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Ignore the RIAS gimmicks, Scottish architecture is in extreme difficulty


The RIAS needs to tackle the toughest issues facing the profession rather than focus on easy-win, media-friendly initiatives, says Glasgow-based Alan Dunlop

Alan Dunlop

Alan Dunlop

According to the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS), ’Architecture is pivotal in Scotland’s culture’. Next year, the organisation celebrates its centenary. Founded in 1916 by renowned Scottish architect Robert Rowand Anderson - who also gifted his townhouse as its home - the RIAS will mark this event by hosting a year-long Festival of Architecture to celebrate ’the very best of Scottish architecture’.

The aim is to ’boost confidence and understanding’- among whom is unclear- but it will apparently make a lasting difference to communities in Scotland. We will all discover ’hidden treasures, old classics and new favourites’ within a packed programme of events that will ’bring Scottish architecture to a whole new audience’, at home and internationally.

The programme includes: Out of their Heads, which promises to ’peer inside the minds of Scotland’s greatest architects’; Hinterland, once again an exploration of St Peter’s Seminary but this time ’transformed by light and sound’ with light installations, projections and animation and Crazy Golf Architecture - where you can hit balls through nine architectural follies.

Last week, a group of judges that included retired architects, past presidents, conservationists, historians and the development officer of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, flicked through old issues of Prospect Magazine and the RIAS Quarterly to pick the best projects in Scotland from the last 100 years. The output, like all RIAS initiatives, focused on past glories, avoided controversy and seeks to please the public, who have been asked to vote X Factor-style for the best.

Scotstyle: Scotland’s 100 Top Buildings was promoted on BBC Radio by the RIAS’s secretary and treasurer [Neil Baxter] who unlike the RIBA chief executive [Harry Rich], is not content to let architects do the talking themselves. Our secretary takes every media opportunity to define architectural success in Scotland - and in his view everything is wonderful.

The reality is that Scottish architecture is in extreme difficulty, with most architects struggling to make a living in a market characterised by unsustainable low fees and burdened by a government procurement process that denies the majority of them access to public projects. Architects have lost professional control and are no longer trusted to create inspirational buildings.

They have become the junior partner on many design teams, working for building contractors and ’private sector development partners’ whose objectives are ‘value for money’ and meeting the constraints of a funding matrix.

A curious professional inversion has occurred over the last ten years with projects managers and quantity surveyors holding more power and commanding better pay. Architectural graduates form part of the dismal precariat that finds itself scrambling for internships with little or no pay in order to complete their professional practice studies.

Our supine response to flawed public tender and contractor demands is woeful

It is true that architects are not blameless and our supine past response to flawed public tender and contractor demands is woeful. Current public procurement protocols have been accepted that support a building environment which denies any notion that architecture is important and which is pushing many architects and students out of the profession.

The RIAS continues to ignore these realities and no Festival of Architecture, no matter how it is packaged will address them. If the RIAS wishes to represent all chartered architects in Scotland and to act as a catalyst for improvement in the profession it needs to lift up its head and tackle the difficult stuff. Enough of the bread and circuses.

Alan Dunlop is founder of Alan Dunlop Architect and  honorary Chair in Contemporary Architectural Practice at the University of Liverpool


Readers' comments (3)

  • I commented on this 'celebration' some time ago. It is vague, generic and untargeted. To make a difference architect bodies such as this need to be able to demonstrate what is the ROI of such events - and please, please no - 'educating the public in good design' statements.....

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  • Ben Derbyshire

    I sympathise with Alan Dunlop's position in relation to RIAS. Many of us on RIBA Council believe the Institute should likewise take the opportunity of its newly confirmed Trustee status and the task of setting the next five year strategy for the Institute, 'Leading Architecture 2', to signal a clear cultural change at the RIBA.
    We believe the Institutes must restore an appropriate balance between their role as a promoter of architecture on the one hand and as an association of architects on the other.
    Architects increasingly feel the institutes need to offer them better value for their subscription, more clarity and definition in the ethics of professionalism, more support and more of a voice in the various challenges that lie ahead. In the words of one, we need to do more to repair the 'growing disconnect between the membership and their aspirations and the RIBA'.
    It seems to many of us that this is not a time for grandiose cultural displays which risk committing the institutes to huge expenditure they may not be able to afford. Rather, we should be working to attract a larger and more youthful membership (the median age at RIBA is 57!) and recruiting this cohort of diverse talent to be their own advertisement for the benefits of architecture to society.

    Ben Derbyshire, Managing Partner, HTA Design
    Chair, The Housing Forum.

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  • "working to attract a larger and more youthful membership ..........cohort of diverse talent to be their own advertisement for the benefits of architecture to society." Agreed Ben, fair comment

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