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Late blooming of cultural concepts

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The most astonishing moment of Gordon Benson's talk to members of DOCOMOMO and the public last week was his assertion that only halfway through his career in practice with Alan Forsyth did they grasp the concept 'that buildings could be conveyers of cultural ideas'. The moment of awakening came when, struggling to reinvent themselves during the Thatcher years, they were asked to design a clocktower in Japan, and offered instead to do a building that had 'something to do with time'. The result was, in Benson's words, 'a conversation between the beauty of the agrarian and religious traditions and the hideousness of their contemporary society.'

Perhaps a solid diet of Le Corbusier and programme analysis for hospitals, schools, housing and universities during the pair's student years at the aa led to a blunting of their cultural sensibilities. During their early years in practice they churned out housing - a rigorous training in building 'with the irreducible elements... and nothing else', dominated by pragmatic concerns and cost constraints. But with Thatcher, all that was swept away: no society, no housing. It was that change in economic and political circumstances that led them to design a building which was, by contrast, 'about pure feeling' - the circular Boarbank Oratory.

As students, says Benson, it never occurred to them that they might ever design anything like a museum - or, one supposes, an oratory. The emphasis on planning and formal geometric composition seems to have suppressed any thoughts of architecture as a vehicle for cultural symbolism.

John Allan introduced Benson's talk by describing his practice as one of the most brilliant 'anywhere in the world today', and the Museum as the apogee of its powers to date. The photographs by Richard Bryant and Helene Binet revealed a building of strong character and presence, but lacking in grace. Benson says it was inspired by the idea of a building as an entity which could contain 'the gene of a new city within it', having a catalysing effect for renewal and growth on the environment around it. The development of the design was a response to the powerful 'three-dimensional qualities' of the site, resulting in a building which participates in a visual network of other significant edifices across the city. The interior of the structure frames different views of the cityscape at successive levels, culminating in the distinctive 'hanging valley' roof from which the sea and Arthur's Seat are clearly visible.

As a museum, the building is a container for collections including objects which Benson defines as having 'profound emotional significance'. This prompted the development of 'a lexicon of place and space types appropriate for different... objects', linked by a 'connective tissue of circulation spaces... fragmented and splintered by light.' Thus cultural ideas embodied in material objects have been the driving force behind the programme.

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