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Recovering the joy in the craft of making things

Catherine Slessor
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Malcolm Fraser helped free Edinburgh from historical intertia, now he’s calling for a critical national renewal to help make better buildings

As I write this, Nicola Sturgeon is on Desert Island Discs (Cilla Black, Duran Duran and the Proclaimers, since you ask). Scotland’s feisty first minister has had the original whirlwind year, conquering Caledonia in the general election and stealing Labour’s clothes as the party of social justice. Yet nationalism, even of the cuddly tartan kind, is still an incontrovertibly tricky topic.

Sturgeon herself was at pains to point out on the programme that her vision of nationalism is not driven by a loathing of Sassenachs. But though she lost the battle in last year’s independence referendum, the war goes on. Despite the ‘Better Together’ affirmation following a panicky love-bombing by the Whitehall High Command (David Cameron’s lectern was spotted as far north as Aberdeen), Scotland seems intent on chafing at the bridle that yokes it to the union. Passports at Coldstream by 2020? Probably. And perhaps no bad thing.

I’ll declare an interest here. I’m Scottish, born in Aberdeen but I escaped from its dour Calvinist clutches to study architecture in Edinburgh. It was an epiphanic moment, rather like when The Wizard of Oz shifts from Kansas monochrome into glorious Technicolor. For any student of the built environment, Edinburgh makes you aware of the sheer delirious potential of architecture. Though it has a reputation for being Scotland’s petit-bourgeois maiden aunt (‘sex are what we put coal into’) Auld Reekie is an incomparable tableau of astounding set pieces. Even its lairy peripheries are grimly theatrical, supplying the backdrop to the seminal Trainspotting.

I wasn’t able to vote in last year’s referendum because in 1984 I voted with my feet and left Edinburgh for the real Emerald City of London. I’m part of the huge and ongoing Scottish diaspora. Scots, it seems, are everywhere but in Scotland. London sustains a McMafia of clever, influential people, all cultural and economic migrants from north of the border.

Fraser’s work has enriched Edinburgh, blazing a trail for successive generations

In the mid 80s there wasn’t much in Edinburgh to occupy eager new graduates, apart from dreary heritage work. The downside of being so richly historical was that Edinburgh, like Venice, ended up being petrified in the aspic of its own significance. Over time, however, this has changed with a cohort of architects, notably Malcolm Fraser and Richard Murphy, overcoming the city’s conniptions about ‘modern’ architecture. The result has been a modest flowering of new buildings, culminating in the Catalan apotheosis of the Scottish Parliament (pictured) .

Frank, fearless and funny, Fraser was in my year at college. He excelled at putting a metaphorical squib up architecture’s arse, and his work has enriched Edinburgh, blazing a trail for successive generations. He was also part of the pro-independence campaign, galvanising support for it among the architectural community and beyond. So it was dismaying to learn that after 22 years, he was forced to close his practice in August, citing cash-flow difficulties.

Writing recently on the Scottish website Rattle, Fraser described the complex yet banal tick-box nature of public-sector procurement, which involved producing ‘endless screeds about technical and procedural irrelevancies while never approaching the simple question of “are we any good at making good buildings?”’ He wants things to change. As part of a new ‘critical national renewal’ he is calling for ‘a culture that recovers joy in the craft of making things, and rewards the skills required; that avoids creating big, dumb structures when, instead, it should be devolving power and decision-making, trusting its people and communities’. It’s smart and heartfelt, a new Scottish Enlightenment to help rediscover architecture’s soul and make better buildings. Both north and south of the border.



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Readers' comments (1)

  • Agreed Catherine, in all respects! Except... is the Scottish Parliament really the best illustration of a new Enlightenment that reflects the people and communites of a nation? I thought it was one of the most hated new buildings in Scotland?

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