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What's in store at the RIAS Festival of Architecture 2016

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Scotland’s year-long event in 2016 aims to create a long-term legacy recognising the social and economic benefits of architecture, says Merlin Fulcher

There is a heavy weight of expectation on Scotland’s 2016 Festival of Architecture.

The SNP’s landslide victory north of the border has intensified the focus on the flagship, country-wide event that looks set to become the UK’s largest ever architecture festival.

Organised by RIAS to mark its centenary, the ‘year-long celebration’ aims to resurrect trust in the profession, promote tourism and create a long-term legacy recognising the social and economic benefits of architecture.

To realise such an ambitious programme big money is needed. Cash donations and in-kind contributions have reached the £4 million mark and 26 Scottish practices have already pledged at least £1,000 each to help fund the festival.

The most significant sponsor is expected to be the pro-independence Scottish Government which has named 2016 – when the country faces its next general election – Scotland’s Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design.

Masterminding the event are high-profile former Glasgow City Council design advisor and University of Strathclyde tutor architect Gerry Grams with former Glasgow Life head of libraries and cultural venues Karen Cunningham.

Explaining his collaborative curatorial approach, Grams says: ‘We’re working with the architectural community through the six RIAS Chapters to engage with local organisations to deliver agendas that will be important to them and they feel deserves a national audience.’

Grams’ greatest challenges, many experts believe, will be to achieve meaningful public engagement with the built environment and to maintain a laser-like vision.

London Festival of Architecture founder Peter Murray says: ‘The range of topics proposed seems very ambitious but if it’s not careful the festival will lack focus and come across as another well-meaning PR stunt for architecture.’

Reflecting on the wider political context, Murray also warned public money ‘comes with strings attached’ and advised caution in implementing the festival’s programme. He says: ‘Nationalism and architecture are not happy bedfellows.’

Former RIBA president and Bristol mayor George Fergusson – who prioritised engaging Bristolians in urban renewal – added: ‘To make it work, it needs a strong social dimension.’

Headline events for 2016 include a March opening party at St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross – inviting the public to experience Gillespie, Kidd & Coia’s ruin with sound and light installations for the very first time.

The festival will then spread out across Scotland’s seven cities with festival hubs delivering activities in Dundee (March), Aberdeen (April to May), Inverness (June), Edinburgh (June to August), Glasgow (June to August), Stirling (September) and Perth (October).

The programme’s centrepiece will be a ‘cities expo’ on The Mound in Edinburgh featuring up to 20 international pavilions showcasing ground breaking architecture from around the world. Emerging overseas practices will be selected through competitions in their respective cities for the £30,000 installations which may be moved to Dundee.

An educational programme for pupils aged three to 18 is also being developed along with further outreach initiatives by the festival’s 60 partner organisations – including Scottish Opera and the Children’s Parliament.

Yet despite such a varied offer, the festival still has its home-grown critics. Peter Wilson, director of the Wood Studio research centre at Edinburgh Napier University accused the organisers – whose strategy was penned by 1999 festival masterminds Stuart MacDonald and Eleanor McAllister – of over-prioritising Scottish Government policies and failing to embrace digital content.

He says: ‘Invisible so far are any radical events with real potential to shape the country’s future and which might be seen to respond to the expectations being expressed in its re-energised political landscape.

‘To avoid ending up as yet another worthy festival, a more pluralist, outward and forward- looking programme with seminal legacy items needs to emerge.’

The Festival could become nothing more than a PR exercise

Alan Dickson of Rural Design is also sceptical. Referring to the Glasgow City of Architecture festival in 1999, which he claims ‘had the same ambitions’ and had massive funding, he says: ‘It is hard to see a meaningful and lasting impact on the architectural output of the country [of that].’

‘Without meaningful change the Festival of Architecture could be in danger of being nothing more than a PR exercise.’

But Paul Stallan – whose practice Stallan-Brand is supporting the event – is more hopeful, particularly given the self-confidence the country has felt since the shock of the general election result.

He says: ‘If architects don’t capitalise on the festival in the current political context it will be a missed opportunity. [The event] will be transformational.’

What’s happening around Scotland?

