by Alain De Botton

In Search of Scottish Architecture

October 28, 2009 | by Alain De Botton

FOR MUCH OF THE twentieth century, leading modern architects thought it absurd to try to endow a building with a national identity. They had no desire to create works which would be recognisably ‘Mexican’, ‘Swiss’ or ‘Scottish’. They aspired to what became known as the ‘international style’, which seemed to suit a world that was daily being compressed by revolutions in transport and communication. They wished their buildings to be the same in New York as in Nairobi, in Sydney as in Rio, and hence resorted to materials that betrayed precious few local allegiances (like concrete, steel or glass) and eschewed those of a more associative and rooted temper (like stone or clay). These architects looked forward to a rational era when local traits would vanish entirely from their profession, as they had done from industrial and product design. There was, after all, no such thing as a nationally-styled modern bridge, electric razor or umbrella. The Viennese architect Adolf Loos compared the absurdity of asking for a specifically Austrian kind of architecture to asking for a particularly Austrian-looking bicycle or telephone. If science and art were universal, why demand a local variety of architecture? The modern business districts of cities like Atlanta and Frankfurt came to epitomise the Modernist dream of a place where one could never know from the buildings alone what country one had strayed into.

Yet on our own journeys, we recognise that what can be most attractive about the architecture of other countries is precisely what distinguishes it from its neighbours. When I arrive in Scotland, it’s immediately towards the stylistic differences that I am drawn. My eyes lock on to the wooden cladding on a motorway service station, or a dark, rough stone used along a shop front. The excitement of having arrived in a new country coalesces around these details, which can be to a building what shoes are to a person: unexpectedly strong indicators of character. I discover in them harbingers of the national particularities that are a key motivating factor behind travel. They are promises of a distinctively Scottish kind of happiness. Such feelings stem not from a naive longing for folkloric exoticism, but from a wish that the genuine differences that exist between lands should find adequate expression on an architectural plane. I welcome road signs, roofs, windows and entire buildings that can help signal to me that I am here rather than there.

However, most Scottish architecture isn’t disposed to indulge a desire for local identity. Bland office blocks dominate city skylines, their pedestrian forms mutely mocking the four and a half hour ride in a crowded train that one might have had to endure to reach them. For architectural interest, one might as well be in Singapore or Detroit. Even in more residential quarters, the architecture can be wholly lacking in regional allusions. In new developments put up by globally-traded, London-registered property developers, each house is assembled of generic materials and forms which would be unsurprising in almost any part of the developed world. There can seem precious little that is Scottish in Scottish architecture.

Yet to accept the desirability of a local style leaves open the greater question of what exactly it should look like – an issue which has vexed many of the more thoughtful Scottish architects for at least a century and a half. The question has at times, of other countries, been answered in quasi-mystical ways, as if to suggest that a nation’s borderlines somehow demarcate objective, knowable personalities which the buildings within ought to take a reading of and then passively reflect. In On German Architecture (1772), J. W. Goethe declared that Germany was in its “essence” a Christian land, and that the only appropriate style for new German buildings was therefore Gothic. On seeing a cathedral, wrote Goethe, “a German ought to thank God for being able to proclaim aloud, ‘That is German architecture, our architecture.’” Sir Walter Scott agreed with this essentialist view, suggesting that Scottish identity was “in essence” rooted in its Highland past. To be Scottish, a building should therefore be built of heavy, dark stone, should pay homage to the forms of a castle and should resort to sombre wood in the interiors. These traits became identified with the Scottish Baronial movement of the mid-19th century, whose prime examples are Balmoral Castle (1856) and the Atholl Palace Hotel in Perthshire (1878).

But in reality, no country ever either owns a style or is locked into it through precedent. National architectural identity, like national identity overall, is created rather than dictated by the soil. History, culture, weather, and geography will offer up a great range of possible themes for architects to respond to (not so broad a range as the builders of bland new estates may think, perhaps, nor as restricted a one as Walter Scott proposed). If we end up thinking of certain styles as the indissoluble products of specific places, it is only a tribute to the skill with which good architects have coaxed us into seeing the environment through their eyes, and so made their achievements appear inevitable.

At issue, therefore, is not so much what a national style is as what it could be made to be. It is the privilege of architects to be selective about which aspects of the local spirit they want to throw into relief. An adequately contextual Scottish building might be defined as one which embodies some of the most desirable values and the highest ambitions of its era and place – a building which serves as a repository for a workable ideal.

