It will take more than RIAS’s festival fun to boost public confidence in Scotland’s built environment, says Rory Olcayto
At the very least, next year’s Festival of Architecture in Scotland will play host to a number of interesting events. The St Peter’s Seminary opening party and a Jonathan Meades lecture in Aberdeen both sound like must-go-to gigs, whether you’re are a student architect or a fully-fledged professional. The programme promises much for the wider public, too: The Ideal Hut Show and the Lighthouse’s comic book-inspired Adventure in Space will have genuinely popular appeal.
Despite the sceptical tone offered by London-based experts such as Peter Murray – he told AJ that the Scottish rival to his own annual shindig is in danger of being little more than ‘a well-meaning PR stunt for architecture’ – I’m sure he’d be proud to co-ordinate such a line-up himself.
Still, he has a point. Because, like the London Festival of Architecture, events of this kind can only ever be, at best, well-meaning PR stunts for architecture, whether they have governmental backing, as they do in Scotland, or not.
I say ‘at best’ because even that is not guaranteed. The most likely feeling someone will have who goes to a couple of shows – the Meades lecture and the comic book exhibition, for example – is that they enjoyed an interesting lecture and exhibition. The profession, which I presume Murray was referring to, will receive no PR boost at all.
Nevertheless, organisations such as NVA (not architects, incidentally), which is masterminding the revival of St Peter’s and will host a launch party there, have a brilliant track record of engaging the public, whether through interactive, theatrical promenades such as The Path in Glen Lyon, or its community-led design work, such as the Tramway’s Hidden Garden in Glasgow. This festival is very welcome and I for one, look forward to it. But few will come away from it with greater respect for architects or the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland. Instead we must see next year’s festival for what it is: a fun celebration in the RIAS centenary year, with a clutch of shows that have varying degrees of architectural input. And let’s put to bed the lofty claim by Scotland’s professional body, that it ‘will boost confidence and understanding of the built environment’ and ‘inform all of Scotland’s people of the economic and social benefits of good architecture’.
Call me old-fashioned, but the best festival of architecture is a fascinating town or city whose citizens feel good about living there. And the best way to show the public what the profession can do is for architects to design good buildings for as wide a cross-section of the public as possible.
Scotland has a range of urban design and architectural ills, from underfunded public housing and maintenance regimes, to poorly considered infrastructure schemes. Procurement processes for keynote public projects too, seem designed to bar entry to emerging talent.
So, if the Scottish Government is serious about using architecture to benefit the people of Scotland as well as boosting the home-grown profession, righting these wrongs should be made a priority.