17 December 2021 — Writing

Reflections on What if …?/Scotland

A man holds a post card standing in a "cloud" of white cards suspended from strings in a dark room.
Eoin Maguire explores the Cloud of Dreams at V&A Dundee. Photo by Neil Hanna photography.

When the 2020 International Architecture Exhibition, Venice Biennale was postponed until 2021, projects around the world were forced to go back to the drawing board, Susan Mansfield writes. In Scotland, the Scotland + Venice Partnership had commissioned the ‘What If…? / Scotland’ project, curated by Edinburgh-based 7N Architects, to represent the country at the international showcase. Now, due to the decision that it was not possible to attend in 2021, it faced having to find a new home.

When the decision was taken to exhibit ‘What if…? / Scotland’ at the V&A Dundee from May-November 2021, organisers could not have predicted how successful it would be. In fact, visitor numbers and engagement exceeded what was expected. Lead curator and principal architect at 7N Architects, Ewan Anderson, said: “It has been more successful than I ever envisioned and, in a way, more relevant than I could ever have envisioned, a very powerful vehicle for advocacy.”

Opening just as the country emerged from the second lockdown, ‘What if…? / Scotland’’ struck a chord. The project’s approach, based on direct, honest conversations between citizens and architects or designers about what could be done to make places better, chimed with the desire to build back better post-covid. With months at home in lockdown focussing our attention on the places where we live, the theme of the postponed Biennale, ‘How will we live together’, had become more pertinent than anyone could have predicted.

Wishes for the future

At the core of ‘What if…? / Scotland’ was a series of day-long engagements in five places around Scotland just before lockdown began: Annan in Dumfries & Galloway, Elgin in Morayshire, Lerwick in Shetland, Paisley in Refrewshire and Wester Hailes in Edinburgh. A further project in Dundee ran to coincide with the exhibition. In each place, a group of citizens and architects explored together on foot, after which they were matched for one-to-one conversations. Citizens were invited to frame a “wish” about the future of their place, and architects to respond with an idea, a “What if…”.

Ewan Anderson said: “We called it ‘architecture unplugged’, stripping away everything so it’s just the relationship between the architect and the citizen, distilling the discussion down to one wish for the future of their place. There’s no CGI, no CAD drawing, just a sketch which captures the essence of that wish. The whole thing was about the conversation.”

Jim MacDonald, chief executive of Architecture & Design Scotland, co-curators on the project, described the simple formula as a “transformational dynamic” in place-making. It was designed to be open-ended, tapping into people’s knowledge and experience of the place where they live. Conversations were liberated from concerns about budget, feasibility or the complex bureaucracy of the planning system.

Public engagement

For Ewan Anderson, ‘What if…? / Scotland’’ came out of many years’ experience of public consultations. “Very often engagement is set up because someone wants to do something — or wants to stop somebody else doing something. Often the challenge is to get to the longer term vision for the future of the place and not get bogged down talking about bins and dogs and parking. We wanted to explore a different way of doing it.”

The open-ended approach could be seen as risky: wouldn’t everyone put forward pipe dreams which would be impossible to implement, and go nowhere? In fact, this wasn’t the case. Discussions were often very practical, focussing on subjects like more access to green space, more spaces for young people to meet, and better access for wheelchair users.

Topics like sustainability came up naturally, with a focus on re-purposing disused buildings rather than creating new ones. One senior school pupil proposed helping shopkeepers in his local high street clean their shopfronts as a way to attract more visitors to the town centre. Even when people dreamed big, their thinking was anchored in a deep and practical understanding of their community’s needs.

Ewan Anderson said: “There was a real sense of civic responsibility, particularly among young people. ‘I wish’ didn’t encourage willful and irrelevant flights of fancy. ‘What if…’ demonstrated that this kind of approach does get right to the heart of people’s needs and aspirations for the future, and that can feed straight into an ideas-driven process with an architect or designer. That’s the big thing that’s come out of all this.”

Common points

Jim MacDonald of A&DS says this confirms his own thinking. “That’s not a surprise to me. ‘What if…? / Scotland’’ is the perfect illustration of the work that A&DS seeks to do about engaging with the community, being at their service, and articulating and exploring their hopes and wishes in ways that can be understood in physical, spatial terms. Design skills are so useful to facilitate these ideas and give them expression, and ultimately find a common point to take forward.”

He said that the open-ended ‘What if…?’ model of consultation should be embraced more widely in Scotland, including in major public building projects such as health-care facilities and schools. Asking the ‘What if…’ question has the potential to lead to projects which are a better fit for communities, bringing people together around common goals and using limited resources more effectively.

“It is contentious in some circles. If you go to senior public officials in charge of capital projects and say you’re going to go round and ask everybody what they’d like from it, the chances are they’re going to look terrified. They think the world is going to get increasingly complicated, but the evidence we have is that the world becomes incredibly focused and productive.

“‘What if…? / Scotland’’ absolutely demonstrates that the way to get things right is to take time and understand what people need from something. The more we trust in users of our public buildings and spaces to be the real experts, the better the outcomes will be. The more we think we know what’s best, the more potential there is for missing a person’s needs, which either leads to expensive retrofitting or weaker outcomes for the people the project was purporting to serve.

“It’s not easy, but it’s so much better than other ways of doing it and having ‘What if…?’ to show that more tangibly is a powerful way of communicating that message.”

Ongoing consultations

The ‘What if…’ model of consultation is already having an impact in the communities where the project ran. In Dundee, where ‘What if…’ focussed around a new joint campus high school to be built in the North-east of the city, the approach is being adopted by the local authority in some of its ongoing consultations.

And Annan participant Alan Thomson, the Harbour Development Officer with Annan Harbour Action Group, says he was able to implement what he learned in ‘What if…? / Scotland’’ in the public consultations he did for a major project in the town, to turn a semi-derelict harbour warehouse into a community hub, cafe and bunkhouse.

He said: “Being part of ‘What if…? / Scotland’’ gave us a better understanding of community consultation, of some of the questions we should be asking people and the way to do it. We didn’t go for one size fits all, we presented it in a number of different ways to make it more accessible. We invited people to talk about their experience of the harbour. Most of it was about trying to engage people in conversation.”