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We have lost a great visual communicator

Rory Olcayto
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Scotland – and the world of architecture – are poorer for the untimely death of Gareth Hoskins

Gareth Hoskins’ design for ‘Scotland’s first ever stand-alone pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008 – a staircase for sitting on – was so obviously the best entry in the Scottish Government’s ‘A Gathering Space’ competition that it didn’t take long for the jury to pick the winner. I know this because I was a judge. What I didn’t know at the time was that Gareth had designed it. The submissions were anonymous. And it would be little while later before I learned that the concept for the pavilion wasn’t, in fact,  Gareth’s. Shortly after his victory he told me the initial idea for a set of public stairs was suggested by his colleague Elissa Yon and drew on such precedents as the Spanish Steps in Rome. ‘It was the strongest idea to come out of an office workshop we held,’ he said. ‘It allows people to gather informally – on the steps – and formally in the lecture space underneath.’

He knew how to explain his projects to architects and the public alike

What can we glean from this anecdote? A few things. Firstly, Gareth was a great visual communicator. His idea was the clearest and most coherent of the 50 entries received (from some of Scotland’s top architects). Secondly, Gareth had good patter: he knew how to explain his projects to architects and the public alike. And thirdly, name checking his colleague who hit upon the staircase idea showed the man’s sincere generosity.

There is another point, too. When he won the Venice Biennale competition to represent Scottish architecture in 2008, his Glasgow-based firm, then named Gareth Hoskins Architects, had already completed the Culloden Visitor Centre in the Highlands and was in the midst of transforming the National Museum of Scotland, offering proof of how central Gareth, just 10 years after setting up, had become, not just to Scotland’s architectural culture, but to Scotland’s cultural landscape in general.

If you haven’t heard already, Gareth died last week, aged just 48, after suffering a heart attack during a fencing match. It has left all of us here at the AJ feeling very, very sad. I knew Gareth a little. He was always charming, always calm, but energetic, also, and full of ideas about how to improve the towns and cities of Scotland, Britain and overseas, too – he had an outpost in Berlin.

We both felt Helensburgh, where I grew up and where he lived with his wife and young family, and which is home to great buildings by Mackintosh and ‘Greek’ Thomson, deserved great new contemporary architecture. Gareth had worked with local residents to redevelop its messed-around seafront, and once, spotting an opportunity when the local school was demolished and rebuilt elsewhere, tried to bring the Scottish Government’s Highland Housing Fair to the newly available site. Neither of those projects came to be, but then many others did.

Consequently, his legacy is particularly strong: his firm created many fine buildings for a diverse range of clients. The Bridge in Easterhouse and the Mareel in Shetland are among my favourites and deserve recognition beyond Scotland’s borders. Both buildings are for the public, celebrate coming together, and exude the same friendly sophistication that Gareth did in person.

Our thoughts go out to his family, friends and colleagues. His untimely passing really is a tragic loss.

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