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Dundee is the new Venice: Architects swap canals for Dighty as surprise V&A exhibit boosts communities

Cloud of 'wishes' at What If...? Scotland exhibition, V&A Dundee.
Cloud of 'wishes' at What If...? Scotland exhibition, V&A Dundee.

A last-minute change of plans in Venice for a group of architects has turned into a major boost for the V&A and Dundee communities.

After Covid regulations made it impossible for architects to travel to the 17th  International Architecture  Exhibition in Venice this month as planned, V&A Dundee stepped in to host the What if…?/ Scotland exhibition.

The exhibition saw professionals from Edinburgh firm 7N Architects meet with residents from five communities across Scotland and formulate “wishes” for those communities using the mix of local knowledge and design expertise.

And the exhibition’s “cloud of dreams” encourages all visitors to leave behind a wish of their own.

Some of the wishes in the ‘Cloud of Dreams’. Picture: Mhairi Edwards/DCT.

Now, the architects behind the project are collaborating with communities in the north-east of Dundee to recreate the Scotland-wide project and give back to the exhibition’s new home.

What If…?/ Dundee is an ongoing series of hands-on workshops, the first of which took place in Whitfield last month.

Each participant was paired up with a 7N architect for a walk around their area to discuss the community and “co-design” a wish for it.

Whitfield, make a wish

Whitfield resident Tammy Connelly and her daughter Ava worked with architect Ben Watson to come with and design a wish for a nature trail in the area, incorporating underused green space. They felt, especially in the wake of lockdown, that people in the area needed more places nearby to enjoy walking through.

“The first lockdown was really daunting,” explained Tammy. “We just felt stuck, and there was no place to go, so we just started going on little walks. And then we saw more of the area.

“I’ve lived in Whitfield near enough all my life but I’ve never really ventured about in it all that much – I usually just visit family and friends. It’s one small plus-side to Covid – we’re more aware of what’s in the area.”

Ava, 13, said: “There’s not that much to do for kids. I was thinking there should be a place to be free, for kids to have adventures.”

Mother and daughter Tammy and Ava Connelly, who worked on part of the project. Picture: Mhairi Edwards/DCT.

Tammy added: “The children need somewhere safe. In our area, there’s a skate park, but it’s overrun with everybody and there’s not enough room. So that’s why we’ve come up with the trail – it would be a lot more exciting.”

Imaginative approach

After talking to Tammy and Ava, and finding out what was lacking for them in their community, architect Ben was able to put their ideas on paper for others to see at the exhibition.

“Myself and Ava decided what we wanted and Ben escalated it into bigger, better things,” Tammy explained.

Fellow Whitfield workshop participant Ria McLeod praised the imaginative approach shown by the architects, saying: “It was practical, really hands-on. Nothing was off the table, which is really nice.”

Her wish, which can be seen on display at the V&A along with Tammy and Ava’s, was for a “natural hangout”. It would consist of vegetable plots, a free wall for graffiti and even an outdoor theatre space in Whitfield’s disused areas.

She said: “It was made clear at the start that we might not be able to do it all, but it’s a wish.”

Architecture ‘unplugged’

And principal architect at 7N, Ewan Anderson, explained that the aim of ‘What If…?’ was to encourage people to dream big for their community by putting them directly in touch with the experts who could show them what’s possible.

“Architects are used to expressing ideas,” said Ewan. “They can help people give their ideas a real voice, because they’ve got someone to present them.

“Our proposal was about how we can bring architects much closer to communities and strip away the layers of bureaucracy in between.”

Ewan Anderson, Principal of 7N Architects. Picture: Mhairi Edwards/DCT.

He explained: “It’s a big, impenetrable thing to most people and they feel disconnected, and because they feel disconnected, they don’t engage with it. And because they don’t engage with it, they can’t influence it.

“So we wanted just to strip it away – we called it ‘architecture unplugged’ because that’s what it is in a way. Just an architect talking to a citizen from the community.

“And we said: ‘Well, if your wish is this, what if we did this?'”

And although the pandemic derailed the original plan for 7N to take their idea to the Biennale, Ewan reckons “it absolutely feels like the right time to be doing this, and it’s right to be doing it in Dundee rather than Venice”.

“I think the past year has shown that if people rally round a common cause or vision, extraordinary things can be achieved,” he said.

“Since the pubs opened outdoors, we’ve seen the sheer inventiveness of the way bars around cities have adapted and thought creatively. So it can be done, if you want it to be done – and this whole exhibition’s encouraging people to think about that.”

Not just wishful thinking

Although it was an exercise in wishing, it’s possible the exhibition will have real-life impacts on Dundee’s north-east communities.

V&A Dundee school’s development officer Chris Lewis said: “The reason we’re focusing on the north-east of the city is that it’s got a planned school merger happening.

“We thought ‘what if we could bring these voices together ahead of the merger to talk about how they see change happening?’

Chris Lewis, learning project lead at V&A. Picture: Mhairi Edwards/DCT.

“And part of the plan is to eventually bring the participants back together and to invite the council, local MPs and MSPs and changemakers in the city and actually say: ‘Here’s the ideas of the people of Dundee.’

“We’re not saying everything can happen, we know that. But can we at least start the discussion?”

What If…?/Scotland will run at V&A Dundee until November 21 2021.