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Och aye! Oh no…

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A biannual review of Scottish architecture sells modern Scotland short, says Rory Olcayto

Building Biographies is the Scottish government’s fourth biannual study of contemporary Scottish architecture. It’s very, very Scottish – to the point of kitsch. The book’s heavy-stock, matt-finished pages are richly illustrated with beautiful photography and present a land of honest toil, quiet glens and windswept, heather-speckled moors (with geese flying overhead).


It’s a land defined by low-rise handcrafted structures, built by locals, for locals, with local ‘sustainable’ materials, but its relevance to Scottish architecture is slight, and its narrowly defined nationalism – and pushy green agenda – has Holyrood’s sticky fingers all over it.


Published by Scotland’s centre for architecture and design, The Lighthouse (alongside an exhibition), the book covers a sporrans-worth of ‘rural’ buildings completed since 2006. The exhibition’s co-curator, Oliver Lowenstein, says the eight Scottish schemes featured offer ‘evidence of an emerging Highlands and Islands regional architectural culture and community’, although, in truth, most of the buildings were designed by metropolitan architects with little in common. The buildings signify a genuinely Scottish architecture untouched by modernity, says Lowenstein, primarily because they are built in a wilderness.


Building Biographies also features six projects from the mountainous regions of Norway, Austria and Switzerland. We are expected to believe that architects there practice a prelapsarian craft that is somehow more honest and pure than architecture resulting from the ‘standardising forces of globalisation’ (mere ‘eye candy’ according to Lowenstein, although the postcard presentation of buildings here – there are no plans or sections – mean they come across as exactly that). The very inclusion of European work reveals a facet of the globalisation, one where architects draw upon emergent practice in far-flung places and apply it at home.


Some Scottish architects believe they are part of a nascent ‘Scottish school’ that eschews iconism for an architecture that is ‘deeply in tune with its local context’, as Lighthouse director Nick Barley says in his foreword. An association with small countries that have a more developed sense of their architectural worth will likely be warmly received by this ‘school’. The strategy also plays well with project backer Holyrood, and First Minister Alex Salmond’s desire to align Scotland with successful small countries across Europe.


The ‘emerging regionalism’ thesis is delivered a fatal blow by the inclusion of two ‘southern’ Scottish housing schemes. The unfortunate – but accurate – implication is that good buildings in the Highlands are harder to find than a newborn haggis.


So alongside Dualchas Building Design’s Isle of Lewis house (not the firm’s best) and Locate Architects’ museum in North Uist (wholly unremarkable) there is Gordon Murray + Alan Dunlop Architects’ Telford Road project in a run-down Edinburgh estate, and an Oliver Chapman Architects project in Berwickshire, on the English border.


The lumping together of these projects under the banner ‘rural Highland vernacular’ takes away from the complexity and dynamism of the Scottish experience of architecture, and plays up to the romantic idea of Scotland as a country defined only by its Highlands. Finally, in a desperate attempt to shore up the thesis, Reiach and Hall’s Pier Arts Centre in Orkney (AJ 05.07.07) is roped in, also featured in the last biannual.


Geography is not a strong point. Bizarrely, Lowenstein describes Inverness, rather than Aberdeen, as ‘oil city’ and begins his introductory essay about Highland architecture with a description of geese flying over a ‘lowland’ landscape. Irritatingly, every building is introduced as sustainable, though this assertion seems based on little more than the use of timber (strange in itself – stone is rural Scotland’s ‘traditional’ material).


The Scots are not a rural people – at least not for the last few hundred years. Why perpetuate a contrary image? The central belt between Edinburgh and Glasgow is one of the most densely populated zones in Europe. Glasgow has the highest concentration of asylum seekers outside of London and an urban scale more American in form than any other British city. Edinburgh is the sixth largest financial centre in Europe and has one of the most precious townscapes in the world. Both cities have billions of pounds of regeneration planned. It is here The Lighthouse should look for a new regional architecture.


Despite featuring some interesting buildings – Gareth Hoskins’ Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre (AJ 29.05.08) in particular – grouping them together as emblems of a fundamentally Scottish emergent architecture is pointless. RMJM’s work for Russian energy giant Gazprom and Sutherland Hussey’s earthquake memorial park for the Chinese government spin a more relevant, national narrative.


Global forces can be positive, as the inclusion of the Lotte Glob Studio shows. It was designed by Aberdeen-based Turkish architect Gokay Deveci for Glob, a Danish ceramic artist, and is located on Scotland’s most northerly coast. The studio resembles an Anatolian farm building rather than anything especially Scottish – material evidence of a rich global confluence that reflects the diversity of modern Scotland.


Building Biographies is an Access to Architecture project, which aims to ‘encourage collaboration between the profession and the public at all levels’. The Lighthouse has been accused of being too Glasgow-focused and its public worth is currently being investigated. Building Biographies seems designed to address these points. And by branding this mythical emergent regionalism ‘sustainable’, it ticks a government box (whose First Minister’s powerbase, incidentally, is rural).


Towards the v end of the volume, a caption for an Austrian ski bar pictured describes it as a ‘sophisticated interference of cliches and authentic craftsmanship amidst a highly touristical environment’. Given the pressure The Lighthouse is under to attract visitors (and the soft-focus vision of Scotland it offers here), it’s an apt description of the book itself.


Resume: This review of Scottish architecture is best read with a Jimmy hat on your heid.



(Architecture in Scotland 2006-2008: Building Biographies. The Lighthouse, 2008. £12. 208pp)

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