Architecture in Scotland

From the Observer 7 October 2001

THE FAILURE of high-rise architecture in Scotland’s cities is so universally acknowledged that it is often assumed that tower blocks are inherently incapable of supporting civilised life.  The Wee Malkies, the urchins of Stephen Mulrine’s poem, will come as surely as rats to a cargo ship.  They will put out the stair-head lights, sabotage the lifts and make the journey from entrance to flat more hazardous than any midnight walk along the meanest city streets.

Not just in Glasgow or Edinburgh, but in London and Paris, too, towers have become symbols of alienation, poverty and despair, the very evils they were designed to overcome.  Yet this form of urban architecture can succeed.  For the rich, the high tower can be a secure fortress, guarded by concierges where residents pay their dues and repairs are carried out without delay.

Anyone who has lived in even modest blocks of flats will know how difficult it sometimes is to collect dues.  In England, the leasehold system was developed partly as a means of enforcing common obligations.  In our flat in Richmond, all the proprietors are lessees with one share each in the company in which ownership of the block is vested.   The company carries out maintenance without discussion and take rapid steps to recover arrears.  Its fondness for issuing notices, warnings and stern prohibitions puts one in mind of Disraeli’s famous denunciations of Gladstone – that he was ‘a sophistical rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity’ – but without such resolution the whole place would go to pigs and whistles soon enough.

NATIONALIST histories used to argue that Scotland’s forests were cut down to feed English demand.  But environmental historians now believe that they decayed because of the inherent flaws in any system of common ownership.

It is now clear that the fundamental error, in Scotland and elsewhere, was not just the shoddiness with which the neglect they suffered afterwards.   The profession of architecture itself has been besmirched by them; the public noted that those who designed the high towers usually themselves lived in places like Bearsden.  Glasgow is now preparing to demolish most of its high towers, and there will be few to mourn them. The city’s housing stock is to be transferred to trusts and its housing debt will be written off by the Treasury. And although there is a stout rearguard action by opponents, it is a burden the city is surely right to shed.

Last week, the Scottish Executive published the first national policy on architecture.  Its aims include not just improved design and higher quality but sustainable development, social justice and economic competitiveness.  And it recognises the need to raise public awareness and tackle apathy.

Perhaps this is the biggest problem of all.   Much mediocrity arises from our constant search for the cheapest solution.  Nothing has been as depressing, since the opening of the Scottish Parliament, as the constant Gradgrind grumbling about the costs of the new building. Let us have vigilance, by all means, but also let us build something of which future generations can be proud.

As in any other creative process, the relationship between patron and artist is fundamental, but something worse than visual illiteracy is commonplace at all levels of life in Scotland.  In the US, and elsewhere, budgets for new buildings contain a provision for artistic embellishment.  I still smart from the memory of the mockery I received from fellow board members when, in a previous manifestation, I proposed commissioning a piece of sculpture for a new press hall.

On visits to the Continent, it has always struck me that the level of visual awareness is much higher than here.  In Italy and France that is partly a matter of tradition and culture, but is also arises, I imagine, from a process of education which gives the visual arts a higher salience.  This is a challenge explicitly recognised by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland in its often gloomy response to the Executive’s discussion paper.  But it acknowledge initiatives like the Lighthouse project in Glasgow and the contribution of community councils to raising public awareness about the build environment.

We should not despair, for our history is not entirely bereft of distinction.  Ever since William Wallace made commercial overtures to Hamburg and Lübeck, whose treaty of 1241 laid the foundations of the Hanseatic League, connections with northern Europe have shaped a vigorous vernacular architecture.  Edinburgh’s New Town is a monument to Georgian grace and Glasgow remains full of Victorian and Edwardian series.