Siol nan Gaidheal
When approaching the subject of national identity, the dynamics which threaten it and the efforts made in some quarters to protect its inherent individuality and legitimacy, few commentators, if any, ever address the issue of architectural design and how the built environment engages with our sense of ourselves to a more revealing degree than might at first be expected.
At a very prosaic level, the way our private and public edifices are built says almost as much about the state of our nation culturally as do the more immediately recognisable features such as, among others, language, music, literature, dance or vestimentary forms. Architecture in modern Scotland speaks volumes on how we express ourselves as a nation and by and large what our most recent history tells us is that, a few laudable exceptions notwithstanding, the on-going process of “renewal” at work in the buildings around us pays little heed to our indigenous heritage and to our continued existence as an identifiable cultural community.
To claim otherwise, and there are many essentially tiresome individuals who do, is quite simply to fly in the face of the concrete truth...pun firmly intended. New building in Scotland has over the last fifty years or so become the preserve of the modernist canon, that universalist creed of soulless and rootless technomania. From its lowest expression in the form of brutalist tower-blocks and kit-based breeze-blocked housing units, through the endless insipid red brick shoeboxes of green field-encroaching suburbia to the “heady heights” of conceptual steel and glass “statement” buildings, modernism betrays a sinister albeit eclectic mix of primary motives which warrant identifying. There are two equally nefarious schools of thought at work here, each doing its worst to the native fabric of our cities, towns and villages. The first is a kind of modernism by default—building rectangular housing or production units from the most readily accessible and fuss-free modern materials. These in order of importance, are cheap, speed up the construction process and fit in nicely with pre-ordained assembly line design. The architecture of the cheap-and-nasty, of the “prime development site” or until comparatively recently, of the transfer of economically deprived Scots to the socially/socialist-engineered peripheral housing schemes.
While no-one should claim that square concrete and steel boxes to shop in out-of-town and their older and equally dire housing equivalents on the edges of our major cities constitute the greatest and most pressing of all the social evils we need to address in our country, it does remain however that these are contributory factors to a process which sociologists, behavioural scientists, a few enlightened urban planners, ecologists and politicians have all recognised in one way or another as being conducive to social, moral and cultural decay. Live and work in the functional ugliness of a soulless concrete jungle and you get a commensurate rise in all those indicators of social collapse; depression, contempt of institutions, isolation, despair and in many cases criminality and rebellion. You do NOT get a Singapore or a Japan where different cultural motivations and ethics based on order obtain in a similarly modernist environment—The modernist experiment only narrowly avoids the last two indicators in its middle-class “part-home-exchange” suburban fantasy where rabid individualism and the aping of consumer trends are the apex of cultural ambition. Modern design in this context is not so much an ambition as the perceived necessary adjunct to the “mod-cons” indicative of comfortable consumerist belonging.
Architecture design at this level is hardly aspirational, it is functional in its most mercantile sense, it says “I’m on the up”. Hardly surprising then that the construction industry in Scotland in its home-building guise should care nothing for the vernacular styles of architecture available as an inspirational benchmark or matrix. Modernism by default sells the pretence that the organic community-inspired styles of the past are impractical for reasons of cost and construction timescales. While financing any such addition to the local or national infrastructure should always take into account material and labour costs, it does not follow that wholesale imposition of cheap Middle English bungalow models is any kind of necessity. The breakdown of community values, that great intangible network of exchange, support, friendship and belonging would seem not to be entirely divorced from the lack of any sense of continuity and/or aesthetic identification. Continuity is very apparent in the building of communities based on conscious solidarity; “We built this”. The aesthetics of vernacular design owe much to the collaborative work of individuals who would ultimately live in the houses they built. The centuries-old progression from one architectural convention to another, taking on influences from the next village, town or even abroad was an organic, culturally-enhancing process. This is certainly not the case with the designs of homes, businesses and production units today which quite literally could be anywhere, but as we know also, more often than not ape the up-in-three-months buildings of motorway England, that vast overpopulated culturally desertic cross between Milton Keynes and Brookside. Inspiring this model is NOT. It is however, gaining alarming currency here, ripping the heart out of community solidarities the length and breadth of Scotland.
