Concrete Conversations: the conservation of scottish modernism

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This Autumn, SHBT bring you ‘Concrete Conversations: The Conservation of Scottish Modernism’. In this six-lecture series, guest speakers will discuss how modern architecture was borne of a particular moment: reflecting faith in progress and optimism about the possibilities of the contempory world. How it embraced change as it looked to the future – sometimes controversially.

So why would an Historic Buildings Trust be talking about New Towns, post-war hospitals and concrete? Nearly a century after the “white villas” appeared, and some five decades after the apparent certainties of Modernism began to be challenged, Modernist buildings are very much part of our built environment. Some are decaying, but others have been recognised and protected fro their architectural significance.

Conservation is all too often thought of as a conservative practice, but these ‘Concrete Conversations’ will explore how this new challenge invites us to rethink not just modernism, but historic preservation, too. Please join us to re-imagine a new future for the past.

Edinburgh: Twentieth-Century city

Edinburgh’s architectural heritage is usually defined in terms of the medieval Old Town and the eighteenth-century New Town. This talk, however, will argue that the city has a substantial body of notable twentieth-century architecture, and that the decades since 1945 have, in fact, seen substantial interventions in the built environment which have fundamentally shaped the city of today. The talk will offer a panoramic survey, including projects such as the university’s post-war expansion, modernist housing and public buildings, Holyrood, and the international conference centre.

Cardross seminary: fate, failure or tragic myth?

Dr Watters will summarise the sixty-odd year history of Cardross Seminary as outlined in her book of 2016, and place Cardross within the wider religious, architectural and preservation movements of which it formed an important symbolic part. Its history divides neatly into two: the story of its design and use, and the story of its decline and salvage. 

space, form & structure: the architecture of peter womersley

Neil Jackson:

Peter Womersley (1923-93) was a Yorkshireman who made his home in Gattonside in the Scottish Borders. There, within a radius of just a few miles, he built a remarkable selection of buildings, many of which are now listed. In a career which lasted just twenty-five years, he moved quickly from domestic to public work, from simple structures to sophisticated and demanding forms. He always pushed the boundaries of what was possible and left a legacy, for many years overlooked, comprising some of the best of post-war Scottish architecture.

Matt Loader:

Sir Basil Spence, when asked in 1960 to pick the best modern house in Britain replied, “anything designed by Peter Womersley”. High Sunderland is an A-listed modernist house, designed by Peter Womersley for acclaimed designer Bernat Klein in 1957. In 2018, following a fire which affected over 60% of the property, the new owners commissioned Loader Monteith to both restore the house and to introduce 21st century technology to reduce it’s carbon footprint. With Womersley on one shoulder, and Bernat Klein on the other, the project was undertaken throughout lockdown, eventually completing in 2021. This talk will give some insight into our work and the opportunities and challenges faced along the way.

New towns: an ambiguous scottish & global heritage

Come along and hear ongoing findings from the ‘Building a Modern Scotland’ research team, in this presentation by Dr Diane Watters, Dr Valerie Wright and Prof Miles Glendinning.

The session sets the Scottish postwar New Towns programme in its wider international context, first by focusing on the original concept and later vicissitudes of Cumbernauld, the most internationally renowned of the series, and then by more briefly glancing at one fragment of its wider global impact.

Following an excerpt from the renowned 1970 promotional film, Cumbernauld, Town for Tomorrow – to give a flavour of the utopian optimism of the postwar era – Diane first revisits early 1960s and ‘70s architectural and planning narratives of Cumbernauld (her home town), and the subsequent condemnations of the town that took hold from the 1980s, at first within anti-modernist architectural discourse and then more generally. Valerie then zooms in on Cumbernauld’s social history, drawing on archival research, and more importantly, on her discoveries from interviewing people about their lives in the town, as part of the research for ‘Building a Modern Scotland’.  Finally, Miles provides a glimpse into the wider international impact of Cumbernauld’s unique ‘high-density’ new town vision by showing how that formula was developed and vastly expanded in the post-1970s New Towns programme in Hong Kong.

In heritage terms, the presentation will highlight the contrast between Cumbernauld, whose over 60-year old heritage is now burdened with seemingly insuperable problems of architectural and social stigmatisation, and the ambiguous heritage status of Hong Kong pre-1997 new town modernism, potentially excluded for mainly cultural-political reasons from a new ‘patriotic’ master-narrative.

Post war Hospitals

Harriet Richardson Blakeman is a PhD student funded by the AHRC’s Doctoral Training Partnership. She worked at the National Monuments Record of Scotland in 1988-9, before embarking on a survey of Scottish Hospitals on a two-year project funded by the Scottish Research Council, which resulted in the publication of Building up our Health: the architecture of Scotland’s historic hospitals, (2010). In her lecture, Harriet will survey key examples of post-war hospitals, reflecting on the significance of this building type and also some of the reasons why they are underappreciated.

panel discussion: the conservation of scottish modernism

Chair – Euan Leitch  

Dara Parsons, Head of Designations, Historic Environment Scotland 

Jane Robertson, Head of Conservation, Edinburgh World Heritage Trust 

Liz Davidson, Project Director, National Trust for Scotland

How do, and could, we preserve modern architecture? How can a conservation movement which originated two centuries ago with the preservation of ancient monuments engage with buildings and environments of a very different sort today? 

In this panel event we conclude our series on conserving Scottish Modernism by bringing together current leaders in architectural conservation in Scotland to discuss how the organisations and frameworks with which they work might address the evolving question of caring for the past, in the present. 

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