March 03, 2014
Lecture given to Strathclyde University as part of Politics and Scottish Architecture symposium on the 27th of February 2014.
On the 18th of September Scotland will hold the most important vote in its history. It is sometimes difficult to appreciate the enormity of the decision or the significance of the process that has led us to this position.
Uniquely, a left of centre nationalist movement, not based on identity, bloodlines and patriotism, but reason, fairness and democracy has – over a period of a hundred years – led us to this vote. A vote, that if YES – and it will be – will see the sun, that once would never set on a global empire, finally disappear under the horizon.
But what has this got to do with architecture? What has the prospect of a new state for an old nation got to do with our profession? I think it has everything to do with architecture if you believe what I do. That is that architecture IS politics.
The most obvious relevance that architecture has to Scotland gaining its independence is an expression of identity. Do we use architecture to articulate a new Scotland through our buildings?
I remember a few years ago there was an exhibition at the Lighthouse commemorating ‘Bungalow Bliss’, a collection of house designs published by Irish architect Joe Fitzsimons in 1971. I was asked to appear on a Radio Scotland programme with Mr Fitzsimons to discuss the influence of his book. Since publication tens of thousands of these suburban bungalows have been built across rural Ireland. I said I could not understand why a nation such as Ireland, after gaining independence, that had used music, dance, sport and religion to assert its identity, had not also used architecture. After all, it is through our buildings that a nation is often most easily identified. Not only that but it is through our buildings that our country and our age will be judged by future generations.
But I was wrong, the Irish architectural profession did indeed try to express identity through architecture. In 1939 Irish architect Michael Scott brought his design for a pavilion to the New York World Fair. It was modern, light, made of glass and concrete. It was supposed to represent a more outward looking, 20th century Ireland. It was a statement to the world that Ireland was leaving the caricature of a backward, potato dependant, mystical rural economy behind. It was only when viewed from above that it was revealed that the building was in the shape of a giant shamrock.
Going by some of the crass arguments of metropolitan commentators I would almost expect them to allege that all new buildings in an independent Scotland – when viewed from above – would be shaped like a haggis.
But Scotland has no reason to conscientiously express our identity through architecture with independence. It is not like the 19th century where – at the same time we were being re-branded as North British – our architects were producing our most obviously Scottish architecture. This may be best represented by the Wallace Monument, once described by a northern feminist in a Channel Four debate as being like ‘ a giant serrated penis, symbolising the misogynist and violent nature of Scottish society’.
But what we do will be judged by others. Like I judged the rash of ugly houses across rural Ireland. In response an Irishman might argue that these houses do represent Irish culture . They are the physical form of the rights and freedoms won by the peasantry over decades of struggle. From a time when the landed gentry raked in the rents of wretched Irish souls, who had to support their families on half an acre of ground, who could be evicted at a whim, and who were allowed to starve and die if the crops failed, well is now owning the land – being able to build whatever the hell the house they want on this land – after all the suffering and struggle of previous generations, not a better expression of Irish identity and politics than any shamrock-shaped pavilion?
So let us judge Scotland and the UK through our architecture. Let us judge where we were before the crash of 2008. Noddyville housing schemes built onto every town in the country. Starchitects building grotesquely expensive structure as monuments to a corrupt capitalist ponzi scheme that almost brought the world economy crashing down. And no regime was too corrupt, no dictator too cruel, to prevent our profession from selling its wares abroad. Colonel Gaddafi, no problem. Saudi sheik, no problem. Extravagant palaces for the princes and kings of the Gulf states, built by exploited and abused migrant workers paid for by the stolen wealth of the people. Countries where domestic servants are sexually assaulted, raped and murdered – where thousands of children are trafficked for use as beggars or camel jockeys. Countries where women have no rights. No problem.
So the reason architecture is important to a new Scotland that votes Yes on September the 18th is not because we need to express our identity through our architecture. It is the values that we as a profession in a new Scotland want to express to the world.
Independence will give us the chance to reassess what we are actually for. Are we just highly skilled design-monkeys to a capitalist system or are we, with our vast empirical knowledge, able to help shape a different future for our country?
The first small thing we can do is help give Scotland and Scottish people more self-respect. I asked someone recently why, when a pipe is repaired, the workmen never carefully put back the pavement, it is nearly always left a mess. He said the answer was that it was a lack of self respect. It is a manifestation of countless years of being told your country is not good enough, not wealthy enough, not clever enough to be normal, to be independent. That psychological damage can, some argue, express itself in many ways: alcoholism, poverty, domestic violence, and yes, maybe just not caring that you have made a mess of a pavement.
