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RIAS convention 2013: Chris Stewart on culture, topography and protocol in Scotland

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View from the stalls: Chris Stewart of Collective Architecture reports on the RIAS 2013 Convention in Strathpeffer, titled ‘Big World – Wee Scotland’ in the last of a series of posts by attendees

Strathpeffer Pavilion seemed like the perfect venue for the sizable paradox in the conference title, having previously hosted Emmeline Pankhurst and the Bay City Rollers. These contradictions were further exacerbated with what reminded me of the Backward Dinner Club, those who eat their meal in reverse order starting with a brandy and cigar. In that spirit the conference began with the AGM where we politely sat through a series of proposing and seconding while we awaited some decent nourishment.

We were not to be disappointed with the dessert, served by Sue Roaf who set the scene with a technical rundown of her Eco Design Imperative. The scary statistics and polar bears were a bit well worn but Sue left us with a suggested way forward: that architects need to rethink design. This was described in relation to a personal micro climate and as an example we were shown Porta Fira in Barcelona by Toyo Ito, where building users simply move to the cool parts of the building when it is hot, and the reverse when cold.

The main courses were dished up by a succession of fabulous speakers, all using a notable change of language. Bob Allies introduced us to protocol, principles and the spaces in between while Ole Wig stressed regional identity and again the micro climate, in this case north of the Arctic Circle. A Sense of Place was replaced by the narrative notable in the poetic work of Christophe Egret, blending urban design, colour and good landscape architecture.

Christophe’s own urban vision was to ‘green’ our buildings and Kathryn Findlay delighted with her examples of thatched swimming pools incorporating hedgerows to encourage the bees. These were Kathryn’s first examples of her work after returning from Japan, bringing with her an understanding of Japanese thought through calligraphy, European linear weight replaced with buildings that float and thresholds that are blurred. Day 1 was concluded by Tina Saby, with a series of 21 short stories encouraging the use of the public realm; how the smile, eye contact and the individual has transformed Copenhagen.

Big World was best summed up by being a series of Wee Worlds and the second day normally reserved for headliners was devoted to the Scots. I had feared a dour offering but was immediately awoken with Tom McCartney who proposed that ‘Sense of Place’ never quite reached Scotland and together with Richard Heggie of the RTPI reinforced that we should start with our personal environment. The conference ended with two non-architects who could easily have been our starters. Mike McKenzie, MSP for the Highlands and Islands made little reference to Independence but much reference to space and time, lifting our spirits higher by informing us that ‘all great truths start with a blasphemy’ and advising that we prepare for the forthcoming boom.

The aperitif was poured by the wonderful Liz Lochhead, Scotland’s Makar, quoting extensively from her own work and that of fellow Scottish poets. Liz brought a complete sense of the individual, how Scotland has a full and rich culture for us all to relate, as much as topography, protocol and the micro climate.


View from the stage: Speakers from the Big World, Wee Scotland convention share their experience of the event

Kathryn Findlay of Ushida Findlay Architects
One delegate likened our gathering, in a sedate Victorian hotel in Strathpeffer, to a family wedding. There was always the chance that the respective families wouldn’t gel. This, however, was a triumphant gathering. Not for me to comment on my own contribution but, in their diversity, the quality of projects and the philosophical approach of each contributor, this was a sharing of creative passions. Such events are too often mitigated by self-serving egotism. Yet over two days and twelve presentations there honestly wasn’t a hint of what the Scots describe as ‘the big I am’. A mark of success is if the drinking extends into the ‘wee sma’ hours’ - the last went to bed at 5.30am. This event was something truly special, a whole far more than the sum of its parts - just about the best family wedding any of us had ever been to!

Mike MacKenzie, Scottish National Party MSP for the Highlands and Islands region
The exchange of ideas to and from other countries demonstrated the reach and international connectedness of Scottish architecture. If we are to solve the problem of building a better Scotland then our architects need to lead this charge. Of all professions architecture has perhaps suffered most and earliest in the credit crunch. Of all professions architects have the most reason for pessimism but instead I found optimism and hope and that in turn made me optimistic and hopeful and determined to share what I learned with colleagues and to help our architects design a better future.

Tom Macartney, director of Making Projects Happen
When it was first announced the convention would be held in Strathpeffer, most prospective delegates had to search the internet. But the grandeur of the Scottish highlands had an excellent unintended consequence – the event was the best attended in many years because there was nowhere else to go. One final point of note was the touching reminiscence given by Neil Baxter for Sharon McCord his deputy, who tragically died aged only 45. Sharon was a bright, intelligent and talented woman who gave architecture in Scotland a real boost, by bringing her journalistic talents and drive to bear in the RIAS. She was much talked about at the Convention and is greatly missed.









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