June 06, 2012
This is the transcript of a lecture that practice partner Alasdair Stephen gave to Strathclyde University architecture department in early 2007. He was given the title for the lecture and asked to give a personal view on its meaning.
Despite the title of this lecture I am not an intellectual. I am an architect who studied at Strathclyde University so I know you are not here under false expectations. I know that in half an hour many of you will be thinking of drink and wishing I would finish. I was often bored and frustrated in those very seats so I can relate to you. I remember my time here well.
In fact, halfway through this lecture some of you may be questioning why you chose architecture. You may be asking what you are doing with your life. Or you may be questioning life itself. That’s probably quite a good thing to do rather than continuing in a career which has terrible pay and leaves only 2% of architects happy according to the most recent Happiness Index. If you want to be happy in your job become a hairdresser. If that is you, please leave now.
When I came to Strathclyde architecture department I met an eclectic group of people. Some students were very confident and already dressed as if they were real designers. All in black with trendy glasses. These were the students who copied designs from Japanese architecture magazines. Other students were genuinely interested in architecture and others were very talented. My main interest was in politics and architecture was, at that time, secondary.
In third year though we were introduced to Jonathan Charlie, a politically active revolutionary intellectual, a cross between Tommy Sheridan, Daniel Libeskin and Phil Mitchell. He took our ‘unit’ to Drumchapel where our first project was to redesign a children’s home. I asked my mother, who was a social worker, about current policy at Strathclyde Regional Council and discovered that children’s homes such as this were being closed down. Instead they were to become family resource centres but there was a critical funding shortage. I therefore produced a design based on current thinking and policy in childcare and did so with a minimal intervention into the existing building. For my political approach I almost failed. Later that semester, at an assembly of the entire school, a fellow student raised a point of order and demanded to know why I had done so badly given that I was the only student in the unit who had followed the brief. At this the tutors who previously graded me took to the stage to explain to everyone my lack of talent. It’s that sort of humiliation at university that makes the rest of life so easy.
However, despite that experience architecture then became interesting for me. Politics was part of the curriculum. For the next project my friend Michael Hinshelwood and I made up our own brief and decided to examine the housing of Gedore, where Michael’s mother comes from, and Skye, where my mother comes from.
In this project we examined the history, culture and economics of the areas and how they related to housing. This entailed a lot of socialising in both Skye and Ireland, interviewing people in pubs with our video camera.
On Skye we met homeless and dispossessed people who were living in conditions worse than what had probably been endured for over a hundred years. An old shepherd who kept his clothes in a plastic bag to stop them getting damp in his dilapidated caravan. He had been kicked out of his tied cottage when he retired from the estate where he had worked most of his life. There was a young woman whose child was in care but who would not get her child back until she got decent accommodation. She too lived in a caravan. In Skye there was a feeling of a community on the slide. By contrast in Ireland the pubs were packed, the communities thriving. But even then, back in the early 90s, the beautiful landscape was being despoiled by inappropriate housing – alien to the landscape. However, at least Donegal had people. It was obvious that poorly designed kit houses was not the issue facing rural Scotland and Ireland as many architects seemed to think. It was the economy, the land, the people, the culture. Politics.
When I finished fourth year the plan was to make some money in the summer and then head to Hong Kong for work experience. I went to Cluanie Inn, Kintail where I ended up working through to November, spending 2 days a week at my gran’s on Skye. In Kintail I found a community where alcoholism was commonplace. I was stunned to be told of the number of young people who had died on the hills, in cars, at sea and by suicide. It was shocking to discover the number of homeless and the practices of estate owners who knocked down houses rather than allow locals to live in them.
I remember the mother of one of the girls in the kitchen telling me how the night before the guests at the estate lodge where she worked started a food fight. This included Tory mps. After they had thrown all the food they had spent hours preparing they were told to clean it up and prepare more food for them. Her response to viewing such behaviour from the elite was to get elected as the local councillor and represent her people.
I also met people like Duncan ‘Stalker’ Matheson – a Gael almost from a vanished era. He was a master thatcher who had his skill passed to him from his father and grandfather. He worked for the estate but was the best poacher in the district, allegedly. He had incredible Gaelic and could describe every element of the blackhouse, having more knowledge of traditional Highland building techniques than probably anyone alive. And yet he had watched his own Gaelic speaking community disappear. And he also saw his son Johnny living in a caravan with his wife and baby daughter because the estate where he worked had no houses for staff.
