Architecture: Rewarding Confidence

There has been much talk recently surrounding the multi-layered identity of Scots and Scotland, point and counter-point arguing over semantic complexities. However, one area of Scots culture that provides a concrete display of our unique understanding of place and people is our burgeoning architectural profession. Despite a backdrop of financial crises, the increasingly confident architects of Scotland have shown a deftness of touch in realigning the built environment to project a nation more comfortable with both its past and present condition. The recent RIBA/RIAS Awards (British and Scottish, respectively) showcase projects across the nation of varying scales and sensibilities that have made a significant impact on our architectural landscape.

The five headline winners of RIBA Awards for Scotland, which now move forward to the shortlist of both the RIAS Andrew Doolan Prize and the RIBA Stirling Prize, provide strong examples of the reappraisal of existing structures and the reinterpretation of space. Stretching from the renovation of a mill in Skye to form a unique family home to the transformation of two of Edinburgh’s monumental galleries, the architectural talent in Scotland has shown a strong appreciation for its past whilst having eyes firmly fixed on the future.

Of the headline RIBA winners the two in Edinburgh stand out for their national significance. Glasgow-based Gareth Hoskins Architects and Page/Park Architects have appraised the complex spaces of the National Museum of Scotland and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery respectively. Firstly the National Museum of Scotland, a thorough and thoughtful long-term redevelopment of one of the jewels in the crown of Scottish architecture. Hoskins has managed to further enhance the wonder of the central ‘bird cage’ by inviting the visitor to enter the museum through a dark vaulted undercroft which offers no hint of the generosity of space and light to be discovered above. By neatly rearranging the circulation of the grand spaces above, the architect guides the visitor through each of the gallery spaces, which have benefitted from a subtle reorganisation to enhance the vast collections held. Understated, with considered bold moves, the museum has seen a surge in visitor numbers and has lost none of its splendour and excitement.

The National Portrait Gallery, like the National Museum, has also seen a substantial redevelopment which has reawakened a national treasure. It was already impossible not to be taken in awe by the wondrous central hall decorated with murals depicting the great acts of Scottish history, but Page/Park Architects have managed to bring the same degree of joy to the gallery spaces. De-cluttering the many alterations that had damaged the architectural quality of the galleries spaces, the architects then went about the task of simplifying the visitor experience. A new series of spaces provide top lit galleries that guide the visitor through the faces and landscapes that have worked to shape us. The National Portrait gallery now offers a strong representation of Scots society, illuminating our achievements, traumas and history. This is architecture at its most powerful, offering the space for a backdrop to all of life and providing a subtle direction of travel to a wandering mind. More power to placing our history in such strong surroundings.

Edinburgh based Reiach and Hall have given Dundee City Council a new civic headquarters fit for a forward looking city. Dundee is seeing unprecedented change to its cityscape. New development is reshaping the waterfront with the aim of creating a city more aligned to its future aspiration than its industrial heritage, but the architects here have shown a strong will to marry the two. This is a new building formed within the shell of a building that is Dundee; serving as both a former Jute mill and later as print house for DC Thomson, it is given new life as the civic heart of a city transforming itself into a world leading centre for bio-technology and computer science. A further example of building within the confines of existing structures, the architect has created a building of sober detail and strong references to Scandinavian modernism. Reiach and Hall have formed a new civic building based on strong social democratic principles, a definitive example of a Scotland which whilst part of the United Kingdom has much to gain from gazing northwards to peoples of a shared heritage and disposition.

The final Scots winner on the evening is based in an area of growing architectural quality, Skye. While Dualchas, led by Yes Scotland ambassador Alasdair Stephen, picked up a RIAS award for their house at Boreraig, the RIBA winner was neighbouring firm Rural Design for their ambitiously modern conversion of a former mill into a family home at Lochussie. Bogbain Mill articulates the existing walls present on the site and forms new living spaces in contemporary volumes of timber and glass. A series of rooms reference a central court, and in keeping with the ethos of the practice it offers a strong connection to its surrounding landscape. The practices located in Skye are succinctly developing a clear modern architecture firmly rooted within the history of Scots architecture, and their confident manipulation of form is creating a new rural vernacular that is site and client specific. The continuing success of such an approach is refreshing, and shows that quality architecture does not have to be urban. Much joy can be found on the edge.

A fitting mention goes to the fifth winner on the evening, the Maggies Centre at Gartnavel by Dutch star-chitects OMA. Led by Rem Koolhaas, OMA have been part of the architectural glitterati for decades and their cleverly introverted building focusing into an enclosed oasis is one of the practice’s quieter projects. The Maggie’s Centre movement has allowed for significant architectural endeavour in the name of supporting those with cancer and we have benefitted greatly in Scotland from the creation of centres by internationally acclaimed architects. In Dundee (by Frank Gehry), Kirkcaldy (Zaha Hadid), and soon Aberdeen (by Snohetta), these centres have provided added impetus to the architectural conversation in Scotland. They sit alongside Maggie’s Centres by home grown talent in Edinburgh, Inverness and Glasgow by Richard Murphy and Page/Park Architects. It’s a worthy cause for architects to work with, and leads to high quality built work that is richly rewarding and rightfully rewarded.

Whilst the awards process can be flawed and offer praise to those within the architectural establishment, what is abundantly clear is that Scotland is enjoying a renaissance in its built environment. The current consultation by the Scottish Government, hosted at the Lighthouse, has much to draw upon from the post-devolution years as it seeks to formulate a more adventurous and ambitious policy for architecture befitting an energetic and culturally rich European nation. This years winners have given us a great deal of fresh thinking and thoughtful articulation of architectural ideas. Let us continue to build with insight and imagination.

Ross Aitchison
Architecture and Political Blogger

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About Ross Aitchison

Ross Aitchison is a Part II Architectural Assistant based in Edinburgh and a graduate of Edinburgh College of Art, originally from Aberdeenshire. He is a national organiser for National Collective.

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