By Ian Begg
(Commissioned by Japanese magazine ‘a-u’ magazine, in 1997)
Ian Begg is a long standing member of the Saltire Society and a successful architect. He had a professional association with Robert Hurd, who in the Saltire publication ‘Building Scotland’ offered a challenge to architectural practice along with his equally influential colleague Alan Reaich. As we plan the Saltire Society’s contribution to the Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design 2016, and take Hurd’s work as a starting point for that contribution, we are pleased to offer Ian’s challenging reflections on architectural practice from nearly 20 years ago, and find that many of the themes still resonate.
Jim Tough, Executive Director, Saltire Society, June 2015
In Scotland, part of the United Kingdom, we are on the point of regaining a Parliament after nearly 300 years of union with England. I am a European but to me this is cause for celebration because we have been a nation denied freedom to develop and enjoy our separate culture. The people never wanted the union. It was forced by those seeking wealth and power. I look ahead happily but this also brings the problem of adjusting from dependence on London as we try to re-engage our traditional institutions and values. Scotland has for a very long time had her own Law and Christian Church and to some degree her educational system but there has developed a marked modelling on English ways. It seems vital to me that we do not fall into the trap of simply scaling down tricks and patterns we have conveniently or forcefully learned from London. Of course the World has moved on dramatically and I don’t imagine we can go back. We can however pick up threads from our past and build on these.
Life today is very difficult everywhere as the impact of the modern technological age and increasing influence of multi-national companies forces rethinking of traditional styles and values. In Scotland we have an opportunity to grasp that problem with a fresh mind. I hope that we can examine the underlying problems of inevitable growth which seems to be an inevitable part of the current system. Is the modern capitalist world in conflict with and a direct threat to our traditions? I wonder.
Tradition is a great teacher. It has developed to suit people, climate, environment and aspirations. It is always there, the collective learning and experience of those who have gone before stretching very far into the past, and it comes right up to now. Tradition is part of the continuity of life. It differs depending on place and gives character to each place. I want to build on these differences. It would be a dull world if everything was the same. Many things- motor cars, general household goods you see in the shops, even fruit and vegetables, now have an international look but we, people, are still different. I want our architecture to echo that. So as we gain more sense of independence from London I want to consider our architecture as a part of Scottish culture; growing strongly, of course influenced by Europe and the world but I hope that it will display for us and our visitors something of our own character. It is towards the understanding and application of the tradition to modern building that I work. I get much pleasure from looking at old buildings. It broadens my aesthetic awareness, increases my architectural vocabulary and, puzzling out the historic development of a complicated old building gives not only insight into the methods and style of the past but produces a warm sense of contact with earlier architects and tradesmen.
Building in the past was very different from today. Materials were primarily local, stone, timber, lime, slate or tile for roofing and even glass did not have to travel far. So there developed a marked unity in style in different parts of the country. The training too has changed. I like to think that the traditional training of engineers, tradesmen of all kinds, architects and even lawyers, through the apprenticeship system, was a fundamental part of growing up. You practised in working conditions under older and more experienced people, and heard the criticism coming from even more experienced bosses and customers. You accepted the criticism because you were part of it all and you were kept at the job day after day learning under a strong traditional discipline. We all like some discipline and direction and it was reassuring because you were learning and gaining confidence all the time. Of course it was not always good but the system seems to have worked. Today all that has gone.
Materials can now be got from different countries, even comments; and the labour force to carry out projects is extremely variable at best frequently untrained, undisciplined and awful. I wonder if we are as thorough in our study of problems and making an assessment of our needs as we were at the beginning of this century, the time of Patrick Geddes? It seems to me that we have also and unnecessarily thrown out our ability to design in a local style.
Is that important? You may ask. Yes it is, because we forget that we have a long developed culture and people don’t change as easily as an architectural student’s fashion. Architects are no longer taught here to respect our culture. It inevitably follows that architects are no longer seen as leaders. I believe that Schools of Architecture here are failing us. Also, whatever new material we select for building must stand up to our climate and tradition has much to teach us there. Traditional materials weathered and usually added a particular beauty to a fine building. Very little modern building is beautiful. I think that the Pyramid at the Louvre in Paris is a fine exception but I wonder if architects care. Perhaps it is enough to gain the interest of other architects for a brief time. In 15 years it is passe. There is cause for confusion in all this. Some people think that I and others like me dwell too much in the past and they kick against the tradition, against history, maintaining that we must be modern. What are we leaving for the future? They ask. Sadly, a close look at life today indicates only too clearly that we are not leaving much of immediate value to the human condition. The rich get richer at the expense of the poor. But I do see hope when in Scotland the majority of people are willing to break with what has been the accepted government – one parliament, the basis of Union with England – and go for change, creating a separate parliament in Scotland. So I am back where I started.
Where do I see architecture featuring in Scotland? What do I want to see happening and what am I doing about it? It is a big subject; but I want to see the people in Scotland becoming more aware of our history including our architectural history because through that we can more easily understand who we are, what the problems have been in the past and how we have coped with them, and with this appreciation build up confidence and courage which are to me essential if we are going to progress. Teaching children comes first, but we must do more. I want our museums and the countless modern heritage centres to shift emphasis and focus more on the future while teaching the past story of Scotland. History is primarily a story and it never stops. It is part of the continuity of all life. It is strange that as we lose our traditions we, ordinary people, also lose control of our future.
