A clever architect
He wins awards. Among a portfolio of excellent buildings sensitive to the Scottish tradition, he’s responsible for the Dance Studio behind Edinburgh Castle, in the Grassmarket. If he has an Achilles heel – and we all do to some degree or another – it’s his fierce integrity. He has a way of telling people they’re fools, and what they propose to build is second-rate design.
I should express an interest here. I know Malcolm Fraser, and I like his work for the most part. (There’s a slabby bit next to John Knox’s House I can do without!)
Fraser knows Edinburgh has made a name for itself throwing up second-rate buildings in places we should have outstanding architecture. It has nothing to do with being hidebound by the Georgian New Town. It has everything to do with weak planning officials. And ignorant chairmen and their casting vote.
What do councillors know about aesthetics?
They go by rules and numbers. So we get an ugly hotel stuck in the High Street’s Royal Mile, or an all-glass monolith insurance building, or a gap in a beautifully proportioned Georgian terrace filled by brutal modernism, or a concrete façade stuck in front of Charles Rennie Macintosh’s sublime art school. (And then some pissed ‘installation’ student burns the art school down – double the ignominy!)
The city fathers need the rates, so stuff good architecture. No wonder the international heritage status of our capital city is constantly questioned.
Glasgow is no better
Under successive Labour regimes Glasgow’s council tried to be the Chicago of Scotland throwing up high rise monstrosities without a single cohesive scheme in mind.
In this instance Malcolm Fraser was not protesting about a poorly designed office block, or a parliament building too big for the site chosen to contain it.
He was denouncing a series of third-rate school buildings built under the rip-off, buy now, pay later through-the-nose system called PFI – private finance initiative, sometimes referred to as PPPs, a way of creating “public–private partnerships” by funding public infrastructure projects with private capital. It is thought the cost of PFI schools has landed Scotland with a £30 billion price tag. No one has been jailed.
In a sentence, we get a prefab for the price of a manor house.
Fraser spotted three things immediately:
- New schools would cost millions more than actual cost in inflated interest charges.
- We won’t own any for generations, by which time their practical life is over.
- The designs were third-rate cheapo productions, potentially lethal structures.
Seeing no one was listening to him, least of all the Labour Party that ruled Scotland at that time, he did the honourable thing and resigned from the Scottish Executive Advisory Panel. I remember the day. He stood up, stuffed his documents into his briefcase, and walked out.
It’s not the money, stupid
Fraser is no lover of the profit motive. And he knows the difference between good and bad architecture. He had warned of structural problems. Now he witnesses the result: the forced closure of 17 Edinburgh city schools show the folly of handing over vital public services to the private sector. The manifestation of greed might well have affected dozens of schools in Scotland.
But back in the day the British Labour party ploughed on with its policy of selling of old schools that needed refurbishment at a fraction of the cost of new, and approving new schools jerry-built.
“The whole industry, everyone realised these buildings were shoddy and they were shoddy in every sort of way – in terms of quality of the environment made for the children, and financially they were unbelievably expensive, and they were purely an ideological route, they were not good for the public purse, they were not good for education, and we are seeing what has come out of that now.”
When brick walls began to collapse for the want of £150 of metal ties and two more days of labouring by brickies, Fraser was sought out by the press for interview. As he entered television and radio studios the British establishment was already reeling out their prepared black propaganda. With an election looming blame had to be channelled away from the political party responsible for the fiasco.
Blame it on the innocent
The anti-self-determination machine swung into action. We were told the crap schools fell down under the watch of the SNP. The SNP are to blame. They implied this, stated it without shame, and apportioned blame when the history books are clear as daylight, the SNP were never in power when the PFI schemes were handed out by Labour politicians. Readers can smell the acrid stench of back pocket bribes for lucrative PFI contracts.
Fraser said what needed to be said.
“You almost need to take a school to bits to find out that these issues are there. You don’t really understand there is a problem until something catastrophic goes wrong, as it has at Oxgangs, which has led to all these other inspections.”
“There was no care or concern going into the buildings themselves. Often good Victorian or even 1960s schools, like Craigmount was, were being replaced by inferior contemporary buildings and there was this vast financial and ideological pressure on councils to show they cared about children by spending money. And the government was very keen these complex financial models be used that enriched lawyers and bankers but impoverished the public built environment.”
Barely had he left the broadcasting building when the enemies of Scotland’s civic rights decided Fraser should be ignored. The broadcasting companies insured the news would promote Labour and Tory accusations implying a lack of inspection was the cause. The press followed suit.
I called Fraser for an interview. He had more to say.
“The general silence of the building industry on this issue is a disgrace,’ he said. ‘All know of its fundamental flaws, but there is a river of money flowing from it towards us so we keep schtum.”
“I have seen nearly 100 of these schools and I saw 27 schools for the Highlands. This is the biggest single financial investment in the built infrastructure of the Highlands and the future of the people – and these schools are catastrophically poor. I’m not talking about design as a subjective thing, I’m talking about objective evidence-based design which says we are currently building schools right across the Highlands too that will blight the lives of those that will learn in them.”
Sergeant Fraser had warned years ago that we wurr a’ doomed. Nobody listened to him.
Nobody likes a whistle blower, especially one that knows what he’s talking about!