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Scots in search of identity

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Delegates to the RIAS Convention in Glasgow explored architecture graphics and design in the Foster Armadillo. David Taylor reports

Delegates to the rias annual conference last week in Glasgow heard a wide cross-section of speakers grapple with the subject of identity, national and local, in an attempt to foster it, enhance it, or even try to forge it anew.

Around 600 architects, students, and members of the public were in attendance on the first morning at Foster and Partners' not universally acclaimed 'armadillo' building - Glasgow's Scottish Exhibition Centre - to hear designer Paul Smith, film-maker Murray Grigor and landscape architect Martha Schwartz, moderated by the Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark.

She opened the conference with the rather weak point that with the apt conference title 'From the City to the Spoon' and the number of architects in the room, there was plenty of 'stirring' in prospect. Cue groans. But she followed it with the slightly more astute observation that with domestic abuse being the subject of a police conference going on in the same building, it was a lot of the current brickwork, even in the city of architecture and design for 1999, which merited that description.

It was Grigor who kicked off the show theatrically, popping up at the very top of a 20ft on-stage wooden mock up of Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower and Benson + Forsyth's Museum of Scotland, both potent images of identity in themselves. 'We're awash in a national identity crisis' said Grigor, 'where our history and culture is more and more defined by the machine of Hollywood.'

Even schoolchildren being escorted to the Wallace monument were saddened that there was no mention of Gromit, while 'clanvestites' were tarnishing the image of the country. 'It's not so much the shock of the new' he said. 'It's the schlock of the old.' Part of the problem was the quest to make things more 'real', more 'authentic', at which point attention was pointed to an interview with a trustee in charge of the 're-authenticising' of Robbie Burns' cottage.

Design consultants ('beware them bringing briefs' said Grigor) had suggested making the building 'much more authentic', even to the extent of creating a 'smell' to waft into the building. His last slide was a photograph of the Armadillo, with a British Airways advertising banner in the foreground. The copy read 'Deja Vu' - a reference perhaps to Sydney's Opera House. This was doubly fitting since Jorn Utzon's grandson was at the conference to accept an honorary fellowship on behalf of the building's architect.

Paul Smith delivered an entertaining, humorous 'chat' which he called 'observations and other stuff.' Chiefly he wanted to get over the message that he was bored with the global commercial practice of simply 'copying' buildings, radio programmes, magazine covers and products of all kinds in the name of playing safe. He said it was simply 'silly' and 'not good enough' when inspiration was to be had in all manner of things 'if you look hard enough'.

This was not copying - in Smith's case he takes pens, notepaper and a camera at all times to chronicle oddities from around the world; the way the 'wrong' colours were worn together by people in different cultures to good effect; the way a Chinese man wore clothes in eight or nine layers, adapting to the temperature by shedding a skin at a time; the way postcards he bought as a job lot in the US could end up as tags for under-selling Paul Smith socks with dramatic results; and even the way his shop - a house in Notting Hill, reworked by young architect Sophie Hicks - represented a further, successful example of putting the 'wrong things in the wrong place, what shouldn't be there.'

Wacky US landscape architect Martha Schwartz wanted to look at rethinking the public realm. 'Our niche is to make very large, expensive things that no one wants or needs' she opened. 'That's been the secret of our success.' She sees herself as an open-space doctor, dealing with the 'stuff in between real projects', and is deeply concerned with the collective US lack of commitment to the urban environment. Too many areas had no sense of place or were bland, chiefly as a result of a lack of risk-taking. Schwartz, who chose landscape architecture because she wanted to do 'big art' after a fine-arts degree, showed some of her own schemes including the celebrated Bagel Garden. This was a project in the front of her home that she completed in the two weeks in which her then husband was away on business, incorporating real bagels arranged regularly in purple aquarium gravel. She told Landscape Architecture magazine the bagel was the perfect landscape material - cheap, available, ecological, biodegradable and set the magazine's letters page ablaze with angry traditionalists. She became the enfant terrible.

Her point was that landscape could be funny, have narrative and this was in evidence also with 350 gold frogs at an American mall. The playfulness was continued in a Mexican garden near a swimming pool, which comprised a series of boxes within boxes. One such box acted as the changing room for the pool and featured the most phallic cactuses available. 'It was so you feel appreciated when you're dressing', she said.

Much attention was paid to Enric Miralles, the embattled architect (with rmjm) of the Scottish Parliament, a building which still might not go ahead if Scottish Tories and other MPs worried about escalating costs have their way. In a smaller Face to Face session, Miralles was quizzed about the project by Richard Murphy, who suggested it was fitting that a Catalan had won, given Scotland's current devolutionary moves.

But defeated architect James Gibson from Denton Corker Marshall (another recipient of an honorary fellowship) cautioned that political interference might plague the project. 'I think you're a fantastic optimist,' he told Miralles. 'Your client situation is a diabolical nightmare.'

Miralles's scheme is based on a 'university-like' series of big rooms of 200m2 size rather than one focused on the non-confrontational central debating chamber. But he said he was quite happy with the 'incredibly clear and supportive process' so far to his 'upturned boats' ideas, and with a new T-shaped interlocking cladding he has developed. And the RIAS has backed the need for a new building after media inquiries last week.

The finished building should be open in autumn 2001.

Other highlights included the colourful designer Ron Arad, who indulged in a little hi-tech shadow-boxing with moderator Jonathan Glancey by answering his questions with the aid of an Apple Mac and a series of scanned-in images or videos of his work and inspirations. Richard Rogers gave glimpses of his forthcoming Urban Task Force report and a historical pen portrait of the background for a return to the cities; Charles Correa's presentation drew on Indian identity ('identity isn't something you fabricate - it's like a snail leaving a trail') and Adriaan Geuze's colourful work for the Dutch practice West 8 was a delight.

Arad's oeuvre spreads from bookshelves to chairs to buildings, although one curvaceous house proposed for Hampstead came a cropper largely thanks to the lobbying of the neighbour: J Seifert. Geuze's included the much- loved Rotterdam square, Schouburgplein (AJ 13.11.97), while Rogers' look- back featured the 'environmental' triumvirate of the Welsh Parliament Building, and the law courts of Antwerp and Bordeaux.

But arguably the most entertaining speaker at any rias conference was Javier Mariscal, the creator of Cobi, the mascot for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and for Page and Park's Lighthouse scheme in Glasgow. Delivered as part-song, part voice-over to a soundtrack of Euro-pop versions of classics such as 'Like a rolling stone' his slides and animations covered a wealth of identities for events, cities and institutions. They also included a new animation called 'Twipsy' as an identity for Hanover's expo next year, which is certain to become 'Simpsonsesque' in its popularity.

Saturday morning turned out to be an excellent hangover cure, with a good crowd intrigued and entertained by designer Richard Seymour (recent projects: the brassiere and the self-cleaning lavatory), and Nigel Coates reviewing a selection of his work from 1972 to the present, each having some connection with the idea of the body - in particular the 90m by 30m Body Zone in the Millennium Dome. In both cases, the experiences and approaches described were a suitable reminder of the seamless nature of architecture and other forms of design. Exactly the point of a conference entitled 'From the City to the Spoon'.

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