In this excerpt from his new book, Roger Emmerson considers the importance of Modernism, regionalism and cultural identity in the evolution of Scottish architecture
Everyone from Immanuel Kant to The Broons has something relevant to say about Scottish architecture. Karel Čapek, the Czech playwright who gave English the word ‘robot’, called it ‘stonily grey and strange of aspect’, while American architect Louis I Kahn thought of it as ‘fairy-tale’ .
While these individuals, real or fictional, living or dead, observed something special, even unique, in Scottish architecture, we should also be aware it shares many characteristics with other Western architectures. It is the specifics of place, culture and history which define the individual identity of a regional architecture within that larger context.
Land of Stone examines the issues of Modernism, regionalism and cultural identity which have moulded Scottish architecture in the modern period – roughly from the date of the failed Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, through the contemporaneous ideas and practice of significant theorists and architects and the political context within which they worked. The contribution to that identity of ideas, significant at the time in Scottish philosophy, art and culture, is highlighted and the conventional interpretation of the impact of ideas generated furth of Scotland challenged.
The importance of the home and its cultural, ritual and societal meanings and how it has fared over time is presented as a counterpoint to the more purely ideistic narrative in the clash of architectural aesthetics. Land of Stone seeks to disengage widely-held conceptions of what a Scottish architecture superficially looks like and to focus on the ideas and events, philosophical, political, practical and personal, that inspired architects and their clients to create the cities, towns, villages and buildings we cherish today.
One of the earliest commentaries on Scottish architecture was that made by the Anglo-Scot James Fergusson in his History of Architecture:
There are few countries in the world in respect to whose architecture it is so difficult to write anything like a connected narrative as it is regarding that of Scotland. The difficulty does not arise from the paucity of examples or their not having been sufficiently examined or edited, but from the circumstance of the art not being indigenous…
All these foreign elements, imported into a country where a great mass of the people belonged to an art-hating race, tended to produce an entanglement of history very difficult to unravel. With leisure and space, however, it might be accomplished; and if properly completed, would form a singularly interesting illustration, not only of the ethnography of Scotland but of art in general.
Fergusson questioned the presence of Scottishness, a consistent narrative and the Scots’ appreciation of art – seeing only an ‘entanglement’ – topics that occur frequently in the later discussion of Scottish architecture and which are central to Land of Stone. Paradoxically, it is a very Kantian ‘entanglement’ which is the key to the understanding of the concepts of Scottishness, narrative and art appreciation. I have brought ‘leisure and space’ to bear on this topic, although whether their product has quite the result anticipated by Fergusson is open to question.
My research began in the immediate aftermath of the Scottish Devolution Referendum of 1997, while I was still a lecturer at the School of Architecture, Edinburgh College of Art. It arose from a 1980s interrogation of the presumed relevance of a contemporary reinterpretation of the forms of 15th to 17th century Scottish architecture; a discussion which led many astray, me included. Miles Glendinning observed:
In 1991, Scottish brickmaker Charles Wemyss, after energetically trying to foster a ‘Scottish’ brick style by commissioning an innovative range of Mackintosh-like house types from Roger Emmerson (1990), ruefully concluded that there seemed no way of throwing off ‘the old adages of utilitarian, incompatible and English’.
Glendinning employed Charles Rennie Mackintosh, as have many, as the all-too frequent comparator of what is new or different in Scottish architecture. Wemyss’s problem was the appropriateness of the material; mine, at the time, the aesthetic.
Research incorporated visits to Finland, Czechoslovakia (subsequently Czechia and Slovakia), Sweden, Denmark, Latvia, Portugal, Israel and Switzerland for comparison and contrast, until I was called back to full-time architectural practice in 2000. With the relative freedom of the non-teaching part of the year lost, the book foundered and spent the best part of two decades shuttling from one hard-drive and one cloud to another.
The twenty-year gap was a blessing. What had seemed propitious in the 1990s was a false dawn; the appearance of the distinct formal characteristics of a national architecture more the result of post-Modernism’s ransacking of the historic record for usable motives to cut-and-paste than from any deeper understanding.
