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The uncanny Scots: A decade in architecture

The best Scottish buildings of the past decade revive a weird and wonderful tradition. Rory Olcayto presents the highlight of each year

On paper, it doesn’t look good. Ten years since devolution, Scotland’s government-backed architecture centre has been forced to close and its unique architectural policy has been all but forgotten by the nation’s tenth architecture minister, Fiona Hyslop. Also, in the past decade, prize commissions such as the parliament in Edinburgh and BBC Scotland headquarters in Glasgow were handed to a Catalan and – wait for it – an Englishman. Deary me.

But what’s the point in moaning? In the following pages, you’ll find my pick of the decade’s best buildings. These have emerged despite the aforementioned, barely-read policy and the now defunct Lighthouse Centre for Architecture and Design.

Before setting down the top trumps, however, let’s consider the broader picture of the past 10 years, in which Scottish architectural culture has shown itself to be as vibrant and compelling as ever. The noughties will be remembered for the incredible (and controversial) global reach of RMJM, which saw the practice build the Olympic media centre in Beijing and design Europe’s tallest tower, for Gazprom in St Petersburg.

Starchitects loomed large. Scots (SMC’s Stewart McColl and RMJM’s Peter Morrison) twice rescued England’s faltering showman Will Alsop from the scrapheap. And who would have thought that Frank Gehry’s only permanent British commission – for a Maggie’s Centre – would be in Dundee?

Glasgow City Council, in thrall to celebrity, commissioned Zaha Hadid. Today, on the banks of the Clyde, her Riverside Museum, a cavernous, deformed, metal-clad shed, is taking shape. Despite initial misgivings, on a recent visit I was mesmerised by its scale and complexity. Yet I can’t help thinking £75 million could have been better spent on developing the city’s amazing but dormant lanes network.

It was a decade of surprising fortunes. Sutherland Hussey Architects found success in China (a £240 million museum for Chengdu city) after failing to land work at home. Remember its enigmatic scheme for Burns Heritage Museum in 2004? That was dumped for a stodgy, sedum-roofed box-ticker, now under construction.

A generation of lacklustre schools, poor in comparison with their English counterparts

Another favourite unbuilt project is Graeme Massie’s shortlisted scheme for a community centre in Aberdeen: melancholic, magnetic and with the sculptural beauty of a coastal power station.

There was of course a downside. A generation of lacklustre schools, poor in comparison with their English counterparts, emerged from public private initiatives. Riverside regeneration in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, always fitful, has now stagnated. Edinburgh’s citizens voted against a congestion charge. Aberdeen spent another decade building precisely nothing of enduring interest and the Scottish government withdrew funding for a Glasgow Airport rail link. Furthermore, the Scottish CABE, Architecture and Design Scotland, failed to find its voice and provide cultural leadership.

Uncanny buildings express something primal, they engage your senses. Simultaneously they are familiar and strange

These Scottish buildings of the decade are my personal choices, but I feel they all share something in common: a feeling for the uncanny, a quality unexamined by the majority of Scottish practice. Uncanny buildings express something primal, they engage your senses. Simultaneously they are familiar and strange. Such buildings are essential in the true sense of the word. They make the everyday feel new.

This impulse is not something new. Think of the harsh, soaring, roughcast cliff that is the south elevation of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art or the structural glass and planted roofs of Kathryn Findlay’s future-rustic poolhouses, or the crow-stepped gables and thatched roofs of James MacLaren’s Fortingall village, which anticipates them both. Uncanny is part of the Scots tradition.

Readers' comments (24)

  • Excellent selection of projects, I had forgotten how good The Path was, thank you for reminding me. The selection of Massie will give him confidence to go on to good things.

    The Bell Simpson House is great and a reminder too of how good small projects can be in Scotland without being pastiche also Murray and Dunlop warehouses and the big green copper wall are brilliant.Time will tell about the Transport Museum but that also looks very promising

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  • Clydebank warehouses are listed as Nord sawmills? Why no Hoskins?

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  • wow, the National Museum of Rural Life looks really interesting - i shall check it out when i'm next in scotland. BUT, please, please, please, please, please, please do not include the Radisson Hotel on any serious list - its so dull.

