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When a fire burnt out the extraordinary interiors of the Glasgow School of Art in May, politicians clamoured to promise money for its restoration. Of course it was profoundly political, a gesture by all parties to look magnanimous in the run-up to the vote on independence. But there was also the fact that this was a building by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, that rarest of things, an architect who has become a household name and one of arguably only two architects in history to have become internationally synonymous with a city.
The other of those architects is Antoní Gaudi, the devoutly Catholic Catalan whose melting, surreal buildings have become the mainstay of Barcelona’s tourist industry. And it was to a Catalan that Scotland turned when it commissioned its new parliament building in 1998.
Barcelona-based architect Enric Miralles designed an enigmatic, obscure and, in parts, brilliant building for Holyrood. It seemed a gesture of confidence that a re-emerging nation could look beyond its own shores for the design of such a pivotal building, but was it also an implicit suggestion of a lack of architectural talent at home?
There is no shortage of brilliant Scottish architects in history. But whereas London today has become arguably the centre of the phenomenon uncomfortably known as “starchitecture”, Scotland has no equivalent. Perhaps this will be a good thing. Contemporary Scottish architecture is characterised by a mix of the usual Anglo-Saxon commercial clichés and a quieter strain of more austere, thoughtful architecture, expressed in buildings such as Reiach & Hall’s self-effacing visitors centre at Bannockburn, celebrating the battle’s 700th anniversary.
Architecture has not featured much in the debate over independence, although it should be acknowledged that Scotland does at least have an architectural policy, not something that could be said of the UK government. Scotland also already has its own planning, legal and building regulatory systems. It is also likely that the country’s most ambitious architects will continue to migrate to London.
The damage to the construction industry would come principally from a nervousness to invest in a country with such an uncertain future, in which currency and EU membership are up in the air.
A Yes vote would, however, also entail the construction of new buildings for government departments and institutions and perhaps a period of self-conscious reflection on the nature of an architecture of national character. Alex Salmond once talked of an “arc of prosperity” (much mocked after the financial crisis) running from Ireland to Norway via Iceland. Perhaps he might instead consider an architecture of austerity, a Scandinavian-influenced genre of quiet reflection. Perhaps it could look to the serious and much-admired emerging architectural culture of Norway.
When Miralles was commissioned to design the Scottish Parliament it was thought his relatively small Barcelona office could not handle the complexities and contractual confrontations embodied in the British construction process and local firm RMJM were appointed as executive architects. The architects of the Falkirk Wheel with a growing global practice were seen as Scotland’s biggest and brightest hope. RMJM rose to become the fifth largest architectural practice in the world and, just like their banking counterparts RBS, they grew too far and too fast. The parallel was highlighted when Fred Goodwin joined RMJM as a consultant in 2010.
You could argue that despite the relative silence on architecture in the current debates on independence, the rash of buildings that followed in the wake of devolution have contributed to the discussion through giving a certain kind of Scottishness a more concrete visual manifestation. Page and Park’s reworking of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and Gareth Hoskins’ work of the National Museum of Scotland and his designs for the Culloden visitors’ centre have generated a sense of possibility in civic building.
When Mackintosh built the School of Art, Glasgow was the most architecturally vibrant city in Britain, defined by an architecture and an urbanism situated exactly in scale, aesthetics and detail between the rapidly growing cities of northern Europe and the US. Could independence help to make it that again?
The building of those new government institutions might give a momentary boost to Scottish architects or they might demonstrate the cultural openness the Scots found in commissioning their parliament. And they might even lead to the repurposing of some of the country’s many wonderful but neglected historic structures. It might be worth remembering that the finest architecture is currently coming from small nations, Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium and so on. But if Scotland hasn’t yet shown an inclination to earn a place among those nations with the richest architectural cultures, would independence make a difference?