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The Hero Building: an architecture of Scottish national identity

The Hero Building
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The role of monuments in Scotland’s national identity is examined in a new book by Johnny Rodger

By virtue of both their scale and their function as monuments, the structures identified by Johnny Rodger as the ‘hero buildings’ of Scotland tend to loom large in the landscapes and urban spaces they occupy. The whole point of their being there is, after all, to make an impression. And yet their impact on the literature of Scottish architecture has been negligible.

There are notable exceptions, of course, and over the years detailed studies have appeared on such key works as the monuments to Walter Scott in Edinburgh and William Wallace at Abbey Craig near Stirling. But what has been missing is any attempt to offer a critical overview of all the documented examples in order to assess how they shape up as manifestations of a specific architectural tradition. More conspicuous still has been the lack of any attempt to analyse the cultural forces that operate through that tradition, or to ask what light it might throw on the vexed question of Scottish national identity.

We find Scotland celebrating its national heroes through a plethora of architectural and sculptural monuments

These are among the issues Johnny Rodger seeks to address in The Hero Building. The book is essentially an anthology of case studies of hero buildings that range across a diversity of stylistic idioms, and that derive from a multitude of differing historical circumstances. The period covered is what Eric Hobsbawm defined as ‘the long 19th century’, which saw the rise of industrialisation, the replacement of the post-feudal landed aristocracy with a patrician bourgeoisie, and the emergence of the democratic processes that have shaped the political landscape we inhabit today. And in the middle of it all we find Scotland struggling to come to terms with its position as a ‘stateless nation’, which it does in part by celebrating its national heroes through a plethora of architectural and sculptural monuments.

The Hero Building

The Hero Building

Carved pillar (in the River Clyde) by Ian Hamilton Finlay

Rodger provides 16 case studies in all, framing them on one side with an outline of the theoretical concerns underpinning the concept of architectural heroism as a European phenomenon, and on the other with a consideration of the ‘afterlife’ through which monuments raised at one historical juncture adapt themselves to changing cultural circumstances.

A good example of such an adaptation is the Monument to Robert Burns in Kilmarnock. Designed by Robert Ingram in 1879, this extravagance in red sandstone originally housed a collection of historic artefacts, and was venerated by Burns enthusiasts as a ‘shrine’ to his genius. By the end of the 20th century it had been all but abandoned to the tender mercies of the local vandals, who torched it in 2004, leaving little standing but the entrance porch. This has more recently been remodelled for new uses, combining a centre for family history with a function suite for private weddings – an ironic end for a building designed to celebrate an artist with a distinctly equivocal attitude to the concept of marital fidelity. But then a central part of Rodger’s thesis is that Burns is an essentially polyvalent national hero, who meant different things to different generations.

The Hero Building

The Hero Building

The Wallace Monument in Stirling


And the proof is in the monuments themselves. The first three – in Dumfries (1819), Alloway (1823) and Edinburgh (1831) – use the Classical tempietto form to embody the achievement of someone who was, before anything else, a product of the Scottish Enlightenment. By the time we reach Kilmarnock, this had given way to the full-blown Romanticism of the Gothic-cum-Baronial revival, which then reached its apogee in the turreted and balustraded tower at Mauchline in 1898. Rodger rightly sees this sequence as representing a progression from Burns the Enlightenment ‘everyman’ to Burns the ‘poet of humanity’, with the Mauchline tower significantly eschewing the inclusion of a statue in favour of a group of cottage homes for the poor – a philanthropic first step towards modern social housing.

Interwoven with this cluster of monuments to the national bard, other heroes make an appearance, including David Hume, Walter Scott and William Wallace – the last prompting interesting reflections on the relationship between literature and architecture, and on the merits of ‘vernacular’ versus ‘academic’ approaches to researching history.

The Hero Building

The Hero Building

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC

There are also essays on the unfinished National Monument on Calton Hill (1829), with an analysis of why this ‘ruin in reverse’ stubbornly resisted three separate campaigns to bring it to completion; together with the Hamilton Mausoleum (1858) and McCaig’s Tower in Oban (1900), which in their own different ways were equally spectacular failures. The Scottish National War Memorial (1927) is presented as the last gasp of Empire, and from there it is downhill all the way for the traditional monument, at least until its metamorphosis in the Postmodern ‘counter-monument’ movement, represented here in works by Douglas Gordon and Ian Hamilton Finlay.

This is a pioneering study, replete with new thinking and fizzing with provocation.

The Hero Building

The Hero Building

Proof at Glasgow Green Station by Douglas Gordon

The Hero Building: an Architecture of Scottish National Identity, by Johnny Rodger. Ashgate Publishing, 242pp, HB £65

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