The Development of a Policy on Architecture for Scotland

The Development of a Policy on Architecture for Scotland

The Development of a Policy on Architecture for Scotland

The Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) is pleased to respond to the Scottish Executive’s consultation on the development of a policy on architecture for Scotland. The RSE is Scotland’s premier Learned Society, comprising Fellows elected on the basis of their distinction, from the full range of academic disciplines, and from industry, commerce and the professions. This response has been compiled with the assistance of a number of Fellows from a variety of disciplines with an interest and expertise in this area.

The RSE welcomes the production of this report which seeks to improve the quality of architecture in Scotland. Key to the implementation of this policy, however, will be the provision of funding in support of its aims. This has proved crucial in the implementation of similar policies in Europe (e.g. in Holland). In addition, the policy’s success will depend on a strong intellectual base, clear definitions, and definable objectives. The RSE is also happy to note that a false antithesis of good architecture versus commercial interests has not been brought into question: the best architecture need not be the most expensive.

Comments on the specific areas of the consultation document are addressed below:

The Value and Benefits of Good Architecture

The intellectual base, definitions, and structure for making judgements should be strengthened within the document. The Roman author of the treatise on architecture (Vitruvius Pollio) still provides the simplest way of assessing the quality of a building through utility, appropriate technology and cultural style. In general, where one function overwhelms the others, the building is unlikely to be a fine work of architecture. However, throughout history, societies have accepted slight flaws in utility and in appropriate technology provided that cultural style was that much greater in compensation. The definition of function can include symbolism, civic or national purpose or representation. It is very rare that a building is deemed adequate where the cultural style is submerged in favour of one of the other two factors.

Furthermore, cultural style can be considered at many levels. A building that appeals in the broad can be fatally wounded by a poor, ill thought out, misplaced or jarring detail, and a dull building surprisingly enlivened by a good one. Clarity and simplicity of details and appropriate use of materials are essential to achieve such style: indeed, probably much more important than originality. Equally, appropriate response to setting and location is central. Quality should be the issue, rather than an arbitrary rule. It is a matter of appropriateness, confidence and a willingness to have a framework within which risks may be taken.

The Role of Government

The consultation document notes the role of the planning system and its interactions with the promotion of good architecture. While endorsing the conclusion that planners should have a sound understanding of the principles of architecture and good design, the Society believes much more should be made of this point. There has been too wide a separation between town planning and urban architecture, and planners (however well informed) are often constrained by the limitations on their remit, to the extent that they have little scope to influence design. Action to bring these two groups closer together would be desirable. The consultation document notes that 'quality is implicit in the standards set' in Building Regulations. However, the problem is that 'quality' has not itself been defined. The implication in government thinking is that 'quality' can be equated with fail-safe and fault-free building. Admirable as it is to have such an aim, that does not necessarily mean quality. In many instances, particularly in historic buildings, unmeaning application of unnecessarily rigid building regulations has been enormously destructive.

In order to achieve the Government’s aim of being an exemplary client and a major driver for best practice, those commissioning new buildings within the Scottish Office and its agencies should be less fearful of risk. At present, the current system has devised a process whereby the (theoretical) elimination of risk has driven the majority of government patronage to a very limited range of "safe" architects with large professional indemnity insurance. Not only has it been said that the most creative Scots architects would be much better off in Denmark, they would probably be better off in London - as the architect David Page informed the annual conference of the Scottish Civic Trust in 1998. Government should use the influence of its funding to improve the quality of commissioning and design in its agents - the Universities, Health Boards and others.

A Framework for Action

The RSE endorses the policies listed in the Framework for action and believes they deserve to be actively pursued. However, the benefits of architecture and good building design need to be more clearly specified. Without specification, it is difficult to formulate action. The conclusion states that Scotland needs the power and imagination of good architecture 'to improve our present and to secure our future'. These are fine sentiments, but they will not be realised without agreement on how to evaluate it, or a simple definition of what constitutes good architecture.

The RSE therefore welcomes the recognition of the need to broaden the debate on architecture and develop a language for discussion and criticism that is accessible to all. What is called for is a degree of public education in the art of describing, interpreting and evaluating buildings, not as dwellings, service or manufacturing units, nor abstractly as aspects of this or that political or cultural movement, but as bearers of character and meaningful design. In doing this, it is not so much the promotion of architecture that is required, rather, it is the promotion of interest in architecture.

One of the key recommendations is the proposal to undertake demonstration projects. However, research into architecture needs to be undertaken earlier and built upon to produce an organised body of knowledge. All such demonstration projects should be required to produce a minimum set of information and there must be much more openness about discussing failures - as it is from these that we learn.

The Society suggests that the Framework should also include specific proposals for action that take account of the following points:

  1. Greater awareness must be fostered of the historical and archaeological background to our architecture. Old buildings will always represent the majority of our identity, and a sensitive way to re-using them in our changing world is desperately needed. The junction of new and old, if creatively handled, provides as great a joy as can be obtained in architecture. In addition, new buildings do not generally stand in isolation and if they are to sithappily within their wider context more must be understood of how that context took shape. As part of this, architecture, urbanism and built environment could be included as significant contributors to the teaching of art, history and geography.
  2. The national amenity bodies (notably the Scottish Civic Trust, Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and the Council for Scottish Archaeology) should be encouraged to take an even greater interest in the implications of new building projects. In the longer term, similar encouragement should be given to local societies, such as the numerous Civic Societies in many towns.
  3. There should be a policy of publishing guidance on matters of architectural design and town planning. This is a notably difficult area, but the Royal Fine Art Commission in England has already attempted to offer guidelines with some success.
  4. Attempts should be made to investigate the provision of fresh supplies of traditional building materials, especially stone, slate and timbers, through re-opening quarries and new plantations of appropriate species. These materials are essential both in the conservation of existing buildings, and in the construction of modern buildings, especially when the latter are to be sited in historically sensitive locations. 

Additional Information

In responding to this consultation the Society would like to draw attention to the following Royal Society of Edinburgh responses which are of relevance to this subject: Scottish Arts in the 21st Century (January 1999); The School Curriculum and the Culture of Scotland (April 1999) and Celebrating Scotland: A National Cultural Strategy (November 1999).


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