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opportunity knocks

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With Scotland enjoying a new parliament, its first for nearly 300 years, this is an exciting time to be president of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland. The new incumbent, Iain Dickson, who will serve for the next two years, is buoyant about the state of architecture in Scotland. If the politicians live up to their promises, Scotland's ruling Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition will be framing a policy for architecture during its first term.

The incorporation has, Dickson feels, been particularly successful in raising the profile of the profession. The message that 'architecture is good for you' has been promoted through publications, awards, and well- publicised competitions, and is currently at the heart of the uk's first- ever city-wide festival of architecture and design. He is insistent that the rias and its chapters, particularly the Glasgow Institute of Architects, should get some of the credit.

Dickson feels that the incorporation is helping to produce a much more demanding Scottish clientele and is challenging architects to achieve higher standards. New government means new patterns of patronage and the rias has, according to Dickson, a duty both to the public and to the profession to ensure that the Members of the Scottish Parliament see the quality of the built environment as a priority.

One of Dickson's frustrations is the fact that in recent years a number of architects have diminished the standing of the profession by questionable fee-tendering practices. These have created an expectation of unrealistically low charging and led to disputes over excessive charging for additional works, necessitated by the need for the architects to balance the books. This process damages the good relationship between architect and client and diminishes the standing of the profession.

Born in Hamilton, at the heart of Scotland's industrial central belt, Dickson has lived in Aberdeen since he was a small child. If outsiders view Scotland as insular, the view from the south is that Aberdeen is even more so. Geographic remoteness creates its own problems. Climate and financial constraints create challenges.

Dickson brings a special understanding of the geographic effect on the practice of architecture. His first year out during his studies at the Aberdeen School of Architecture was in the department of housing and construction in the Federal Government of Darwin, capital of Australia's Northern Territories. The department was divided between designers and site architects. This approach is not one Iain Dickson would advocate, as he explained: 'It inevitably resulted in the guys on-site blaming the designers. Site visits might take three days and a round trip of 12,000 miles for a £20,000 job - discrepancies between design and execution were inevitable.'

The Aberdeen School, under Professor Stanley Wilkinson, gave Dickson a sound technical grounding. One highlight was the study of architectural history, particularly the inspired teaching of James Macaulay.

Doctor Macaulay's teaching spurred the young architect to pursue the study of what, to those outside Scotland, might seem a particularly esoteric subject, the 'L' plan Scottish keep. However, as Dickson points out, there are numerous examples still lived in and many more in semi-ruined condition awaiting restoration. Unfortunately, although Dickson was accepted for post-graduate study, there was no grant support available and he had to move directly into architectural practice.

Dickson's present role as a partner in George Watt and Stewart arose from a chance visit. In September 1977 he wandered into George Watt and Stewart's office on Union Street. Alex Stewart became George Watt's partner in practice in 1933. At that time, there were confusingly two practices in Aberdeen run by architects called George Watt.

The practice Stewart joined had the distinction of referring to itself on the doorplate as 'Auctioneer, Valuer, Surveyor and Architect'. Happily, although last on the list, architecture was the predominant activity.

When Dickson joined, Alex Stewart himself was on the point of retiring, but his influence remained strong. It is partly to this influence and to that of James Macaulay that Dickson attributes the evolution of his own architectural philosophy. He believes that architects are there to give the client what the client has asked for, rather than what the architect would like the client to have asked for. And he adds, wryly, 'better still if it's within budget'. Dickson's view is that the greatest accolade that can be accorded to an architect is the repeat job. Fundamental necessities like ensuring the building is watertight should never be compromised for aesthetic effect or to impose the architect's signature.

Much of the current George Watt and Stewart workload is of modest scale, up to £2.5 million. The practice has undertaken a great deal of university work, and also produces housing with a specialisation in old people's homes. It has undertaken work outside Aberdeen, including London, notably, the refurbishment of J J Burnet's last important Glasgow building at 200 Saint Vincent Street. However, the volume of the Aberdeen work underlines the practice's good standing with local clients.

Dickson's practice recently put a huge effort into a major Heritage Lottery submission for the University of Aberdeen. The Elphinstone Centre would have greatly enhanced the University's library and information resources. Sadly the funding was not forthcoming and all Dickson has to show for it is a well-resolved design. Had the project gone ahead, he is convinced it would have boosted his practice's standing and created many more opportunities: 'That sort of job can really make a practice,' he said. 'But Scotland is getting better all the time, and whether people are in Edinburgh or Inverness the opportunities seem to be on the increase.'

If the new President of the rias has a mission statement, it's to ensure that, within the new Scotland, the opportunities continue to increase.

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