I decided when I was at Cluanie that I wasn’t going to go to Hong Kong as planned but was moving to Skye to stay with my gran and learn Gaelic from her. I was asked to do some research work by a local architect and started surveying the cleared village of Boreraig. My gran told me that both her family and my grandfathers family originally came from the cleared villages of Boreraig and neighbouring Suishnish. About the same time I went down to Glasgow for the architectural winter school. I remember there was this Boswellian Scot, who had been working in England most of his career. He announced that the reason that the Highlanders built kit houses was because they were cultural philistines. I took this as a great insult and told him so. There is nothing worse than the craven Scotch coming back to lecture us on how pathetic we are.
Well, maybe if he knew a bit about the history of the Highlands and the Clearances he would change his mind. There is no doubt that there was a deliberate, systematic policy to destroy the militaristic clan system after the Jacobite risings. This meant the banning of the kilt, the bagpipes, and weaponry. It meant the continued attempt to destroy Gaelic. The bible was translated into Gaelic 100 years after the native Indians of America. But the biggest change was the absolute disconnection of the clans from their chiefs who were bred into aristocracy and deliberately anglised into lairds.
This led to numerous acts of betrayal by landowners who tried to preserve and create wealth by sacrificing people. This was to be known as the Clearances.
The bare facts are that at the beginning of the 18th century the Highlands had half the population of Scotland. Scotland had a quarter of the population of England. Scotland now has a 12th of the population of England and the Highlands is the most sparsely populated area of Western Europe.
Boreraig and Suishnish is a perfect example of what happened. Lord MacDonald, direct descendant of Somerled, the founder of the Lordship of the Isles, sits on the fence during Culloden and quickly claims title to the clan lands. He becomes a Eton educated London fop with his English wife, ridiculed by Dr Johnson.
His notion for high living resulted in a greater need for wealth so he racked up the rent of the clans people, forcing many to leave. As Johnson calls it, this great epidemic of emigration.
At that time the people lived in small clachan, villages around a water source where the land is rotated so everyone has a chance for the best – the ‘run rig’ system. Weaker people in the community were looked after. Rent was paid to the tacksman, the educated middle class of society, who in turn paid the clan chief. To make more money Lord MacDonald got rid of his tacksmen and the run rig system. At the beginning of the 19th century individual crofts were laid out and the houses separated. At this time Lord MacDonald also built a ‘must-have’ Gothic castle on his grounds in Armadale.
As with many clan chief Lord MacDonald could not squeeze enough financial blood out of the people to pay for his lifestyle so it was decided to clear Boreraig and Suishnish, along with many more villages, to make way for sheep. After 2000 years of continual habitation on this land the sheriff officers turned up and threw out the people. They put out the central fires by pouring the milk over them, a symbolic extinction of life. The people were then left homeless. The brothers of my gran’s grandfather both died on their way to Canada. Their wives survived and both had children on the journey over. My grandfathers people slept in bivvies on the Breakish Common grazing. The people of Breakish gave up some of their precious land to make 6 crofts for some of the dispossessed people. That is why grandfather’s grandfather managed to build this house in Ashaig where I spent all my summer holidays and stayed with my gran when I moved to Skye.
So when a people have been systematically removed, by war, inducement, clearance and have been told that they are savages it’s little wonder that there is a lack of confidence amongst those that remain. Or that there are such high rates of alcoholism, depression and suicide in the Highlands.
This was eloquently put in a recent article by Ian MacKinnon, a 29 year old from Sleat:
I – in common with most males in my age-group – am not living on the land of my ancestors. Sleat is booming and I firmly believe that lack of work is not the main reason why so many have gone and not returned.
In my view the distance from our language, and often a sense of alienation from our home, has been the inevitable effect of the treatment of past generations. You could call it identity theft and for its victims the effects are everywhere. The hills, streams, rocks and bays all have their names – but they are no longer our names and their stories are not ours.
Time and again, when native peoples are removed from their homes; have their language and culture destroyed; and are made to feel worthless in their own place, the results are the same: they escape. Either geographical escape through spiraling levels of outward migration to forge some new identity in the cities, or psychological escape through substance abuse, crime and violence (suicide is an act of violence against the self, and the Highlands’ suicide rate is among the highest in the developed world). These results are found all over the world among displaced peoples, whether the bushmen of the Kalahari, the native Americans on their reservations in the American north-west, or the Gaels of the Scottish north-west
But there is a growing confidence among many younger people in the Highlands and I think that’s a lot to do with traditional music. The number and quality of musicians in the Highlands has probably never been stronger in its history. Many of these young musicians learnt through the Feis movement which has been hugely successful. This has also encouraged many to take a interest in Gaelic and the college beside me is full of young Gaelic speakers, many of whom being wonderful singers and musicians.
