follow up in Scotland on Sunday
Out with the old in with the new
ONE evening last summer I spent an hour or two dialling and redialling the same telephone number in order to cast a vote for the conservation of a building I had never seen. It was a fruitless exercise. Mavisbank House, in Loanhead, near Edinburgh, one of the finalists in the BBC 2 Restoration series, was eliminated - my feverish dialling got it nowhere.
Why on earth did I bother? Here is a fine, but crumbling building, a Palladian villa with its past behind it, which will take many millions to preserve and which, in a country already rich with crumbling buildings, is hardly unique. Let it crumble, as John Ruskin would certainly have argued. "Restoration," he once wrote, "means the most total destruction which a building can suffer... it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architectureâ€¦ Do not let us talk then of restoration, the thing is a Lie from beginning to end."
My enthusiasm stemmed, not so much from Mavisbankâ€™s beauty as from the passion it arouses. Those who are devoted to it - notably my friend James Simpson, the architect, who introduced me to it and spoke glowingly about its charm and importance - have given it a new life, a new reason for it to survive and flourish.
Buildings can arouse devotion to the point of obsession. Caroline Park, a 17th century mansion overlooking the Forth at Granton, has a small coterie of supporters, including the artist Richard de Marco, all determined to protect it from the worst intrusions of the new waterfront developments on Edinburghâ€™s north side. This is a rescued building, and a much loved one too.
I could not summon up the same enthusiasm for Queensberry House, on the Canongate. To spend more than Â£10m gutting and rebuilding a 17th century house, of which there are other, finer examples in Edinburgh, to accommodate it within the plan for the new parliament, seemed to serve no real purpose. Very little of the original building remains. The external rendering was removed, as was the 19th century plaster-work. The old timber flooring has been taken out and replaced with steel beams and concrete floors. It is a shell of its original self. It could just as easily, and far more economically, have been pulled down.
That, I think, is what the architect Alan Dunlop had in mind when he argued recently that the listed buildings system should be scrapped. He even supported the controversial demolition of Alexander â€˜Greekâ€™ Thomsonâ€™s offices in Glasgow. I cannot believe there was ever a case for destroying the creation of one of Scotlandâ€™s few truly great architects, but buildings need champions, and this one did not have enough. It is true, however, that the dry interpretation of conservation rules has held back the restoration of many structures which might have had new life breathed into them, either by allowing a change of use or by giving architects the opportunity to graft new designs on to old structures in the manner of the Italian architect Carlo Scarpa.
It is, I suppose, a lack of confidence about architectural values that holds us back from bold new statements and the imaginative adaptation of old buildings. Instead, we fall back, time and again, on pastiche, the worst kind of blind imitation of the past. Whether it is the â€˜re-authenticationâ€™ of Burnsâ€™ cottage in Alloway, the fake recreation of Scotlandâ€™s history at Edinburgh Castle, or a pretend Old Town hotel on the cityâ€™s High Street, we have come to rely on imitations of the past as the only means of conservation. "Stupid imitations of that sort always look mean," said Scarpa. "Buildings that imitate look like humbugs, and thatâ€™s what they are."
Caught between slavish imitations of the past and a severely negative view of modern architecture, it is hardly surprising to find little enthusiasm for new building amongst the general public. Why should they identify with it if they are given no clear reasons for doing so? Housing developments of indeterminate character mushroom around the outskirts of our cities, reflecting neither imaginative design nor any recognition of the landscape or tradition in which they are placed. Architecture is given no public profile by government, nor does it rate as a serious topic for discussion - though, just possibly, Enric Mirallesâ€™ dramatic creation at Holyrood may alter that. Unless people are given a reason to love their architecture, it will always be difficult to breathe new life into it.
Given the chance, however, to become involved in design ideas, that enthusiasm can easily be kindled. I remember going round the exhibition of Homes of the Future, a Page and Park development for Glasgow â€™99, which gave local people the chance of contributing their ideas to the development of their own housing. They seized on the concept with gusto, were heavily involved and had rapidly grasped the jargon, swapping confident references to such things as vernacular statements, linear development, and the creative use of space. I believe the adventurous Maggieâ€™s Centres for cancer patients, at Edinburghâ€™s Western General Hospital, and Ninewells in Dundee, designed by Richard Murphy and Frank Gehry respectively, show that innovative design can win the support of the people.
Arguments over architecture and design are at best dry and empty affairs unless they involve the people who are going to use them, and the place in which they are set. We should be trying to kindle that interest by championing new ideas and by demonstrating that modern buildings come into their own only when they have immediate relevance to those who are going to live, work or spend time in them. "Only connect!" said EM Forster. It is as true of buildings as it is of people.