Scottish voters decide today whether Scotland will be independent or continue its 307-year relationship with Great Britain. Whatever it decides – and the last polls were too close to call – its cultural hegemony over its own appearance will remain as much at risk as that of most other nations.
The British Parliament permitted a devolution to Scotland of some self-rule in 1997, and since 1999 Scotland has governed aspects of its domesticity from its own parliament. In 2004 it completed a new parliament building in the capital, Scotland’s second largest city of Edinburgh. It was controversial, but only partly because it bears a smash-face relationship to Scottish history, culture and taste. In short, it is a modernist building.
The new parliament sits amid the city’s UNESCO-protected historic district. Designed by the late Spanish architect Enric Miralles, it tried, in the words of Wikipedia, to “achieve a poetic union between the Scottish landscape, its people, its culture and the city of Edinburgh.” It failed miserably, reaching completion years late and running at least ten times over budget. In 2008, it ranked fourth in a UK poll of buildings Britons would like to see demolished.
In theory, independence could leave Scotland prey to the same culture vultures that are already pecking at its national soul through its architecture. Britain has been devastated, and Scotland has traveled down the same path. But if, as you would think, independence is driven to some considerable degree by a “Let Scotland be Scotland” attitude, then I favor the yes vote in today’s referendum.
“Let Scotland be ridiculous” is the orthodoxy of the architectural establishment there today. Among the chief tests of whether the nation and its people have the will to rescue their culture is how its largest city sets about restoring the Glasgow School of Art and its Mackintosh Library. These masterpieces of exterior and interior design are the work of the great Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. They were completed between 1887 and 1909 but suffered a terrible fire this past spring.
Glaswegians were, I think, not more appalled than I was at this horror. It was as if Washington’s Corcoran Gallery – where I attended art class as an 11-year-old – were destroyed by fire, or by a Frank Gehry addition (narrowly averted several years ago).
I fear the beast that even now rears its head in the debate over whether the GSA and its library should be rebuilt as Mackintosh designed it. David Mullane, chairman of the school’s “Friends of” organization, opined in “Mackintosh library plan should be ditched,” in the Scotland Herald, that “it is Glasgow School of Art’s intention the library will be rebuilt, based upon drawings and photographs. It is my contention it may well be an embarrassment, which will be referred to as Mockintosh.” He says it should not be rebuilt but redesigned anew in a creative manner that Mackintosh would supposedly respect.
In fact, a real “Mockintosh” would mock Mackintosh by misinterpreting his legacy as a “precursor to modernism.” No. He was the apotheosis of creativity within tradition, not the rejection of tradition. The GSA’s new Reid Bulding, a glossy hulking thing in light blue (or green) veneer by the starchitect Steven Holl, is a genuine Mockintosh, leering at the Mack from across the street.
If the idea of a Mackintosh Mockintosh, the rude Reid by Holl, and the new Scottish Parliament building represent the true spirit of independence, then I am against it. But while I don’t pretend to have my finger on the pulse of Scotland, I don’t believe that is, or need be, the case.
A nation’s culture emerges from its history but also from its concept of art and creativity. Creativity is not just the ability to be obscure or unpredictable in applying the techniques of thought or design to cultural artifacts such as art and architecture. Creativity, properly conceived, is the ability to apply a wider range of techniques – words, images, other cultural signifiers – to bear in revealing truth more clearly to a wider range of human understanding. Or, to put it more simply, creativity clarifies the already abundant variety of truth in nature. It does not twist or pervert reality; it shows you eternal truths in new ways.
Or to put it in a slightly more risqué “No Sex Please, We’re British” manner, creativity is not just the ability to please a partner with the greatest number of positions in the Kama Sutra but to apply with greater deftness, variety and vivacity the same tools available to every lover in the plain old missionary position.
Sorry, I realize the Scots are reputedly a dour people. Scottish voters should strive to free themselves not just from Downing Street but from Carnaby Street. That hip byway of 1960s London miniskirt culture was popular before Britons realized that a counter-counterculture might be desirable. The achievement of a more just society might be more feasible by embracing rather than spurning the better angels of Scottish culture. A setting that fosters the civic realm rather than shredding it to tatters might help.
Again, I’m not sure which vote, yes or no, would promote a Scotland more eager to defend its traditional culture, its roots. The King’s English or the Gaelic of Bobby Burns could push one way or the other. But it is vital that all nations assert themselves to rout the forces of ugliness, callousness and homogenization that are represented by modern architecture. One way or another, Scotland can lead the way.
David Brussat, until recently a member of the editorial board of the Providence Journal, is an architecture critic in Rhode Island.