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Glasgow's young guns defy Scottish gloom

Glasgow architects 5
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NEWS FEATURE: Richard Murphy recently laid into Scotland’s procurement system, declaring the nation ‘one of the worst countries in Europe to be an architect’. Ella Braidwood visits Glasgow to find out how new practices are bucking the trend

‘I feel very sorry for young architects today in Scotland – it is very hard,’ says Richard Murphy. The RIBA House of the Year winner has long been frustrated by Scotland’s procurement system. 

He says there is a lack of opportunity for young architects in Scotland – big practices are hoovering up all the major schemes; that there is an ‘existential crisis’ facing the profession. Murphy emphasises that these challenges are specific to Scotland’s own procurement methods, and not the ‘recession of EU legislation’. 

Scotland’s risk-averse system, driven by ‘process rather than product’, was even blamed by Malcolm Fraser for the demise of his practice in 2015.

So what is the solution? According to Murphy, the nation’s young, talented architects should emigrate. ‘Leave, get out – there is no future,’ he said last year.

But in Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, the AJ spoke to a community of emerging practices that have sprung up in the last few years and are surviving or even flourishing. This dynamic scene is comparable only to a handful of other cities such as Liverpool, Belfast and, overseas, the blossoming of architectural ideas in 1980s Barcelona, following the death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. 

Glasgow’s go-getting, socially minded firms are existing on a diverse range of projects, including a pop-up bar for architects; a grassroots strategy for the regeneration of Beith town centre in North Ayrshire; the restoration of the 1960s Brutalist landmark St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross; and a horticultural centre for a mental health association. 

Rather than buckling under the trials of the procurement system, these practices seem to be thriving amid its adversity

‘There’s a tight architectural community in Glasgow,’ says Graeme Nicholls, who has just set up Graeme Nicholls Architects from his home studio. Nicholls recently won his first major commission, for 24 flats in Pollokshaws, Glasgow, which was submitted for planning last month. ‘It gives you confidence if other people are making the same step and setting up their own practices,’ he says. ‘You feel you can go and do it as well.’

Nicholls, who previously worked at Hoskins Architects, says this community is ‘focused’ around Strathclyde University’s architecture department – all but one of the nine practices the AJ spoke to were borne out of the school. It has also produced the likes of Pidgin Perfect and DO Architecture which, alongside GRAS Studio and Stone Opera, represented Scotland at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012. ‘A lot of us teach there and studied there,’ Nicholls adds. ‘There are personal connections. You’ve got a lot of allies.’

People such as the late architecture professor Per Kartvedt, who died last month, and director of cultural studies in the architecture department Jonathan Charley have pioneered a progressive course at the Strathclyde school, which encourages students to be entrepreneurial. 

Strathclyde visiting professor Gordon Murray says Kartvedt was ‘proactive in creating an innovative Part 2 final year in the course, which led to many students getting involved in all aspects of architecture – from community engagement to development to prefabrication.

‘This morphed into something richer and even broader in output, which tested the limits of an accredited course and led to some self-build schemes and pro-bono work for external clients like schools and nurseries. It trickled down into Part 1 and thus became embedded.’

Charley attributes this group of emerging practices to the university’s geographical intake – from Glasgow, the west coast and islands of Scotland.

These students tend to remain in Glasgow after the course, compared with those from the city’s other school, the Mackintosh, where the intake is less localised. 

The procurement system is somewhat undemocratic … smaller practices have little chance in competing for large sectors of work

Most of the practices visited for this feature were friends with one another – the AJ was also invited to drinks in remembrance of Kartvedt, organised by Charley and attended by architects in this feature.  

Charley adds: ‘We encourage our students to be politically critical, socially engaged and poetically imaginative … we encourage students to think of  the broader geographical and intellectual context of architecture, but many of our project briefs are embedded in the city.’

The new crop of Glaswegian practices are well aware of the challenges posed by Scotland’s procurement system. 

‘The [procurement] system, at present, is somewhat undemocratic and has been set up as a monopoly, meaning smaller or new practices have little chance in competing for large sectors of work,’ say Brian McGinlay and Mark Bell, formerly of NORD, whose practice McGinlay Bell has a small basement office in central Glasgow. 

The prequalification questionnaire (PQQ) system has particularly hampered young firms, as it often requires practices to have experience of completing three similar projects in the last three years, or five in the past five years.

