Style has nothing to do with architectural quality of buildings

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RICHARD Murphy, in his ­criticism of Scotland’s failure to create good public architecture (News, 30 March) is almost spot-on. Where I believe he is wrong is in his equation of architectural quality with “style” and with “modernism” in particular. This has been ­received wisdom, particularly among architects, for much too long. Come back ­Colin McWilliam, The Scotsman’s ­architecture critic for many years. Colin ­admired modernism, but his taste was catholic and his judgment sound.

Richard’s modernist vision for Edinburgh’s South Bridge/Cowgate fire site might have worked, and mine (restoration of the original South Bridge design) would definitely have worked. What has been built is not particularly offensive, but is in architectural and urban terms poor and unworthy.

Richard is also correct to 
finger the parliament building as a huge problem: whatever else it is, it was an utterly irresponsible and incompetently managed project which has characterised so-called “good architecture” as necessarily brave, extravagant and “high-risk”. This is a deeply damaging misunderstanding of the whole nature and purpose of architecture, the essential characteristics of which were defined by Vitruvius in the first century AD as “firmness, commodity and delight”. As Richard says, a good architect can save money. Good and bad architecture – like good and bad food, good and bad music and good and bad painting – can be in any style. Architectural quality has nothing to do with style: that is merely a matter of fashion and taste.

The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland has ­recently published a booklet ­illustrating 73 projects submitted for awards “from Wigtown to Lerwick”. Hardly any urban or public projects are included. Scottish architects do produce beautiful buildings, but only rarely on our city streets. As Richard Murphy rightly points out, it is the process which leads to ­mediocrity and worse.

Dr James Simpson, Edinburgh