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Malcolm Fraser on Scotland - 'We don’t export well and the big jobs at home go to non-Scots'

There was scant Christmas cheer up north this winter. Workloads are shaky, with the effects of chronic underbidding yet to feed through

There’s a true story about a practice that won a project with a fee bid well over four times higher than all others. There, the private client took the view that the low bids would harm either the project or the architect, or both – but other private and public clients will not or cannot take such a view.

The big, glamorous competitions – the Dundee V&A and the new Glasgow School of Art – were won by teams led by non-Scots. While cultural-exchange is valuable, Scottish architects are not exporting well: with small-but-valuable exceptions such as Graeme Massie in Iceland and Sutherland Hussey in China, it is the unadmired corporates such as Keppies and RMJM that win work abroad.

Of course, RMJM tells its own story. The nailing of its colours to the Fred Goodwin turbo-capitalist mast sends shivers down the spine, the parallels with Goodwin’s RBS self-proclaimed.

Scotland still possesses a big bundle of small-to-medium, craft-based practices, bursting with talent and awards.  But we’d be forgiven for thinking that the Establishment doesn’t care for our desire to make contributions to the wealth and beauty of the nation. The Scottish government has bundled-up 10 and 20 years of public projects into its vast, monopolistic ‘Hub’ procurement stream. So if there’s a wee community centre to be built in an Edinburgh neighbourhood – or, indeed, a huge hospital – I need to go and plead for the architectural work from a massive English construction conglomerate, the size of the contracts being so great that Scottish contractors feel at a disadvantage.

I’ve written about the evils of the Hub and been invited, by its programme manager, to ‘apply to join the supply chain’. How my heart doesn’t soar at the clear promise to make architecture cheaper and cheaper.

Elsewhere our government seeks to impose a ‘new urbanist’ orthodoxy on us, official policy requiring an English-model superblock over the endemic market-and-close pattern. New urbanist superstar Andrés Duany is favoured, at vast expense and without the requirement for the OJEU processes that dog the rest of us, to jet in and tell us grateful natives what Scottish architecture and planning really is.

I hugely regret sounding like Dad’s Army’s Private Frazer (‘We’re doomed!’) and remain a passionate optimist – the darkest hour is just before the dawn, isn’t it? Our vigorous, crafts-based practices share a remarkably consistent vision of the significance of care, simplicity and integrity in architecture.

We are not well represented by our institutions in Scotland, which range from distracted to ineffective to positively harmful. Maybe we should do something about that?

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