One of the working titles of Prospect North, the Scottish exhibition for the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale was Shifting Scotland. It captured an obvious truth – Scotland had changed, and was still changing, following the referendum of 2014.
But it also suggested that by shifting our perspective we can reimagine Scotland’s place in the world – by looking north rather than to London, by turning the atlas 180 degrees, what was once peripheral becomes central –what is assumed as “up north” is the south to others.
This idea is at the heart of Prospect North, a collaboration between Lateral North, an architecture and research company, Dualchas Architects and Soluis, a design-visualisation studio from Glasgow The exhibition is one of 88 international exhibits being curated in Venice under the title of Reporting from the Front and is being displayed until the 25 June at Ludoteca Santa Maria Ausiliatrice in Venice and returning to Scotland to tour as part of the 2016 Year of Architecture.
Central to the installation is a large timber relief map of Scotland, the Nordic region and the arctic. As you enter the exhibition space it appears as an abstract sculpture – it is only as you walk round the space that the map becomes familiar – that you recognise the established view point.
Set within and around the map are spectacular 3-D visualisations and films which are triggered when viewing the map through mobile phones and tablets.
These tell the stories of how communities in Scotland – communities that are often viewed as peripheral- are working with designers and architects to find ways to hang on; that through the efforts of individuals, often heroic efforts, people are doing their best to make their communities better.
After exploring the map, viewers are asked to don the sculptural heads of a unicorn, moose and polar bear. Within these you enter an immersive virtual reality world of the Highlands past, present and future.
This element looks at how communities in the Highlands were destroyed, along with much of its Gaelic culture. It then looks at how contemporary architecture is trying to connect with the past, but finding that it is largely a privilege of the wealthy as the young still leave, pushed out by high land values. Then the viewer is presented with a different future where economic opportunities to the north can repopulate the Highlands.
But can this future vision be made reality? Can a refocus to the north – to Nordic countries and to the arctic, be an economic generator for change, so communities work with the current rather than struggle against it?
The exhibition challenges us to aim for industrialisation of the north through bold renewable and infrastructure initiatives and high-speed connectivity. And it suggests that global warming and the emergence of the North West Passage could transform global trade routes, placing the north of Scotland and its islands in a key strategic position. But an aging population in the Highlands and continued cultural and economic decline is the future unless we decide to act on these opportunities.
What Prospect North reminds us is what we learnt during the independence referendum of 2014. That there is creative talent in Scotland who have exciting visions of what our communities and country could be.
l Neil Stephen is director of Dualchas Architects