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Gordon Murray: RIAS convention 'was a rebus worth understanding'

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University of Strathclyde professor of architecture Gordon Murray reports on the RIAS 2013 Convention in Strathpeffer, titled ‘Big World – Wee Scotland’ in the first of a series of posts by attendees

The RIAS makes every effort to bring its annual convention to its six chapters with this year’s summit deep in the Highlands in the Victorian spa town of Strathpeffer.  The overarching theme of the two half-day event was Scotland’s future as a small country on the edge of Northern Europe.  The connection to Scandinavia, if ever in doubt, was reinforced by speakers from Denmark and Norway.

In the opening address, Herriot-Watt University professor of built environment Sue Roaf said buildings were part of larger ecological systems and should be rethought as complex environments to promote design for a different future. She also hinted at another theme for the conference, architects’ changing role as masterplanners and place makers involved in reshaping communities. The day’s focus on regeneration, renewal and conservation was strengthened by Roaf’s startling claim €17 billion was being made available by the European Union for building renewal.

Architects’ best mechanism for influencing political decisions is masterplanning and community engagement

Ole Wiig of Oslo-based Narud, Stokke, Wiig (NSW) argued architects’ best mechanism for influencing political decisions was masterplanning and community engagement, presenting a whirlwind tour of NSW masterplanning projects and his own work on the Lofoten Islands. The overwhelming presentation was a reminder of the economic stature of Norway, our nearest neighbour in Europe.

This was in stark contrast to Ushida Findlay founder Kathryn Findlay’s beautifully minimalistic presentation of calm and quiet. Japanese in theme and temperament, the presentation continued Allies and Morrison founder Bob Allies’ emphasis on the importance of place and space and the city as a collaborative endeavour.  The Japanese symbol Ma – the space between – crossed several of the day’s presentations. 

Christophe Egret of Studio Egret West described landscape as the DNA of the master plan and architects as urban doctors.  At this point Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous quote ‘A doctor can bury his mistakes but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines’ came to mind. Egret’s regeneration of Park Hill in Sheffield seemed to personify our new role in master planning, renewal and the conservation of resources.

Copenhagen city architect Tina Saaby shared a glimpse of urban pre-occupations in Denmark – a country of comparable size in population terms to Scotland but as author of The Architectural Tourist Ian Stuart Campbell pointed out at the start of Day 2, of a higher population density and smaller landmass.  This led to a discourse on retaining rural populations and buildings on city edges.

Liz Lochead summarised the two days in the poetry of her own hand

While day one concentrated on the big world, day two brought a sharper focus on Wee Scotland or as Richard Heggie suggested: ‘We – Scotland’.  It was left to Scotland’s poet laureate, Liz Lochead to summarise the two days in the poetry of her own hand and that of her contemporaries.  A dramatic rendering of Edwin Morgan’s verses for the opening of the new parliament reminded us all that autumn 2014 will mark a decade since the opening of the Enric Miralles-designed legislature.

As a regular attendee at RIAS conventions over the past thirty years I cannot recall one where the emphasis lay less on architects as authors of buildings.  It was much more focused on paradigms for new futures, for a nascent small country on the western edge of Northern Europe and how the profession can contribute to that future.

Finally, Strathpeffer lies close to the focus of Ian Rankin’s new Rebus novel and perhaps rebus (meaning a visual representation of a word) encapsulates the delights of architectural conferences – ‘A puzzle where you decode a message consisting of pictures’. Sometimes understanding the puzzle is worth the effort.









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