What would independence mean for Scottish architects?
The first of a series of topical news features focused on the regions
In two years’ time Scotland will face a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to decide its future as an independent state.
The date coincides with the 700th anniversary of Robert Bruce’s victory over Edward II at Bannockburn in the First War of Scottish Independence.
Although he has always denied any link, this coincidence won’t have been lost on pro-independence referendum-pusher and current first minister, Alex Salmond.
When the polls open in 2014, Salmond and his SNP party will dangle in front of voters freedom from Whitehall’s austerity push and a surge of investment in housing, health, education and infrastructure.
For Scottish architects, a decision to go it alone could create longer-term opportunities for Scotland to enshrine its own architectural education and regulation system based on the protection of function. It could also boost the development of a strong, distinctively Scottish architectural culture.
As Scotland already has its own building regulations, planning and legal systems, jobbing architects are unlikely to be affected on a day-to-day basis, meaning few big practices working north of the border would be left scrabbling to adapt.Oliver Chapman, of Edinburgh-based Oliver Chapman Architects, said: ‘It’s only the un-devolved powers, such as foreign policy, tax and defence which could make a difference.’
Yet concern over how these currently unresolved issues will play out has already created uncertainty in the run-up to the referendum.
‘Even just asking about independence we worry it would put people off investing,’ warns Chapman.
Scotland’s wider business community has blamed confusion over independence for creating short-term uncertainty.
Key questions, they say, remain unanswered, including: would Scotland automatically become a member of the European Union? Would it join the euro or retain the pound? Would passport control be needed on the English border?
John Boxall, of quantity surveyor Jackson Coles, says the costly requirement for a new bureaucracy for Scotland’s membership of the EU could ‘make life difficult and create more uncertainty in the long run’ for businesses.
Furthermore, if Scotland retains the pound, as the SNP says it prefers, its interest rates could increase. Boxall says higher rates would be bad for business because ‘anyone with any debt is paying more for the debt, so people involved in the property industry, which we all feed off, will see increased costs.’
He adds that passport control could make cross-border work in Scotland ‘more awkward’, and suggested these impacts combined could see many Scotland-headquartered companies ‘considering if that would be the right place for them to remain.’
CBI Scotland assistant director David Lonsdale said: ‘Firms tell us that they value greatly the existing UK-wide single market for goods and services and the level playing field on the laws, regulations and taxes that apply to business, and that the fragmentation that would apply as a result of independence would not be risk or cost free.
‘There are significant gaps in knowledge about what Scottish independence would mean for >> the economy and for firms, which is why far greater clarity and certainty is needed well in advance of the referendum, in order to inform a productive debate and also to allow firms to assess the merits of what is being proposed and plan ahead accordingly.’
The potential impact on the land, property and construction sector is currently being investigated by the RICS.
A profession divided
Unsurprisingly, Scotland’s architectural community remains divided over whether independence would be good for the country.
Among Scotland’s more established architects, Malcolm Fraser openly supports independence (see ‘For’, page 17) but others remain undecided and some are strongly against.
Glasgow-based AJ100 practice 3DReid’s managing director Calum MacDonald argues ‘now is not the time’ for the nation to go its own way. He said: ‘The ongoing financial challenges we face as a nation and an industry means now is the time for us all to be working together.’
Chris Bowes, of Doolan Prize-shortlisted small practice McGregor Bowes, suggests the electoral victory of pro-independence SNP was a protest vote against the Liberal Democrats and Labour but there was actually ‘very little support’ for independence in the country. ‘Most construction professionals are not preparing contingency plans for independence,’ he says.
Others criticise the terms of the referendum and ask whether the country is really being offered what it needs. Ballot papers are expected to ask voters if they support independence and potentially also if they would like greater devolution, known as ‘devomax’.
AJ Emerging Woman in Architecture finalist 2012 Jude Barber, of Collective Architecture, said greater economic and decision-making autonomy for Scotland was an ‘exciting prospect’ but questioned whether critical issues relating to absentee landowners, multinational corporations, the monarchy and NATO membership would be addressed.
She said: ‘The simple question of whether to be “for” or “against” the Scottish Independence referendum is not really the issue, but rather “what are the terms?” and “what kind of country might we be?” As libraries and sports facilities close and social mobility decreases throughout the UK perhaps many in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are asking themselves the same question.’
Alan Dickson, of Isle of Skye-based Rural Design, similarly criticised the debate for distracting attention from ‘long-term poverty, poor health, and social inequity’ and called for ‘natural evolution of devolution’ instead.
Offering a more radical viewpoint, Part II graduate Ruairidh Campbell Moir – who masterminded the campaign against the Scottish Parliament’s latest controversial security ‘enhancements’ – claimed he would emigrate to Ireland or Catalonia if independence were rejected.
He said: ‘I would be very disappointed if my kinsmen didn’t have the confidence to run their own affairs as Scotland. If we don’t take this once in a lifetime opportunity, I don’t know if I would consider Scotland a place I would like to live in.’
