Scotland + Venice 2014: Outsiders

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This article appears in the newspaper Outsiders. This group explores the East Coast as part of the Scotland + Venice 2014 project Past + Future.
An event including a discussion with Emmanuel Petit, Dirk van den Heuvel and Sven Olov Wallenstein will take place in Venice on Friday 24th October.

Find out more about the Scotland + Venice project here.

Penny Lewis

The late Isi Metzstein always insisted that we talked about modernism “in Scotland” rather than Scottish Modernism. No doubt he felt that it was hard to look at developments in the twentieth century in isolation from what was happening south of the Border. Perhaps he felt that to seek out any distinctly Scottish character to the Modern Movement was against the modernising impulse which he exemplified.

Whether you are in Scotland, England or China it has become very fashionable in recent years to bemoan the “globalisation” of our culture and to posit the nurturing of local identities as an antidote to this problem. We imagine that a turn away from the international arena, from the global exchange of materials and ideas, might allow us to find our place in the world. All too often a caricatured version of international modernism, with its enthusiasm for technology and it’s derision of history, are blamed for the weaknesses of today’s cultural production.

In this context it is worth remembering that architecture has been “internationalised” since the Romans and that for the past 500 years the international exchange of ideas has driven the development of the discipline. A review of modernist building within Scotland’s national boundaries is a worthy task. The writing of the history of architecture in Scotland is already a narrow field undertaken by a handful of people and anything that extends our understanding is worthwhile. However, what is clear from this paper is that modern architecture in Scotland was often at its most compelling and interesting when its authors emerged from positions (intellectually or geographically) outside of the polite programme-driven approach that characterised the Scottish scene after 1945. For the last century architects have been attempting to develop a language appropriate for the modern world. The architects included in this paper each struggled with this question; their work addresses both formal and social issues. In Scotland after 1945 those that believed that architecture should be driven by a social programme tended to dominated the discussion, but the role of history and technology was at times decisive. It was only in the closing years of the 1970s that the tension between the programmatic preoccupations and the formal and historic concerns came to the fore. In the writing of the history of Scotland’s modernist projects the work of those individuals that were preoccupied with formal expression tend to be discussed as a sub-plot, which is secondary to the main theme of postwar social renewal and reform.

Understanding the output of the Modern Movement is difficult without an appreciation or definition of ‘modernity’ – a term that is used to express a wide range of contradictory and complex social, political and cultural conditions. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane in their book on Modern literature (1978) describe Modernism as: “an extraordinary compound of the futuristic and the nihilistic, the revolutionary and the conservative, the naturalistic and the symbolic, the romantic and the classical. It was a celebration of a technological age and the condemnation of it; an excited acceptance of the belief that the old regimes of culture were over, and a deep despairing in the face of that fear.”

In Modernism and Fascism (2010), Roger Griffin divides modernist impulses into two forms; “epiphanic modernism” and “programmatic modernism”. Epiphanic modernism describes work that responds emotionally and conceptually to the contingent and transformative conditions of modernity while programmatic modernism constructs a new framework for production and understanding. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, set in London, “the unreal cit y” with its stony unproductive landscape and “heaps of broken images”, is epiphanic and forms the cultural backdrop to the interwar period. Modernism in Scotland and the UK as a whole tended to favour the programmatic approach and for at least twenty years the idea that architects could contribute to the construction of a postwar consensus based on new infrastructure, education for the masses and welfare reform provided the profession with a strong sense of purpose. This approach was clearly articulated by Alan Reaich and Robert Hurd in Building Scotland (1944); which sung the praises of the modesty and simplicity of Northern European and Scandinavian modernism and argued for a Scotland that could forget about the inequity and misery of the Victorian period.

Modernism in Scotland began late and finishes early. Nikolaus Pevsner strongly lamented that in 1900 Great Britain “forfeited its leadership role in shaping the new style” at the very moment when the European pioneers began to converge to create a modern movement. For Pevsner Charles
Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art (1907) marked the UK’s final attempt to participate in the development of a European avant-garde. After the School of Art there was no radical rethink to make sense of new conditions of life or construction but pragmatic changes and a period
of preparation. For British Modernists the Inter-War period was a little bit on an embarrassment. J.M.Richards admits to being ‘a little embarrassed’ by the British Pavilion at the Paris Expo of 1925 and when Le Corbusier came to London for the MARS 1937 exhibition (the Modern Architectural Research group was the British wing of the CIAM) he was overheard by a shame-faced John Summerson describing the show as “painful”.

