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Scotland at the Venice Biennale: from idealism to calamity

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Scotland’s 2014 Venice Biennale contribution details the rise and fall of Scottish post-war Modernism, writes Ellis Woodman

Scotland has been making standalone presentations at the Venice Architecture Biennale since 2004, but the sustainability of that engagement has at times proved less than certain. A massive overspend on a temporary pavilion designed by Gareth Hoskins Architects for the 2008 event precipitated the Lighthouse Trust going into administration and led to subsequent programmes being afforded a more limited scope. This year’s programme, Past + Future, has been restricted to a series of five newspaper-like publications and associated seminars, but under the direction of Reiach and Hall’s Neil Gillespie, it has more than made up in intellectual ambition what it has lacked in physical substance.

As with all the national contributions, Past + Future is a response to biennale curator Rem Koolhaas’ brief to explore the ways in which modernity was absorbed by the participating countries from 1914 to the present day. Gillespie has approached that task by dividing Scotland into four parts and assigning a research group to each. Prior to the Second World War, there is not much story to tell. It was only with Burnet Tait and Lorne’s buildings for the 1938 Empire Exhibition in Glasgow that modern architecture truly arrived in Scotland. However, by the end of the war there was a growing awareness that continental Europe offered pioneering models for Scotland’s development. Past + Future’s title is borrowed from a 1944 book written by Reiach and Hall founder Alan Reiach and the conservation architect Robert Hurd, Building Scotland, Past and Future, A Cautionary Guide. It presented a number of recent buildings from Scandinavia, the USA and mainland Europe as exemplars for a possible Scottish Modernism while asserting the need for Scots to remain mindful of their indigenous culture.

Gillespie Kidd & Coia’s work was always peripheral to the project of Scottish Modernism

That ambition to reconcile the socially emancipatory promise of Modernism with a local identity would play an important role in shaping Scotland’s architectural output between 1950 and 1970, the period on which Past + Future is focused. The work of the Metzstein and MacMillan era Gillespie Kidd & Coia remains the best-known product of that tendency, presenting a synthesis of lessons gleaned from Aalto and Le Corbusier on the one hand and Scottish castles and 19th-century Glasgow on the other. However, as Miles Glendinning claims in one of the more provocative contributions to Past + Future, Gillespie Kidd & Coia’s work - much of which comprised buildings for the Catholic church - was always peripheral to the project of Scottish Modernism.

The mainstream, for better or worse, was represented by the ferociously dynamic work of Scotland’s largely socialist councils particularly in the field of housing. The scale of many of these developments eclipsed even the ones being built in the Soviet Union, but budgets remained punishingly low - between 1950 and 1970 no European country invested less in social housing. Past + Future casts a spotlight on some of the more ambitious practices that engaged with this challenging situation, notably Alison & Hutchison, architect of the 200-unit ‘Banana Flats’ in Leith. While recognising the formal excitement of this gargantuan reinterpretation of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation, James Grimley’s text does not gloss over the social calamity that the building soon came to represent. Today, units in the block sell for a 20th of the value of the later developer housing built across the road. It was no coincidence that Irvine Welsh chose the Banana Flats as the home of ‘Sick Boy’, one of the anti-heroes of his novel Trainspotting.

It leaves little doubt that many of the buildings were controversial

Welsh also makes a contribution to Past + Future in the form of a short essay recording a particularly disgusting childhood experience - the details of which I will spare you - on the stairwell of another Alison & Hutchison block, Martello Court in Muirhouse. Growing up nearby, he knew the building as the ‘Terror Tower’, famed as the site of the Mental Drylaw street gang’s initiation ceremonies. He recalls its presence as that of ‘a sinister sentry that watched over Muirhouse like a nightclub bouncer flanked by its two smaller sidekicks’. Past + Future could hardly therefore be accused of hagiography. Even as it idealises the buildings under consideration through newly produced drawings, it leaves little doubt that many were controversial and often problematic from the first.

Indeed, Scotland’s enthusiasm for modern architecture proved notably short-lived. Just over 30 years after they were built in 1962, the 400 homes designed by Basil Spence in the Gorbals were replaced with low-rise development of an altogether more conventional urban form. This year’s outcry at plans to launch the Commonwealth Games with a staged demolition of Glasgow’s Red Road flats perhaps suggests mounting resistance to the demonisation of that era’s architecture, but the number of fine post-war buildings that have now gone or lie under threat of demolition remains strikingly high. One of the few exemplary Modernist buildings in Edinburgh, Rowand Anderson, Kininmonth and Paul’s 1969 Scottish Provident Building, was levelled only this summer, while Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen recently announced plans to replace Gray’s School of Art, a 1966 design by Michael Shewan, heavily indebted to Mies’s Crown Hall in Chicago.

The architects who defined the era are also falling fast - one of a number of interviews included in the publications is the last to be conducted with Andy MacMillan. Past + Future therefore represents a particularly timely consolidation of the historical record of a period that has long lacked adequate critical attention. But what lessons can contemporary practitioners take from its research? Certainly, one senses among many of the contributions a nostalgia for a period when modern architecture was allied to a social project and the public sector maintained a belief in its ability to shape the city, however misguided its efforts may often have proved. Given post-referendum Scotland’s current political fluidity, this is surely an ideal moment to ask whether the best of that culture might yet be reclaimed.

Group 1: Being There, The Fierce and Beautiful World

This group based at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture has documented the output of three practices that built in Edinburgh and the borders in the fifties and sixties but have subsequently fallen into obscurity: Rowand Anderson, Kininmonth and Paul; Peter Womersley and Alison and Hutchison.

Group 2: Embedded Modernism

Led by Page and Park director David Page and staff from the Glasgow School of Art and University of Strathclyde, this group has considered the impact of different strains of utopian thought on the development of post-war Glasgow and has conducted interviews with practitioners of the era.

Group 3: Landworks

Tasked with looking at the Scottish Highlands, the group led by Fergus Purdie and Rowan Mackinnon-Pryde has made a study of three infrastructural projects in remote locations: the hydro station at Ceannacroc, the dam at Lock Glascarnoch and the water tower at Nybster.

Group 4: Outsiders

The east coast group has focussed on three projects that stand apart from the formal concerns that characterised postwar Scottish modernism.  James Stirling’s Andrew Melville Hall in St Andrews (1968) and Alison and Peter Smithson’s 1954 entry in the competition for Kirkcaldy crematorium are both the work of architects based south of the border, while Michael Shewan’s Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen (1966) represents a rare instance of a Scottish architect embracing a Miesian vocabulary.

The five publications produced for Past + Present can be downloaded at: https://issuu.com/scotland_venice2014


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Readers' comments (1)

  • " between 1950 and 1970 no European country invested less in social housing." Very interesting, what's the source/reference?

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