Published  07/02/2002

The authentic and the twitch: architecture, tourism and simulacrum

The authentic and the twitch: architecture, tourism and simulacrum

Increasingly, we now seek to verify what is presented as 'real': we are wary of 'simulacrum' having perhaps enjoyed 'something having the form or appearance of a certain thing' or having experienced 'mere image, a specious imitation or likeness of something' (Oxford English Dictionary).

The concept of 'simulacrum' has, in the 21st century, shifted from the religious arena to the marketplace. Simpson and Brown, architects of the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick, have established a plausible reputation in the conservation of historic buildings in Scotland. More recently, they have become interested in projects reaching beyond a purely conservationist agenda; they have carried out designs which seek to create, through a deliberate mise en scene, an evocation of a habitat; a world at one remove, whether historically or in terms of natural habitat. This is because, in today's market-oriented design world, there exists an identifiable clientele for such evocations, whether of a presumed historical past, or of a perceived natural world.

The evocation and presentation of the sense of wildness is an expanding field. Television has accustomed viewers to the visual presentation of animal birth, as well as predatory kill. We can always switch over. Likewise, virtual reality is increasingly presenting reconstructed historic buildings in as realistic a guise as CAD can achieve. Simulacrum is part of life now as much as it was once an essential tool of religion.

Now, at the Seabird Centre at North Berwick, Simpson and Brown have provided us with a contemporary building which at the same time provides a simulacrum of natural bird life on the nearby Bass Rock. Exceptionally the client, under the motto 'get close to nature' realised that the same skill in evocation of the past for the wider public viewing applied through 'mise en scene' would usefully be applied to the evocation of the natural world. In this building, literally autochthonous – sprung from the soil – the public can be brought as close as possible to the Bass Rock 'experience' without ever having to leave the security and shelter of the Centre.

Not only is the gannet habitation of the Bass Rock now under close inspection, but the puffins on the island of Fidra are in the lens. Theoretically, even the cormorants on the well-visible Isle of May can be brought into play. All of these can be visited, when weather permits, by boat from the harbour below. One vessel has the capacity to hold over seventy passengers. But few of those passing through the lofty portal, with its swooping, bird-like copper roof, will have the urge or the inclination to proceed beyond Melbourne Avenue which adjoins the site – least of all to venture to sea – for the full panoply of nature can be scanned from the Centre.

Images of nesting, flocking, rising, soaring, landing or strutting species, generally expressing their territorial imperative no less urgently than humans, now abound on small relay screens. The Centre offers what is virtually a high-technology 'twitcher's hide': on the upper level powerful telescopes are available, on the lower level, the viewer can effectively move the lens range around, all on screen. At both levels the reality is not virtual, but real, only simply at one remove: we can now observe the wildlife as never before, without the swell of the sea, the climb or crawl, the hint of danger. The concept is ingenious, if simply to be expected in the 21st century. Although as a whole, the senses cannot yet fully adjust to micro-climatic variations, tactility, or smell. If we miss the smell, however, an original olfactory, lift-top 'smell' container is there to remind us of two or three appropriate smells, separately, herring, seabird droppings, etc. This was a characteristically clever touch by the Centre. One could want the tops lifted, and the whole subterranean exhibition space suffused with the combined experience, so bringing us more than a whiff of reality.

What is good here is that the form of the building, as contextualised by the architects, derives in part from the surrounding topography, of both the law to the South, beyond the town, and the nearby small islands. This form grows expressively out of the base rock of the site. The 'historicist' contextualisation ranges from the early medieval remains of the Church of St Andrew, adjacent to the site through the maritime harbour buildings, to the 1930s open air pool, sun lounge – all optional choices for period 'mise en scene', even enhanced by son et lumiere applications which Simpson and Brown might find hard to resist, the architecture has been resolutely directed to the encapsulation of the 'experience' of the wild.