In my own work I have for a very long time had an interest in the tradition. When I qualified as an architect in 1951 I started work with an architect Robert Hurd who had come to Scotland from England about twenty years before. He was passionate about this country, loved its old architecture and its story and was a strong believer in the need for a country to govern itself. He had established a reputation for treating old buildings kindly and was also much involved in the Highland area where I now live. The North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board had only recently been set up after a very hard fight with the land-owning fraternity and Robert Hurd had secured several building projects for water powered electricity generation. Combining modern building work in the remote parts of the country with an interest in fine old buildings appealed greatly to me then, and is still a passion.
Over this time I have seen awareness of our culture, and the need to nurture it, weaken, so that today in Scotland our National Identity rests, for some, only in sport. I cannot accept this and so I talk and write whenever I get the opportunity. In my architectural work I have tried to keep the threads of our architectural tradition alive and have been responsible for several new buildings which are closely linked with our past but are in no sense a copy of anything that has gone before. I am not trying to say that my way is the only way or that others should copy me. What I have tried to do is look very carefully at the building project, understand its need and its location, and its place in time. There was no sudden change but perhaps I focussed more clearly when I realised how much we, as a nation, were losing control and contact with our past. The first clear attempt came shortly after I broke with my earlier firm in 1983. Robert Hurd died in 1963 and I had joined with another firm shortly after. That was successful for me for a time but as I relaxed some of my hold on the firm, everything slid out of my control and I had to get out. With my present partner, Raymond Muszynski, I started again, determined to keep a small firm and to do good work with a close eye on traditional values.
The Friends of Glasgow Cathedral wanted a new building close by their very fine great stone built medieval structure and on the site of the long before demolished Bishops’ Palace. I was asked to design this new building. Bearing in mind what had gone before, the new building has a modern, but strongly vertical, castle-like appearance and is built in stone. The early client for the project could not raise enough money to finish the job for the original use but as a result of an extremely fortuitous process the building was taken over and finished by another fine and sympathetic architectural firm for the City of Glasgow as a Museum of Comparative Religion. It houses many fine works of art of religious connection, including the famous painting ‘Christ of St. John on the Cross’ by Salvador Dali. Within an enclosing wall a Zen garden was created by men from Japan. I have enjoyed that process of cooperation. Following that job and after a further circuitous route I became very much involved in a large project to build a new Hotel in Edinburgh. The large cleared site on the Royal Mile, the ancient main street in medieval Edinburgh could hardly have been more challenging. The client, a Danish engineer, wanted a building of strong character and it had to make clear that it was in Scotland – people visiting had to be in no doubt where they were. The brief was very simple. Given the size of room required, a need for dining and conference facilities, an extremely tight site and a need for car parking appropriate to the number of rooms it was a question of making everything fit. The earlier site layout seen on maps gave clues as to the grain of this part of the city and this was followed closely. But the Royal Mile has a marked slope from the Western high point of the Castle down to the Royal Palace of Holyrood House to the East and this was a problem. A modern hotel has lifts but it must also have level floors and a big hotel of more than 200 bedrooms takes up a lot of space. Such a building with much glass and marked horizontality could not have been easily fitted into a medieval street of tall fairly narrow ‘houses’ averaging five or six floors in each without taking a very aggressive disruptive stance. This approach was quickly dismissed and a much more traditional style was adopted. This allowed a subtle variation in the positioning and size of the windows and with material and colour variation, was sufficient to break the horizontal line of level floors. This was probably the most important design element in the whole building. The structural technique, a Danish method was easily adapted to the need. The finished building was far from popular with many architects. It looks back and does nothing for modern architecture, is the opinion but it does fit the site. It uses stones and coloured render which are traditional wall finishes and many like that. The form of stone building technique, both here and in the building in Glasgow, is mostly random rubble laid on level beds. The effect is slightly rustic and traditionally in a prominent situation, it would have been covered with a lime based render or plaster, but, because it is the least expensive way of building stone it was used to make a strong statement. Some even think that the hotel is an old building but there are many clues in the exterior treatment that indicate who anyone who understands the tradition that this is perhaps following the tradition but is not old. That was the intention. Within, the entrance lobby is not nearly as lofty and spacious as intended because insufficient attention was paid to heating and ventilation ducting requirements in the ceiling space. It was like an old building being fitted out to meet modern needs and compromises proved necessary, only this was a new building!
My third building in this run of jobs is much smaller and is much more personal. I needed a house. I had land and there was no suitable building to adapt. My attempt was to create a modern tower house, not copying anything in particular but I was very keen to get the feel of an old place. In our part of Scotland we have a wild and variable climate. We can have beautiful fine weather, but we also get winds of much more than 100kn/hr with heavy rain. Modern houses are both very noisy and vibrate in such conditions and I had to avoid that. I can best describe the house as feeling very strong with thick walls and a distinct sense of having been modelled from the solid. The builder and carpenter-joiner were both local tradesmen and took much pride in the work.
For our family and friends who stay here from time to time, the house works well, has a definite old feel about it and withstands the weather successfully and quietly. It is without doubt pleasantly in the Scottish tradition.
Ian Begg, 12th September 1997