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  • Writer's pictureJohn Dempster

Calum Maclean on researching 'The Architecture of Inverness'

At Tuesday’s HighlandLIT on-line, 16 of us listened to local architect Calum MacLean (of Maclean Architecture and Conservation) describing the process of researching and writing his new book The Architecture of Inverness: an illustrated architectural guide.

This work covers Inverness-shire, and ranges over 4000 years, from the Clava Cairns to the new Justice Centre. ‘Within a few paces [in Inverness] you see one great building after another, ‘ Calum said. This new book was needed, he said, as a reference for architects and everyone interested in the city and shire and its buildings, and as evidence to help inform local authority planning. Of the works eleven chapters, eight focus on major periods during which the town grew – for example, there are chapter on the Victorian era, and on the Postmodern period, each sub-divided according to the different styles in vogue in during the period a chapter covers.

Brought up in Caithness, Calum initially ‘had a chip on [his] shoulder about Inverness, but the city and shire came back with a strong story of its own.’ He grew in appreciation for Inverness, as he saw how well it compared with bigger towns and cities in the south of Scotland, and how its architecture reflected European and international styles.

His work not a history book, though it notes links between politics and place and buildings. Calum’s main aim, he told us, was to ‘read’ the buildings he was describing and photographing ‘with a designer’s eye,’ feeling his way back through their stories. Buildings (and other structures – he includes, for example, the Culloden Viaduct) are a ‘depository of memory,’ a record of a whole sequence of decisions made in the planning, construction, and maintenance stages.

Any author brings their preconceptions to their work, but Calum has aimed at impartiality. It was important to include buildings we might judge to be ‘ugly’, otherwise we would be airbrushing out part of the city’s history. There would be no ‘rose-tinted spectacles’, no ignoring flaws.

But looking at ‘ugly’ buildings we should ask what, for example, the architects of the much reviled Bridge Street buildings were trying to do at the time, and whether they succeeded in it. We would not be where we are now had we not passed through the earlier stages, Calum said. We are currently continuing a long journey. How do the Bridge Street buildings reflect the principles of modernism? Lots of light, relative inexpensive construction, with a focus not on the needs of individuals but on overcoming engineering challenges. Calum shows in the book that after the post-war period, the social purpose of buildings was emphasised – what are we doing with our buildings? How are they improving people’s lives.

The normal approach of the series of guides to which The Architecture of Inverness belongs is to walk down streets, systematically describing the buildings they contain, but in taking an overview at the research stage, Calum noticed how one building often provided the inspiration for another, and so on. There’s plenty of information in many cases about the buildings and the people associated with them, but little about the buildings themselves. Calum trawled through copies of the Courier, and other archival records, often uncovering evidence about architects and their work.

As a result of unearthing these connections, Calum describes each building as a link in a chain, showing how it related to existing buildings, and how it inspired later structures. Sometimes, he said, you hear tourists decrying more recent buildings in Inverness High Street – but you can explain the architects’ thinking, and show that in fact these newer buildings do fit in their environment.

In the course of his talk, Calum read a couple of descriptive passages from his book, and as well as fairly technical sentences their were phrases of pure poetry.

Calum kindly also answered questions. Was there a building he was sorry to have omitted? Yes, he would have loved to include the former filling station on the right across the Tomnahurich canal bridge, now a caravan retailer’s premises. A beautiful building, Calum told us which ‘caught the spirit of travelling in the 1960s – but impossible now to photograph as it’s surrounded by mobile homes.

And did he have a favourite building? ‘It’s like being asked to name your favourite child,’ he said. But then he described Eden Court Theatre, with its three architects, each design a ‘perfect epiphany’ of its period.

It was a fascinating event about a very worthwhile addition to the bibliography of Inverness. Thanks Calum, for undertaking the research and writing involved, and for sharing the story of the book with us.


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