What is our relationship to our built environment? What can we learn from it, and how can we value it?

The second half of the twentieth century was, for our towns and cities, cathartic. We had always possessed a confidence in our ability to improve the urban environments around us but post-1945, and given intellectual impetus by tabula rasa utopianism, this confidence developed into an institutionalised contempt for the built works of the past, and for the tightly-planned urban environments where they were focused (“I want to see the guts torn out of our older industrial cities and new civic centres and shopping areas built there; the older houses torn down and new ones in their place”: Prime Minister Edward Heath, 1964). An orgy of destruction ensued, a sort of national self-mutilation that left much of urban Britain in a semi-ruinous state, skewered by highways and studded with shoddy modern buildings. That some of Scotland’s towns and cities escaped largely unscathed is a blessing often down to the resistance of their citizens.

The resulting architectural environment, that I entered as a student in 1977, was a puzzling one: the central narrative of the discipline I was studying seemed to be bankrupt, to have collapsed under the burden of its hubris (Robert Matthew, as RIBA President: “There is not a single social or industrial problem of importance that can be solved today without new buildings, often on a vast scale”). Such towering self-importance required to be succeeded by a bit of humility – Matthew himself led the creation of the Edinburgh New Town Conservation Committee and, in general, thoughtful and progressive architects at that time might join the resistance to inner-city ring road plans – or, in a wider context, question why architects, as lawyers, tried to protect and enhance their intellectual and economic status, whilst divorcing themselves from those they should be serving, by inventing an exclusive language to obscure the simple social and artistic imperatives underlying their work.

NASA Apollo8 Dec24 Earthrise
Image credit: NASA/Bill Anders

Publication / Architecture in Scotland 2002-2004, edited by Stuart MacDonald, 2004.

So where are we, as architects, now, and what have we learned from our built environment, this heritage of Scottish thought and Scottish architecture?

When I left University in the mid 1980s I went to work as a Community Architect in Wester Hailes, an Edinburgh peripheral housing scheme – learnt how to listen. From there I went to Christopher Alexander’s Center for Environmental Structure, in California, where I learnt how to look, before returning to Edinburgh. At that time practice in Scotland was something of a wasteland for there were very few decent, ordinary architectural practices to work for (and very few new buildings to feel proud of – RMJM’s Distillers Building and Barry Gasson et al’s Burrell Gallery leading the few exceptions). But with the reconsideration of our attitude towards our built heritage came the emergence of conservation practices, and in these places there was a passion for architecture and the built environment that was also apparent in the teaching and legacy of Scotland’s great urban modernists, MacMillan and Metzstein, but was lacking elsewhere.

I was not alone in being drawn to work with a conservation practice. The assistant two before me at Simpson and Brown was Richard Murphy and, in general, the majority of the principals of those young-ish Scottish practices who now have public profiles shared the same interests and dilemmas as me, and followed the same path through practices whose first interest was the integrity of our built environment. In this Scotland is distinct from England, and we might expect a strength of our contemporary architectural character to be an understanding that our relationship to our built environment involves caring for it, and learning from it.

The City is a great teacher. A walk through the heart of a Scottish city such as Edinburgh may well tell the story of successive waves of Scottish architecture but behind this, and more importantly, it tells the story of Scottish thought: of the successive ways that we have looked at the world.

The urban design and architecture of Edinburgh’s mediaeval Old Town – the first of these waves – is largely misunderstood as being, somehow, unplanned: thoughtless, or accidental. It is anything but: laid out around 1126 under the order and direction of the radical King David I, Edinburgh – as the other Royal Burghs he ordered – was planned as an engine for national renewal, its mercats and walled free-trade zone (our slender city walls were of little military significance) a deliberate and successful attempt to create a wealth-generating urban merchant class that would rescue Scotland from the backwardness and desperate poverty of its clan system.

