Monday, 2 June 2008

Awards In Architecture?

Architects refuse to think outside of their ugly concrete boxes

BBC Scotland's new HQ in Glasgow has won a top architectural award. That proves ugliness still triumphs in the weird world of architecture. I reached splutter stage - that shower of toast moment - when I heard of this "achievement".

For the BBC building is a featureless crate dumped on the banks of the Clyde. It is known among staff as "the box the Science Centre came in". Why can't today's architects think outside the box? Boring boxy shapes come in two sizes - either a shoebox of medium height or a high-rise concrete cornflake packet. But the style has changed little since the 1960s, the worst of all design decades. Can't we get away from that?

With architecture, the accepted orthodoxy is to praise the emperor's new clothes in case we are thought to be outdated and unreceptive to new ideas, blah blah. But surely it is these awful monoliths that are outdated? The luvvies at the Royal Incorporation of British Architects have made the BBC box one of the top winners in what they call the "regional" awards - to compete later in London for a "national" award.

FOR those of us who've seen the Beeb box inside, it doesn't improve. The first time I entered, I thought the long overhead walkways built round a central well seemed familiar. Gosh, it's the Barlinnie style, without the charm. All it missed was the rattle of potties as prisoners crossed the walkways, taking their chamber pots to the sluice. Many thought we'd wised up on the grim, ghastly Sixties and Seventies buildings - the only good thing about them is that many are being demolished. We are continuing an obsession to make everywhere look like Slough where, in 1937, Sir John Betjeman foresaw the ugliness which would grip Britain when he wrote: "Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough; it isn't fit for humans now."

But Edinburgh people are putting up a really spirited fight against the new conformity - for most of May there have been protests about developments. Conservation architect James Simpson says: "Edinburgh is at greater risk now than it has been since the 1960s." That's a big statement as the Sixties saw the brutalising of Princes Street and the capital's George Square. The focus of protestors is Edinburgh City Council's decision to approve most of a £300million development of part of the ancient Canongate, involving housing, shops, a hotel and a new public square - and the proposed demolition of a listed old school building.

This very hot brick is now being referred to Scottish Ministers, who already have the Trump row on their plates. But surely the Edinburgh proposals dwarf the stushie about Donald Trump's golfopolis? Trump-town is proposed for an unbuilt part of the Aberdeenshire coast and pastiche architecture is the aim, at least copying quite attractive old styles rather than boxes. In contrast, the "Caltongate" project will be in Edinburgh's UNESCO World Heritage site, close to the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

The Proposed Caltongate Hotel

The designs look like another Anytown, Anywhere style, the bland and the boxy. The hype for Caltongate exceeds even the usual tripe about "iconic". The developers declare: "Very rarely, a development changes the entire dynamic of a major city. The breadth of vision behind the Caltongate project is stunning . . . it is in total harmony with the commercial life and history of Scotland's capital...." Ga'un yersels! What history could boxes be in harmony with in the ancient Canongate?

Julie Logan, a former town design expert now volunteering with the Canongate Community Forum, told me: "We've seen too many boxes go up in Edinburgh. When the Victorians built on even older sites, they at least retained the Scottish style, with items like crow stepped gables. "This project is just totally unsuitable for old Edinburgh."
TO my mind, the floodgates opened - apr├Ęs moi, le deluge - when the Holyrood building was dumped at the foot of the Royal Mile, a vast daud of concrete incongruously next to the ancient Palace, like a hooker lurking outside a convent. In Aberdeen, the superb Union Terrace Gardens are to have one of those spacecraft style buildings landing on it to create an arts centre. And at Culloden battlefield, the National Trust has come up with uber tosh to hype how the new visitor centre (a collection of boxes) "reinterpreted the landscape".
Maybe we should abandon all architectural awards or let the public judge because we have to walk past the stuff. We could think of new awards - MA for Moderately Awful or BA for Bloody Awful. As the American guru of architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright, once said: "The doctor can bury his mistakes but the architect can only advise his clients to plant trees."

By Dorothy-Grace Elder appears today in The Scottish Daily Express