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  • Is this really about the same country I've been living in all these years? The ommission from this list of any buildings by Gareth Hoskins Architects suggests a frightening level of ignorance on the part of this author. "The Bridge" Arts Centre in Easterhouse is world class. This and several other buildings by the practice seriously raised the bar for architecture in Scotland in the last decade, one which ZHA's dismal transport museum completely fails to match. Next time, please get someone who knows what they're writing about.

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  • No Malcolm Fraser?
    Clearly the author is in thrall to brash.
    "Next time, please get someone who knows what they're writing about." I agree.

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  • I should have looked closer - there is a Fraser building, thankfully.

    "Scottish Ballet headquarters, Glasgow, Malcolm Fraser Architects, 2009
    Scotland’s most interesting new building this year didn’t make the Andrew Doolan Best Building shortlist, probably because it’s not very nice looking – at first glance. But the Scottish Ballet headquarters, a metal-clad new-build extension to the Tramway arts venue, is worthy of attention. From afar, its sawn-off pyramid skylights glint like golden egg-crates. Up close, the profile metal decking facade, in silver and gold, fuses cleverly with the existing fabric, a Victorian tramshed. Part of the Tramway’s appeal is its secrets within, and this weird, lopsided shed gives no clue as to its refined interior life."

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  • The Clydebank industrial units are by Rory's other favourite practice GM+AD. They are quite nice, but would go without mention if they were built anywhere else. Has Richard Murphy really not built anything of note in the last ten years? I think we should be told.

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  • Yes, the GM+AD admiration is a puzzle really, and perhaps Murphy's buildings weren't brash enough? I would have also thought that there would have been more Fraser, too, than only one, in a look back over a decade.
    It's an odd list.

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  • Still a considerable number of saddos resident in Scotland and other architectural camp followers I see, glad I left.

    Hoskins is a decent architect, The Bridge though is not world class it is stupid to say it is and devalues whatever arguement you're trying to make . Fraser and Murphy are also decent architects though Murphy has let his reputation slide considerably since Haymarket.

    It is a well written piece and well considered. I agree with most of it, though I would not have included the new Scottish Ballet School

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  • just picked this up in Boston from the archnewsnow website
    Stayed in the Radisson SAS in Glasgow last week during the celebarations for the Mackintosh centenary and thought it was excellent and anything but dull. Just got away before the snow.

    Good list I think

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  • Why so many anonymous comments, lots of very good projects are listed here, you should be proud.

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  • Ach, we are not all poor mouths here David, some of us remain quite positive for Scotland during this festive season.

    For example, my masters unit at Scott Sutherland are designing a new town for Edinburgh, it's good stuff, you can find out about it here:

    leave a comment, why don't you?

    A masters unit I'm teaching in in Kansas State University, on your side of the pond, are developing another type of project which is also very positive, the you can read about it here:

    Both sets of students are very talented.

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  • Firstly, I think the title is condescending - 'the uncanny Scots'. I think that is simply not true.

    The two projects that stand out to me are the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and the Falkirk Wheel. The former has a poetic, story-like narrative to it's building whereas as the Falkirk Wheel is simply a world renowned piece of engineering which characterises Scotland's outstanding engineering pedigree.

    The Scottish parliament building is one of the best civic buildings built anywhere in the world in the last few years in my opinion. Most contemporary building are ugly, have huge glazed walls, pillars and misuse of concrete everywhere and the people who designed them try to justify their ugliness.

    Scotland's parliament honours it's location at the base of Arthur's seat, and has a subterranean, de- constructed quality that is rarely expressed so beautifully in 99% of modern buildings. It is both ancient and modern at the same time and characteristic of Scotland. I love it. It compares to anything in the world.

    To me it is the the best piece of architecture in Scotland in the last decade.

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  • "The year’s best project was not a building but a midnight mountain walk...yet to be matched by the current generation of Scottish architects." Get a grip. Seriously.

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  • I see that Hoskins has been awarded an OBE. Not bad for a 'decent' architect...

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  • Why has Hoskins been awarded an OBE? Can someone expand? What services has he rendered to architecture over and above those he he gets paid for?

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  • Why? Obviously someone on the honours list committee read comments 2 and 4 above, and leapt in to action with the old quill and parchment.

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  • Hoskins is the greatest Scottish architect since Mackintosh.

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  • I don't understand the OBE awarded to Hoskin myself, maybe in time.....but now ? He is a bit of a youngster!

    Surely it's a good sign for scottish architecture when we can argue what should have been on the list and there are plenty to be added! Though no sign of this year's Doolan prize?

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