Tags

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Emporio Armani boutique on Glasgow’s swanky Ingram Street can be hardly said to be jerry built. According to the Scotsman, who previewed its opening in 2016, the store was “designed by Giorgio Armani himself, with his team of architects in Milan” and “the aim was to maximise light and give the space a modern, stimulating feel.” Last Saturday, however, the emergency services had paid a visit to this stimulating building. A glass panel had fallen several storeys and the whole of the street below had to be closed off for four hours whilst the dishevelled boutique was patched up again.

“Another case of ‘Sick Buildings Syndrome,’” I sighed, cutting out the article for my file. I filed it under “Glasgow,” where it joined the Art School fire (probable cause: incompetent use of flammable materials coupled with inadequate fire detection and prevention) and the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (where patients have contracted infections, in at least two instances fatally, from the ineptly constructed ventilation system). Relatively speaking, Armani’s mishap was merely a glitch and, thankfully, nobody was harmed. In London, last October, one poor gentleman had lost his life after a glass window had dropped on to him from a multi-million pound apartment on the Albert Embankment.

“Sick Buildings Syndrome” is a category that I have invented to encompass various major news stories that have resulted from a steep degradation of architectural skills and competence. These stories are seldom viewed as being connected. They instead tend to be portrayed as isolated events and as ultimately the consequences of negligence or of recklessly greedy cost-cutting. Prominent examples include the fire at Grenfell Tower (cause: incompetent use of flammable materials coupled with inadequate fire prevention and evacuation) and the collapse of the gigantic public limited company Carillion (cause: expensive engineering and construction faults during its building of two hospitals). But the latest instance of Sick Buildings Syndrome, the Edinburgh’s Sick Kids Hospital, is a marvel and a beauty of its kind.

So far the only sick kid at the new Sick Kids Hospital is the building. There are no other children there. The Sick Kids had remained behind in 2003, after Edinburgh had banished its Royal Infirmary to an out-of-town warehouse in the deserts of Little France, in order to flog off the original city-centre site to developers. Then the Sick Kids itself was finally scheduled for an appointment with the destroyer of delights and the parter of companions. It too would be sent to Little France. The date of the new hospital’s opening was set: winter 2012.

It still isn’t open. Indeed, many of the children who would have been treated at this new facility are now adults whilst the hospital itself is still barely toddling. The hospital had gotten into the dense mess that is so characteristic of any Private Finance Initiative, though the Scottish government had here tried to detoxify the scheme by renaming it as a “Non-Profit Distributing Model.” Had either private finance or a nationalised organisation built the hospital, it would have been probably slapped up in a timely fashion. But in an inevitably disastrous entanglement of the two, the state has declared that it is unconditionally reliant on certain private providers to build the hospital and these providers can accordingly keep raising the price and postponing completion.

This explains why it is now 2019 and there is still no hospital. It also explains why the project has cost £150 million, its costs have been raised by £90 million, an additional £11.6m has been surrendered to the consortium Integrated Health Solutions Lothian to keep it from chasing up more money in the courts, and the government has been paying £1.4million per month, since February, to maintain the otherwise uninhabited building. With the same cash, we could have conceivably sent every sick kid in Scotland to California for treatment, with a weekend in Disneyland to recuperate.

There must be a “fatcat” banker behind all of this and the Daily Record claim to have winkled her out. She is apparently one Shemara Wikramanayake, an Australia CEO who fronts the bank Macquarie and who the Record claims to have made £9.5million in 2018 from the unopened hospital. Meanwhile, over at the Edinburgh Evening News, the Green MSP Alison Johnstone wagers that, “private finance [is] to blame for Sick Kids’ woes.”

This reviling of financial dark arts is no doubt fair but I nonetheless wish to call for a deeper and more imaginative assessment of the project’s failure. The danger is of adopting a conspiratorial mind-set and of positing that the constructors had deliberately inflicted damage on their own building. As if they had kept the physical structure grovelling below the skyline in order to make a splendid invisible tower of its consequent earnings. The particular faults at Sick Kids concern ventilation, drainage, and fire safety. They are so dire that the Health Secretary Jeane Freeman has needed to explicitly promise that the building will not be pulled down.

What if the problem is actually far more unsettling? What if a systematic, long-term, and industry-wide failure to research and develop more efficient methods of construction has at last gone too far? What if we are in fact currently living through a drying up of construction knowhow and a coarsening of the skillset? What if a general policy of building modern architecture to a 30-year life cycle has led to an over-familiarity with slapdash construction and a knowing lapse in quality control? What, in other words, if a hospital with dangerous ventilation and a proneness to flooding is no longer a freak or an outlier but, in 2019, perfectly normal.

In the debate last week in the spectacular Scottish Parliament building, Jeane Freeman told MSPs that the hospital would be up and running definitely by next year or possibly afterwards. At that moment, a concrete beam became dislocated from its fixture and Freeman had to jump out of the way to avoid being crushed. Nicola Sturgeon tried to assure the parliament that there would be “closer scrutiny and oversight,” but at the same time she was trying to hold up a wall behind her that was threatening to topple over. Labour and the Tories attempted to condemn the government but they were largely obscured by the clouds of dust and falling masonry.

I am not an architect or an engineer. Indeed, I would struggle to build a wigwam out of a stick and some blankets. Yet modern architecture is surely a field, if ever there was one, where we “have had enough of experts.” At its self-congratulatory core, architects seem to admire and applaud one another’s hideous creations. On the periphery, meanwhile, the public who have to use these buildings grows ever more bewildered and demoralised. When we hear that a new building is being constructed, the best that we can hope for is that it will be aesthetically undistinguished. At the very worst, we can now expect to be poisoned by the dodgy ventilation, struck dead by a falling glass panel, or immolated as a result of the flammable construction materials.

There needs to be a serious and focused public debate about modern construction failures. There have always been such failures, of course, but the question here is why the technological progress that should naturally make them scarcer has flatlined.

We are presently living through an age of the most miraculous achievements in medical technology. An age in which doctors can reconnect two halves of one patient’s broken spine with cells from his nose; and make another patient a new working tongue with skin from her arm. We therefore need to break out of this weird hypnosis in which it is regarded as commonplace that something as basic as a hospital should be built far less successfully than it would have been fifty or a hundred years ago. This looks like an increasingly alarming anomaly or counter-current in the course of material progress.