The aesthetic of building in a very real sense is the “feel good factor” of community belonging, a talismanic link with the past of a place, a people and a culture. “Quaint” it is not. True internationalism is in this context the refusal to see the myriad architectural forms of the world melted down into the cheap uniformity of mass-produced concrete, brick, steel and glass. As in other domains, diversity is a self-sustaining constant in human endeavours, or at least it was until comparatively recently when the global ethic of instant profit began to inform all issues of development including that of the built environment in our cities, towns and villages. For those, like ourselves, who see their own national culture as a vibrant component part of humanistic achievement, it is alarming to witness the current hostility shown by certain sectors of “fashionable society” denigrating any effort to perpetuate the native conventions of our architecture. The pathetic bleating about “twee”, “kitsch”, “atavistic”, “clichéd” forms in relation to those few buildings erected with harmony and continuity in mind, emanate from a heterogeneous mish-mash of modernist architects, their professional incorporations, liberal commentators and critics, middle-class technosnobs, gullible journalists (if one is allowed the tautology) and in Scotland, that contemptible gaggle of sycophantic 'O'grade idealists called Labour councillors and their tyrannical and equally corrupt acolytes in town & country planning. Based on the breathtakingly arrogant and essentially totalitarian premise that “they know best”, they have set about over the last few decades imposing the second form of modernism (alongside the version effected by default) which is best described as ideological or evangelistic.
The obsession with "Futurism", the creed of absolute devotion to postulated technological invincibility, the religion of limitless technological progress, the blind, some would say, masturbatory adherence to the latest technological advancement, all of these universalist delusions lessen our distinctiveness as an identifiable national cultural community. The architecture they sponsor and increasingly deliver is a frighteningly cold and sinister universality of geometric and technolatrous posturing. Who cares that it is now structurally possible to create “living spaces” (whatever happened to "homes"?) fifty levels high? So what if we have the technology to build octagonal offices with spiral elevators? So what if the building techniques of the day enable us to live and work in revolving glass domes equipped with interior heli-pads and hydroponic oxygen lounges? Just because something is technically feasible, does not make it desirable.
Unfortunately the egotistical fantasies of modernist architects litter our town and cityscapes precisely because they have been given carte blanche to spread their ideological prejudice by a liberal (in its socio-political connotation) establishment which includes vast swathes of academia, the media and local and self-styled national government. Why is it that a building which could be replicated anywhere in the world but just so happens to be located in Edinburgh or Glasgow constitutes “a vibrant expression of our native genius”, “a bold and audacious statement of our indigenous sensibilities” or indeed “a reworking of national design conventions” ? These platitudinous descriptions are endlessly and dishonestly trundled out to justify buildings which are anything but—buildings which are in effect the pretentious monstrosities of rootless pseudo-radicals whose agenda of modernist uniformity is the antithesis of organic, time and place-based humanistic development. That cretinous Labour councillors of no fixed intellectual abode and other weasel-like "potentates" should view the future “Scottish” parliament building as a visionary statement of this nation’s progressive intent, will come as no surprise to those of us who refuse to bow to the orthodoxy of the Emperor’s New Clothes. No matter how much it claims not to be, a metal box in Aberdeen is the same as a metal box in Osaka. A glass block is a glass block whether in Paisley or Pennsylvania. Brick shithouses in Hemel Hempstead don't differ a great deal from their Inverness counterparts, even if, admittedly, the excremental surroundings of the former might preclude any hasty comparison.
