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RIAS convention: Dundee heralds a pragmatic devolution

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This year’s RIAS convention celebrated Dundee’s rebirth, as well as a hearing Reinier de Graaf’s more critical take. Penny Lewis reports

In the light of the SNP’s recent election triumph, delegates at last weekend’s RIAS convention might have expected to hear some new or distinctive ideas about the future of Scotland’s built environment . But the political agenda seems to be the same whether you are in Dundee or Manchester. There is a pragmatic approach emerging to the devolution of power; less about the extension of democracy and more about pots of cash to pursue local placemaking and city marketing.

The convention title Big Moves/Local Agendas was timely, given that localism is now officially back in vogue, and the venue seemed equally appropriate: the restaurant at Dundee’s Malmaison Hotel, overlooking the construction site of the city’s central waterfront regeneration project, which includes Kengo Kuma’s V&A Dundee.

Before its current incarnation, the hotel lay empty for more than a decade. For 40 years it was largely obscured by Tayside House, a 1970s 16-storey council building demolished in 2013. The creation of new council offices by Reiach and Hall, the hotel refurbishment, the setting out of the park and the ground works of the V&A all suggest that Dundee is getting some of the attention and serious investment it desperately needs.

Speakers included RIBA president-elect Jane Duncan and Karen Anderson from Anderson Bell + Christie.George Ferguson, mayor of Bristol and former RIBA president, arrived in Dundee fresh from a meeting with David Cameron at Number 10, promoting his vision for a ‘Great Western Powerhouse’ to rival George Osborne’s Northern one. Ferguson told the convention that architects were ‘supremely well suited’ to the role of city mayor because architecture is about ‘bringing together many disciplines’. His position raises interesting questions about the technocratic nature of contemporary politics and the political character of today’s architecture.

Mike Galloway, director of city development at Dundee City Council, had already opened the event with an upbeat presentation on the waterfront development – a strategy he has been working on for the past 18 years. At a strategic level the extension of the city centre grid to the estuary and the creation of a public park seem sensible. Commissioning Kuma to design the V&A is Dundee’s official nod towards design quality. Galloway made no mention of the project’s landscape architect and one suspects that the design of these civic spaces is not a primary concern.

On Saturday Dundee was also discussed by Willie Watt, the new RIAS president and a Dundonian himself, and Clive Gillman, the director of Dundee Contemporary Arts who has recently been appointed director of creative industries for Creative Scotland. There was something strangely therapeutic about the shared narrative; one in which Dundonians had collectively suffered from low self-esteem but now thanks to the V&A were becoming self-confident. To his credit, Gillman adopted a critical attitude to the policymakers’ mantra of measuring impact in the arts by revenue generated. Scots might be able to look forward to the abolition of said measurements and indicators when he takes up his Creative Scotland post.

The international speakers tended to reinforce Dundee’s local concerns of waterfront and new public buildings. Maja Egge Sipus, a young Norwegian architect from MAD Arkitekter and graduate of Glasgow’s Mackintosh school, talked about the contribution of MAD to the redevelopment of Oslo’s waterfront. But OMA’s Reinier de Graaf, who proved the convention’s highlight, chose to engage more critically with Dundee’s regeneration.

‘We may come to regret the demolition of the Hilltown multis,’ he said. ‘When you look at the research, the majority of people living there wanted to stay there.’ For de Graaf, the high-profile demolition of Tayside House, the Ardler estate and the Hilltown multis might prove to be Dundee’s ‘Pruit-Iggoe moment’. By this he meant that it may not be a marker of the city’s rebirth, but a symbol of the end of progressive Modernism and construction for public good.

In recent months de Graaf has been writing and lecturing about the urgent need to ‘bring capital back under democratic control’ (see this month’s Architectural Review). Put crudely, he argues that the traditional relationship between client and architect is finished and that architects are now producing real estate rather than architecture. He intimates that the opportunities for producing work of public value, as opposed to private profit, have become limited or nonexistent.

Reinier de Graaf at the RIAS convention in Dundee (May 2015)


De Graaf draws heavily on the work of the popular French economist  Thomas Piketty, who argues that there was a moment in around 1970 when it became more lucrative to invest capital in property or luxury goods than to work. The outcome of this structural change was a rise in social inequality. For de Graaf, and Piketty, the period 1914-1970 was a temporary period of reprieve in which the Cold War and social democracy prevented capital from expressing the system’s inherent inequality.

For de Graaf, the mass housing blocks of the 1960s and 1970s were a concrete expression of post-war economic relations and social ambitions. Their subsequent high-profile demolition – or occasionally rebirth as expensive Modernist icons – is in many ways an expression of today’s political conditions. ‘It is as if we have rejected an entire century,’ he said.

Piketty’s economic thesis is popular but dubious, and mapping the Modern Movement on to a set of specific economic relations is highly problematic. However, the ambition to understand the function of the property market, Modernism and the contemporary hostility to Modernist social housing is a very worthy endeavour.

Like many contemporary commentators, de Graaf believes that excessive wealth is distorting the political process. He showed a world map in which countries were coloured red, blue or yellow: blue for democracies, red for dictatorship and yellow for countries that have elections, but where we know the outcome in advance. Apparently the future is yellow. It’s a rather pessimistic view, but it’s preferable to the feel-good factor and perhaps it’s a starting point for discussion.

View from the conference

What will the SNP’s election triumph mean for Scotland ?

Eugene Mullan of Scott Smith Mullan
‘Scotland was very clear on who was going to provide best representation in Westminster. Unfortunately the reality and the numbers are unlikely to play out for us.’

Neil McAllister of GLM
‘The result in Scotland reflects two things: a disenchantment with the Westminster government; and an increased self-confidence and political engagement in Scotland.  If Scotland can channel this confidence into its architecture and construction then the future can be positive. If other parts of the UK can develop this same pride and confidence then there is real potential for not just a revitalised Scotland or a Northern Powerhouse but thriving centres of cultural and economic growth all across the UK.

Harman Scott of Harman Scott Architecture
‘The election result will change things north of the border. The SNP, although not having a casting vote in Westminster, knows it speaks for most of Scotland. This will result in a battle at Westminster between the Tories and the SNP, which will not help resolve issues here, especially if the Tory government digs its heels into its English nationalistic views.

‘Among the architectural profession there appeared to be a lot of support for an independent Scotland pre-referendum and it is still there.

‘Fundamentally, people in Scotland feel very different from the English (God b less them). Scottish people have more of a feeling of the ‘common good’, and work towards it, whereas south of the border there is more of a feeling of ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ and look after yourself, while minding your own business and not being bad neighbours. It is this that drives those who voted Tory and signed up for an EU referendum.’

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