Friday, November 13, 2015


Lerwick's harbourside public toilet block

Civic place at night with the public toilet as centre piece, all without any awkward urban problems

Car park, the Mareel, and old Lerwick all ignore each other.

In the critical article on the Mareel and general planning in Lerwick, see - it was mentioned that the new harbourside public toilet block in Lerwick was the best project Lerwick has seen for years, when assessed for both its planning and architectural qualities. This is in spite of the prestige of the much larger and far more significant, (if one ignores biological necessities), projects further along the harbour's edge that have received much more hype and publicity. Both of these public, more civic projects were unusual, expensive - maybe well over budget? - and complex. Each houses one of the more exotic, more esteemed, cultural functions of performance art and recorded history for Shetland in Lerwick, but sadly neither project displays the general rigour, responsibility, respect and reverence, let alone the coherence and consistency, in the same way that the tiny public toilet scheme does. It is a true gem.

The toilet block modestly completes the neighbouring set.

Public toilet with 'glassy, classy' bank in rear

The discrete entrance is recessed and subtly models the harbour elevation.

The street frontage of the toilet block stands proud without any apology for being there.

The carefully detailed toilet block roof.

Both of the larger buildings handle their qualities in their own unique way somewhat introspectively, and manage this fairly well; but it is their lack of participation in anything civic that leaves them floundering as adjuncts to historic place. Being an excellent adjunct of any calibre, superior or otherwise, does not necessarily make a building or its precinct a wonderful part of a town; it stays as the extra, the accessory that it is, an aside that is concerned with itself and its own presence rather than with the establishment of any relationship with its neighbouring civic assemblages. Likewise, the popularity of the functions of the buildings, the displays, talks and the performances, causes such community satisfaction that it confuses this success, that of the activity that the building accommodates, with praise for the buildings themselves. This cultural adulation and enthusiasm seems to overpower any critique of the awkward, somewhat arrogant architectural and planning qualities of these developments. Grand evenings in the Mareel do not make it a good building. These occur in spite of this, just as good exhibitions do in the Museum and Archives Building. Who could doubt the quality of the Shetland Rugs exhibition in 2014? The two assessments are separate and need to be kept so if there is to be any real understanding of the critique from which we might learn.

Old Shetland rug.

A night at the Mareel.

The Mareel and old Lerwick linked by a car park.

The Museum & Archives Building is rarely photographed form the west.
Glimpses of it can be seen along St. Olaf Street.

The disparity in civic quality between the modest toilet block and the grand centres of Shetland culture is a difficult story to promote, because Shetland will find it difficult to acknowledge this fact as any proud place might; but in Shetland there is more: there is the silent, the latent battle with Scotland and England, the big brothers down south that make Shetlanders a little defensive, wary, as anyone in a similar relationship might be. Islands look after their own very carefully; they have to survive: see It is interesting to note that this piece written on the proposed Shetland wind farms, has never been published, even though there was some interest expressed in it. It all faded once the provenance was known; once its particular context had been revealed. Yet The Shetland Times gives good coverage to the Burravoe meeting that seemed to look on a turbine scheme favourably. What is going on behind the scenes? Is there some collusion to achieve certain outcomes? Has this to do with 'secret island matters' that might be like the Australian aboriginal 'secret business'? Just what is the power game here?

It is an enigma. The Shetland Times wrote about a new gin labelled Shetland Reel that was promoted as being produced at Saxaford on Unst without any apparent qualms.# Indeed, the label was quite precise about its origin: in the Stores Building on the old RAF base. A random inspection of this building and a drive through the old RAF camp showed no evidence of any gin being manufactured, even though it was named Shetland Reel. To see what is needed to set up a gin still, look at: It is not a simple matter. It seems that the whole promotion could be a 'branding' game that The Shetland Times is not interested in questioning. There appeared to be no distillery at Saxaford: the old Stores Building stands almost derelict, left just as it was when the base closed, complete with bits and pieces on dusty shelves, and sundry, intimate items and junk left neglected, just lying around, looking untouched for years and dirty; ad hoc, just as it was when vacated. The interior reminded one of the Chernobyl buildings. Is the whole promotion truly just a matter of 'branding'? - see: The similarly branded whiskey admits that it is from elsewhere, claiming only to be bottled on Shetland. But where? How? In which space? The areas viewed were all abandoned voids, uninhabited, untouched for years. Have any of these spirit products ever seen or been in Shetland?

The 'art' image of the Museum & Archives Building.