By the late Thirties the pages of the Architectural Review were full of buildings by Wells Coates, Maxwell Fry, Mendelsohn and Chermayeff, Tecton and Lubetkin, Breuer and even one by Walter Gropius (a college in Cambridgeshire). Any reader at the time might be forgiven for thinking that, after a late start, Britain had caught up with Europe.

The truth is Britain’s interwar contribution was ‘very modest’ (Summerson), a strong sense of cultural pessimism coincided with a very eclectic range of architectural responses, which have been described Neo-Classicism, Arts and Crafts, Art Deco and Brick or Stockholm Modernism (Lionel Esher The Broken Wave 1981).

A Scotsman’s cottage was his castle, the new bungalow covered suburbs of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen were physical proof that Scotland too had elected to opt out of the zeitgeist. Scottish house builders like McTaggart and Mickel adopted much the same approach as English architects like CFA Voysey’s who produced designs with a cottage aesthetic to cater for national characteristic and sentiments which he believed were as much a part of design conditions as the local climate. Basil Spence produced modern vernacular housing that were inspired by the house forms of the fishing villages. An Art Deco or a streamlined Beaux Arts approach became the house-style for the small number of public commissions that were awarded in the run up to 1945, epitomized by Thomas Tait’s Art Deco tower at the Glasgow Empire Exhibition of 1938.

In an attempt to make sense of Modernism in Britain Bruno Zevi wrote that the nation (he said England but he means Britain) “never accepted the modern movement as a theory but gradually accepted it in its practical applications; there was no revolution in taste, but a gradual development which harmonised this new trend with the positive results of the Arts and Crafts movement.” According to Zevi the British were ‘skeptical about theories’, detested the monumental and preferred to discuss ‘a decent way of life’ rather than individual creative geniuses. (Towards an Organic Architecture 1949).
Modernism in Scotland, like the rest of the UK, was born alongside the welfare programme of the 1945 post- war Labour Government. For Trevor Dannatt 1945 ‘altered irrevocably the national meaning of architecture’ (Modern Architecture in Britain,1959). In the last days of the 1930s it became clear that the social programme for schools, hospitals and homes would provide the rationale for a new utilitarian architectural language. For the first time in more than a century you could talk about a unity and sense of purpose in architectural design.

Welfarism, an outlook that dominated social policy and the imagination of large sections of society throughout the postwar period, forms the backdrop to an understanding of the buildings produced after 1945. If American modernism appropriated the language of the avant-garde in order to help sell American corporatism and consumerism, the Scots, it could be argued, appropriated Scandi-modernism to give shape to state-led welfare reforms.

If you wanted to give the work produced in Scotland in this period a collective title you might argue that it conformed to what Colin St. John Wilson described as “The Other Tradition” (1995 and 2007). Mainstream modernism in Scotland took its inspiration from Scandinavians such as Aalto and Jacobsen rather the European avant-garde of the 1920s. There appeared to be a natural affinity between the work of what Bruno Zevi described as the ‘organic’ tradition, and the later work of Le Corbusier rather than the machine aesthetics associated with the Bauhaus. This dominant strand of modernism in Scotland is probably best expressed in the work of Robert Matthew and his practice RMJM. As Miles Glendinning explains in Scottish Architecture (1996)Matthew, like many of his peer group in Europe, was preoccupied with solving the housing question and had developed “his own modernist philosophy of ‘solving architecturally, the most difficult of social problems”. Matthew’s sentiments were shared by many of his peers and given clear expression by historians like Nikolaus Pevsner who in 1937 wrote;

“Unless a further leveling of social differences takes place in this country, no steady development of the aims of the Modern Movement is possible.” (An Inquiry into Industrial Art in England in 1937). In the technocratic and democratic imagination of many architects the creation of an equal society and the construction of modern homes and cities were intimately linked.

Robert Matthew had joined the Scottish Department of Health in 1936 and become Chief Architect and Planning Officer by the end of the war. From 1946-53 he took on the same role in London County Council, overseeing the Festival of Britain in 1951. In 1956, with Stirrat Johnson Marshall, Matthew established the firm of Robert Matthew, Johnson Marshall with offices in Edinburgh and London. Matthew highly influential in the development of Scottish planning policy, in particular the development of the Clyde Valley and the creation of the New Towns. He was also important in the creation of an architectural language that was deemed to be appropriate for modern Scotland. His practice developed an approach to design in which programme was the driving force of the process and a restrained and utilitarian approach to formal and aesthetic questions prevailed. Where aesthetic or formal concerns prevailed it was in relation to the use of appropriate local materials and careful considered details. A rather Calvinistic approach to the formal aspects of the discipline is still evident in much of the work produced in Scotland today.

