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RIAS convention failed to grasp reality

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Though big names joined the RIAS for its international conference (10-12 May), the gathering struggled to confront the impact of austerity on the profession, says Penny Lewis

The RIAS Convention in Aberdeen was a success. It was well organised, sessions didn’t seriously overrun, and although it was a little under-subscribed (and demographically weighted in favour of retired members) there were probably enough paying guests to cover the costs.

The carbon footprint of the invited guest was not bad. The big-name international types were mostly ‘in town to meet clients’ and with the exception of a squadron of Londoners - who were so highly-charged they might have run to Scotland carrying the Olympic flame - the rest of the celebrities were local folk. There were no faux-pas or Freudian slips by senior male member of the incorporation at the expense of the women attendees nor nationalist outbursts.

On the surface Scotland looks busy

So by the passionless criteria on which it has become customary to evaluate architecture - the 2012 convention ticked all the boxes - even the end user, ensconced in the comfy seats Belmont cinema, enjoyed the entertainment. Kengo Kuma, who admitted looked tired, left the event with the distinct impression that things were ‘happening’ in Scotland - unlike Japan where things were ‘slow’.

On the surface Scotland does look busy. The three headline international speakers at the convention, Kuma himself, the American Charles Renfro from Diller Scofidio and Renfro who is designing Union Terrace Gardens and Morten Schmidt, from Schmidt Hammer Lassen - who recently completed Aberdeen University Library, suggest an emerging nation in which public clients take their architecture seriously. Kuma-san’s client, Philip Long, the director of the V+A Dundee, gave an encouraging talk about the history of Scottish creativity and the place of the V+A in creating a culture worthy of the next generation of architects and fashion designers.

In reality for many Scots architects (and developers) life is (like Japan) frustratingly ‘slow’. It seemed slightly surreal that the ‘austerity moment’ as it was euphemistically described by Kevin Owens from LOCOG (London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games) and its impact on the profession was never on the table. John McAslan’s description of the new station at Kings Cross, Mike Taylor from Hopkins compelling exposition of the design, engineering and construction of the Olympic Velodrome and even Kevin Owens’ sales pitch and for London held the audience spellbound. Listening to Owens talk about the temporary beach volleyball stadium in Horseguards parade or the Equestrian arena at Greenwich evoked glorious flashbacks to pre-recession days. Even the nationalist in the audience suspended disbelief when Owens declared that that was ‘not just as summer of sport but a celebration who we are and us as a nation’.

In contrast to the tales of contractors in the South-East racing to complete before the Olympics the presentations on Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games preparations and legacy - high-lighted a serious lack of architectural ambition. The Londoners were fast, but even the Scots galloped through their power-points. The old tradition (of which the late Isi Metzstein was a master) of holding a slide until you have exhausted everything there is to say about a drawing and forced the audience to stretch their minds is clearly passé.

Charles Renfro at the RIAS Convention, May 2012 in Aberdeen

Source: Jon Ross

Charles Renfro at the RIAS Convention, May 2012 in Aberdeen

One exception was David Mackay of MBM Architectes with his thoughtful story of the Barcelona Olympics1992. Mackay described a unique situation in which a politically committed client financed a team of engineers and architects to reorganise the infrastructure and urban life of the city. In the Q+A afterwards he recalled the most significant lesson from the process was that architects were interested in products and engineers engaged with process and once the design team understood this they had managed to work very effectively together.

Along with the recession the convention was silent on two other issues. Firstly Charles Renfro from Diller Scofidio and Renfro and David Ross from Keppie were upbeat and diplomatic about the Union Terrace Garden project, despite the fact that the new Labour/ Conservative coalition wants to dump the project and has called for a fresh vote on its future laster this year [scheduled for 22 August].

Then there was the male-only platform, an issue familiar to AJ readers. There is something a bit fusty about some aspects of the RIAS. They insist on giving flowers to the female event organisers and instruct the chairs to give a perfunctory summing up of each session often in the place of questions, but some consider these formal gestures as acts of civility rather than backwardness.

There is something a bit fusty about some aspects of the RIAS

No doubt there are a few RIAS members that think women should remain the ‘cushion plumpers’ of the industry.

What seems more important is the number of women that having worked their way through a male coordinated profession resent the idea that there should be women on every platform to satisfy a quota. Two female architects from Stonehaven seemed more insulted by the ‘tokenistic’ addition of Pauline Nee and Jasmine Wadia to John McAslan’s presentation slot than the initial failure to put women in the programme.

Among the younger women attending there was more concern over the professions’ failure to engage with the broader questions of the moment than that sexism.

There wasn’t a sense that this was a gathering at which things of import were being discussed

It’s always good to see good work. David Page - as so many delegates remarked - has a fantastic - almost mystical ability to bring to life his architectural ambitions in words and images and Reiach and Hall’s work - presented on day one by Jim Grimley and on day two by Neil Gillespie - is both rigorous and poetic. However - the name convention suggests something more than excellent show and tells - it has the hint of the ‘congress’ about it. When I first started attending the RIAS convention in the mid 1990s that sense of idealism was still there and the attendees usually included all of the most active and talented emerging practices in Scotland. In comparison the Aberdeen event wasn’t really a convention - there wasn’t a sense that this was a gathering at which things of import were being discussed, where innovative ideas were being provoked and ambitious plans were being made.

In 2016 the RIAS will celebrate its centenary. In the current climate there is a danger that it may go the same way as so many long established unions and membership organisations - to become reduced to an insurance policy with extras. Lets hope the preparations for the centenary will allow for a review of idea of the convention and the role of the RIAS. This needs to happen if the incorporation is to be useful and relevant to the profession and the discipline. The next convention is in Inverness - which is something of an autonomous grass-roots chapter - perhaps they can begin this critical evaluation.

Penny Lewis teaches at Scott Sutherland School of architecture Aberdeen and is a founder of the AE Foundation





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