Architecture: Place-making

For the next year, Shetland Life will be featuring a series of articles exploring the themes of architecture and place. This month, Karen Emslie and Mike Finnie offer an introduction to the subject, and to Shetland’s Power of Place celebrations.

Throughout 2010, Shetland will be playing host to its first year-long celebration of architecture and place, when Power of Place asks how architecture and place-making can help support more sustainable and thriving communities on our islands.

Place-making is the process of improving public spaces and making great communities. It capitalises on a local community’s assets, inspiration and potential, ultimately creating good public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness and well-being.

All of Shetland will be invited to participate in Power of Place and events will include talks, discussions, workshops for children and adults, community events, a film festival and an international architecture conference, “Building Resilience in Island Communities”. The conference will be held in the Shetland Museum and Archives (16th and 17th of September).

These islands have a unique and diverse architectural heritage that ranges from brochs and crofthouses to community halls and private homes. Currently there are several large scale building projects happening throughout the islands that have generated debate and a renewed interest in the built environment. It is clear that people often have very strong opinions about architecture – but perhaps don’t have an appropriate forum to voice these opinions.

Throughout the year we aim to raise the profile of architecture, design and construction within Shetland, and place this in a national and international context. Power of Place will look back at the heritage of the islands and forward to a Shetland that is a leader in architecture and place-making.

As a significant number of people build their own homes in Shetland, Power of Place also hopes to raise the profile of design and build knowledge and skills on built environment issues.

Subjects such as sustainable buildings and alternative energy are becoming increasingly important to individuals and groups who are involved in architectural and community projects. The large attendance at the Shetland Halls Association’s Greener Future event this year showed what a big interest there is in this issue. Therefore, sustainability will be at the heart of all aspects of Power of Place.

Throughout the year, we will look at the way we use our buildings and how this contributes to place-making. Buildings, such as churches and the halls, play an essential role as centres for communities, and are often the venues for the important events in peoples’ lives. As there are 51 Halls in Shetland it is perhaps even possible to imagine Shetland as 51 communities.

Power of Place is a partnership between Shetland Arts, Shetland Islands Council, Shetland Architectural Society and the Scottish Government’s programme of architecture and outreach activities. These organisations will be working together with local and national groups and individuals to deliver the programme of events.

So, how do we see buildings in Shetland? The lack of trees on the islands and the uninterrupted views let us clearly see almost all our buildings. And how many different shapes and sizes of buildings there are! Throughout 2010 Power of Place aims to stimulate debate about which buildings are successful, which less so, and how this will effect the future of the built environment in the islands.

Throughout the year Shetland Architectural Society members will be writing a range of articles in Shetland Life about architecture and place-making. In this introductory article, we take brief look at the variety of architectural styles in the islands.

What is unique about Shetland’s architecture? Our landscape is vast, with wide open vistas and enormous sea- and skyscapes. This can overwhelm buildings. But it is not just visually that buildings are exposed; there is also, of course, the weather. Our huge open landscapes don’t stop the wind or rain. This exposure to extreme weather has always influenced what we build. All our structures must keep out wind and rain.

But perhaps the thing which has most influenced our buildings is the materials available to build with.  We are historically restricted to stone and timber. However, timber was scarce (driftwood) or expensive (imported).

When we go back in history we find that stone was the main building material, and timber, turf, heather or straw were secondary. Using stone the islands’ early inhabitants could make incredibly sophisticated structures. These are generally rounded. Look, for example, at the brochs and wheelhouses.

When the Norse arrived they had a different tradition, using wood and stone. To the Norse stone was generally a shelter around a timber structure and timber is straight and long. So it’s not surprising that these Norse buildings are long buildings with regular spans and squarer corners.
Vernacular buildings are really the backbone of Shetland’s architecture.
The houses of the majority of the population would have changed little from medieval times until the 19th century, when the crofthouse as we now know it developed. All vernacular building types served a purpose, whether the inhabitants were working on the land or in connection with fishing or trading.

On the other side of the scale from the tenant classes we see the two castles,  Scalloway and Muness. The size, design and construction of these castles reflect a lifestyle very removed from the majority of the population.

Lairds and merchants built the Haas. The early Haas were strong, thick walled structures used for trade and as houses.  As many of the people building Haas were immigrants from south they would have brought the tradition of formal country houses, or at least the aspiration of one. 18th century classical styles came to Shetland from around 1735 and Haa-style buildings continued to be built well into the Victorian period.

There are only remnants of structures remaining from the early Christian Era in Shetland. However, there were originally three steepled churches: in Tingwall, Papil and at Ireland in Bigton. In old kirkyards around the islands there are examples of pre-reformation churches and places of worship have continued to be built up until the present day.

Lerwick was founded as a town that served the Dutch fishing fleet. It developed in its particular northern style, with the shortage of flat land pushing development along a strip next to the sea. The town’s compact nature gave protection from the weather. As Lerwick developed it went uphill to form the lanes and later the New Town brought wide streets, open public spaces and a contrast to the dense and insanitary lanes, but provided little protection from the weather.

The last 40 years have seen a period of rapid expansion in housing and the construction of some of our most controversial public and private buildings, some of which have been celebrated, others which not only looked poor but often failed in Shetland’s climate. Recent buildings are sometimes of a higher design quality and pay more respect to their surroundings. Older buildings have also been restored sympathetically.

With new buildings under construction, an increased interest in environmental techniques and renewable energy, the availability of imported building materials and increasingly international influences, the future of architecture in Shetland is a subject ripe for debate and discussion.

By the end of 2010 Power of Place aims to have established a sustainable network that will continue to champion good architecture and the built environment in Shetland.  This network will include professionals, local and public bodies and community members. We will also look at place-making and consider how this relates to the shared aims of architecture and planning policies on design. Would you like to be involved? Let us know.

Power of Place (POP) has also launched “The POP Phone” as an easy way to take part in the celebrations. We are asking people to tell us what Power of Place means to them. Does it mean people, places, words, memories?
Which buildings in Shetland do you think are beautiful? Which are ugly? What is the future of architecture and place-making in Shetland?

Anyone can take part by sending texts, photos and short mobile phone videos. These will be brought together and shown around Shetland. The POP Phone number is 0750 35 966 35 (texts will be charged at your standard network rate). You can also email your thoughts, opinions and photos to or by post to Power of Place, Shetland Arts, Toll Clock Shopping Centre, Lerwick.


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.