The creation of the Burghs was City Planning with a clear societal purpose and their carefully planned layouts, as those of their great mediaeval sister cities across the European and Islamic worlds, were loose-fit, working with Scotland’s significant topography. In Edinburgh this meant setting the merchant class’ main mercat out along the ridge our glacier left in the shadow of the Castle Rock, with closes running down the ridge’s steep sides (the density of these approaches providing Edinburgh with its real defences). In the 18th century the High Street became a mercat of ideas – the ideas which drove the Enlightenment, that decisive step in the journey away from a view of nature characterised by, at best, reverence, but more often by terror and superstition. In place of such muddle the Enlightenment advanced our basic, rational understanding of how the world is put together which, in turn, expressed itself in built form as the humane and rational severity of the New Town plan in general, and Georgian elevations in particular – a severity all the more telling because of the juxtaposition of its urban plan with the (apparent) muddle of the Old Town across the valley, or the insertion of stripped, severe Georgian facades into the rich mediaeval walls of the Royal Mile’s mercats.

In turn, within and around this Mediaeval and Enlightenment core, the Victorians rolled their succeeding wave, one of confidence and modernity, but with a paradoxical, pluralist search for styles that was – in Scotland, as in other northern European countries – heavily informed by a progressive, National Romantic, stylistic retelling of the Mediaeval. (In the Edinburgh Old Town they drove roads for traffic right through the delicate mediaeval fabric … but then reverently re-stitched them into the remnants of the fabric.) Following this the 20th century drove its modern wave amongst and around the expanded Victorian cores – and, in the case of Glasgow and the M8, through it. This represented a return to architecture and planning that employed, as in the 18th century, a self-conscious rationality laid over nature to express our mastery of it, and our ability to exploit it for our profit and comfort.

This time our taste for the new did not involve, as it had always before, the “enlightened” building for themselves. Instead the modern utopia was rationally bodged and cost-cut and gifted to the masses. Our succeeding realisation that our mechanistic utopianism was destroying that which rooted and nurtured us was, of course, part of a more general environmental movement who’s defining moment – its big bang – came when the Apollo moon missions stopped straining to look outwards, and turned their cameras back home to photograph a World which suddenly appeared very small and beautiful and vulnerable. And when all our technological mastery got us there, to the moon, there was very little “there” there, just dust, lifeless abstract beauty compared with the completeness of our wee blue ball. Through all this came our recognition that the apparent mastery over nature that the mechanistic rationalism of the Enlightenment gave us was illusive, and the beauty of the environment that sustains us (whether built or natural) a fragile thing.

So where are we, as architects, now, and what have we learned from our built environment, this heritage of Scottish thought and Scottish architecture?

The recognition of the scale of our 20th century catharsis and the emergence of conservation produced, in parallel, a late 20th century mini-“Victorian” revival – pluralist National Romantic, but rendered without the benefit of the fabulous craft skills and natural materials that the 20th century told us we needed no more. The results of these attempts to match the Victorians at their own game, with a hunk of stone or “cast stone”, and an “artist blacksmith”, are all around us and are laughable. They are us eating humble pie in public, understandable in the context of the pickle we’d got ourselves into but no substitute for architects explaining to the world how we mean to build now – what, if not as masters, we now understand our relationship to the environment around us to be – what is the spirit of our age, our zeitgeist?

Many people do, of course, say that there can, now, be no such thing as a single idea that encapsulates the way that we think and build. They will tell you that diversity of ideas – architecture commentator Charles Jencks’ bag of isms – is the zeitgeist; or that the zeitgeist is “no zeitgeist” and the very idea antithetical to our fractured and random World. Say no to that. The big, single idea today is that we are not transcendent masters of the world, but part of it…. and not a dumb or apologetic part of it but the finest beings that the creative world has evolved, with the intellectual equipment to understand our responsibilities towards it….. and not consume it in a frenzy of greed.

This idea spans the whole environment, from the raw stuff of the universe through to what we have done with it: all our science and philosophy, all the fruits of our labours, all we have done with the gifts we have. We sometimes express the big idea as “Sustainability”, defined by Gro Brundtland as “Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” – though this is a word, like “Heritage”, devalued by empty repetition (did I really learn, at a Conference entitled “Building Scotland’s Sustainable Schools” that we are knocking down good, solid stone buildings because the roof leaks, and PPP likes a cleared site?). The conventional first view of Sustainability is that it’s about lowering metered energy consumption – insulation, fans, the use of energy from the sun and other sources. Architect Rab Bennetts, and others, have expanded our understanding to now include six principles: operational energy (conventional energy consumption); the energy embodied in materials (it takes a lot to make aluminium); the energy used in the transport of materials; biodiversity (does the building promote it?); the recycling of waste; and the recycling of water. This is better, but still translates to an excellent “sustainable” business park building: one sustainable step forward, a long commute in traffic back.

