The decline in the number of, and work prospects for, Scotland’s practices is depressing for Scots and calamitous for Scottish nationalists, says Ellis Woodman
A highlight of the 2008 Venice Architecture Biennale was the presence, for the first time in the festival’s history, of a standalone Scottish pavilion. Located in front of the city’s railway station, this temporary timber arena was commissioned by the Lighthouse Trust and designed by Gareth Hoskins as a very public statement of the developing strength of the Scottish architecture scene.
Sadly, that confidence proved short-lived. The day after the biennale opened, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection, providing the clearest indication yet of the rapidly unfolding global financial crisis. Few architects in the UK have been spared the effects of the downturn, but those in Scotland have suffered more and longer than most. Nord Architecture’s recent announcement that it had moved all operations from Glasgow to London followed last year’s news that Malcolm Fraser Architects had gone into liquidation. RMJM, once the largest office in Scotland, closed its Edinburgh headquarters in 2013. The RIBA’s Future Trends survey for January indicates that the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon. While painting a picture of growing optimism across much of the UK, it identified Scotland as the one region where architects’ confidence in future workloads was in steep decline.
The challenge that Scottish architects continue to face was brought home to me in the course of preparing New Architects 3, the Architecture Foundation’s guide to Britain’s best emerging practices. This newly published book includes 93 firms that have set up in the past decade, selected by a panel of critics and curators. Their choice bears testament to the strength of Scottish architectural education: Amin Taha, Sam Jacob, Murray Kerr, Robin Lee, Hugh Strange and Phil Coffey are just some of the Scottish-educated architects whose practices are included. However, in each case their firm is based in London. The list of those operating north of the border is notably more modest: Graeme Massie Architects, A449 and Baxendale Studio. The last two are both sole practitioners.
If Scotland’s nationalist cause is to succeed, it will only be on a foundation of cultural vitality and distinctiveness
An irony of this drastic contraction of the country’s architecture scene is that it has taken place during a period of escalating nationalism. In any region experiencing a strong independence movement, demands for political autonomy inevitably succeed or fail on the strength of the territory’s cultural cohesion. Language is often the decisive factor. The constitution of Finland in 1918 was predicated on a movement to employ the indigenous language, rather than Swedish, in all official documents and proceedings. Likewise, the independence movements in Catalonia and Flanders today are founded on conceptions of identity rooted in linguistic distinctions.
Yet, in English-speaking Scotland, the nationalist cause has to look for its foundational myths elsewhere. To date, it has located them largely in a catalogue of injustices – some historic, some ongoing – and many of these complaints are doubtless well-directed. However, it will take more than a sense of shared victimhood to build a nation. If Scotland’s nationalist cause is to succeed, it will only be on a foundation of cultural vitality and distinctiveness – qualities that are in short supply in the country’s beleaguered architecture scene today.
Following Gareth Hoskins’ recent death, Nicola Sturgeon led the tributes to a man she described as ‘one of Scotland’s finest architects’. She would do well to ask who among the emerging generation is set to take his place. The country continues to support practices of real talent but their number is declining and, in the case of firms such as Sutherland Hussey and Graeme Massie, their workload is increasingly focused overseas. Few aspects of cultural production are more critical to the construction of national identity than architecture. The current health of the industry north of the border is depressing news for all Scots; but for the nationalists among them, it is a calamity.