The Mareel's surprisingly mundane elevation to the harbour is never promoted.

Such unresolved ambiguity, so it appears, is a part of the life and thought of the islands and islanders. Any doubt about this seemingly shrewdly 'branded' production has no impact on Shetland reports that look as though they choose to ignore these questions when it suits island issues, and stick to the hype of the promotional material provided, possibly in the hope that some life might be injected into the local economy: see - This piece, like the first Mareel text, was never published either. Island economies, more than most, are very fragile. Islands appear to conceal realities when it suits local politics and opinions: this is what they do. Folk have to live cheek by jowl in small, remote areas. There might be a subtext of chatter, but this is kept out of public sight and hearing. Island residents rely on each other for all types of services. The important thing is that the outsider will rarely be right: he has no rights; he has not earned them. He just does not understand.

The Museum & Archives Building has hardly any exposure to or connection with old Lerwick town.

Like the Mareel, the Museum & Archives Building is a destination rather than a civic place.

The Museum & Archives Building stands alone in front of old Lerwick, with its back to it.

The foyer/shop/display/reception area.

The classic, cliché intruder from 'the south' will always be ignored; will always be perceived as a threat. What is it about the south that gives this outcome? It was the case with a project in Cairns. We were invited to be involved in the project by the local Council, and travelled north from Brisbane to do so, some 2000 kilometres; but the local traders made sure that the proposal would never happen. There was no trust in those 'from the south' who have come to 'impose,' even though we had been invited in to help. 'Local' expertise was brought in to formulate the critique which, of course, was negative: “What would those from the south know?” The locals would never agree to do what the outsider from the south presented. There was always something that was not understood, that made things impossible to be that way, rational or not. In a similar manner, no one can visit an island and become a critic. One is silenced very quickly by being denied a voice, or by being given the vague, knowingly negative response without saying anything, in spite of any inherent sense and logic. Those who have written somewhat satirical novels about the 'life' and 'lived' experience on Shetland, rarely stay. They prove themselves to be true outsiders, unwilling to join in the culture of small places where each is involved with the other in an intimate intertwining of relationships, needs, support and obligations that involves a latent shared belief, trust and confidence. Of course there are many disagreements, criticisms, and critiques, (see The Shetland Times letters), but these are locally approved as it were, of local origins, indigenous, and can be blunt and severe, and acceptable. The locals have the right to do this.

The Mareel, the car park, and the harbour.

The Museum & Archives Building tucks in close to the water - too close?

Both of the new major projects on the harbour, the Shetland Museum and Archives Building and the Mareel, Lerwick's new performing arts complex, have transformed Lerwick's cultural scene, but sadly neither building enriches or respects the broad civic scale and qualities of the old town of Lerwick, its native urban fabric. The critique with these structures is with their lack of integration and embellishment of the urban characteristics of old Lerwick. Whether this isolation and disregard is because of the preconceived idea of locating both of these buildings on the old waterside wharf areas away from the remainder of the town, just because it seemed to be a good idea that became possible at the time, is unclear. Did this demand really make it impossible for either scheme to enrich the whole of the town in some way? Was it beyond their functional possibility? Each building indulges in its own, self-centred hype, for its own purposes. Each has a right to do this, but both could also have done more: both could have related to Lerwick as an historic place and improved it. Sadly the buildings even fail to acknowledge each other, let alone the town. Although they are neighbours, one ignores the other completely. Much has been written about the Mareel in these blogs – see: and but nothing has yet been said about the Museum and Archives Building which was constructed and completed some years prior to the Mareel. In one way it had no demands on it to 'address' the Mareel that was at best a hopeful vision at the construction stage of events: but old Lerwick was there.

The references are made to the traditional rock walls and the old cottage form.
Is it all too neatly aligned; too self-conscious a display?

The first problem with this Museum and Archives development is, possibly apart from its location, its height, a problem directly linked to its siting. This building is tucked away at the end of a dead-end lane, and, like the Mareel, blocks out views of the harbour from old Lerwick. It is a civic impediment rather than an embellishment, enhancement. In cases like this, planners usually boldly declare that there is no legal right to view, no rule to work to – see: but there seems to be a moral right, simple manners. Trystan Edwards wrote of these matters. We pay little heed to these platitudes today. Councils and planners everywhere know nothing but laws and rules, or the lack of them. Arguments are won on the rude basis of compliance or otherwise with the rules: Q.E.D. - go away. The Museum and Archives Building tries to show some respect to the waterfront with its classic bookend gabled facades fracturing the harbourside elevational mass of the whole scheme with a set of traditional cottage forms, a building style that is not vernacular: see - Strangely it is unlikely that cottages in this proximity to each other and the water would be so configured.

