Tuesday, 26 January 2016



On BBC Radio Scotland, 9 April 2015, 6:15am, a commentator from Dundee reported that the city wanted "a building that will say to them Dundee is an exceptional city". One assumes that 'them' is referring to folk in the rest of the world rather than the residents of Dundee, who probably know better than to believe in hype, be this verbal or visual. Such is everyday experience and the refreshing cynicism of the Scots.

Exceptional city?

The hidden statement in this report is that Dundee apparently wants to be transformed, to be a place 'on the map' like Bilbao has become, changed, with an 'exceptional' Gehry-styled building as its centrepiece. The Guggenheim at Bilbao was indeed mentioned by the reporter as an aside, as an example of the Dundee idea. Is a Guggenheim to be built at Dundee too? - if only! Dundee already has a Frank O. Gehry, the Maggie's Centre, built 2003: see - http://www.galinsky.com/buildings/maggiescentre/ Maybe it is too modest? It is, as one has come to expect, a quirky piece that, unusually, appears to be the precurser, the inspiration for Hadid's Glasgow Riverside Museum, Scotland's Muesum of Transport and Travel: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/bell-and-fish-two-glasgow-museums-part_04.html and http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/01/pedestrian-approach.html Why has this never been mentioned? - has it? Does the world like to recognise only 'original' genius? - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2016/01/pairs-16-gehry-inspires-hadid.html

Maggie's Centre

The search, it seems, is always for the exceptional when the real need is for the ordinary to be enriched. The exceptional is singular, itemised; the ordinary is everywhere, as a cloud. It is the everyday that needs attention, now, because it has become so blandly nothing, lost in its lack of any ideals and identification beyond personal whims and bad planning rules. It is something that is with us everywhere, always, everyday – hence its importance. The exceptional seeks to tell us what we wish the everyday might be, or become, when it never can or will: see ON BRANDING in the sidebar. It is really too easy to be extraordinary. Performance artists show us how simplistic and naive such distractions can be, and still attract heroic attention and acclaim.

But Dundee has already been labelled a 'UNESCO City of Design': see - http://www.dundeecityofdesign.com/ : and all without any transformation? Gosh, what is this label? Well, there will apparently be some changes: it will involve 'a whole area of the waterfront,' so the reporter said. It sounds like a good start for a place that wants to be like Bilbao; well, a tourist attraction as alluring as Bilbao has seemingly become. The once grimy industrial city at the top of Spain has been transformed into a glistening icon for the world. Everywhere dreams of becoming a tourist attraction in this manner, such is Bilbao's success at drawing attention to itself, and international money. Success breeds envy and copyists. Just look at the number of places that now have something like the London Eye, even if these are just like the large Ferris wheel that Brisbane has on its riverside. The Dundee blurb continues, promoting the idea – exactly what is this? - as 'a catalyst for social change; a one billion dollar regeneration plan; a renaissance for Dundee.' What other grand phrases can be conjured up in the attempt to convince everyone of the brilliance of the concept? Usually things uncertain, pompous and pretentious, false, are given the most promotional praise.

The question is: why does Dundee need a 'Renaissance' when it has already been declared 'a UNESCO City of Design'? Is Dundee unhappy with itself? Is this all a conjurer's trick? Would Dundee rather be sunny Bilbao instead of a waterside Scottish city famous for making marmalade jam and short biscuits? Do we have too many slogans here? Has the world lost all sense of trying to understand ordinary life and its ordinary, simple, unselfconscious living? Has the hype of marketing and media promotion set the examples for expectations in everything we now do? - see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2015/11/architectural-language-problem-of-hype.html Is it that if these exaggerated, fanciful perceptions are not matched, then everything in life is seen as being lesser, poorer, inadequate? Is only the exceptional noted and now searched for in the extremes of impossibilities presented as likely ambitions?: 'You too can be a star like ME!' Why would I want to be? It is all hype, exaggerations that seem planned to heighten everyone's inadequacy, everyone's need for more and more in a consumer world of unrequited want.

Sadly this attitude seems to have become the norm, with things ordinary and everyday being relegated to the insignificant and unnoticeable; the irrelevant. Only the outrageous and startling in things, everything, is considered worthy of comment and attention: of 'stardom.' The media thrives on the promotion of this impossible iconic ideal: "Headless man on Viagra crosses Niagara Falls upside down" would be a headline that would surprise few, such is the style of media announcements in succinct, brash HEADLINE BOLD these days. Regretfully, nothing other than this excessive exuberance has become acceptable for awards and recognition in most fields of endeavour.

