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Review - Exhibition - Test of Time: 70 years of the Saltire Housing Awards

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By John Deffenbaugh

Test of Time: 70 years
of the Saltire Housing Awards.
At the Scottish Executive, Victoria Quay, Edinburgh, until 28 September and the Marischal Museum, University of Aberdeen, from 5-28 October

The Saltire Housing Awards, funded by the Scottish Office, were seen as a way of raising the quality of housing at a time when much of the country’s population lived in squalid and cramped conditions.
The Saltire judging panel, including prominent architects such as Robert Matthew and Hugh Wilson (of Cumbernauld town centre fame), rewarded local authorities and architects who responded creatively to the demand for new housing. Their findings are presented here on large-scale panels and in video footage, categorised by the prevalent theme of each decade. As a result, ‘Test of Time’ is not simply a housing retrospective; it provides us with an insight into the psyche of Scotland’s politicians and its people at a time of incredible upheaval.

We see the extreme urgency to provide new homes colliding with a general disregard of traditional forms such as the tenement. Political drive to ensure Scotland was at the forefront of housing design accelerated this process, leading to the polemical developments of city-centre tower blocks and suburban new towns. Within just over a decade, however, and jaded by the high-profile failures of the 1960s, Scotland abandoned its utopian dream. The stigma once attached to tenements would now afflict Modernist housing, paving the way for a revival in the tenement’s fortunes which lasted throughout the 1990s.

By then, the delivery of Scotland’s new homes was firmly in the hands of the private sector. As new ‘tenements’ were being constructed within city centres, rural and suburban areas came to be characterised by brick shoeboxes jockeying for position around disconnected cul-de-sacs. It’s telling that while ‘Test of Time’ categorises the 2000s as ‘Suburbia and the Market’, only one project, Malcolm Fraser’s The Drum (in Boness, West Lothian), is highlighted as an example of successful suburban development.

This raises the question: are we in danger of repeating the mistakes of our predecessors? While Modernist housing is still maligned, there are lessons to be learned from sensitive Modernist developments. Monumental failures in Glasgow’s Gorbals continue to overshadow the many successful examples of humane Modernism, which drew on characteristics associated with traditional living but employed a contemporary architectural language to embody the spirit of their period. Surely this would be a good starting point for new housing developments, rather than relying on a retro language that says little about modern Scotland.

‘Test of Time’ shows the importance of a balanced view in considering the housing we have inherited, and shows too the dangers of what can happen when entire genres are disregarded. But, promisingly, there are schemes under way, such as Hypostyle’s proposals in Craigmillar and the work of Page/Park in both Craigmillar and Glasgow’s Gorbals, which hint at the emergence of a contemporary identity in Scottish housing. They take their cue from that earlier humane Modernism and there’s not a faux-quoin in sight.

John Deffenbaugh is an architect/planner in Edinburgh

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