The 'tower' display space in the museum.

The town of Lerwick seen from the harbour presents a distinctive, cohesive clustering of forms.

Old Lerwick harbour

The sixareen.

The mix of references perplexes. Where is old Lerwick?

This quaint fragmentation has its crescendo in the metaphoric 'sail' forms of the sixareens that are set out as a swastika in plan around a tower space void, as if to recreate a landmark out of the referenced vista of the old harbour, filled with hundreds of sixareens with ox-blood red coloured sails. Is the image just too twee; too clever in its singular effort to declare so 'knowledgeably'? One blade wall of the tower has been adapted to become the logo for the centre. Does this reference truly ring/read as being meaningful to today's residents, or does it echo nicely only in thoughtful, architectural minds? Is it only a suave, intellectual graphic game like the new symbol for Shetland promotions that comes with the shrewdly ambiguous subtitle: 'Pride of Place'? The building appears to only have eyes for the water, to encompass the harbour, as it turns its back to the rest of Lerwick, carelessly blocking views from old apartments that face the water from the opposite side of the main street above the precinct. Why could the building not have recognised both the town and the harbour?

Water lapping at the doors of the Museum & Archives Building.

High tide in the harbour. The problems are aggravated by the wind.

The face of the Mareel exposed to the Museum & Archives Building.

The Museum and Archives Building interior has been mentioned in Mareel critiques, see above. Its spaces are tight, crammed, already crowded. What does the future hold? Where might it expand? Does it ever plan to grow, or is it fixed in time like the things it displays? Does Lerwick ever plan for a future? Where, just how is the new Anderson High School going to grow? The new roundabout at its entry has not yet been completed, but the news report tells that it is apparently already too small for the larger vehicles to negotiate safely and easily; and Council's response?: it has been built to the basic rules! But what of the future? What is going to happen to the Museum and Archives Building when the oceans rise just a little? Does no one care? Does no one think? The high tides are already lapping at the front door of this socially significant building, the repository of things importantly old, cultural and historic. Is no one worried? One hopes that the archives are kept on the upper levels and that the sixareens on display can still float. What is wrong with island thinking that it cannot be told, that it will not listen to critiques, especially those from elsewhere?

View east along upper Market Street, Lerwick

View east along upper Market Street, Lerwick (tele 1)
The roofs of the Mareel can be glimpsed in the distance.

View west along upper Market Street, Lerwick where, unlike the Mareel, the buildings openly declare their identity.

View east along lower Market Street, Lerwick (tele 2)
The intersection of the Mareel roofs can be seen crouching behind the houses.

View east along lower Market Street, Lerwick (tele 1)

View east along lower Market Street, Lerwick

View west along lower Market Street, Lerwick
Old Lerwick town where buildings create and participate in street character.

View west along lower Market Street, Lerwick (tele 1)

View west along lower Market Street, Lerwick (tele 2)

Oddly, the Mareel was built after the Museum and ArchIves Building, apparently without any significant recognition of flooding problems being accommodated differently. Why are islanders so stubborn? Is it the history of being bullied by brutal lords from the south that makes them deaf to voices from afar? The Mareel has even less of a civic presence/status than the Museum and Archives Building. It sits on the old wharf location looking sideways to the harbour over its carpark, tucked in below the higher housing and nearby streets of old Lerwick from which one can get only glimpses of its skewed, criss-crossing ridges: and this is Lerwick' s new cultural centre? Why does it hide? It stands alone and separate on the water, self-important, squeezed in, remote from all other parts of the town, even declaring its single-mindedness by presenting its neighbour, the Museum and Archives Building with huge blank walls with the scale of a drive-in theatre screen. These walls are even so boring for the Mareel that they have been flooded with varying coloured lighting to add some artful 'intrigue' to it in the evenings. Context seems to have been ignored; even the harbour stands as a broad stretch of glowing, busy water that barely gets looked at by the building that seems more interested in trying to look cleverly sculptural for the architectural magazine photographers, an illusion that can be captured from only a couple of unique locations – and no one will talk about this matter other than privately. The public hype and adulation is maintained, well, until cost overruns are mentioned. Is it a little like the Shetland Reel branded gin and whiskey where it seems that only the appearance is important?

