The uncanny Scots: A decade in architecture
The Path, Glen Lyon, Perthshire, NVA, 2000 The year’s best project was not a building but a midnight mountain walk. NVA created a two-hour journey, a torch-lit route through Glen Lyon in Perthshire, with new structures and performance, light and sound designs. The project’s ambition, beauty and almost magical experience has yet to be matched by the current generation of Scottish architects.Source: NVA
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.