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Confused emotions at Scottish convention

Riccardo Marini’s personal take on the 2010 RIAS Convention and its cultural regeneration theme

After it had all finished I realised the RIAS Convention was the first conference for many years that I have been a delegate at. I often speak at these events. This may explain my strange feelings of frustration and confusion.

It all took place in Stirling’s Tolbooth theatre. Richard Murphy’s refurbished theatre is probably better suited to one-off performances than a conference over two days. The initial joy of the ‘Scarpaesque’ celebratory vertical circulation grew a bit tedious after the second scramble to the attic for coffee, but the viewing balcony was spectacular.

The first day, themed ‘The Gateway to the North’, began with presentations on the development area at the foot of Stirling Castle, the Raploch, and was followed by an introduction to the Scottish Housing Expo taking place this August in Inverness.

I was frustrated by the proceedings: a lot seemed to focus on the notion of placemaking, or lack of it; the usual blame litany against planners, traffic engineers and unrealistic budgets was vented, but I missed the insights to how to move the conversation on. I was irritated by the introduction to the forthcoming Housing Expo; I could hear a voice in my head screaming ‘placemaking’.

As the day’s chair Iain Docherty pointed out, it’s not about the architecture, stupid. It occurs to me that if you appoint good architects you will get good architecture (not rocket science), but if you appoint good architects, no matter how skilled they are at masterplanning (and Expo masterplanner Cadell2 is among the best, you won’t necessarily get good places.

Not all was lost. I did learn about some fabulous solid timber construction methodology, sadly too expensive for us in Scotland. The insight into placemaking came from one predictable source, Alan Pert of Nord, with a well-considered approach to his Expo intervention. One unexpected insight came in the shape of the unassuming Stornoway-based Stuart Bagshaw of Stuart Bagshaw and Associates. His enthusiasm alone is worth looking up, as is his ‘unusual’ work, which succeeds despite pesky planners, engineers and impossible budgets. Along with Pert, Bagshaw showed us there is hope out there and that our profession is worth celebrating.

Day two, ‘Cultural Regeneration’, was stronger and very had good speakers with real insight into placemaking. Ruth Reed, president of the RIBA, gave a kaleidoscopic review of architecture around the UK. Interesting, but she then stated, and this is a red rag to a bull in my case, ‘design adds value’ – to an audience of designers. Without design you may have an efficient process that delivers, on time and on budget, some processed ‘plastic cheese’, but not real, sustainable value. My plea to all: evangelise the reality that ‘design is value’. Tim Macfarlane of Dewhurst Macfarlane and Partners captured the real, sometimes immeasurable value of design with a fabulous insight to his body of work.

It is to be expected that a convention of architects would want to find self-gratification in gazing at pretty pictures of existing and proposed architecture. The difficulty, I find, is that the places we have are a reflection of the culture of the peoples who created them, regeneration or not.

We can and should learn from Edgar Gonzalez, who spoke about his troubled Peacock Visual Arts Centre in Aberdeen; history will judge us harshly if we let this gem fail because of the misguided imperative of development at any cost.

  • Riccardo Marini is city design leader at City of Edinburgh Council

The (RIAS) has handed its Lifetime Achievement Award - the highest accolade within Scottish architecture - to Shetland-based architect Richard Gibson. The 75-year-old Lerwick-based architect was rewarded for his ‘well-known restoration and conversion projects throughout the Shetland Islands’.

Presenting the award at the RIAS annual Convention, institute president David Dunbar said: ‘There are many prizes for architecture which recognise the qualities of an individual building but very few which celebrate a lifelong commitment to excellence in design, which is acknowledged in this award.

‘Recognition from your peers is perhaps the greatest accolade anyone can receive.’

Previous winners of the RIAS Lifetime Achievement Award include Robert Steedman of Morris and Steedman and the architectural partnership Professors Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein of Gillespie, Kidd and Coia. 

Factfile

Richard Gibson was born in London in 1935. His father was an architect as was his father-in-law. As a youth he visited the Festival of Britain when it was under construction. He cites this extraordinary and important exhibition as the inspiration for his subsequent career in architecture. After study at the Architectural Association, he was employed as an Architectural Assistant variously at British Railways and subsequently Middlesex County Council. From 1963 he was a Housing Architect in Hampstead Borough Council and from 1965 the Principal Architect of Camden Borough Council.

 In 1968, inspired by holidays on Barra and the flower-power ethos of the time, Richard took what some might have considered a demotion, to become the Depute County Architect of Zetland County Council. The discovery of North Sea oil at that time prompted a mini building boom and encouraged him to establish Richard Gibson Architects in 1972.

 Since its foundation, Richard Gibson Architects has undertaken important restoration and conversion projects throughout the Shetland Islands. Its new-build projects range from a, perfectly crafted, little artist’s studio to the RIBA Commended Hamnavoe Primary School. The latter acknowledges the scale of its village setting in a loose plan arrangement and in the low range of shallow glazed bays which form the classroom block.

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