Scotland map



Opening party - St Peter’s Seminary, Cardross
Adventures in Space - The Lighthouse
Ideal Hut Show - Glasgow Botanic Gardens
Scotstyle - touring exhibition



Cities Expo - The Mound
Portraits Placed - Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Ideal Hut Show - Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
Scotstyle - touring exhibition



Ideal Hut Show - Inverness Botanic Gardens
Films on architecture in Highlands and Islands - tbc



Architecturally inspired crazy golf
Interactive smart phone app
- tbc
Minecraft challenge for new bridge over Firth of Tay - tbc



Jonathan Meades lecture - Peacock Visual Arts
Gareth Moore artist residency - PeacockVisual Arts
Scotland’s 2014 Venice Biennale exhibit ‘Absorbing Modernity’ - PeacockVisual Arts
Scotstyle - touring exhibition



Thistle to Castle - walking route
Scotstyle - touring exhibition



Lantern festival finale - The Helix

Key events: in detail

  • The Scottish National Portrait Gallery will host a ground-floor exhibition featuring portraits and busts of Scotland’s greatest architects – both historic and contemporary – alongside images of their work.
  • A touring exhibition – dubbed ‘Scotstyle’ – will invite the public to select Scotland’s best buildings from the past 100 years. A competition for a young practice to design the show is expected to be announced shortly.
  • In Glasgow, The Lighthouse will host a free exhibition ‘Adventures in Space’ exploring science fiction’s impact on architecture with works by Scottish comic book stars Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely.
  • The Ideal Hut Show – which was first held during Glasgow’s stint as UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999 – will also make a return. The open-air installation which invites architects and designers to reinvent off-the-shelf garden sheds will tour botanical gardens in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness.
  • In Stirling, icecream architecture and Artlink Central are creating a ‘Thistle to Castle’ walking route with installations drawing attention to nearby education and health campuses.
  • Aberdeen’s Peacock Visual Arts will stage a public lecture by writer and broadcaster Jonathan Meades asking ‘Does a City get the Architecture it Deserves?’
  • Musical commissions, architectural poetry and Gaelic language films on Scottish architecture touring the highlands and islands are furthermore expected with the final programme to be confirmed later this year.
  • The Helix – home of The Kelpies – in Falkirk will host a lantern festival featuring Scotland’s most iconic buildings for the festival’s October finale. Three yet-to-be-announced studios have been appointed to work with local communities on the lantern designs.

Interview with Gerry Grams, 2016 Festival of Architecture director

Gerry Grams

Why is 2016 the right time for Scotland to host a Festival of Architecture?
In June 2013, in its new policy document on Architecture, Creating Places, the Scottish Government announced its support for a Festival of Architecture in 2016 to be led by the RIAS and to coincide with its Centenary year. The festival will be a free standing entity, but closely linked to the events to be held under the banner of the wider Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design. 

Why will this festival succeed in increasing public engagement with architecture?
The theme, ‘Shaping Scotland’, will allow for a diverse range of activities from international exhibitions to community workshops. A nationwide programme will be targeted on a range of audiences and interests – with over 60 partner organisations already on board we will be taking a broad approach to engagement on all sorts of levels – we are already working on projects with The Children’s Parliament, Maggie’s, Scottish Opera, The Saltire Society and the Scottish schools of architecture.

How will you ensure a government-funded architecture festival doesn’t translate into a pro-independence statement?
The funding is not solely from the government purse. The curatorial direction of the Festival will be guided by the RIAS with financial reserves and contributions from the organisation and its members as well as key sponsors and funders. We are working with the architectural community through the six RIAS Chapters to engage with local organisations to deliver agendas which will be important to them and that they feel deserve a national audience.

How will Scotland’s 2016 Festival of Architecture differ from other global events such as the Venice Biennale and Universal Expositions?
We want the Festival to be a truly nationwide celebration of how architecture and design shapes Scotland – from Dumfries to The Shetlands, transforming its places and benefiting its people and their lives. We want it to reach out to a wide audience, nationally [and internationally], young and old, leaving a legacy of tools, resources and relationships in place to help individuals and communities shape their future.



  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Hi Merlin
    I don't wish to be seen as curmudgeonly as the quotes published might suggest. I also said : " I’m very pleased to hear that Scotland is putting on an architecture festival - everywhere should have one! I’m envious of their budget, but I guess that’s the Barnett formula in action. I wish them well."
    I do hope Gerry will come down to the London Festival of Architecture which takes place throughout June.

    Peter Murray

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