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Tuesday29 July 2014

Search for the Scottish spirit

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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.

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Readers' comments (8)

  • Ellis, I'll respond because I much admire your writing but you're wrong as far as my frustration is concerned. Holl is a damn fine architect, I hope he produces a great work. On the basis though of the work submitted for the competition, I don't think it met the challenge of building alongside the Stirling of Stirlings, one of the worlds great buildings, Mackintosh's School of art. There were better proposals, in my view one of which was greatly superior as far as understanding the issues were concerned, it was also sensitive to the location and the Mac building and highly innovative and beautifully presented. The architects just happened to be "local" and Scottish. That's why they should have won. If the commission was awarded more on the basis of past projects, then no Scottish architect and few architects could compete with Holl and the likes of the Nelson Atkins but then what was the point of a competition, why not just give Holl the job? In my view, Glasgow School of Art had a opportunity therefor to buck the current trend of awarding big high profile projects in Scotland to architects outwith Scotland and they did not take it, as a major Scottish cultural institution that is wrong, again in my view. They should be supporting Scottish architects and artists. This is not parochialism and I am mildly frustrated but again not surprised that it it has been presented as such. My attitude might be slightly soured I admit by the fact that none of the big names in architecture who have built in Scotland or who have work on the go look like producing world class projects, sad but true. There are currently some exceptional architects in Scotland, you have mentioned a couple, one could have been given a chance for a lifetime project, their work merited it and you would'nt need the competition organisers having to confirm that Holl intended to spend time in Glasgow. That's me finished with it all no more comments, I'm going back to work

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  • I agree with Alan Dunlop and what an incredibly patronising comment piece, have you considered that the reason that the architects mentioned are working overseas is because they can not get work in their home country? How rediculous to suggest that the way froward for architects in scotland is through their architectural heritage alone, would you say the same about architects in Ireland or Spain or England? If there was a better proposal let us see it!

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  • Having seen a number of Alan Dunlop's comments across the internet in recent time I can say that I agree with him on Nord's joint submission, after a quick inspection I thought it was the most exciting of the proposals from a practice that deserves such a job as this. However I think Mr. Dunlop and many like him have gone too far on this one. You may disagree with the choice they made, but in your comment here you have said, "They should be supporting Scottish architects and artists. This is not parochialism and I am mildly frustrated but again not surprised that it has been presented as such." Now obviously the panel did not share our view that Nord had the best design, so what exactly are you suggesting they do? Open the competition to practices around the world but positively discriminate on behalf of Scottish practices? Or just have this competition open to Scottish practices alone? I ask because both, to me, sound a little parochialism, but maybe Alan can further his thoughts and explain why they are not. Interesting enough I was recently listing to an interview with the late Arthur Miller, the famous playwright, in which he recalled how his masterpiece The Crucible was largely ignored to start with, but gradually became appreciated for what it was. Lets hope the this project has a similar fait.

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  • Mr Dunlop has just been appointed a visiting 'Professor' of architecture at a US university. Preference is given in the appointment to someone from outside the US. His parochial comments now sit rather at odds with that. Perhaps he should not take up the offer, and allow a US architect the opportunity?

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  • Supporting Scottish designers? How about just supporting good designers full stop. I for one would assume it is a source of pride to many parochial Scots (designers and artists included) that there are 2 Zaha Hadid buildings in Scotland whilst there are none in England; 1 Frank Gehry Building in Scotland versus none in England. And as for the Parliament building…choosing Miralles required a far reaching vision that was absent from any similar public building in England in the last 100 years…parochialism is something you can definitely level at England, especially when you leave the rarefied architectural nirvana that is Clerkenwell and Shoreditch. But Scotland does show a remarkable openness to modernity that England most certainly does not. I do not think we have that much to complain about. There are plenty of young architects in Scotland building momentum however the difficulty in landing a large public commissions is just as problematic everywhere – and its nothing to do with stararchitect discrimination, its much more to do with the increasingly punishing pre-qual restrictions and the ever spiralling complexity of commissions of this nature; soon it will only be Atkins that can take on anything bigger than a primary school… However, back to the Art School example, I do think it does the process of Steven Holl’s selection a bit of a disservice to bring nationality into it. We should applaud a process that picked the best proposal and to hell with nationalistic overtones. Imploring that NORD got the gig may be the same as an argument in County Wexford a few years back that an Irish practice should have got the commission that NORD have done so fine a job on. And if I am not mistaken Alan Dunlop tried to wrench a plum commission away from the poor downtrodden Northern Ireland architectural fraternity a few years back with his unsuccessful Lyric theatre competition entry…and I, as a Belfast native am eternally grateful that O’Donnell and Tuomey got it and not some plucky local practice… O’Donnell and Tuomey just happened to have the best scheme! And back to Scotland, I believe Miralles’ parliament is vastly superior to whatever Murphy would have delivered; I believe that Zaha’s transport museum will be superior to the Hoskins proposal and ultimately Holl’s art school will be seen to be the correct choice….that is not implying any inferiority in Scottish architects, its just merely pointing out that when you cast the net far and wide you will get the best possible result. Hence why the world uses architectural competitions!

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  • In addition to my previous comment, is it not true that there was a vetting process in which companies submitting had to show financial records in order to establish whether they could work to a budget and deliver quality? If not then my mistake, but if so then it is niave for critics to proclaim that the best entre did not win. The GSA, from what I've heard, has very little scope to go over it's £50 million budget so it needs to know that the designer is capable of coming in on target with costs. While they may not be published in the press, there are a number of other factors to deciding who wins. I agree with the sentiments of both Ad crawford and WH.

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  • Well said Ellis!

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  • I think there has to be a balance between inviting the world to participate in your country and actively nurturing home grown talent. In one sense I do like the fact that in competitions, there emerges a winner and to quote Abba " The winner takes it all". Forget nationality, judge what is 'best'. However, it does sometimes seem like a culture is encouraged whereby all things foreign are deemed better. It's as if to employ foreign architects is seen as more multicultured, exotic etc - even if their work is not any better than homegrown talent! I do agree that the article is quite patronising - to suggest that Scottish architects can only excell if they design things that are stereotypically Scottish. And to further imply that Scottish architects are deserving of being ignored when they don't design in a traditional Scottish style is also a little strange. I mean, a lot of the issue is not that Scottish architects are producing weaker proposals, it's that there seems to be a desire to bring in foreign architects regardless!

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