The cafe window blinks at the harbour as it opens up to the adjacent car parking area.

View of harbour form inside the cafe.

The 'art' photograph ignores the reality of the experience: c.f. 'seeing as.'
Notice how the image has been carefully framed to exclude unwanted forms to formalize a 'composition' - c.f. above image.

The cafe looks sideways to the Museum & Archives car parking area.

Given this approach to things, it is no surprise that both the Mareel and the Museum and Archives Building have been and are promoted as the best ever, 'Award winning' schemes; Lerwick's greatest – world class; well, UK class. 'Museum of the Year' – one is reminded of the 'Fish and Chip Shop of the Year.' Britain seems to like such parochial, promotional competitions. Try suggesting anything else and one will merely be ignored. The piece on turbines was not published; neither were those on the Mareel. One on language was: see - The islands do not seem to be interested in other's views, especially those of the 'frank, brash' outsider from elsewhere.

The Mareel ignores the new neighbouring Council office building.

The Mareel's elevation to the new Council office block and to the harbour.

The toilet block's harbour frontage enhances a place for people.

Entry to toilet block.

The toilet block addresses the harbour and two other street frontages.
This is the rear lane.

The rear lane elevation is carefully articulated to manage scale.

The view to the harbour with toilet block on right as the wall curves around with the street corner.

All the small parts matter.

The roof detailing is as important as any other part of the toilet block.

So to suggest that the modest toilet block is the best of the three 'newer' buildings in Lerwick, (they are getting older, as we all are), is considered something to ignore. Yet it is true. This humble amenities building has been beautifully crafted, carefully considered to fit into historic Lerwick, both in scale, form and detail. It respects everything around it. Unlike the Museum and Archives Building and the Mareel that both stand alone, proud of their difference, separation and isolation, the toilet block reverberates as a form fitting snugly with its civic necessity as well as its functional demands. Nor has the shape been manipulated to achieve this neat fit. The whole form functions well as it should to provide this public facility for Lerwick. It is not just a pretty shape. The Mareel ignores the harbour it stands on; the Museum and Archives Building struggles to identify just what it is: house; shed or sailing boat: a foyer, shop, reception or display area: see -

The harbour elevation of the toilet block with sign.

The toilet block corner curves around with the road.

Toilet entry zone

The little toilet block presents a cared for, coherent whole that does not try to exclaim too loudly like these others do. Unlike the little toilet block, these two bigger buildings make no civic addition to Lerwick other than their housed functions. As forms they stand alone, introvert and proud. Both have been placed on the harbour for their own indulgence. They give nothing to the civic structure of Lerwick and little to the harbour. They do just the same as all shopping centres like Tesco do - drag energy from the heart of this lovely compact, historic, heritage town. They extract it and disperse it; weaken it. Lerwick has no civic centre, although it has a beautiful street, Commercial Street, that holds the little settlement together, anchors it as a place with a vital, living backbone with connecting threads linking harbour to town greens. The toilet block plays a part of these urban linkages, but not the Museum & Archives Building or the Mareel.

Nearby building.

Detailing of adjacent roof lines.

Neighbouring roof and wall detailing. Even the colours of the toilet block are sympathetic.

Variations on the theme of toilet block design

Toilet blocks are difficult to design to make civic places of them. They have become public necessities that can degrade place with their social baggage. Efforts have been made throughout the world to design park structures and inner city toilet blocks that are clean and safe, complete with clever automated, self-locking, self-cleaning interiors, but they all appear to hold some stigma. The most recent attempt at addressing, overcoming this problem, is the open toilet area that has no 'Male/Female' categorisation in its cubicle divisions that all open out to basins on full public view. The approach appears to be to expose, 'to out' those who might choose to linger menacingly. This strategy has not solved the civic issue, merely worsened it. Here at Lerwick we have a most inviting toilet structure, one that adds to place rather than detracts from it, holding a certain 'pride of place' in its facility. The building is exemplary.

Glassy bank on the left beside a lane leading from the harbour to Commercial Street

It is the best new building in town. Others have tried to do what this amenity structure does, like the nearby small department store, and the glassy, harbourside bank, but they try to create some modern interpretation of Scottish baronial forms with new materials, rather than using any ordinary, local Lerwick materials, form and scale. The Museum and Archives Building does make an attempt to do this, but not the Mareel. Sadly, one guesses that 'art' these days has to be seen to be different. The toilet block at Lerwick shows how good architecture can be; how it can work on all levels of scale, form and detail, including planning, without compromising any function, without apology or any boastful, clever, 'artful' manipulation. It is an example of how architects can be more responsible than planners. Sadly the Museum and Archives Building and the Mareel show how even architects can struggle to display civic skill, care and responsibility in a traditional harbourside town with such beauty, scale, detail, and a true humanity. Rules are never enough.