Buddhism is one religion that does attend to the little things in ordinary life. We might look at these writings and try to learn and understand that things exceptional are not the norm. Life is about suffering, best attended to by knowing – knowing that one is walking, collecting water, and firewood, as the Zen monk points out: being aware of being. It is not about being aware of being something else, or wanting to be this. The daffodil in sunlight; the light on water; the line of the hills against a bright sky - yes I write from the Shetland Isles on a beautiful sunny day, 10 April 2015 - are all tiny daily occurrences, ordinary, rich in beauty, unpretentious, but exceptional in themselves for being themselves and desiring no extraordinary interpretative demands on others, while remaining quietly exemplary. Things that seek to be exceptional attract and distract.

REX Architecture's proposal for the new V&A Dundee
Is it sufficiently exceptional?

The sad lust for the exceptional, that is ironically only ever exceptional and nothing more, sets a poor example. It is a singular ambition that specializes in blind, narrow self-promotion complete with empty visions of brilliance, of self-proclaimed genius: ME. That the natural 'exceptional' quality, as in the daffodil, can be so ordinary in all of its subtle complexity is something that we need to understand and replicate in our works. Tradition knew this.

The proposed Kuma V&A for Dundee
The 'Guggenheim' one gets when one cannot have one?
The worry might be: is it different enough?

It is not easy to touch the quality of things subtle: but making things exceptional, different, quirky, is easy. Look at the random twists, angles, skews and inversions in Gehry's work. The only difficulty seems to be in the interpretation of the scribble, its transformation into formal documents from which a form can be built. Such ad hoc distortion and manipulation ensures attention, but one fears that it will be short-lived, interesting for just a few minutes. It holds nothing of the resonance of the glow of the daffodil in the glorious sunlight blazing in from a white sky - such is its brilliance. The daffodil is not trying too hard to be something else; nor does it want to be. There is contentment in things wonderfully ordinary that is difficult to grasp, hard to comprehend; a struggle to replicate. The daffodil's ordinariness tells more than any shattering collection of its pieces might, even though Mr. Gehry would make the assemblage look intriguing under his branding. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin (Matthew 6:28). The flower holds more hope, encourages more understanding in its simple wholeness than any clever recreation, no matter how smartly such a collage might be explained. The flower is life-enhancing. The Gehry's, et al., works, (why just pick on him?), appear to glorify the outcomes of war, of death and destruction, demise: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/12/new-gehry-projects-in-aleppo.html , rather than enriching life, such is their legacy; their rude search for things smart, super-clever, extreme - exceptional. They are not; they are merely the self-conscious outcomes of individuals working hard to do something 'different,' little more; and few are willing to question it: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2016/01/is-todays-architecture-hoax_16.html

We need to learn that traditionally, historically, beauty grows in strength by trying to be the same - by using established forms, patterns and understandings to do ordinary, expected things, elegantly, gracefully; to enrich being with a new clarity and wonder what is truly familiar to all. Constantly creating things extremely different so as to startle, complete with uniquely invented explanatory narratives and rationales that seek to tell us what and how to see, will only keep the annoyed, bamboozled folk noticing only the search for acclimation, for ME & MINE to be noticed rather than to reveal any quiet depth of quality in a work seen at best as being 'more modest,' lesser for not being 'state of the art' or 'cutting edge.' The ordinary is just put down as bland 'ordinary.' Kevin McCloud is constantly pointing this out in his popular, frequently repeated television programme Grand Designs: see - http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/is-architecture-just-grand.html

'World Class' Kengo Kuma's V&A proposal for Dundee
(see THE VISION below)

It is as though the 'self-appointed genius' seeks to be the clever surfer playing with the drama of the random surface, while the other more modest, humble individual quietly plumbs the wonder of the depths, the unseen silence, the still permanence that lies below the immediate, frivolous variations above that attract with their dramatic splashes. Where is the quiet centre in life? How can we get close to it? Do we need to? The desire for the exceptional will not get us there, or anywhere but into the realm of dramatic, distracting entertainment that is likely to just sweep us away in the enthusiasm of the rip, the undertow. Dundee must learn this: it must learn to be Dundee, not wish for a Bilbao future. Who could think of anything worse?