‘[This] is all but impossible for small firms, recent or well established,’ says Marc Kilkenny of Marc Kilkenny Architects from his office in the NORD-designed South Block, central Glasgow; also home to another emerging practice, Dress for the Weather.

Group photo shoot reich and hall campus

Group photo shoot in front of Reiach and Hall’s City of Glasgow College Riverside Campus

Source: Keith Hunter

From left to right: Andy Campbell and Matt McKenna (Dress for the Weather); Mark Bell (McGinlay Bell); Graeme Nicholls (Graeme Nicholls Architects); Brian McGinlay; Egle Chodocinskaite, Lesley Palmer, Nicole Callaghan, Alisdair Clements (INCH Architecture); Ann Nisbet and Jenny Barr (Ann Nisbet Studio); Marc Kilkenny, Christine Halliday and Daniel Smith (Marc Kilkenny Architects); Ruairidh Moir and Lewis Grant (BARD); Lee Ivett (Baxendale); Iain Monteith and Matt Loader (Loader & Monteith Architects)

The form-filling often required by the procurement system also weighs heavily on emerging practices.

‘The time required to put into these packages is difficult, particularly for a small practice,’ says Ann Nisbet of Ann Nisbet Studio. ‘We don’t have the resources for somebody who is permanently turning around tender packages.’

She adds: ‘It would improve the quality of architecture in Scotland if there was some reform of the procurement methods.’

But rather than buckling under the trials of the procurement system, these practices seem to be thriving amid its adversity.

‘Glasgow has an extraordinary emergent architectural scene that has developed because of the vacuous economic, political and procurement environment that exists,’ says Paul Stallan of Stallan Brand. ‘Borne out of the worst recession on record, graduates not able to find work locally simply incubated their own practice initially taking on any type of creative work or opportunity.’

Through word of mouth and networking, these practices are securing commissions and managing to succeed. Successful schemes include Ann Nisbet Studio’s zinc-clad Newhouse of Auchengree in North Ayrshire, which was completed in November, and has already won the Glasgow Institute of Architects 2016 Supreme Award, alongside its Residential Award. 

Dress for the Weather is working to combine architecture and art in a project for the new Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh. And McGinlay Bell, which says it will ‘take some time’ for the practice to truly breakthrough, is working on the St Peter’s Seminary restoration alongside Avanti Architects. 

‘My salary is going through the floor, but I’m having more fun than ever,’ says Ruairidh Moir of BARD, who used to work at Carson & Partners.  Moir’s efforts are paying off; he recently bagged a major commission to design a garage adjacent to Windyhill, a Category A-listed home by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Kilmacolm. 

These firms are hopeful, excited  and enjoying the freedom to do the projects they want. ‘There’s a sense of liberation in being able to design buildings for ourselves,’ say McGinlay and Bell. 

Matt Loader of Loader & Monteith Architects adds: ‘The lovely thing about architecture is if you leave something behind it lasts a lot longer than you do. We want people that share that aspiration of doing something that is inherently sustainable in its longevity and stands the test of time.’

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Readers' comments (2)

  • MacKenzie Architects

    The biggest thing I see keeping young practices down, is this 3-years accounts nonsense. It is in every limited competition, shortlist selection process, and becoming more widespread.
    The RIBA / RIAS, or whoever is supposed to be looking out for us, should be giving clients a suitable checklist format (someone is going to tell me they have, errr).
    We aren't a young practice no more, but when I am asked that -we aren't a limited company- I tell them I want to see THEIR accounts, since it is them who has to pay the consultants and the builders. All they need from me is projects and references. I tell them, if they want to pay a solid advance on our fees, we can talk, otherwise "I'm insulted".

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  • Industry Professional

    This article is very misleading. Yes, there are plenty of exciting young architecture practices in Scotland doing great small scale private work. But no, they aren't 'bucking the trend' as it were because they are not winning any PQQ work which under the current system will only be awarded to the largest architecture practices who even then need to joint-venture with international names to get through the first stage of the PQQs. Take the Ross Bandstand competition as an example, because of the PQQ it will have a shortlist of joint-ventures with international practices. This is the kind of thing Richard Murphy and Malcolm Fraser are on about. They haven't got enough projects demonstrating 'relevant experience' to get shortlisted.

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