Scotland the brave debates architectural policy
The prospect of the architectural profession and politicians coming together to device a 'Policy for Architecture' is one which invites a nervous response in a country which, a mere 30 years ago, was taking prescriptive policy- led architecture to its heart with disastrous results. But think tank Manifesto's conference, held last week in Edinburgh's new Dynamic Earth Centre, offered a snapshot of the profession's sense of its own potential in the age of devolution.
Scotland's deputy minister for Culture and Sport, Rhona Brankin, outlined her intention to develop the country's first ever national policy for architecture as part of a national culture strategy. A useful corrective from Dutch and Danish contributors came in the form of detailed descriptions of their respective state policies - Scotland may have left the brutalist sixties behind, but it has yet to catch up with the advanced practices of its comparable neighbours in Northern Europe.
This was a conference which brought to light weaknesses, as well as strengths. There were misgivings expressed about the lack of a coherent planning strategy for central Edinburgh during a development boom. The council's decision to effect a demonstrably unequal union between its economic-development and planning departments seems curiously at odds with the city's designation as a unesco World Heritage Site. Its activities as a developer have raised hackles among some who believe this role could compromise its stewardship of the planning process. The fact that the council-owned development company, edi, was one of the conference sponsors, didn't staunch fierce criticism of its proposals to build an underground shopping mall below Princes Street.
The prevailing mood among Scottish architects has rarely been more positive, and if the good intentions don't altogether live up to the bullish initial promise it won't be because of any lack of confidence or sense of purpose. The Manifesto conference revealed a welcome trend - the old habit of drawing invidious comparisons with the south of England was refreshingly absent. There were no mentions of Lord Rogers and urban regeneration, and no glib references to the challenge of the millennium. The focus was on what Scotland should be doing for itself in the long term, and the lessons which could be learned from other small and medium sized European countries. If this can be sustained as a general credo, Scottish architecture should have a healthy future.