But our profession can help change that. Peter Wilson from Napier University has been championing the Norwegian Tourist Routes. Myself and my twin Neil arranged a meeting with Peter, ourselves and Richard Lochhead the environment minister. We told him that such a scheme for Scotland would give young architects the chance to shine, to give opportunities where none previously existed. It could transform fragile communities by creating art, tourist destinations that will attract further investment. It would, most importantly, show the world that Scotland has vision, it cares about its environment and also about art. But, we told him, this has to be as good as the Norwegians. It would be typical is Scotland did this and settled for second best.
We complained about the soul-crushing language of John Swinney. Saying that you wanted Barnett consequentials for ‘shovel-ready’ projects suggested that you were representing a nation of navvies. It reminded me of the Central Board of the Destitute Highlands. This was in the 1840s when starving Highlanders were made to dig ditches and build useless roads in return for food. Utterly miserable shovel-ready projects.
Richard has now launched the Scottish Scenic Routes initiative after persuading John Swinney of the added value of this scheme. The first three winning projects will be built this summer, one of which was designed by three of our staff. I said to Daniel, I hope your design is as good as the Norwegians. He replied – as only a German could – ‘don’t worry Alasdair, it is better’.
This is a small example but can’t this be our attitude to everything? We need to collectively raise our standards, from our pavements, our roads, our public toilets, housing and that will only happen when, led by our profession, we persuade the politicians, and the Scottish people, that we ARE worth it.
This is what is so exciting about Scotland. We as individuals, as a profession, have access to politicians and can make things happen, like the tourist routes. We don’t need to donate 1 million pounds (allegedly) to the Tories to get a weekend at Chequers to get the ear of ministers.
In England, whoever has the ear of ministers, is making sure that ‘red tape’ is being cut for business’. Most of this means rolling back building regulations, increasing CO2 emissions and lowering general building standards.
Of course, the idea behind this is to make it cheaper for developers to build houses – make them more affordable. Sounds like a good idea but in reality any savings will just go into inflating land values. The end product will be poorer but not cheaper. That is because land ownership and the tax system has not changed. The housing market is being pump-primed inflated and the big developers are at the ready to stick up their crappy Noddy towns again. Are we as a profession going to change this in Scotland?
Likewise, we also witness the grotesque barbarity, where our end users, vulnerable, disabled people in social houses that our profession carefully designed, being forced out of their homes because of the iniquitous bedroom tax. Is our profession supposed to stand by and accept this?
Or the young forced out of the communities in the Highlands, people living in caravans, people suffering injustice. Will we accept this?
Well, perhaps, recently we have accepted injustice. We are no longer the Utopian social campaigners of the post-war years where the ambition was truly noble. With independence we as a profession have the opportunity to change, engage and lead.
For example, land reform. A land value tax would see house plots drop in price dramatically, free up land and see developers competing on quality rather than land price. More money for design and fabric rather than land.
And how can we stay out of welfare policy when it has such a huge impact on the lives of so many people?
Is this not what we as a profession should be thinking about? Our architecture in a new Scotland should not be about identity, but our values in trying to create a fairer country, addressing the issues that still cause poverty, lack of confidence and misery. And we can do that by creating a more beautiful country by raising our collective standards and engaging politicians.
Remember where most politicians come from. They are lawyers, teachers, economists, PR men. These people will never alone build a new Jerusalem. But architects, either as individuals, or as a profession, can make a difference. We can raise the aspirations and heads, first of the politicians and then the people of Scotland. But to do that we have to change as a profession. Politics has to be central to what we do and architects have to be on the inside of politics – not bystanders. Malcolm Fraser as Prime Minister of Scotland perhaps?
Scotland will vote Yes on the 18th of September. The reason I am so sure is because the alternative is so bad. It will be voting for Scotland to be a region, to accept that we were extinguished in 1707. It is to accept the fourth most unequal society in the world, intergenerational poverty, appalling health conditions and a lack of ambition for our country. Scotland will not vote for that.
Instead we will be given a blank piece of paper. On that we can write a new constitution. We can enunciate a vision of the type of country we want to be. It is essential that an architect’s handwriting is on that document. We cannot leave it to the shovel-ready politicians or businessmen or civic Scotland social workers. We need to be involved.
Future generations will look back at us. I want them to judge us by our amazing, confident, beautiful, modern Scottish architecture, as good as the rest of Europe. But I also want them to judge us by our wonderful social housing, vibrant communities, the eradication of injustice, a health transformation and unparalleled sporting success. Our very old nation will blink in the dazzling dawn of our independence. But then we must shine.