In 2000, Airdrie gained the dubious honour of winning the Carbuncle Cup for being the most dismal town in Scotland.
Ten years on, huge sums of money have been invested in the town, millions on streetscape improvements, the award-winning and environmentally accredited business centre has been constructed, and the oldest church in Airdrie , Old Wellwynd, which lay empty for fifteen years, has been rescued and re-used through conversion into a modern community facility.
Airdrie’s problems are shared with many places in Scotland; it is a former industrial town struggling to find a new identity in tough economic times, and it is a victim of poor planning and design decisions of the past few decades.
At the time it was given the Carbuncle Award, the accompanying statement was clear: This is not a criticism of the people of Airdrie, it is a criticism of the professionals who decide what does and does not happen.
This is why I feel strongly enough, as a local architect, to voice my concerns over what I perceive as a fresh mistake, the recently commenced Airdrie Community Health Centre.
The Health Centre is a welcome major investment of £27million; it will provide a wide range of primary care and community-based services under one roof in the heart of Airdrie, and bringing these services together is an opportunity to breathe further life into the town centre.
The problem begins, however, and this is where I see history repeating itself, and the potential for future criticism of the professionals involved, in the design of the proposed new building. I feel this is misconceived, in terms of a lack of civic presence, a failure of integration with the town centre, and visual appearance.
I understand fully issues of budget and design constraints in the delivery of a building of this type; however, in a building of such importance to the regeneration of the town, I believe there is a duty amongst design professionals to stick our heads above the parapet, difficult though this is, and question exactly what is being built.
The design of this building has gone through a rigorous planning process and a design assessment carried out by the government official body Architecture and Design Scotland; yet the comments and recommendations made by A&DS; in it's report, which heavily criticise the proposals for a lack of civic presence, have been paid barely lip service in the final design.
The architects claim, on their website, that they are a team ‘driven by design excellence’, and they are indeed an award-winning practice.
I have no doubt they will be working to a tight budget, on a challenging site, to a demanding brief. All this will have to be delivered for a ridiculously low fee. However, all this should not prevent appropriate design considerations to be a priority.
The façade of the proposed building includes large amounts of white render.
This a fundamental mistake for a building situated where it is proposed; one only has to look at the problems of this material at Glasgow’s Homes of the Future Glasgow, Glasgow Green, to understand the inherent difficulties posed by white render in the Scottish climate in a building situated next to a busy roundabout.
It will soon shed it's bright new image and become very grimy indeed.
In addition, the facades are featureless and bland, a nod to modernism without any of its soul, and a repeat of why Scotland has so few really good modern buildings.
There is little articulation or sense of what this building could be. No doubt the designers could argue there is little local context to draw on, but that is no excuse to build something as architecturally uninspiring as the lump being torn down to make way for the new.
This building should be an exemplar of what Airdrie could achieve in future and allow it to finally shake off its Carbuncle image.
The new building does nothing to enhance or engage with the streetscape, and it turns its back on Graham Street; these issues have been raised during the design process so there is no excuse for the decision makers if this goes wrong.
I believe architects have a responsibility to the wider built environment and should not consider their designs in isolation. They should be brave enough to question the brief, to explore alternative approaches to present to clients to demonstrate how buildings can work better as part of a holistic solution rather than merely providing an envelope to house the brief.
There is a wider question of the purpose of Design Review; why bother, if comments made are not acted upon?
A building of this civic importance should be designed as an integral part of what will become the Conservation Area of the centre of Airdrie, and designed to stand many decades into the future.
As things stand, it will be lucky if it survives as long as its 1960s predecessor.