The toilet block in its street context, looking south.
The little building does not try to be anything but a good neighbour.

On planning, even the dead do not get the care and attention that they have been given traditionally. The new graveyard at Baliasta sets out the graves on a north-south alignment, while all traditional graves are east west: recognising the rising sun of birth and resurrection; the setting sun of death and afterlife. Symbolism has become meaningless in current design. A letter to council on this matter might as well have been ignored. Even with the example of the historic graveyard a Baliasta so close, the message of the old was forgotten, as if the modern world might know better? We appear to be incapable of incorporating any symbolism in our current design work, and we do not appear to care.

Have we forgotten its importance? It is something we need to learn more about. The importance of symbolism can be seen in the old. Simon Sebag Montefiore writes in Jerusalem The Biography (A Phoenix Paperback published by Weidenfield & Nicholson, London, 2011):
Dome of the Rock. The dome was itself heaven, the link to God in human architecture. The golden dome and the lush decorations and gleaming white marble declared this was the new Eden . . .

The Dome has a power beyond this: it ranks as one of the most timeless masterpieces of architectural art; its radiance is the cynosure of all eyes wherever one stands in Jerusalem. It shimmers like a mystical place rising out of the airy and serene space of the esplanade which immediately became an enormous open-air mosque, sanctifying all the space around it. The Temple Mount became instantly - and still remains - a place for recreation and relaxation. Indeed the Dome created an earthly paradise that combined the tranquillity and sensuality of this world with the sanctity of the hereafter, and that was its genius. Even in its earliest years, there was, wrote Ibn Asakir, no greater pleasure than 'eating a banana in the shade of the Dome of the Rock.' It ranks with the Temples of Soloman and Herod as one of the most successful sacred-imperial edifices ever built and, in the twenty-first century, it has become the ultimate secular tourist symbol, the shrine of resurgent Islam and the totem of Palestinian nationalism: it still defines Jerusalem today.

It are the little things that are important, the tiny parts of the greater whole.

The little toilet block at Lerwick is no Dome of the Rock, but it is far more sensitive, more responsive, more respectful to place and circumstance than either the Museum and Archive Building or the Mareel. It takes more than money, promotion, and cultural prestige to make a quality place. We need to again learn how to build beautifully in every thing we do, large and/or small. It is a shame that graceful old Lerwick seems to fail to inspire its residents. Does familiarity truly breed contempt; or has modernity changed our expectations and ways of seeing?


Commercial Street, Lerwick creates a linear civic centre for the town.

Commercial Street is an aggregation of various tiny spaces shaped by the variations in the shop fronts.

The grand traditional forms of the Bank of Scotland on Commercial Street address the harbour along the lane.

The little toilet block cleverly adapts the local colours and forms to its own purposes effortlessly.

Commercial Street, Lerwick has a unique intimacy with its own scale, texture and colour

17 November 2015
Today The Shetland Times reported that a new Shetland Reel whisky has been produced by the Shetland Distillery Company, a blended malt 'to be produced by the local distillery.' It is 'a blending of four Speyside and one Islay cask strength single malts with the finishing touches provided by locally sourced Unst water.' The whisky was launched by VisitScotland's chief executive who noted that “Tourism in Shetland has a ripple effect that touches every industry, business and company throughout the islands.”
The director of the Shetland Distillery Company said that “Our 'Bottled in Shetland' scotch whiskies are precursors to us installing our own whisky still and distilling our own whisky.”

This seems to tell the whole story: 'produced by the local distillery' when there is none but a company name; and islands are such that criticisms are avoided as there will be an impact on everyone. But where is the whisky bottled? Is it really done in the almost derelict, dusty, dirty RAF Stores building on Unst? Are the casks and bottles, and the necessary equipment carried up to Unst to be returned again as empty casks and filled, labelled bottles? In plain English, is the report saying that the single malt whisky purchased in bulk from other distilleries is blended, mixed and diluted with, perhaps at best, Unst tap water? Does this make it a 'super' single malt or a lesser 'mongrel,' watered-down blend - priced at £45 a bottle? Branding is a serious concern to our culture and our experience of our world. It promotes 'ways of seeing' that are illusory.

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