The potential for Scotland to set its own standards of architectural education distinct from RIBA and ARB and with possibly greater flexibility and routes to entry is one potential outcome currently being debated by the RIAS.
Alasdair Stephen, pro-independence campaigner and co-founder of Glasgow and Isle of Skye-based Dualchas, suggested freedom from ‘London-centric RIBA’ would allow Scotland to transform and improve architectural education. He said: ‘With independence our imaginations will be released, our confidence restored and Scotland can have its own international architectural reputation to build.’
Gordon Murray, head of architecture at the University of Strathclyde, said the costly business of RIBA validation and the ‘light touch’ relationship between the two bodies meant the RIAS was ‘more than capable’ of validating the country’s five architecture schools.
He said: ‘Since devolution in 1997 that subject has frequently been discussed within RIAS. Furthermore with the Architects Professional Examination Authority Scotland recognised by ARB, RIBA and RIAS as an independent body administering the Part III examination, such a regulatory organisation could be developed out of both.’
But would a RIAS branded course carry the same weight internationally? Campbell Moir argued Scottish architecture schools’ high academic standing would perpetuate their international appeal. He said: ‘Holding a RIAS stamp would not be a bad thing in the long run, because it would be internationally realised as good or better than RIBA.’
Independence could well dissuade practices and architects from relocating south. Influential architects who have flown the nest include Bennetts Associates, Ushida Findlay and Benson + Forsyth.
Jonathan Charley, of the University of Strathclyde, who curated last year’s Scottish pavilion at the Venice Biennale, said a ‘sea change’ in the cultural climate had challenged the southerly migration of architects.
He said: ‘In the past 20 years there has been a resurgence of self-confidence in Scotland and the development of a distinctive sense of architectural culture, which reflects on its distinct landscape, not looking down to England but to Denmark, Catalonia and Norway. There has been a real sea change; a lot of people who would have gone to London are now quite happy to stay and reinvigorate Scottish architecture.’ Charley points to Rural Design, Gareth Hoskins and Malcom Fraser as examples of successful architects who chose to forsake potentially richer pickings elsewhere to engage with Scotland’s architectural debate. He said: ‘If you went back 25 years ago practices like these would have probably gone south.’
Another viewpoint says architects themselves have been a driver for independence. Cultural commentator Pat Kane, author of The Play Ethic, argues that architecture was ‘part of the general cultural renaissance,’ saying major building projects like Gareth Hoskins’ Museum of Scotland, Page\Park’s Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish Parliament by Enric Miralles had ‘influenced the independence debate’.
He said: ‘The very idea of Scotland having a conversation with the world is symbolised by Enric Miralles’ parliament. It has always looked to me like a state building in waiting.’
He suggests architects’ role in a refreshed debate over ‘how we use rural land to generate urban renewal’ could be the ‘real underpinning for an architectural renaissance in Scotland.’
Architecture and Design Scotland chair Karen Anderson confirmed that successive Scottish administrations had supported architecture and urban design as a ‘key and important part’ of Scottish identity.
She also praised the all-party support for cultural secretary Fiona Hyslop’s parliamentary debate on architecture and the built environment and Scotland’s new architecture policy, which is being expanded to recognise ‘place’. Scotland remains the only UK country with its own architecture policy.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: ‘We have set out our intention to show, through a range of papers, speeches and events, the infrastructure of an independent Scotland, and this government’s view on why we believe independence to be the right road for Scotland and our economy.
‘Many of the issues dealt with daily by architects are already the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, for example we have modernised our planning and building standards systems, supporting students through their training and we will shortly publish an updated policy on architecture and placemaking.
‘Scotland is already the most supportive business environment in the UK, a situation that would only improve under independence, when the Scottish Government would take full responsibility for investing in growth, supporting our industries and boosting economic growth enabling us to further enhance Scotland’s attractiveness.
‘The additional economic powers of independence will also allow the Scottish Government to fully invest in infrastructure, instead of being constrained by a Westminster budget, a move that could generate additional opportunities for architecture in Scotland.
‘As with other professions it is important there is proper regulation and that the high standards of architectural practice are maintained. Scotland has a wealth of creative architectural talent, and an independent Scotland will continue to see this talent promoted on the international stage.’
Kieran Gaffney on returning to scotland
We moved to Scotland from Japan in 2007 as a result of wanting to be part of a flowering body of work here following devolution. While devolution was widely popular, full independence looks to be fighting a losing battle.
My view is that, although at first a desire for independence in the 21st century might suggest a narrow outlook, the opposite might actually be the result.
Instead of looking south for validation, independence might mean Scotland needs to look further afield for inspiration and to learn from a new set of competitors.
Scotland has a poor record, with low levels of entrepreneurship that suggests either a lack of ambition or lack of confidence.
While a big question for many is the economic implications of independence, I think independence would by default require innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit, therefore for me the bigger question is: what would be the implications for cultural confidence?
I admire the easy confidence of nations like Japan and Denmark, whose architects are liberated from having to ‘position’ themselves in ‘place’ as a starting point.
If it could be demonstrated that independence would result in this liberation and a newfound confidence, then they might get my vote.