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RIAS looks to Scandinavia ahead of Scottish referendum next year

View from the stage: Allies & Morrison co-founder Bob Allies reports on the RIAS 2013 Convention in Strathpeffer, titled ‘Big World – Wee Scotland’

The RIAS convention is always on the move. Each year it travels to a different part of the country and brings together a different group of members to discuss architecture, and this year specifically, to discuss urbanism.

A year before Scotland votes on whether to embark on an independent future, it seemed appropriate to hold the convention in Inverness and for speakers to include, among others, Mike MacKenzie, MSP for the Highlands and Islands region, and Liz Lochhead, The Scots Makar.

From south of the border came Christophe Egret of Studio Egret West and myself, with Kathryn Findlay of Ushida Findlay Architects invited back as a Scot in exile, but significantly two of the key speakers on the first day were from Scandinavia: Ole Wiig of Norway’s NSW and Tina Saaby, the charismatic and ambitious city architect of Copenhagen. Saaby gave a spellbinding talk about the radical reinvention of the city’s public realm that she is now undertaking on behalf of its city’s politicians. Her message, put simply: encourage more people to use more of the public realm more of the time.

The Scandinavian connection was particularly significant because one of the attractions of independence for Scotland is the opportunity it will provide for the country to realign itself with its Nordic neighbours, not just in order to restore an ancient relationship, but to adopt a similar socially-driven political agenda, something in which they are currently thwarted by a Conservative-led UK government: Scotland has just one Conservative MP.

Most interesting for me, however, was to be reminded that Scotland now boasts a significant number of exceptional, small practices operating at a high level in the rural areas on the perimeter of the country. Sadly however, these practices invariably get excluded, for reasons of size or lack of experience of the building types in question, from public buildings – schools, hospitals, etc – that would benefit most from their local knowledge and sensitivity. These commissions go instead to large-scale commercial practices as part of framework agreements.

Surely it’s time to abandon these lazy project manager assumptions. Small practices can design big buildings, and often it is when a practice designs a building type for the first time – when it is at its most curious – that it does its best work.

And whatever happens in next year’s election, it would be great to see Scotland’s nationalist politicians take hold not just of the spirit of national identity, but its physical embodiment by ensuring that in future these commissions go to the architects who are most committed to the protection and revitalisation of the regions in which they work.

View from the stalls: Lachie Stewart of ANTA summarises his experience as a delegate attending the convention

The conference missed the idea of a global perspective. A lot of good work is being done by Scottish architects in the USA, China and Middle East. It would have been interesting to have a wider dialogue about this work.

With regards to the ‘Wee Scotland’ heading, yes we are small in relation to the world, but on home ground there is also some interesting architecture being built in timber, particularly in the Highlands. The convention also missed out on having a local practice talking about rural housing and innovation in masterplanning over the last few years. For example, initiatives by the Scottish Executive looking particularly at density in urban renewal and new Highlands settlements such as Tornagrain and Cawdor. Bob Allies spoke about King’s Cross and its masterplan and other London-based projects which was interesting to hear, but it would have been better if put in context with what is going on in Scotland.

The format of the conference, which is five sixths architects talking about their work, stirs people’s ideas, but opportunities to ask questions and explore ideas is missing in this format.

It was mentioned that 15 years ago RIAS held a joint conference with the Norwegian Institute of Architects – perhaps this can be rekindled with countries similar in size to Scotland. All in all, we drove away from Strathpeffer with a positive feeling of living in interesting times. It was good to hear from people in pursuit of excellence and delivering interesting projects.

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