The city made its application to UNESCO in 2014.
Dundee's application: see - http://www.dundeecityofdesign.com/downloads/Dundee%20City%20of%20Design%20-%20Summary%20Document.pdf Ironically the application itself seems to demand self promotion.

In 2013, Dundee was voted one of the world’s seven most intelligent cities for the third time in five years – an indicator of our city’s cultural and intellectual health – and its ambition. We will use designation as a UNESCO Creative City to help connect design knowledge, ideas and experience from around the world; but it is also an opportunity for us to connect parts of our city more effectively, and to create an integrated, sustainable design ecology that creates a virtuous circle of support.

One hopes it is 'virtuous'! We wouldn't want Dundee to be seen as 'SIN CITY.'

OUR CREATIVE FUTURE We’ve worked hard to get to this point. Dundee instinctively understands the need for design, planning and creativity as essential components of a growing city. But Dundee’s future is most exciting; with potential to engage design not only with industry but also the general public. Dundee’s vision is to create a city with design, culture and creativity at its heart. Plans include:
V&A MUSEUM OF DESIGN, DUNDEE – The first design museum in the UK outside London, an international centre of design for Scotland, in an iconic building designed by world-class architects Kengo Kuma Associates. It aims to develop a greater focus on the value of design, promoting understanding of the UK’s design heritage; showcasing international design through large-scale exhibitions, providing opportunities for our own design talent, inspiring young people and fostering relationships between creative design, business and enterprise. V&A Dundee will deliver its first full year of programming in 2017, but in the run up will deliver a wide range of activities to raise awareness of design amongst a diverse audience.
KNOWLEDGE EXCHANGE HUB, DESIGN IN ACTION – Funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, a partnership of 6 academic institutions and creative companies, based at the University of Dundee. The project seeks to build economic capacity and capability through design-led innovation, delivering sector specific residential innovation events where people with different skills come together to solve complex problems and to develop solutions into products.
DISTRICT 10 – Development for the creative industries including live-work space, incubator facilities and business space. The first units, constructed from recycled shipping containers, opened in November 2013.
UNIVERSITIES – Both the Universities of Dundee and Abertay will continue to develop innovative education programmes, and engage in design based research.
DIGITAL WATERFRONT – Developments include the creation of a Digital Waterfront offering nextgeneration networks, advanced broadband and Wi-Fi connections to support the growth of digital industries. This could include public display screens, free Wi-Fi, state of the art fibre broadband, a games test centre, creative/digital media incubator and event space with digital capabilities.
PARTNERSHIP WORKING AND INTERNATIONAL ENGAGEMENT – The city has a long history of successful partnership working, and its organisations are involved in a wide range of transnational activities, from European funded projects to research collaborations, from conferences to work experience placements. The Council is currently engaged in 3 transnational European projects:
INTERREG IVB – North Sea Screen Partnership;
INTERREG IVC – InCompass, Sustainable Creative Incubators and URBACT CityLogo;
and V&A Museum of Design, Dundee is being delivered by a cross-city and national partnership involving the Council, the University of Dundee, Abertay University, Scottish Enterprise, Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and Scottish Government.
DUNDEE UP – The city’s cultural strategy for the period 2015-2025 places design at the core of its strategic priorities. Approved by the Dundee Partnership Management Group, it commits the partners to continuing the journey of culture-led regeneration, using design to generate a creative future for the city.

One has to ask: why will these things only happen under a 'UNESCO City of Design' label? Surely they might occur in the ordinary, everyday; or do we need slogans to live up to in every field of endeavour in these unusual times that seek to transform even a simple waterfront into a digital extravaganza? Does the waterfront lack something, or is it that folk these days cannot see, or do not want to see, the unique qualities of waterfront place?


Dundee is an interesting word. It has been used in the USA to brand an 'Aussie-Styled' yogurt complete with the cliché kangaroo in a map of Australia that even shows Tasmania! The name is probably picking up on the popularity of the classic Aussie character, Crocodile Dundee rather than the Scottish city, its jam or biscuits. It is strange, because in Australia, it is the Greek-styled yogurt that gets promoted as being superior. The grass, it seems, is always greener elsewhere. The hype continues to tell us this. Contentment is not good enough. It just does not help sell sufficient product or draw enough attention to itself.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.