The point is, in a world going more insipid and blander by the minute it is crucial that the work of building designers—for that is what architects are, or should be, not the inflated and petulant little Hitlers many of them become through self-indulgence and flattery—it is crucial then, that their work be first an expression of a rooted contemporary culture, that of the nation in which they operate and only secondly a personalised rendition of this general vernacular. Originality and individual expression are indeed positive contributions to the overall dynamic of organic, culture-specific development in architecture. They cannot however be tolerated as destructive agents in the vital fabric of our distinct built environment. Originality at any price is not an acceptable proposition when the visual distinctiveness of our town, city and landscapes is blighted or even merely threatened. That modernist “originality” should even think of itself as such is, in fact, a rather tired not to say redundant pretence, given the quasi-identical expressions it finds in places and cultures as ostensibly diverse as the United States, Japan, Russia, France, Australia, Brazil and so on and so forth. Could modernism in its lack of originality be coming to the end of its pre-eminence? The apologists and soothsayers of post-modernity would certainly seem to envisage the possibility. The problem is that as ever, the architecture of this new “cultural” landscape— or should it be mindscape?—fails to avoid the age-old habit of self-obsessed personal statement. Architecture in Scotland should reflect a sense of place first and foremost, not primarily the whims, fantasies, soul-searching or otherwise of any individual, no matter how gifted or artistically evangelistic. Responsibility in the design and planning processes should systematically incorporate the consent principle, that of consulting local people, not only the self-appointed “great and good” as to what is desirable in any given setting.
Over the centuries the Scottish vernacular has evolved in the context of a living breathing environment, a landscape moulded by a culture of distinct modality. Materials reflected the local minerality, buildings blended into their surroundings, the use of stone, slate and harl as different to materials used in, say, Spain, as the crow-stepped Baronial was to Tuscan conventions in palazzi. Traditional tenemental architecture in our larger cities, though echoing other European forms found in countries as diverse as the Netherlands or Poland, is uniquely Scottish and should never have become something to avoid as a supposed throwback to darker, less prosperous days. Buildings such as these, providing recognizable aesthetic harmony, and given contemporary living standards, providing even greater value to the sense of community, undoubtedly possess the intrinsic capacity to inspire people to communal pride and dignity. The knock-on effect socio-culturally across a national community is conceivably very extensive indeed, given the empirical evidence noted in many instances that living in attractive settings makes for high levels of responsibility and civic solidarity.
The most salient and indeed valid reason however, for the maintenance of and realignment to indigenous architectural forms and conventions is their mere existence and ongoing development. They should be developed and encouraged because they constitute the unique contribution we make to the world’s sadly diminishing vernacular design-base. Why be different? Simply because we are. Distinctiveness is at a premium these days. We forget our indigenous house-building, monument-building and public edifice-building traditions at a price, that of our identity. The consequence is for example more and more houses built and designed by companies from England with materials (brick) and styles (mock-Tudor) and names (“The Wilbury”, “The Knobsworth”) more suited to greater Birmingham. Whatever the denizens of Middlesex choose to apply the term “cottaging” to, it should self-evidently not be the same for Scots for whom this represents a form of rural and semi-rural living and design which suited and continues to suit many of our people and might still become a future manifestation of what is being termed the age of teleworking. The facile platitudes spouted by the apologists of modernism about “architecture reflecting one’s time and technology” cannot hide the fact that buildings are part of a place and should be as organically and “minerally” reflective of that place and the culture of the people therein as is realistically possible. Realism today tells us that people in Scotland, as elsewhere, are seeking to renew with “old-fashioned” notions of rooted-ness and belonging, which the industrial age has denied and divorced them from. The buildings of this post-industrial age should reflect the harmonies, lines, forms and materials of the places more and more of us are seeking to imbue with renewed communal and indeed sacral value. Technology and tradition are not contradictory. Identity need not be menaced or put in jeopardy by technological advancement —our” sense of ourselves and the place we call our own need not fear the advent of the IT-age, it does not follow however that we need live or work in giant versions of printed Circuit Boards or Rubik Cubes. Given the collective will to retake control of our own destinies as individuals and as a nation, the blot on the physical and cultural landscapes which many buildings now represent will fall away as the alien imposition of an egocentric yet soulless age. We look forward to the day when our indigenous style really does say to us “Welcome Home”.
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