All works of design and architecture, from a parliament to a fork or cup, talk to us about the kind of life that would most appropriately unfold within and around them. They tell us of certain moods that they seek to encourage and sustain in their owners. While keeping us warm and helping us in mechanical ways, they simultaneously hold out an invitation for us to be specific sorts of people. They speak of particular visions of happiness. Hence, to describe a Scottish building as beautiful suggests more than a mere aesthetic fondness; it implies an attraction to the particular way of life this structure is promoting through its roof, door handles, window frames, staircase and furnishings. A feeling of beauty is a sign that we have come upon a material articulation of certain of our ideas of a good life. Similarly, the buildings of Scotland will strike us as offensive not because they violate a private and mysterious visual preference but because they conflict with our understanding of the rightful sense of existence – which helps to explain the seriousness and viciousness with which disputes about fitting architecture tend to unfold.

The attributes of an ideal Scottish building might be compared with those of a pro-totypically admirable Scottish person. The Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa once
expressed the wish that his country’s architecture should share the outlook and attitudes of the most enlightened Sri Lankans of his era: it should appreciate the burdens and privileges of the country’s colonial past without being overwhelmed by them, should be sympathetic to modern technology and yet should retain a contact with tradition and faith. It is indeed a portrait of an ideal Sri Lankan that seems to animate Bawa’s Parliament Island on the outskirts of Colombo, where the buildings are a synthesis of local and international, historical and modern concerns, the roofs evoking the double pitch of the monasteries and royal palaces of precolonial Kandy while the interiors successfully combine Sinhalese, Buddhist, and Western features. Not only do Bawa’s buildings provide a home for the nation’s legislative government, they also grant the rest of us a seductive image of what a modern Sri Lankan citizen might be like.

So what might an ideal modern-day Scot be like? Questions of national identity are inevitable whenever the construction of high-profile civic buildings is undertaken, so it would be unsurprising if beneath the furore over the budgetary problems of the new Scottish parliament, there was not a deeper and more troubling question about the nature of the Scottish soul. Personally, I am drawn less to the new legislature than to an infinitely more humble structure, the recently-completed Mount Stuart Visitor Centre, in Rothesay on the Island of Bute by by Mukenbeck and Marshall architects.

This building, made up of two separate but conjoined halves – a polished sharp-edged aluminium roof floating above a box of slatted blond-brown wood – speaks of a society which has succeeded in perfectly reconciling the opposing elements of male and female, modernity and history, technology and nature, and luxury and democracy. Taken as a whole, the ensemble comprises an austerely beautiful promise of a dignified and graceful life. The fact that Scotland has its share of social problems, from burnt out cars to cracks in its political fabric, should not dissuade the nation from putting up buildings that present an alternative ideal. The problems merely underscore the need for idealised buildings to stand as a defence against all that remains corrupt and unimaginative within any country. Behind a practical façade, contemporary architecture should try to reflect back to its audience a selective image of who they might be, in the hope of improving upon, and moulding, reality.

An idealised vision of national identity can be as attractive in the domestic sphere as in the civic one. The family that lives in Gareth Hoskins’s stone, wood and glass pavilion in Fife will surely not at all times act in the spirit of perfect Scottish citizens. They may squabble, watch too much bad television, act insincerely and be overwhelmed by anxiety, but at least their house will speak of honesty and ease, of a lack of inhibition and a faith in the future – and can remind the owners, at the height of any bad moods or professional complications, of how they might ideally live.

Modern Scottish architecture, like its English counterpart, has had notorious difficulties finding a way to be at once recognisably contemporary and yet connected to tradition. At worse, it can look as if one must make a choice between the brutally modern or the historically kitsch. But the most able modern Scottish architects seem increasingly skilled at healing this division. They use contemporary materials while also responding to the appealing themes of their ancestry. Robert Matthew pioneered such reconciliation almost fifty years ago, resorting to wood and stone in his modernist Tower Building, in Queen’s College, Dundee (1961) – and the lessons have been taken up by architects like Bennetts Associates, with their Loch Lomond Orientation Center in Balloch (2002), and Frank Gehry (though not a Scot) in his Mag-gie’s Centre in Dundee (2004).

These successful modern re-interpretations of traditional Scottish styles move us not only at an aesthetic level. They show us how the Scottish people too might straddle eras, holding on to their own precedents and regions while drawing on the modern and the universal. The great modern Scottish buildings speak of how a whole country might carry the valuable parts of its past into a restless global future. These buildings tell us a beguiling story of what a modern Scottish person might be like.

Alain de Botton’s new book, The Architecture of Happiness, is published by Penguin, £16.99. An accompanying television series is currently showing on Channel 4’s More4 on Mondays. Alain de Botton also appears at the University Of Aberdeen’s Word 06 Writers Festival on Sunday 14th May, 12.15pm

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