The Doolan shortlist is worthy of attention, just don’t pretend it’s world class, writes Rory Olcayto
There is a growing sense both culturally and politically that Scotland is moving apart from England.
That the Conservative-led UK government has only one Scottish MP and the Nationalists are currently in charge of Holyrood only exaggerates this ‘split’.
It has even found expression in architectural matters. Last month, Rab Bennetts said the Stirling Prize was too London-centric. More dramatically, RIAS secretary Neil Baxter declared the anti-Scottish bias ‘intolerable’ and suggested the creation of a ‘Scottish Stirling’ to sit alongside its annual Doolan prize.
Quite why Scotland would need two major awards – that would surely celebrate the same projects – is beyond me. Perhaps Baxter will clarify this matter if it ever comes to pass. Yet Baxter’s other point is one we can deal with now: on the evidence of this year’s shortlist for the RIAS Andrew Doolan Best Building in Scotland Award, the RIBA was right to ignore the Scots.
Reiach and Hall’s Dundee House is the only project that might rightly be considered for the Stirling. And there is at least – at least – one project that should be nowhere near it. If Phoenix Flowers, a witty but lightweight pop-art public space scheme, actually wins, well, I’ll eat my Jimmy Hat.*
As an underwhelmed Bennetts says, ‘perhaps the shortlist is simply not short enough’. Would The Brochs of Coigach, for example, conceivably be thought of as a Stirling Prize contender? Of 35 projects submitted, 13 were shortlisted (as opposed to six from 93 for the Stirling).
The award now has a broad geographical spread – the Shetland-based Grödians scheme, for example, deserves recognition – but the Doolan prize is in danger of becoming overly sentimental; a certain folksy pride seems to be blurring reasonable judgement. (On wider matters too: why would Baxter refuse to engage the RIAS with the Union Terrace Gardens competition in Aberdeen, yet resolutely back the pastiche architecture of Donald Trump’s ‘exemplary’ clubhouse for his Aberdeenshire golf course?)
In many ways, the shortlisted projects are worthy of attention; just don’t kid on they are world class, as Baxter – and his jury – does. ‘In the last three years, Ian Ritchie, George Ferguson and Piers Gough have come to our RIAS Convention,’ Baxter says, ‘and told us our new buildings are comparable to the best of anything in the UK and Europe.’ But could 2009’s winner, Archial’s Small Animal Hospital, really go head-to-head with, say, Peter Zumthor’s Museum Kolumba, or Chipperfield and Harrap’s Neues Museum? I don’t think so.
Shall we ask Archial?
* I’m Scottish, by the way