The clientÈs urge that nature should be brought closer, not only an educational but also a promotional imperative, has been well fulfilled. From away to the east, the 'swooping' copper roof seems less 'swoopy', and more attuned to the surrounding landscape than perhaps was anticipated. Moving closer in, the eye picks up the exceptional precision of the masonry detailing: its execution by drystone waller Neil Rippingale, using a mortar back-bedding technique (more to prevent tourists from prising out pieces than for actual structural needs) with wall ties where required, is wholly exemplary. All this contributes to the tectonic expressivity of the structure, further achieved by clean and simple non-laminated timber beams and sections. Entering the building, under the 'swoop', an extenuated lobby leads straight into 'pole position'. To the left is the reception desk, and opened out to the right (east) is the voice below the cupola, supported from upper level on rounded timber posts. What is otherwise a regular circular plan is itself extenuated at the entrance point at the first, or ninth column. The central space is both lit from above, and from the periphery, where views out through the cafeteria reveal the Bass Rock itself. The visitor now has to decide whether to truncate the 'experience' there or in the cafeteria, or to pay up and go downstairs below the cupola to the gallery where the main action lies. The solution of the circulation and overall plan of the building is in this instance unambiguous, which is a success. The Centre's management hope that the first level contact with the downstairs activities, bird noises, and range of exhibits (including a superb, large-scale Bass Rock) will encourage a viable number of visitors to go for the full experience below. That experience could 'mise en scene'-wise, still go further. A 'cafe-theatre' might be deduced, with full-blown strobing bird swoops, the full cacophony of birds defending their territory (or worse, Hitchcock-like, plus occasional droppings, and as hinted above, a fully vented 'smell' experience) – now that would be something. But these are early days. The Centre does plan to encourage corporate hospitality events, which seems a good move, and maybe even one day weddings might be possible – a seriously good idea. Because of this combination of educational purpose and entrepreneurial spirit, it is likely that the Centre will survive in the difficult economic straightjacket of tourism, and prosper. Which, with this building it deserves to. In summary, both in building form and plan/circulation Simpson and Brown have pulled off a sound, even exemplary, piece of tourist architecture. The ecology ticket seems less sure, although it is claimed for the Centre.

Which takes one back to the question of 'authenticity', in general, and the critical role that such criteria should demand in the 'historicist' context so familiar to Simpson and Brown. Also, in sight of the Isle of May on the north side of the Firth of Forth, these architects are proposing (the application is currently with Fife Council) an altogether less soundly based scheme. Just north of Crail lies a listed 17th century tower house, with do'cot and adjoining 18th century walled garden, to which a pure and modest twin-pedimented 18th century coach house and stable block is attached. All these buildings were painstakingly restored by two sets of domestic owners over the previous 20 years. It would seem that nothing more should be added, or taken away, in this ultimate perfection.

In order to secure a change-of-use to tourist, 'historic-motel' accommodation, the architects have argued that accommodation can consist of two accommodation garden pavilions, one of the style of Sir William Bruce at the much larger and grander Kinross House; the other a rounded, 'fortified' tower (subsequently twinned again), at both ends of the walled garden. The former pavilion is then attached to the 18th century stables, looming over their simplicity of form, and incorporating leaded lights and other (as Simpson and Brown themselves claim in their submission to the planning authority) 'deliberately historicist styles' and paraphernalia. This, they claim, will, 'Create a new architecture which will enhance the appearance of the eastern end of the walled garden and contribute to the architectural quality of the entire ensemble of buildings [there]'.

On this project, commercially driven by new owner-clients, historicismÈ is being deployed by the architects not towards authentic architectural conservation, but as an embellishment to create a mise en scene, redolent of a presumed architectural and social history, which has no basis in fact. This phoney contextualisation may create a tourist-friendly ('Characterful', in the wording of the application submission by the architects) environment, but it is not authentic, and by its commercially driven abuse and presumption of historical truth, actually destroys the whole meaning of the surviving listed building complex. Fortunately, the historical documentation of the buildings, and their less-than-grandiloquent inhabitants over 500 years exists in their survival of the 17th century religious and political commotions, their attachment to agricultural improvements in the late 18th century and early 19th century periods of growth and to the ultimate 20th century architectural restorations. Otherwise we are in the world of Disneyland, Brigadoon, and Braveheart. This question of authenticity, as touched upon in the latter case, is an increasingly pressing one as projects themselves become essentially commercial, and historicist architecture becomes the tool by which change-of-use can be achieved. In which case, if it was ever granted, the entire architectural and historical quality of this small but now historic complex, unique in locality, will have been inconsiderately and unjustifiably destroyed, and, by default, through purely commercial motivation. The authentic history is seldom what the tourist industry wishes to know: it is the mise en scene that is sought after, and architecture becomes stage design. By contrast, in the North Berwick Seabird Centre, the history context was wisely not tampered with or 'enhanced', and the evocation of the world, the approximation of nature was mobilised to good effect, albeit at one remove, and with laudable success.

Michael Spens



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