Nonetheless, architectural production in Scotland blossomed at the hands of the many talented architects who either came to prominence or graduated at the millennium. It seemed relevant, in 2021, to examine that flowering.
Joanna Frueh predicted the transgressive nature of much of the argumentation of the book:
‘Love’ and ‘prophecy’ are unacceptable academic and art world vocabulary… Intellectuals and artists reject love and prophecy because they depart from the rationalist thinking that is the cultural establishment’s acceptable, respected and appropriate mode of communication and that is the basis of art historiography. To a large degree, art comes from and communicates in nonrationalistic ways, but the mechanisms of art historiography which function, too, in art criticism, inform artists’ self-preservation: they know that a certain vocabulary and explanations are approved.
Peter Collins identified early the absence of ideational meaning in the canonic rationalist Modernist writings of such as Nikolaus Pevsner, Siegfrid Giedion and Henry-Russell Hitchcock.
Yet works of the type just mentioned inevitably possess one inherent limitation in that they are concerned essentially with the evolution of forms, rather than with the changes in those ideals which produced them, and this tends to minimise one of the most important factors in architectural design, namely the motives which dictate the character of an architect’s work.
For an undergraduate like myself in 1966 the publication of the Pelican reprint of Pevsner’s Pioneers of Modern Design of 1936 and of Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction had significance; Pevsner, too complacent for the times, content that:
… for this reprint… I have corrected about a dozen small errors and added…a bibliography of new literature. This is all that seemed to me to be necessary.
(although I was pleased at his inclusion of Mackintosh), while Venturi required a wealth of historical and theoretical knowledge beyond the understanding of a first-year student.
Mackintosh reappeared within two years in the seminal exhibition, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, held at the Royal Museum of Scotland for the Edinburgh International Festival, 1968. Here was a richness and an austerity, a universal meaning and a private language, a future and a past, a triumph and a tragedy, romanticism and rationalism, Scotland and the world that Pevsner, whose view was retrospective and normative, only distantly observed having no recourse to the distinct Scottish tradition and philosophical stance that underpinned the Mackintoshes’ work.
Pevsner’s equivocal identification of the part-Scottish parentage of Modernism remains a certainty for many despite his apparent disinterest in whether the act of coition took place. An immaculate conception suffices for the true believer.
My objectives were: firstly, to trace the course of regionalist and nationalist architectural inclusion or exclusion from the Modernist canon; secondly, to establish a context for regionalist or nationalist architectures in Modernism; thirdly, to determine the autonomy and relevance of a distinct Scottish architectural culture; fourthly, to ascertain whether Scottish regional or national architectural production is in step with political action in Scotland; and fifthly, to identify a contemporary regional or national production in Scotland as the product of fundamental ideas about Scotland and its culture and architecture and not as the superficial manifestations of aesthetic isolates.
My initial challenge was how to retrieve Scottish culture generally and Scottish architecture particularly from footnote status in the history of a largely English reading of a ‘British’ cultural and architectural history, and to descend from the isolated peaks of architectural genius – Robert Adam, Alexander Thomson and Mackintosh – to the broad uplands of more general practice, and from ‘Scottish castles’ to more ordinary buildings. Today, the situation has improved, although even so, in the Scottish architectural library, the rooms devoted to Adam, Mackintosh and the Baronial far exceed the narrow shelves allotted to the rest, Thomson included.
While Land of Stone was conceived as an act of cultural resistance it is not a hatchet job on Modernism – others have attempted this and, as they deserve to, have failed – for I am a child of Modernism and value its spirit of change, innovation, autonomy and originality.
Rather, derived from my late 20th, early 21st-century experience as a practising architect, it is an attempt to excavate, interrogate and celebrate truthfully by means of Frueh’s ‘love and prophecy’ the regional architecture that many Modernist architectural writers omitted, obscured, obfuscated or buried as a problem, as a distraction from an otherwise seamless narrative.
Land of Stone: a journey through modern architecture in Scotland, by Roger Emmerson, is published by Luath Press