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Scottish architecture, nationalism and identity

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Essay: Would a new, national architectural style emerge in an independent Scotland? wonders Miles Glendinning

In his ‘provocation’ text for this year’s Venice Biennale, Rem Koolhaas focused polemically on the relationship between national identity and globalisation, arguing that the past century has seen an inexorable erosion of the former by the latter. He wrote: ‘Architectures that were once specific and local have become interchangeable and global. National identity has seemingly been sacrificed to modernity’.

But, in his view, all is not lost: below the surface of this ‘supposed universal’ were subtle opportunities for local characteristics to ‘re-emerge, albeit differently’. Yet maybe these counter-currents, including critical regionalism, individual ‘iconic’ design or architectural heritage, are just as much part of the ‘system’ and amount to no more than different branding devices?

The relevance of all this to the current position of Scottish architecture is obvious. The past three decades have seen a crescendo of efforts to assert and celebrate Scottish national identity in politics and cultural life - a process that has culminated in the September independence referendum. But how far can architecture directly contribute to, or reflect, this process, given architecture’s intrinsically semi-detached relationship with society, necessarily tied always to the ‘ruling power’ and yet significantly structured by its own often introverted discourses? Is Scottish architecture now also experiencing a renaissance in identity, or is it increasingly at the mercy of forces beyond its control?

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At first glance, the process of identity-erosion claimed by Koolhaas seems uncannily applicable to Scotland, where the pre-1914 years of British imperial triumph and wealth had made possible a vast diversity of indigenous architectures, ranging from Beaux-Arts Classicism to Arts and Crafts ‘traditionalism’ and Mackintosh Art Nouveau - none of which, incidentally, were significantly related to English patterns. By comparison with this, 20th-century Scottish architecture was a chastened affair - an extended hangover after a lavish party. Under the post-war welfare state its chief distinctiveness lay not in architectural ‘poetry’ (despite the hyperbole of today’s lionising of the work of Gillespie, Kidd & Coia’) but in its extreme organisational solutions, such as its vast output of ‘council housing’ or its vast slum-clearances, unmatched not just in the UK but across Europe. The decades from the 1980s witnessed a paradoxical parallel upsurge of both nationalist politics and architectural globalisation in Scotland. The Scottish inflections of trans-national 1980s-90s Postmodernism and post-2000 Iconic Modernism were enthusiastically, if at times improbably, hailed by architectural commentators as signs of a ‘national revival’. The incongruity of this combination was exemplified in Enric Miralles’ 1998 Scottish Parliament project, where a typically Iconic Modernist discourse of deconstructive, ‘poetic’ design and metaphoric branding was dressed up in a doubtless sincere rhetoric of national identity and contextual regionalism - with a built outcome that could arguably have been found in any major city across the world.

Scottish parliament

Within contemporary Scottish architecture, these two grand narratives - of global commodification and national identity - are incessantly pitted against each other, squeezing out any remaining ‘British’ themes, such as garden city planning or the New Towns programme (a trend encouraged by Scottish architects’ relative lack of interest in extending their practices into England, with its radically different urban/cultural structure of ‘capital versus provinces’).

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On the one hand, many Scottish institutional patrons seem mesmerised by ‘global starchitecture’, as seen in aggressively iconic urban regeneration projects, such as Foster + Partners’ Clyde Auditorium (the ‘Armadillo’) and Hydro Arena and Zaha Hadid’s wavy-roofed Riverside Museum in the Clydeside docklands, the bristling Dundee V&A project by Kengo Kuma, the many Maggie’s Centres commissioned from starchitects by iconic high-priest Charles Jencks, or the overweening green slab of Steven Holl’s Glasgow School of Art extension. Yet many Scottish towns and cities remain icon-free and many Scottish architects constantly return to themes of national identity and socio-cultural cohesiveness in their words and designs. Within Edinburgh, for example, Reiach and Hall set out to evoke the ‘northern’ and ‘classical’ austerity of Eastern Scotland, while Malcolm Fraser and Richard Murphy tried to reflect the ‘organic’, agglomerative character of the Old Town in successive interventions. In Glasgow, conversely, the city’s social housing traditions were echoed in the Gorbals regeneration projects by Page\Park and Elder and Cannon, most recently in the multi-phase Laurieston redevelopment. The diversity of architectural responses to the ‘identity’ discourse was exemplified in a recent series of harbourside arts and culture centres in Orkney and Shetland, places with an ambiguous relationship to the Scottish ‘national rebirth’ - ranging from the subtle minimalism of Reiach and Hall’s Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, the assertively ‘vernacular’ gabled and finned Lerwick Library by BDP, and the forceful, slanting iconic wedges of Gareth Hoskins’ Mareel arts centre in Lerwick.

