A three-year research project into the designers of many of Scotland’s buildings will culminate this week (Tuesday 30 May 2006) with the launch of a unique publicly-available database of Scottish architects. No other country in Europe can boast such a historical database of its architects.
The project began when David Walker, Emeritus Professor in the School of Art History at the University of St Andrews, was awarded funding by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through the University of St Andrews. The Dictionary of Scottish Architects takes the form of a database with a user-friendly web interface (www.scottisharchitects.org.uk) and records biographies and job lists of all architects in Scotland in the 1840-1940 period: not just architects born, trained and working north of the Border but also those from elsewhere who contributed to the built environment of Scotland through winning commissions and competitions.
It is an ambitious project using a sophisticated database which was developed around the data and which allows very flexible searching. This has revealed hitherto unrecognised links between architects, their pupils and assistants, their practices and their work.
The database is available free to anyone who has access to the internet. It can cater for many different users: planning officers and architectural historians; family historians and genealogists; home-owners wanting information about the buildings they live in; or casual visitors to the site who may wish to investigate an architect or his work in a quick and easy way. Unlike a book where new information must wait to be added until a new edition is published, the database is open-ended. New details can be added as they come to light, and users are invited to submit information from their own personal knowledge or research for inclusion.
The biographies of the architects and practices contain not just a description of the facts and a serious analysis of the rise and fall of many practices set against the economic conditions of the time. Because some of the information was handed down by word of mouth, they are spiced with humorous details and personal touches. They make good reading, with ambition, tax evasion, personality conflicts, dismissals, infidelities and sheer bad luck all playing their part in the stories.
A prime example is that of Robert Rowand Anderson, an influential figure in late 19th-century Scotland with a large practice. Although no other architect was so committed to the development of the profession in Scotland, and despite the fact that he was the driving force in the establishment of the Edinburgh School of Applied Art, we can see that he really was not an easy man to work with; nor indeed was the prominent Arts and Crafts architect Robert Lorimer, who had surprisingly few assistants to help with his heavy workload. The biography of Ian Lindsay draws on many details from Walker’s close friendship with him. Lindsay, the dedicated conservationist, in defence of the original waterbound red gravel surface of his drive at Houston House, observed: ‘I know my drive looks like a gutted rabbit but it is correct.’
The origins of the project go back to Walker’s student days in Dundee when he began the process of recording information about Scottish architects – biographical details, dates and jobs. This process continued in his spare time throughout his working life and thus the scale of the project was massive, collating, checking and updating information, with many hundreds of new biographies being written and entered. At the outset, it was estimated that there might be about 800 architects and that this number might rise to 1,700 when further research was undertaken. This was soon to prove a considerable underestimate: the total number of architect and practice entries is over 6,500, of which more than 4,500 originated or had offices in Scotland. The database now contains in the region of 4.3 million words of text.
Although the AHRC-funded project has now been completed, because of the enormous size to which the Dictionary of Scottish Architects has grown, there is some information which could not be included within the three-year period. Also further research is essential to ensure architects who worked in the further reaches of Scotland receive due recognition. With the generous support of the University of St Andrews, the Pilgrim Trust, Historic Scotland, RCAHMS and various other bodies, the project is able to continue for a further period. In the longer term it is hoped to attract funding to bring the database right up to the present day.
NOTE TO EDITORS
The database will be launched from 3-5pm at the Queen Anne Room, Edinburgh Castle on Tuesday 30 May. Dr Brian Lang, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St Andrews will speak at the event, as will Malcolm Cooper, Chief Inspector of Historic Scotland who are also supporting the project.
Professor David Walker can be contacted on telephone 0131 552 9280 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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