But if music, language and dance can be revived then what about architecture? Well the blackhouse, the dominant housing form in the Highlands for maybe 2000 years, is still a symbol of backwardness to many Gaels and there is no point trying to romanticise it. But it was a vernacular response to the land, the climate and the poverty. People who hold it up as an example of the perfect eco design miss the point. The blackhouse represented their poverty, not eco living. A woman from the Earthship Centre, an organisation that builds houses out of old tyres and mud contacted me once asking for insight into the relationship between the blackhouse and the earthship. She thought the idea of building out of turf, stone and thatch was wonderful. I took her to see Duncan Stalker who told her of the Boer war veteran in his village when he was a boy. When the men were fencing the clippings were collected and the old man spent his days twisting the wires together to make more fencing nails. But as soon as they could afford to buy fencing nails they did so and the old man had to find other ways to pass his time. I think she missed the point. Through the history of humanity people have been striving to make their own burden easier. Who is going to rethatch their house every few years or start washing their clothes in the burn outside. New houses for the Highlands which are a development of some of the ideas of the blackhouse for the 21st century have to be as modern as people can afford.
But this isn’t new. Verner Kissling proposed a blackhouse back in the 1920s but his problem was that it wasn’t built so noone could see how good or how bad it is. But other architects in Scotland such as Malcolm Fraser, Anderson Bell and Christie and Rural Design among others are producing designs which are reflecting the designs of the past in plan and form. As Malcolm Fraser says of one of his designs:
For this new house we were concerned with making a contemporary Scottish architecture born out of respect for the work of our predecessors allied to an understanding that positive changes in the way we live in the world need to be reflected in our buildings.
We understand tradition to be an evolving thing, with the best elements of the past being altered by advances in building techniques allied to changes in social and cultural patterns. A living tradition would see established patterns of building altered by modern concerns such as: orientation towards landscape and view, blurring between internal and external spaces, more open-plan living, consciousness of energy matters etc.
But is this as Kenneth Frampton would ask, Critical regionalism? Now I’m all sure you’ve read this book from cover to cover and you understand all the big words. But he does define Critical Regionalism as this:
The term ‘Critical Regionalism’ is not intended to denote the vernacular as this was once spontaneously produced by the combined interaction of climate, culture, myth and craft, but rather to identify those recent regional ‘schools’ whose primary aim has been to reflect and serve the limited constituencies in which they are grounded.
Among other factors contributing to the emergence of a regionalism of this order is not only a certain prosperity but also some kind of anti centrist consensus – an aspiration at least to some form of cultural, economic and political independence.’
Critical Regionalism is a reaction against ‘ the spreading out of mediocre civilisation’. Argued Paul Ricoeur in 1961. If only he could see the globalise world we know live in when not only languages like Gaelic almost dead, but the very accents we speak are being homogenised. Francis Fukuyama, the neo-con American political scientist says that any type of politics of cultural identity, which critical regionalism undoubtedly is was conceived ‘as a game at the end of history … a kind of ornament…that would provide ethnic food, colourful dress and traces of distinctive historical traditions to societies often seen as numbingly conformist or homogenous’
So is designing modern homes reflecting the culture of our country just the muse of the bored middle class of a liberal democracy whose culture is really no different from that from each other? We all eat the same food, watch the same tv, talk the same way. Or is there a aspiration to cultural independence driving on the architectural profession in Scotland.
Well I don’t know the answer to this. No doubt a political or social scientist will tell us one day. I think architects in Scotland are, post devolution, thinking more about a national identity and architecture.
But the people who are building not the one off houses or small schemes are the likes of Stuart Milne. These guys build thousands of units a year and will unwittingly ruin a historic village unless protected.
Now Stuart Milne is a capitalist and he cannot expect to care about the landscape or the built environment, let alone any sort of Critical Regionalism. They build units within a globalised world. And the architects such as Forster and Rogers are little different. They are producers of a brand , an icon for global companies and global markets. Sometimes it appears they have little interest in knitting together the fabric of cities, creating a sense of place or a sense of identity. But that type of architecture is required and I hope that among you is a fantastically talented Scottish architect who will become world famous. The question has to be asked why an architect hasn’t set up a company and become the biggest house builder in the country and why architects aren’t changing the political landscape of the country?
We’ve recently set up a kit house company and we will be expanding our range shortly. We probably get 20 times as many hits on this website as we do on our Dualchas website. .
We asked M + K Macleod, the biggest kit builder in Argyll to price our kits for us. Within a few months they had produced their own range of Gaelic Kits, marketing the range with their Highland, Skye identity. It will at the end of the day, in our capitalist liberal democracy, money and the market that will force change on housebuilding. I for one will be delighted if more kit companies produce long house ranges, claiming a Gaelic heritage as their inspiration.
