Building An Independent Scotland

by Alasdair Stephen

"This is Scotland”, said Malcolm Fraser, the renowned architect showing a photograph of a snow-covered shepherd’s bothy set within a stunning autumnal Highland landscape. The audience at the event in the 2002 Biennale in Barcelona gasped.

Then followed a series of other images, from a beautiful fishing port of the East Neuk of Fife, the near perfect planned village of Inveraray, to the magnificence of Edinburgh New Town and the battalions of Glasgow’s tenement streets. With each picture you could sense those present – international architects, students, academics and members of the public – becoming more and more mesmerised

Watching, I felt a sense of pride, not just in Scotland, but in my profession. Architects, by their talent and industry, can represent a nation at its best. Scotland’s architecture - the stone, the castles, the townscapes, the cottages, the streets - can be more iconic to the world than the stereotypes of tartan, bagpipes and haggis. Because of our buildings Scotland can be nowhere else. They reinforce our identity. They make our ‘nation space’.

But most of the great work which gives Scotland this character is an old legacy, much of it left by the Victorians. In fact, sometimes the buildings were deliberately designed to be ‘more Scottish’, from the baronial revival of Aberdeen to the Wallace Monument near Stirling. This was a time when Scotland was being rebranded ‘North Britain’. Scotland had no government of its own to protect its national identity, but architects did manage to assert it.

More recent examples of buildings in Scotland perhaps don’t engender that same sense of pride – but they still help define us as a nation. Although part of a great utopian social reforming movement, the tower blocks and council schemes of the 20th century have helped create a counterview of Scotland of poor housing, poverty and dysfunctional communities. Not the egalitarian solution to post war slums and overcrowding - but the ideal locations for Taggart episodes and gritty films.

Nevertheless, those young architects of the 50s, 60s and 70s, that created these environments did so because they wanted to make the world a better place. But what is the excuse for the predominant housing form of the late 20th and early 21st century – the ubiquitous and banal developer-led estate? Although individual houses can be well-loved family homes, there is little attempt to create a mixed, vibrant community; no shops, no schools, no businesses.

Such estates are a direct result of the property bubble and the get rich quick developers. The imperative was to sell into the inflated market. Banks created easy money and demand so the competition was on land, not the quality of the built environment. The developers had no interest in community, masterplanning or locality – and certainly no interest in leaving a legacy to future generations. Such buildings will not be appearing in tourist brochures or Malcolm Fraser lectures in Barcelona. But they do represent modern Scotland and pre-crash Britain.

The housing boom which created these places is now gone.  The business model is broken and is not coming back.  Construction costs are too high, money too scarce and house prices too low for mass speculative development.  This means new ideas such as the Resonance Funding Model are needed. This includes projects where the value of the house in 10, 20, 100 years time is important – not just the day before the keys are handed over. 

Under these shared equity and rental schemes houses must be built to last so that they retain and increase their real estate value.  That value can be realised in the medium to long term for the investor, but this will only happen if the houses are beautiful, they are built as communities and the people cherish and care for them.  

Only with vision and engagement by architects can this happen. This vision is created by asking what sort of country are we going to be? How will we be represented by our architecture to the world? Are we going to be the ‘smoked salmon’ or the ‘deep-fried pizza’ Scotland?

To me that vision becomes clear in an independent Scotland. Independence will not be about reinventing a ‘Scottish architecture’. It is not about copying castles or building with crow step gables. Scotland is no longer a nation unsure of its identity and we do not have to consciously assert it through our buildings as the Victorian architects did.

To me independence is about a vision where as well as a tourist stepping off the train in Edinburgh to photograph the castle, they visit a new development in Leith which has been internationally acclaimed, lauded with prizes, and is seen as an exemplar as one of the best new housing projects in the world. A project which has provided a basic need of shelter, but is also inspiring and wonderful for those who live there. And it has been built to last for 100 years. It does not have to have been designed by a Scottish architect. What is important is that we as a country accept that good architecture is not a privilege but a right for everyone.

Architecture is not about creating pretty buildings but improving people’s lives. No professional is better placed to see the needs of society than the architect – who through their work can advance people’s health, happiness, working conditions, productivity, pride and financial position. A warmer house, a beautiful school, a safer street, better concentration at work, delightful civic spaces and lower carbon emissions is what we do.

The skill of the architect can deliver for business and society as a whole. If we do present the ‘smoked salmon’ vision, the investors will come. People will be happier, our hospitals less busy.

As architects we should try and deliver a vision of what independence can bring. We must be an influential, powerful and respected profession, fully engaging and contributing to the debate as Scotland decides what sort of country it will become.

I am inspired by a German colleague. He marvels at my country - a country where he is now settled and wants to see independent. His simple message is this: There is no reason our buildings; our houses, our schools, our hospitals, our civic spaces, cannot be recognised as amongst the best in Europe and the world.

He expects excellence in everything and thinks it is a lack of confidence and influence – not talent – that is preventing us from achieving that as a profession. Scotland is stepping out of the shadows now. Through our work, our international reputation can be won, and all Scotland’s people’s lives improved.

Alasdair Stephen is the co founder of award winning architects Dualchas Building Design.

Topics: 
Economy, Environment

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