By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

HIGHLAND CHIEF

The CABE-style body, Architecture and Design Scotland, has its work cut out attempting to shake-up the cliques north of the border. But, as Ed Dorrell discovers, new chief executive Sebastian Tombs is just the man for the job

It was a only couple of years ago that it first emerged that the Scottish Executive was planning to abandon its archaic Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland and replace it with a new CABE-style body.

At the time, it must have seemed like a simple decision, one of those no-brainers that could be expected to pick up a few votes on the New Labour modernisation front.

You can imagine the spin doctors rubbing their hands with glee. 'We're gonna brush away that stuffy old institution with all its royalist undertones and replace it with a brand spanking new agency with lots of pizzazz, ' they would have been saying to one another.

Oh dear, how times have changed.

Suddenly the decision is looking a little dangerous and certainly an unlikely vote winner.

The reason is obvious - the model used to draw up plans for the new quango, Architecture and Design Scotland (A&DS), was CABE, the design watchdog south of the border. It's probably fair to say that, given the last 12 turbulent months in the life of CABE, mimicking its structure and raison d'etre does not seem such a brilliant and exciting idea any more.

It is for this reason that I was keen to speak with Sebastian Tombs, the recently appointed chief executive of the organisation. For a man taking on a job that will be challenging, to say the least, Tombs seems pretty relaxed and talks relatively freely about the job at hand.

One of the chief explanations for this laid-back attitude appears to be the extent to which Tombs knows his brief. He is, after all, the current secretary of the RIAS, and if there's anyone better qualified on the subject of the Scottish architectural scene, they're hard to come by. As such, he is extremely suited to his new role.

When Tombs, an Englishman and architect, says that Scottish architecture has 'lots of inter-relationships because it is such a small country and we have to be careful with the way we are portrayed', you believe him.

He also has an extremely good point.

Probably the main reason that CABE hit its problems last summer was not because there was anything actually wrong, but because outsiders were extremely suspicious of its more-than-comfortable position in the upper echelons of the London architectural world, where everyone knows everyone. Tombs clearly understands that A&DS is going to have to be careful not to mirror this problem of perception. If you think that the English capital is a bit of clique, it's got nothing on Edinburgh. The friendships, feuds and alliances among Scotland's big architectural names are legendary.

'The new chairman and deputy chairman are aware that we have to be extremely careful about conflicts of interest and the way that we organise our design review function, ' he tells me with confidence. 'We understand, especially after what CABE has been through, that we have to work out how close is close when it comes to business relationships. The conflicts of interest in CABE seemed to me to be overblown and the consequences were sad, but there is no denying that we have to learn lessons.' There is a lot more to the job, however, than simply ensuring that design review is not perceived as corrupt. The Scottish Executive, in its infinite wisdom, has charged A&DS with improving the whole of Scotland's built environment. However, Tombs does not seem as intimidated by this proposal as he might have been. Perhaps it's because he's clearly already got some idea of his strategy.

For example, Tombs seems genuinely interested in what the process of enabling can achieve. It is, he believes, one of CABE's biggest success stories. 'There is only so much that design reviewing can achieve, ' the 55-year-old, Cambridge-trained architect tells me. 'This is because a lot of the fundamentals of a project have already been set in stone and, in a lot of cases, you just end up looking at details.

'What enabling can allow us to do is try to influence the clients and the decisionmakers at the earliest stages. With good enabling, you can educate them and persuade them to make the right choices early on - the decisions that really influence the way that a project is going to turn out.

If we get it right, it could make a really big difference.' It is at this point that Tombs throws in a live grenade. Without any prompting, he chooses to bring up the subject of the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) and the way it has hamstrung the process of good public-sector design. Normally, persuading an interviewee to discuss this delicate subject is like getting blood out of a stone.

But not Tombs - he positively hurls himself head first into it. 'We seriously need to look at the PFI process when it comes to schools and education. We need to understand what is going wrong. I don't think that there is anything immoral with the idea of private finance and, on paper, there is no obvious reason why things should not be right in design terms but, the simple truth is, we need to look at why these schools and hospitals are not good enough.' If that is not openly refreshing and honest, I don't know what is.

'I was at a conference on education design a week or two ago and a representative from Glasgow council stood up and told us about how this batch of PFI schools they had built were simply not good enough, ' he goes on, 'and asked why this was so.' As if this isn't ambitious enough, Tombs shares the Scottish Executive's wider hopes for the whole of Scottish architecture. 'If you ask me what I hope to have achieved after 10 years in this job, I would answer that I would like to have noticed a real improvement in the quality of schemes being built in Scotland.

'At the moment, too often when you go round a corner and see a new building you think to yourself that it is another wasted opportunity. I'm keen to get to a situation where you go round a corner and see a new building that you think has fulfilled the potential of the site.' One cannot help thinking that achieving a complete step-change in architectural development and planning standards in just 10 years might be a little on the ambitious side. However, it suddenly dawns on me that with only eight million people in his constituency, rather than CABE's 46 million, such a massive change in architectural fortune might just be realistic.

One thing seems clear: if such an achievement is within the bounds of reality, you could do a lot worse than have Tombs leading the charge.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters