special relationship set up between the two institutions saw the first-floor gallery converted into a Vitra design showroom
  • Gillespie, Kidd & Coia, 2007 The most visited architectural exhibition ever in Scotland
  • John Lautner, 2008The only European exhibition of the architect’s work in southern California

Lows

  • Failure to attract major retail outlet Was it fair to expect this vital design hub, situated up a dark lane, to pay part of its way through commercial let?
  • Loss of funding for Six Cities Design Festival, 2007 This vital coordinated promotion of creative industry had its funding axed by the incoming Scottish Government
  • Mismanagement of 2008 Venice Biennale pavilion design contract The winning design ended up costing almost three times the budget

 

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