The period from 1950 to 1970 is a particularly rich era for those interested in Scottish architecture and engineering. The Forth Road Bridge which was conceived and constructed over this period remains one of the most enduring expressions of the ambitious and efficient approach of the best of Scottish designers. Architects in Scotland were particularly productive, building new homes, schools and hospitals. Modernists came in a variety of forms. Among the established practices there was RMJM, Reaich and Hall and Anderson Kininmonth Paul, while a younger generation; Morris and Steedman, Peter Womersley, and Metzstein and MacMillan at Gillespie Kidd and Coia produced energetic new work with a Corbusian quality. The New Towns and new housing estates provided work for Wheeler and Sproson, Baxter Paul and Clark and Moira and Moira, who produced a distinctive body of work which combined English picturesque layouts and Scandinavian modernism with Scots vernacular.

Aside from the Matthews’ social determined modernism there were practices that were keen to explore the formal and expressive aspects of the discipline and those that were interested in Mies Van Der Rohe and his attempts to develop a subdued but purposeful language for the times. Gillespie Kidd and Coia had the ear of the Catholic Church and were commissioned to design new churches and schools for the New Towns; the buildings that they produced were highly expressive and inventive.

Where modernists, such as Peter Womersley, won commissions from private clients or sport clubs the work was more visceral. The private homes produced by Morris and Steedman throughout the 1960s were clever and innovative and were clearly influenced by their experience of studying in the USA. From outside of Scotland architects such as James Stirling (at St Andrews) and Geoffrey Copcutt and Hugh Wilson (at Cumbernauld) made a significant impact on the local architectural imagination.

The creative tension confronting architects in Modern Scotland can be usefully explored through the three building projects we have selected for this paper. An art school in Aberdeen (1966), a student residence in St Andrews (1968) and a proposal for a crematorium in Kirkcaldy (1954) may seem, at first sight, an unlikely collection of buildings. With the exception of a common enthusiasm among the architects for the work of Mies Van Der Rohe (Shewan and Smithsons) and a shared experience as members of London’s Independent Group (Smithsons and Stirling) those involved in all three projects appeared to be pursuing very different ambitions. However, these buildings were all designed within a few years of each other for sites on the North East coast of Scotland. And they draw on influences, and address architectural questions that preoccupied architects across society at the high point of postwar expansion. You could argue that the common theme linking these Scottish projects is that they fall outside the mainstream discussion of Scottish modernism. Gray’s School of Art is rarely referred to in the history books, Andrew Melville Hall is no longer deemed suited for today’s often fee-paying students and the Smithsons competition entry for Kirkcaldy was unsuccessful and is now forgotten. The fact that the projects have been overlooked does not in itself make them worthy of attention, what each project provides is an insight into different important, but perhaps unfashionable, architectural ideas.

The Smithsons, who are often considered the radical and impolite wing of British Modernism, were keen to distance themselves from the fetishistic view of change, innovation and rationalization associated with the early European Avant-garde. In their text Without Rhetoric, which was published in 1973, Alison and Peter argue for an abandonment of the rhetoric of the machine age in favour of the calm language of Miesian modernism. They believed that architects should make use of mass produced materials associated with modern culture. By engaging with the broader social activities; through controlled composition and elegant detailing they imagined it was possible to create a new language that reflected longstanding essential qualities of the discipline and was of its time.
Back in the 1950s John Summerson recalls that the Smithsons gave a lecture in which they discussed the relationship between the formal and social elements of architecture. “To say that you can evolve a form from a social programme or from an analysis of a situation in terms of flow is meaningless, because analysis without the formal content, the architects particularly specialisation, has one factor missing from it.”

The work of all three buildings in this paper expresses the ambition to extend the language of the ‘particular specialisation’ of the architect in a context where it was increasingly the case that programme was seen as the generator of form not for architectural reasons, but for political ones.

Penny Lewis is a lecturer at Scott Sutherland School of Architecture & Built Environment in Aberdeen, prior to becoming an academic she was editor of the Scottish Architecture magazine Prospect. She is a founding member of the AE Foundation

Illustration: Alison and Peter Smithson, Kirkcaldy Crematorium. Axonometric (2014) Credit: AE Foundation (Hugh Lawson, Samuel Penn)

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