Mission Statement

The aim of the Scottish Stone Liaison Group is to enhance availability, promote utilisation and advance knowledge and skills in design, specification and use of indigenous Scottish stone in existing and new build projects.

NEWSLETTER

Natural Stone Institute

Issue No. 2 Summer 2001

No sculptur’d marble here, no pompous lay, No storied urn, no animated bust; This simple stone directs pale Scotia’s way

When Gordon Benson and his partner Alan Forsyth won the competition to build the Museum of Scotland in 1991, this was the epigraph which ran across the top of their design proposals. A neat way of poeticising the museum’s stark walls, but also of linking the Museum to its context - the full inscription is to be found on a memorial stone to the poet Allan Ramsay in Greyfriars churchyard opposite the Museum site.

The Museum is one of very few authentic examples of landmark modernist design to be found in Scotland - made relevant by the real history that has been enthusiastically gathered up by the new structure. Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth were trained, and later taught, at the Architectural Association in London at a time when some the crucial debates of British architecture were taking place: between post-modernism, anti-historical modernism and high-tech architecture. Their response was the paradoxical principle of “contextual modernism”. Generating ideas for the new building included the context of Scottish architecture, where the major figures of Gordon Benson’s native Glasgow loomed largest: Alexander “Greek” Thomson, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

“Thomson’s great gift was that he could do both individual buildings, and he could do terraces and public monuments which became constituent parts of a city - and, indeed, they implied that city. Mackintosh couldn’t do that. He pulled off individual masterpieces; but they didn’t carry in them the germs of a city. What you’re trying to do is coalesce Thomson and Mackintosh. That’s got to be the goal. If you can do that in a modern way, in a new way - the poetic ambitions of Mackintosh with the civic skills of someone like Thomson - you’ve got the beginnings of a new architecture.”

But who has the skills to produce this new synthesis of traditional and modern architecture?

While architectural education is improving, apprenticeship - the gradual experience of designing for real - is harder to come by. Gordon Benson believes that this generation of architects is being hampered by the difficulty of gaining all-round experience.

“The tradition and culture of large offices which could support young architects - making the jump from the fantasy of design to some implementable reality - has vanished”.

There is also a need for a deeper understanding of the practice of building. In relation to stone, the task is huge - for more fundamental research so that the properties of the material relevant to its performance in use are more fully understood, for more information tailored to the needs of practitioners that explains how stone should be used, for a revival in the craft skills used to win, shape and build it.

Maybe that is why Benson and Forsyth chose not to include the final line of the inscription: “To pour her sorrows o’er her poet’s dust.”

Professor Gordon Benson AADip, SADG, FRIAS, ARIBA will speak at the inaugural meeting of the NSI at 6.30pm on 19 September 2001 at Stirling Castle.