Scottish architects can’t bemoan being overlooked in their homeland if they don’t offer anything distinct
Search for the Scottish spirit
As the troubled and all too brief career of Charles Rennie Mackintosh indicates, scotland hasn’t always supported its home-grown architectural talent as well as it might have done. One can therefore sympathise with the frustrations expressed by Scottish architect Alan Dunlop that the plum commission for the new Glasgow School of Art building has been awarded to an American, Steven Holl.
Looking back over the recent history of major competitions north of the border, it is clear that local talent has scarcely had a look-in. A Scottish firm may be able to secure an associate position — as Glasgow-based JM Architects has in the school of art building — but as can be seen from the outcome of competitions for the Burrell Collection, the Museum of Scotland, the BBC Scotland headquarters and the forthcoming Museum of Transport, the lead role pretty much always goes to a London architect. In the cases of the Scottish Parliament, the University of Aberdeen Library and the art school building, it has been assigned further afield still.
Mackintosh was at least given the extraordinary break of the original art school commission. He was 27 at the time and one wonders whether he would even have made the shortlist if the prequalification requirements of the recent competition had applied in 1896. The teams shortlisted for the new building all had experience of delivering a major public project — something only a handful of local firms can claim.
That at least is beginning to change. The breaks may not be coming from their homeland, but an increasing number of Scottish practices are pursuing opportunities abroad. Sutherland Hussey has a large body of work in development in China; Graeme Massie has had competition success in Iceland; Richard Murphy has built the British High Commission in Colombo; and Nord’s Wexford County Council offices in Ireland are set to open next year.
Having proved their capabilities overseas, it is hoped these practices will now be given the opportunities they deserve in their own country. But as long as Scottish architects prove so reliant on foreign commissions to further their careers, the protectionist arguments we have been hearing this week will always smell of hypocrisy.
The best argument for giving Scottish architects special support is the rich particularity of the country’s heritage. Scottish architecture has, in the past, been something quite distinct from the rest of the British Isles.
It is striking, however, that a lot of recent Scottish architecture hasn’t demonstrated much interest in building on its own heritage. One thinks, for example, of the Homes for the Future project undertaken in 1999 as part of Glasgow’s City of Architecture celebrations. Although realised by a team of largely Scottish practices, the seven projects paid scant regard to the extraordinary tenement structure from which the surrounding urban fabric is uniformly built.
If Scottish architects simply want to build the kind of architecture that is realised everywhere else in the world, the argument that there is a rich indigenous culture worthy of defending becomes rather harder to sustain.
In such a climate, no one should be too surprised if the big jobs keep going to the big (and foreign) names.