Scotland could learn from the South Bank – despite the risks
Lengthy and responsible public consultation places no obligation on objectors to respond in kind, writes Paul Finch
As Scotland reviews the detailed proposals for independence drawn up by the SNP, published for all to read, another organisation north of the border is conducting its affairs in a surprisingly secretive manner. Creative Scotland is deciding whether to spend millions of pounds funding a redevelopment of the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, which has been a cultural landmark ever since the highly economical revitalisation design by Richard Murphy two decades ago.
You might have thought that Creative Scotland, and indeed the gallery management, would be proud of the new design proposals, but it is difficult to find out what they are. Unless I am missing something obvious, there are no images of what they have in mind on their website. Why would a taxpayer-funded organisation make decisions on a significant new public building without anyone being able to see what is proposed?
Is it because of the sorry recent history of failed competitions in Scotland? This seems unlikely, because the failure rate is certainly no worse than in England and Wales. Moreover, there have been some good wins which are now being built.
Perhaps it is because Creative Scotland has noted the difficulties that Arts Council England has faced on London’s South Bank. The Southbank Centre could not have been more open about transforming the buildings in what is now called the Festival Wing, between the Royal Festival Hall and the Royal National Theatre.
First an open international competition. Second a very extensive consultation. Third an admirable response to objections from skateboarders, through the design of new facilities nearby by architects who are skateboarders.
Of course lengthy and responsible public consultation places no obligation on objectors to respond in kind. The National Theatre delayed a savage attack on the Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios designs until the last possible moment, presumably to maximise the publicity damage.
Now Antony Gormley has weighed in with his suggestion that either the existing Southbank buildings should be left as they are, or alternatively they should be knocked down in their entirety so a fresh start can be made. Perhaps he thinks money grows on one of his vast and very expensive (to somebody else) metal structures.
Gormley has a point that accretional developments are a bad thing. That is why perfectly decent buildings, for example John Madin’s Birmingham Central Library, end up being demolished at vast public expense. They don’t get listed because too much of the original character has been changed or destroyed.
What Gormley fails to acknowledge is the possibility of improving a condition when it is an act of deliberate design intent, rather than a contingent response to temporary circumstances. He objects to the idea of a united foyer for the Festival Wing, but this simple move makes perfect sense of all the facilities, improving immeasurably the grim current access experience, particularly at the ground plane. He obviously doesn’t like the glazed ‘casket’ and ‘liner’ buildings which sit astride and alongside the existing complex, but one can scarcely describe these as ‘accretional’ in the usual sense of that word, which means relatively minor works which have little to do with the spirit of the original.
By contrast, the new Southbank elements are big, bold and unmissable - like the existing buildings. That is why their surviving architects like Dennis Crompton have welcomed FCBS’s efforts rather than undermined them with sideline sniping.
Southbank Centre took care to talk to those original architects. It is a pity Creative Scotland seems to have taken a different attitude.