Could it be argued that these projects express a more cohesive, even ‘social-democratic’ identity that has been able to flourish in devolution Scotland, as part of its divergence from the ongoing rightwards drift south of the border? To be sure, the Scottish government has made strenuous efforts, during the course of devolution, to put together a ‘joined-up’ strategy for architectural quality in the built environment. This began in 1999-2001 with the establishment of the ultimately ill-fated Lighthouse architecture centre and the publication of the first Scottish Architecture Policy, and was further developed in 2005 in the transformation of the staid Royal Fine Art Commission into the more wide-ranging Architecture and Design Scotland, and, more recently, in the attempt to integrate architecture and planning both within the Scottish civil service and in the latest policy document, Creating Places (2013). This strategy certainly contrasts significantly with the fragmentation and confusion of government architecture policy in England. But have its effects within Scotland been unambiguously beneficial?

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Much has been made of the rejection of the UK government PFI procurement model in favour of a publicly-led strategy headed by the Scottish Futures Trust, but the channelling of public sector contracts through private sector-dominated regional ‘Hub’ companies, dedicated to fierce cost-cutting, has arguably let the capitalist ‘bogeyman’ back in by another door: in a 2013 opinion piece, architect Charlie Sutherland railed against the system for its ‘complete lack of aspiration, vision and investment’ and its ‘shocking and despicable disregard for the most basic principles of good design, let alone architecture’. The much-vaunted integration of architectural and planning policy has its darker side, too: recent investigations by Edinburgh PhD researcher Stacey Hunter have highlighted the infiltration of Scottish planning policy throughout the devolution years by the New Urbanism, with its prescriptive environmental-determinist concepts of ‘place-making’ and its manipulative ‘charrette’ procedures, led by figures such as Andrés Duany or Prince Charles. Paradoxically, some of the organisational mechanisms that have most effectively promoted design quality in the Scottish built environment originated in the pre-devolution years, including the procedural frameworks encouraged by the National Lottery, or the enlightened patronage of the housing association movement, born in the 1970s.

Overall, the story of architecture under devolution seems to underline the semi-detached relationship of architecture and society, demonstrating the difficulty of pinning down any exact relationship between architectural discourses and political or cultural trends. Would a move to full political independence make it possible to bridge this gap? A newly-founded group called Architects for Yes (News, AJ 05.09.14) certainly believes so. In a passionately-worded manifesto, they argue that the ‘fairer, more equal’ society and the ‘huge investment’ that would supposedly result from independence would vastly expand the opportunities for creative architectural practice, and that architects in turn could ‘help design a new, better Scotland’, in areas such as environmental sustainability or ‘the right to good housing’. Once Scotland has ‘full control over its own decision-making, fiscal arrangements, resources and welfare system’, and the ‘you-have-to-be-in-London-to-make-it psychology’ is banished, would all this be possible?

In my own view (contrary to Richard Murphy’s stridently unionist argumentation in last week’s AJ) there are extremely good political reasons for voting ‘yes’ in the coming referendum, including the Westminster ‘democratic deficit’ that has permitted 40 years’ plundering of Scottish oil resources by British neo-capitalism, or the often absurd consequences of Westminster primacy in supposedly devolved areas - for example, the way that UK competition law makes it impossible to set up co-ordinated local public transport schemes (anywhere other than London). But the link between all this and architecture arguably remains elusive and ambiguous, not least because many of the most important constraints on the built environment lie already within Holyrood’s competence, or, conversely, beyond the UK altogether, at a global level.

It is all very well, for instance, to call for a massive expansion in social housing, but the collapse of welfare state public housing and the linked crisis of ‘affordability’ in rented and owner-occupied housing is a Europe-wide, indeed global, phenomenon, caused chiefly by soaring property and land prices, which an independent state would be no better placed to tackle than the devolved government. There are, of course, ‘architectural’ ways round the problem: as the Hong Kong Housing Authority has shown, it is eminently possible to build popular and successful public rental housing on a massive scale in areas of very high land cost, provided it is dense and high enough (in Hong Kong it is provided by 41-storey towers containing 800 flats each). But radical solutions such as this are hardly likely to find favour under any Scottish government, devolved or independent.

Thus the rhetoric of the manifesto amounts in many places to little more than ‘motherhood and apple pie’, and we return full circle to Koolhaas’s ‘provocation’. For Scottish architecture, whatever the outcome on 18 September, the main external challenges and issues of ‘identity’ will continue to lie not at a ‘British’, but at a global level.

Miles Glendinning is professor of architectural conservation at Edinburgh College of Art

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Readers' comments (1)

  • What a fantastic essay.

    "the link between all this and architecture arguably remains elusive and ambiguous" - so true, and the central rejoinder on architectural identity couldn't be more accurate or better put. Whatever the result next week this is the sort of writing that's needed to cut through all the fluff that's floating around.

    Superb.

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