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Britain isn't working - the Scottish referendum is a wake-up call

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What the referendum shows is that we are waking up to the fact that Britain isn’t working, says Rory Olcayto

For all the talk of whether a new architectural aesthetic - and a wider cultural renaissance - would emerge within an independent Scotland, the foundations that underpin the broader Scots culture we live with today were fashioned in the aftermath of Union with England.

Tartan, kilts and tossing the caber were the cynical institutional and market responses to the death of Highland culture at Culloden in 1745, but the Enlightenment, too, emerged from the Union. This flow of intellectual and scientific knowledge from the minds of Adam Smith, David Hume, Robbie Burns and co remains unprecedented on these isles. Architectural culture, of course, was greatly affected. Robert Adam, and his father and brothers, were major figures of the Enlightenment era of the late 18th century. In the decades that followed, much more was to come: a revival of the Scots Baronial style led directly to the flowering of Mackintosh’s more worldly Art Nouveau, and Adam’s Neoclassicisms were given an industrial makeover by Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson.

Does this have any bearing on architectural culture today and the impending referendum on Scottish independence? Yes. How could it not? Any change in the political landscape will see a cultural expression emerge to suit. The rather meek white render and cedar-board Modernism that has dominated the ’90s and ’00s in Scotland, for example, seems an appropriate response to the ‘handrail’ devolution granted by Westminster in 1999 (despite Enric Miralles’ attempt to invoke a more expressive, emotional style with his startling parliament building).

Arguments suggesting a new aesthetic will have more to do with Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the world ring true as well. But that is because it has always been thus: The Baronial style, which arose first in the 16th century, drew much of its language from French chateaux.

But the real matter at hand is not the look and feel of Scottish architecture; it is how it will be brought into being. What kind of political structures will emerge to frame the commissioning of the built environment?

The architectural profession would naturally call for fairer methods of procurement. Some yes voters say an independent Scotland would be a fairer place for all. There has been much talk too, of an inherently more caring society existing north of the border - most explicitly by passionate yes voter Malcolm Fraser - that has drawn both mocking and irate responses. Yet there is evidence within architectural culture to suggest Fraser has a point. Resident-run housing associations and the Maggie’s Centre, an institution and building type centred entirely on care, are both Scottish inventions. On the flipside, you could argue both of these innovations came about because of the inherent inequalities and poor standards provided by Scotland’s housing and healthcare sectors - suggesting an inherently unfair culture. More importantly, we should ask: how can more caring, fairer systems be implemented once Scots have voted? And not just in Scotland.

Many Britons who do not live in Scotland see the referendum as fundamentally unfair. They ask: Why should a tiny minority of the populace be granted the right to break up Britain? They have a point. The answer is that the Scots have woken up first to the fact that Britain clearly no longer works.

Many who plan to vote yes would rather see Britain reformed as a federation: still a union but with greater representation, stemming from more local government. Regardless of the result of the coming referendum, this prospect will be made a reality. In terms of where that leaves architecture, we should assume more opportunity for you. But you’ll have to make yourselves heard. Everyone’s going to be chipping in … everyone.

rory.olcayto@emap.com Twitter: @roryolcayto

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