Ruth Barker

You Can't Solve The Problems You Created Using The Thinking That Created Them




Notes from the Highland Updates Conference 2007, Strathpeffer, Ross and Cromarty, commissioned for the PAR+RS (Public Art Resource and Research) website.



The restored Spa Pavilion, in the centre of the architectural idiosyncrasy that is Strathpeffer, seemed a perfectly peculiar venue for the IAA Highland Updates Conference. As the ‘North of Scotland and Islands’ chapter of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, the Inverness Architectural Association had curated an ambitious programme of speakers. And the conference as a whole repaid their reach by emerging from predictable forays into the darkness of acronyms (RIAS & IAA call for CPD?) into an eminently breathable space of lightness and weight, innovation and rigour, and – significantly for the theme of this year’s event – local specificity and global ambition.


For, the theme of this year’s event was ‘MicroUrbanism’; a guide that speakers seemed happy enough to engage with, edge around, or in a few cases perversely undo. The range of perspectives was composed, from the microcosmic detail of design decisions in a single building project to the scope of a practice that redesigns entire countries, sector by sector. In almost every presentation however, what struck me most were the parallel conversations that seem to be happening within the architectural field on one hand, and the public art sector on the other.


The act of placing or intervening in objects within our rural and urban landscapes is a significant one, which should not (speakers suggested) be done casually. This avowal is certainly familiar to all those involved in public art, and as a fundamental bridge it seemed to underpin the common concerns, passions, and responsibilities which the IAA presentations revealed. Among the recurring discussions of the nature and function of research, the need for professional development, and the place of aesthetics, were really the key questions of how to innovate, how to achieve excellence, and how to instil confidence and ambition in a public audience. The discussion was further enriched as legitimate questions raised by delegates throughout the two days did not refrain from interrogating speakers’ assertions, as well the position from which they made them.


Though the standard overall was high, several presentations still made themselves particularly memorable. From Beth Hughes’ MegaUrban masterplan for Ras al Khaimach, to Peter Wilson’s considered call for regionalism, the texts presented revealed broad invitations to learn, to digest, and to respond. In the second day of presentations, Richard Hartland reminded delegates of Einstein’s assurance that “You can’t solve the problems you created using the thinking that created them.” The image that has stayed with me, however, must be from Mikal Hafsahl of Studio Ludo, who perhaps came closest to summing up an aspiration, a dream, an (im)possibility.

“We must open up the house,” he said; “and do an autopsy. To see what it is thinking.”