Issue 204
July/August 2018


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Aug 20, 2018
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    From the Mack to the V & A

    The new V & A Design Museum threatened already by street clutter and looming neighbours

    THIS IS a bad time for some of Scotland's iconic buildings. Glasgow School of Art now faces demolition after the second, far more serious fire to hit it in four years.

    In 2014, quick action by Glasgow's firemen managed to restrict serious damage to the western end of the building – including, of course, the library – but this time, a fire that may have started high up in the building has completely gutted the roof and interior, and weakened the external walls that have lost the support provided by the roof and interior floors. Reports say that some of these walls have moved as much as six inches and that parts of the structure could collapse.

    Despite this, those representing the art school, Glasgow City Council, Historic Environment Scotland and even the Scottish and Westminster governments, are all saying that the art school will be rebuilt, something that is possible given the enormous amount of information on the building. But at what cost? A base line of £100m has already been mooted – along with the recognition that it could be twice that amount.

    Besides the need for a proper enquiry into the art school fire, the possible cost of rebuilding raises the question of whether it might not be better to commission a new art school from a contemporary architect. Some Scottish architects have already said that they think this is what Mackintosh would have recommended*.

    And, while we're talking about CRM buildings, the National Trust for Scotland has already spent £250,000 on restoring The Hill House in Helensburgh and is putting a glass box over the building so that its water-sodden exterior walls can dry out. This is expected to cost another £4m. It represents an enormous drain on the trust's finances.

    Might it not be better to do what the Japanese do? The reason why ancient palaces and temples have survived till today in a country bedeviled with earthquakes and fire is that they are regularly rebuilt – and demolishing and re-building The Hill House could be less expensive than the present procedure. Presumably, it will also include changes to the exterior walls to prevent them soaking up rain all over again…

    While a huge question mark exists over the future of Glasgow School of Art, and while the cost of maintaining The Hill House seems like a bottomless financial pit, another iconic building in Scotland – St Peter's Seminary in Cardross – may have come to the end of the road as far as its rescue is concerned.

    Built by Gillespie, Kidd & Coia in 1966 as a centre for training Catholic priests, the complex, concrete building echoes those built by Le Corbusier after the Second World War. However, after it closed down 14 years later because not enough men wanted to enter the church, the seminary became a beautifully romantic and modernist ruin that would have cost millions to repair.

    In 2015, however, restoring the seminary and turning it into a cultural venue seemed possible when Angus Farquhar's arts organization, NVA, began a programme that included a massive clean-up of the building and an audio-visual presentation called Hinterland that was staged in March 2016.

    Launching a nationwide Festival of Architecture, Hinterland inaugurated £10m funding for St Peter's that was to cover restoration and maintenance for five years, with backing from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Creative Scotland, the Scottish Government, Historic Environment Scotland and Argyle & Bute Council.

    Last month, however, NVA announced that the loss of a three-year funding deal with Creative Scotland meant not only that work on St Peter's would stop, but that NVA itself was being wound up.

    As for Farquhar, who created the Beltane Festival in Edinburgh, the Hidden Garden in Glasgow, and a series of stunning light, sound and sculptural installations around Scotland, little has been heard of his future plans.

    No doubt he is trying to recover from the failure of Scotland's art organisations to financially back one of the country's most imaginative undertakings.

    And, finally, there is the emergence of a new icon – Kengo Kuma's building that will house Dundee's V&A Design Museum, due to open in September.

    Now that the building itself has been completed (fitting out the interior continues), it resembles a giant, rectangular dark object that has landed from outer space, resting heavily upon the shore of the Tay and visually overwhelming the neighbouring Discovery Point and Scott of the Antarctic's RRS Discovery.

    Already, a Press-led programme of hype has begun: Dundee is lauded as a tourist destination following a recommendation by Lonely Planet (the only reference to the UK) alongside other hotspots in Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. This follows Dundee's becoming Britain's first UNESCO City of Design in 2014.

    Yet anyone who remembers – or who has seen films of – Dundee in the 1950s and 60s, when the centre was filled in the evenings with the increasingly affluent workers from Olivetti, NCR and Timex, jute and textile mills, and D.C. Thomson, will know that today, Dundee is a shadow of its former self. Only D.C. Thomson and Dundee and Abertay universities remain as major employers. And, perhaps surprisingly, most students seem to spend their time on campus.

    Furthmore, planning along the Tay has been a disaster. Blocks of flats along the Riverside are set too close to the road so that the dual carriageway is compromised; the current building of an hotel in front of the Design Museum means that the latter will be partly hidden from view from the centre of the city – and the long-term policy of destroying views of the river from the centre of the city continues apace; while the traffic flow between the river and Caird Hall remains constantly heavy and restricted by a complicated layout during the day. Had Dundee been wealthy like Copenhagen, the road along the river might have been put into a tunnel.

    Worse, most new buildings close to the river – among them, hotels, offices, car parks, a science centre and the flats already mentioned – are of poor visual quality and completely unrelated to each other in design or colour, while the V&A Design Museum is now being surrounded by bollards and other street furniture that make its immediate environment a mess.

    Almost nothing is left of the pre-First World War vision that the city's planner, James Thomson, had of a classical city next to the Tay – nor even of the sympathetic landscape created around the Tay road bridge when it opened in 1966. As for the interior and exhibition within the V&A Design Museum itself – well, we'll see what that's like in two months' time.

    RICHARD CARR


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