A more useful analysis of sustainability would expand further, to look at whether we could walk to the building rather than drive (thus promoting neighbourhoods, cities, density); and to look at whether we actually need some new buildings, need to demolish and rebuild at all. So we sometimes express the big idea, architecturally – or at least a part of it – as Conservation, though this concern may be better expressed as Repair, our built fabric regarded as a resource for us to respect and value.

We might also, as architects, express this idea as a wider, overarching continuum of aesthetic and environmental concerns – the relationships between a building, the man-made world and the natural world – sun, wind, open space, water, rock and tree. In our architectural practice we think about how our buildings open-up to external space, to view, to landscape, sun and sky…. as well as to other buildings, and this concern we share with most thinking architects around us. From our wee Scottish Poetry Library composed, against Arthur’s Seat and the Crags, around the interconnectedness of language, landscape and building, through most good new building in Scotland and back to the Parliament (which Miralles opens-up to the same Holyrood Park landscape) we strive to connect. The best of urban planning does this too: Richard Meir’s Edinburgh Park is a loose-fit Gardens-centred Enlightenment rationalism, while Llewelyn Davies’ first Edinburgh Waterfront plan (now overwritten, several times, by others) set out, within a rational language, layers of patterns that each related space, routes and buildings to views, sun, sea, the terraces formed by ancient raised beaches and other natural features.

If a partnership with the environment around us is the single idea, what might be its recent history in Scottish architecture? There has, of course, long been a strand of 20th century modernism that has worked with, rather than against or over, nature. It’s a particularly Scandinavian one. In Scotland the work of John Richards at RMJM may best represent this: Stirling University, or Edinburgh’s Royal Commonwealth Pool – a few simple and beautifully-judged lines drawn across the big landscape of Arthur’s Seat and the Crags. There is also, if you look closely enough, a strand of modernism that works with the historical built environment – that is conservation-based. The example I know best is Ian Begg’s Chessels Court off Edinburgh’s Canongate, repaired and reused historic buildings juxtaposed with rational (and clearly Scandinavian-modernist) new ones, all composed within a wee masterplan that respects the historic patterns but improves on them, lets light and space flow into the backlands. (Begg, sadly, has put all ideas of improvement behind him, and now is a high priest of the scenic, reactionary, craftless national romantic.) All this is my big idea’s heritage. Its clearest expression is, for me, the little drawing that accompanied the winning design for Glasgow’s Burrell Gallery. The key drawing for Barry Gasson’s eventual building was made by Brit Andresen, one of his original collaborators, a Swedish woman. It’s of trees – the wood – seen through glass and columns, an image realised in a Gallery whose routes and rooms always relate to the natural world through its long glass wall. For Scotland, by a Swede, it’s a concise, shared northern European, Nordic/Celtic image of an evolved approach to nature and building that is neither rigid nor accidental, but a loose-fit rational one

So for me it’s a “with nature” creed that us architects are following together. However, there are three barriers that hinder us in our pursuit of working withthe world as found – all the climate, topography, culture and human desires, and buildings and ways of looking at the world that they represent. The first barrier is the post-modern ascendancy of the bag of “isms”, the idea that there can be no possible overarching truth. So we, in our post-Christian transcendent way, build a Tower of Babel and ascend it, to talk esoteric rubbish at each other, sometimes in our Colleges and sometimes in our image-led media.

The second barrier is that, having eaten our humble pie us architects now want to show-off again: talk, draw, build something self-consciously daring, do that restlessly-innovative wow-factor thing, advertise the signature uniqueness of ourselves. We are soon going to get ourselves into a pickle again, over this.

