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17 January 2000

We need an architectural revolution

New Statesman Scotland - Unless we wake up, we are condemning ourselves to live in antiquat

By Anna Paterson

Is Scotland a place where judgemental opinion-leaders stifle new ideas? James MacMillan and Andrew O’Hagan argued the case some time ago. I think they are right, even though a chorus of voices was raised in defence of Scotland’s intellectual climate. My only qualification is about how it is done: meaty, difficult ideas seem to be simply ignored to death. The collective mindset is frivolous and resentful of effort. So any debate tends to be frothy and simple-minded, and a calculation of short-term cash gain will always win.

The immediate cause of this dour conclusion was the Glasgow Year of Architecture and Design 1999 (Glasgow99). It was such a wonderful idea, a gift to a beautiful but decaying city, but in spite of much dedicated work, Glasgow99’s legacy is of little real importance. There is the Lighthouse – the result of an exemplary conservation/conversion job on Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s stunning Herald building. But the rest, a long list of mostly underfunded events, exhibitions and “community projects”, varied in quality from worthy to annoying, and can be summed up as “ephemeral”.

The stress throughout was on design, in the sense of “looks”, irrespective of whether the thing was a house, a power tool or a cardboard box. The language used is a give-away: real information and ideas and even ideology is out, fantasy is in.

The odd thing is that not only Glasgow99 in particular, but almost all relevant Scottish professionals, politicians and businessmen seem unaware of the hard thinking being done on architecture and design as part of managing the human environment. There are real ideas and many complex facts to take in, but all of it is happening in places such as “Europe” and, gosh, “England”. The English environmental record is comparatively feeble and Westminster government apparatus passive, but the public discourse is lively and has had some cheering results. For example, 1999 saw the start (and, sadly, probable collapse) of the socially and ecologically exciting Greenwich Eco-Village; BBC engagement in a housing project with Integer (a large firm specialising in “intelligent and green design”); the planning of the Peabody Trust BedZED housing estate of inspiringly smart and inexpensive terraces on 3.5 acres of brownfield land; the first of the British Steel-supported exhibitions of sustainable architecture and design; and the humane and innovative report by Richard Rogers’ urban task force, which places inner-city regeneration into working communities on a plausible basis.

Scotland is effectively out of all this. Without a turnaround now, it will be a loser in the very competitive race to invent, produce and sell new construction technology. Without experience in new thinking, architectural and design contracts will increasingly go elsewhere; and native town planning and building will continue to condemn most Scottish people to live in antiquated conditions.

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New building in Scotland is significantly worse than the unreconstructed existing urban and rural built environments. Churning out uniform estates, car-dominated shopping sheds and ugly corporate blocks is too easy and too profitable for the construction industry to be stopped by anything other than radical planning legislation based on sustainable principles.

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“Sustainable” is one of those ever adaptable words, used to describe almost anything. Ecological building demands not only clever technology aimed at saving water and energy and providing new types of building materials, but integrated planning of transport, parks and playing-fields, shops and light industry. Above all, it is about restricting land use and revitalising cities. Rural living has its own problems with sustainability but, as far as building is concerned, the basic rule should be “don’t”.

The sustainability concept can be easily extended to include social housing for vulnerable groups. There are professionals who dedicate their time to working out how best to accommodate people who should be receiving care in the community: the elderly, the mentally and/or physically disabled, the homeless and “awkward” groups, such as single mothers and other impoverished young people. True, the usual insistence on “social mix” is fatuous: vibrant communities can be set up by people sharing professional or religious or racial goals. However, avoiding ghettos based on class, age or type of disability while creating viable places for people with special needs is a delicate and neglected part of architecture and town planning.

Scottish architects, please look outside the Scottish circuit and incorporate the new ideas that take emotional and ecological sustainability into account. Bring building into the 21st century: don’t focus on looks, but on how things work. Learn about town planning – and do write a new manifesto for Scotland, while there is still time.