Awareness of our surroundings seems to be something that is in short supply these days. A raft of developments that have been presented to Highland Council for planning approval recently only serve to confirm this position.
Proposals for development of infill sites in the centre of Inverness, such as the site of the swimming baths on the riverside, are submitted with glossy brochures and eye-catching illustrations and graphics to justify the scheme. Without the extensive training that an architect receives, it is easy to understand that members of the public would be persuaded by the developer’s arguments, and even if they were not, a member of the public would struggle to articulate their opposition in the face of such professionally crafted statements that justify the proposals.
It is important for architecture to create a positive and harmonious relationship between a new building and its surroundings. To do this, the talent of the architect needs to be accompanied by a sensitivity to, not only to the visual context, but also an appreciation and knowledge of the architectural heritage and social history of a place. This is a unique skill that architects are taught through years of dedication and study. Without this knowledge and understanding, we will end up creating visually confused and discordant places that will increase a sense of disconnection and isolation.
As an architect, with experience in both contemporary development and the conservation and restoration of historic buildings, there are a number of potential issues that may have given rise to this current trend that I find alarming.
- The planning system does not have the tools necessary to evaluate and manage the design of new developments in the city effectively.
- Architects are paid by private developers not the public. Their fees are insufficient to allow them the time to reflect on bigger issues. Financial pressure narrows their focus and they end up using their knowledge and expertise to promote their client’s interests rather than those of the public.
- Our universities are not giving the younger generation a proper appreciation of the development of historic architecture, urban design and the space between buildings, because its not sexy and its not what young people are interested in.
- As a society, we have become seduced by our own imagery in a contemporary world. Whether it is selfies on social media or the latest gadgets, we can only see things that are right in front of us, right now. The bigger picture, what we leave behind us for future generations is of little interest.
Whether we understand and appreciate it or not, these developments will leave a legacy for the future that is going to be problematic for us all. Once built, we will have to endure these buildings for 50 years or more. We will destroy the characteristic places that people enjoy and come to visit. We will create a city that is poorly planned, congested with inadequate public transport. These will have significant financial and social consequences.
So, what can we do to improve things?
Highland Council and Inverness Architectural Association have established the Inverness Design Review Panel, which meets regularly to assess planning applications. This is a great first step. It has been going a couple of years now, so its is still in its infancy. It tries to persuade developers to address issues of context that may require further attention. The process is entirely voluntary and relies on a developer’s willingness to engage positively with the process, if it is to offer any benefit. This fragile balance leaves it potentially weak and ineffectual. With support, in time, it may grow to be more confident and assertive.
As a community, we need to change our outlook and get more involved in groups like Inverness Civic Trust who can provide an independent voice, supported by experts. We need to recognise that value in architecture and the design of our environment is in the physical experience of places that we and others enjoy and not on the developers profit and loss statement. Demanding a better proposal, will not threaten jobs or the economy of the city, quite the reverse.
Architects need to start demanding higher standards from ourselves. We have become complicit in the dilution of design quality and silent on the damage that inappropriate development is causing to our environment. We need to use our knowledge and skill to provide a professional and rigorous architectural critique of new developments and in turn embrace well considered criticism as an opportunity to improve. This is the way that modern business and technology evolves, whether it is the medicine or aviation.
Its time architecture caught up with other industries, it is too important to be left drifting on the tide of fortune. Demanding higher standards will enhance our reputation, improve the quality of the Inverness and create a more sustainable profession for the future.
MAAC studio are accredited conservation architects and principal designers working with traditional buildings throughout Scotland.