The third barrier is the tension between the development and the heritage lobbies. We all have our stories. I took a Historic Scotland Ancient Monuments Inspector round the site that was to be DanceBase, in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, before applying for Planning Permission, and talked about how I was bringing abandoned backland buildings into use, recovering the dense mediaeval weave of closes and built space lost through demolition when the Victorians drove a road and buildings along the side of the Castle Rock above it. I described how we would bring light and movement into the pattern, open it up to the castle and the sky and dance in it, weave Universal patterns in its studios. I described how we would uncover latent desire-lines to connect pedestrian routes between Johnstone Terrace and the Grassmarket, creating a wee, sunny public park where once was an inaccessible drying green. The new steps that would climb up and through that Park would rise up alongside the old City Wall, whose foundations we would uncover and record and whose collapsed early 19th century rebuilding we would, with Historic Scotland’s help, re-erect. We would repair, rebuild and inhabit the wall and connect our new routes through it by a door crowned by a little sculpture: Doug Cocker’s man with his iron feet growing out the Earth and his wee head straining, transcendent, the two extremes reconciled as they are in the architecture, in its art, of the building that snuggles into the wall. Well I told her most of that but not, probably, as poetically. Still, she turned to me with a look and said “You vandal!”. Hah!

But there is enlightenment in what is called the heritage lobby – after all those who study the succeeding architectures of the past should – and increasingly do – have a concern for what might be today’s architecture. And there’s bone headedness in the development lobby too (just as there’s frustration at the use of heritage legislation to thwart the imperative of commerce). Edinburgh has largely been saved from capitalist rape and despoilation – the heritage lobby could be said to have been born in 1771 when the Enlightenment giant David Hume joined with his neighbours in Princes Street to block the commercial development of the south – now Princes Street Gardens – side of the street. (Sometimes it seems that we’ve saved the City from rape and despoilation – thank you Heritage Lobby – only for it to be more efficiently raped and despoiled today). Scotland – anywhere – without the tension between heritage and development lobbies would be a much better place. But there’s real reason for that tension, for we don’t have an equal way of valuing our built heritage against demolition redevelopment.

The Government manipulates economic conditions to influence the built environment. A primary lever is the tax base, and 17.5% VAT on the repair, adaptation and extension of residential buildings, as against zero for their demolition and newbuild,is the given against which we value our built environment – a continuation, it would seem, of the bankrupt post-war idea of development by destruction, and an implicit acknowledgement that successive Governments want their friends in big business to do cleared-site redevelopment, rather than have local councils improving their building stock, or small builders repairing buildings, or you and me. There is legislation, though, to protect that which we value most, and inspectors to enforce that “listing” legislation. And there are various checks but no balance, mini-levers going the other way – grants, exemptions….. and red tape and puzzlement and armies of accountants and grant inspectors and all the jolly heritage displacement-activity which keeps the heritage lobby from noticing the VAT elephant in their nice sitting-room. They are inadequate counter-balances and they promote and cause conflict: the heritage lobby, in the absence of a fair way of valuing that which it loves, being forced into building their bunkers around listings legislation – saying “no” – while the development lobby in their frustration fires mortars at them.

To level out the VAT on residential development would allow us all to talk to each other on equal terms, to judge the value of heritage against development fairly – still mitigated by listing of the best buildings or townscapes or built ideas. The Government’s excuses for not doing this are feeble.

We should now, at the dawn of the new century, be in a nice position. In my Edinburgh, for instance, Convenors of Planning Committees – Cooncillors mind – get up and tell us that Edinburgh is composed of layers of architecture that were all vigorous and modern and Scottish in their times, and they’re interested in how we’re going to conserve this energy in our City for its future by adding our modern layer. If, in other places, there doesn’t seem to be that level of Enlightenment, we should winkle it out.

So we must resist the urge to talk esoteric rubbish to each other. We must be community architects, must look and listen, must repair, must persuade our government to give us an equitable way of valuing the world around us, must enlarge our idea of Sustainability. Just as we must make the most of people, so should we make the most of the whole environment around us, love it for what it is, and what we have done with it.

Burrell Gallery
The Burrell Collection, Glasgow. Image credit: Brit Andresen for the Burrell Collection competition