But people building these new houses which reflect the Gaelic identity of times past may very well be the prosperous, the middle class indulging themselves with ethnic second homes – just like the middle class obsession with organic food.
Because the reality on the ground, is that politically things in there own way are just as bad as they have ever been for many in rural Scotland. Last week a father came to me on behalf of his son. He’s in his early twenties, a joiner and is trying to build a house. Despite being promised a mortgage at 4 times his salary, being eligible for a 30% grant and a subsidised piece of land from a charity, he will still be 20,000 short of being able to afford a house in his community.
In Sleat, land is now selling at over £100,00 for a quarter acre. We cannot employ people because they will have nowhere to live so we have opened an office in Glasgow. The college cannot retain staff because of the severe housing shortage.
As Mary Morrison, whose father was cleared from Boreraig said, when asked if she was encouraged that there was new employment in the area ‘But whose is the land, whose is the sea?’
And that is why the situation is still deplorable and it will be harder for your generation than it has been for many before. The same people who controlled the land still do and this is why those without land, without housing, especially the younger generation, who do not have inherited wealth, are in a awful position. A few communities have been lucky enough but this policy only benefits a few and is divisive.
Lewis, which has lost 41% of it’s population since 1901 and has the sharpest fall in young people of any part of the UK is now divided over windfarm proposals. The absurdity, is that under current proposals, some crofter and some communities will become wealthy. The neighbouring township, the sister who never inherited the croft will not.
The government has endless schemes to help resolve the crisis facing our rural communities. Not a crisis of poor design, but a crisis of homelessness. The hidden homeless which forces people to stay at home into their thirties, live in caravans, or more commonly, move away because there is no option.
At a conference I was at I listened to many people tell stories of how they struggled to obtain land in a community from a landowner and eventually secure funding to build four affordable social housing. The irony is that in that time it took to build those social houses many more social houses had probably been lost to the community with the right to buy.
Every scheme which awards additional grants makes people more and more dependant. And with every increase in the value of land and housing is to the benefit of those who already have and takes wealth out of the pocket of the next generation. How can most young people ever afford to live in Sleat when they are burdened with student debt. How can they raise a mortgage? How can they start a business or think about starting a family. And working in the communities architects are in the perfect position to see this. And the triumph of the Scottish Parliament is not just the building but the fantastic opportunity it gives everyone to engage in politics and try and make a change. Now I’m a member of the snp and I think their policy of paying off all existing student debt will be of a huge benefit to individuals and the economy. But I also think their policy of giving £2000 to each first time buyer, although well intentioned is a waste of time.
Because it fails to answer Mary Morrison’s question. Whose is the land, whose is the sea? It just means more money into the pockets of the haves.
We currently have a situation where the landowners are compensated, paid for having services put into their land which makes their land more valuable. The absurdity was best explained by Henry George, the 19th century American land reformer.
He explained through Cane and Able the absurdity of ownership. How it makes a person a slave or a murderer. On his visit to Scotland he told of the Irish millionaire who made his wealth by staying in bed for seven years. He asked the pious audience if Moses had led the Israelites into Scotland and he broke a rock and water gushed forth would it not belong to a laird who would be liable for payment. Would he not need a permit to shoot the quail. And he described the utter misery and degradation that he witnessed in the slums of Glasgow and the Highlands of Scotland.
The answer he sad was a land value tax. An assumption that people did not own land but possessed it and for that privilege had to pay tax to the community, to the government.
The result of this could be land designated for a particular use taxed on that basis. So if land in a community was needed for housing it was taxed for housing.
This would mean that communities could plan 5, 10 ,15, 20 years in advance. Proper plans, developed with architects and master planners, with full community participation can be drawn up . Villages and towns and cities can be properly planned and it will be design quality not price alone which drives the market.
I don’t see why everyone in this country in every community shouldn’t be entitled to a decent home. I don’t understand why we can’t expand our business on Skye or why we can’t get housing for staff.
The Highlanders have been told how worthless they are. Currently in Scotland we are being told that we uniquely are incapable of ruling our own affairs. Another form of confidence destruction. But I firmly believe that as architects you are able to change things by engagement with politics and architecture. A desire to make not just design, but the built environment, your community and you country better through your work.
That will give a purpose to your job, and a drive to your ambition. I do not expect many of you to stay. I expect the majority of you will be forced down to London, sucked in by the billions of the Olympics. Those who do stay though are not failures. You have the chance to use your professional skills to make your country a better place for everyone.