A premature celebration? The Museum of Scotland: Benson + Forsyth Architects August Media, 1999. 150pp. £35. (Available from 0171 359 0288)
Benson + Forsyth has published a book documenting its new Museum of Scotland (aj 25.2.99). In 104 pages of photographs, mostly monochrome, Helene Binet and Richard Bryant cover Edinburgh's 'best building this century' with shots often of striking beauty.
The book is handsomely presented and clearly intends to give the impression of both its own and the building's deep seriousness. The slip-case and the monochrome linen-look cover are rather Folio Society in their appeal, but the quality of the paper and of the photographic reproduction is excellent and the volume is traditionally bound, allowing it to fold flat. Other than the photographs, the book contains three short essays and some technical drawings.
In the foreword Colin St John Wilson elegantly puts some well-worn arguments. He compares the recent international ri-valry in museum design with the architectural competitiveness of the city-states of Renaissance Italy; perhaps a more realistic parallel might be Victorian municipal competitiveness to build the most pompous town hall. He describes many modern museums as being of a new 'deviant species of construction which is neither quite architecture nor sculpture...offering sensational spatial experiences of a novel kind' - ie a folly. Having alerted one to the possibility, he insists that the Museum of Scotland does not belong in this category (though the dearth of significant new exhibits might suggest otherwise).
Bryant's photographs are interspersed with Binet's without any obvious scheme of arrangement and without identifying captions. They neither document every wall surface systematically nor adhere to the chapter headings under which they appear. As they occupy so many pages, one might expect a publisher to impose a structuring device to reduce the risk of self-indulgence, but no such tactic is apparent.
Many of the photographs are stunning: the appreciation of visual texture in Binet's shots of sandstone walls is especially striking. However, her compositions do not complement perfectly Benson + Forsyth's less controlled, though fertile, onslaught of form. A collector's aesthetic, with motifs from Modernism's architectural elite being built into the structure, is central to the architecture, but is not apparent in Binet's photographs, where the complex or impure is regularly cropped to appear simple.
Bryant's photographs are straight-forward, representational and technically perfect. They effectively subject the building to such scrutiny that its limitations become clear; for, although there is an obvious fondness for past ideal architectures, and the plethora of forms is confidently disposed, the originals seem to overshadow their appropriators.
Of the two essays which complete the book, Duncan MacMillan's offers little illumination but does hint at the interesting idea that the museum is most successful simply as a brilliant place from which to look out at Edinburgh. John Allan's piece is more engaging and idiosyncratic, and he describes the building succinctly. His arguments, particularly on the building's formal language (in which he goes beyond the commonplace 'castle' imagery), are absorbing if not always convincing.
More than the museum, the book observes familiar conventions. It is, as a result, tidier but less interesting. The page layouts are composed according to the same sensibility as the building (the graphic design is by the architects), but the smaller canvas can encompass less complexity so they aim, above all, to avoid awkwardness.
In publishing this book the architects give the impression, possibly entirely unfair, of self-satisfaction. Instead of waiting for an accumulation of critical comment over a number of years, and allowing someone else to laud their work in a single-building monograph, they have accepted the initial fulsome praise as undisputed fact and rushed into print to confer 'great architecture' status on the project. It is not vanity publishing, it may even be market-driven, but it is rather self-obsessed all the same.
Gerry McLean is an architect in London