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Architect's heart of glass

Magnus Linklater

Columnist, Scotland on Sunday

Filed 25 Jul 06
©Magnus Linklater

This article, which was originally published in the Review section of
Scotland on Sunday on 23rd July 2006, is reproduced on Land-Care
with the kind permission of the author and the newspaper

THE BBC's Restoration series is upon us again, highlighting buildings that have stood the test of time, but are in dire need of rescue. This year they include an Orkney lighthouse which is the oldest in Scotland, a 16th-century church in Cromarty and a Greek Revival town hall in Berwick. They command affection for different reasons - historic, architectural or simply because they have become part of a much-loved landscape.

How many of our modern buildings will measure up to those standards? Will we, in 200 years' time, be fighting to save them with the same enthusiasm? Or are we simply building to respond to the fashion of the day or the dictates of the market?

Now is the time to judge, and Edinburgh is currently the place to do it - a city whose DNA is its architecture, a World Heritage Site jealously protected by its citizens, is about to embark on a series of radical developments that will affect the look and shape of some of its most historic sites. One is in the very heart of the Old Town, where fire destroyed ancient streets and buildings in the Cowgate; one will affect the area that runs from the Waverley Valley, which defines the character of the city, to the Canongate, which is its 17th-century soul; and one aims to remove and replace an entire section of the High Street, its artery and nerve centre all in one.

For any city, that would be a challenge. For Edinburgh it is a revolution. Why, then, have we heard so little about it? Few of the tourists now pouring in for the festival season will have any inkling of what is planned. Even Edinburgh folk have only a dim notion of the implications. Contracts have been granted with a minimum of public discussion. There has been no major architectural competition. There seems to be no overall aesthetic plan which holds them together. Approval is being given on a site-by-site basis, which seems the very antithesis of the grand vision which drained the Nor' Loch, created the New Town and encouraged the grand projects of William Playfair.

When we learn, in addition, that all these sites have been put in the hands of one architect, Allan Murray, whose name is little known outside Edinburgh, and whose experience has mainly been in creating high-rise buildings in Boston and New York, we may legitimately ask some questions about why he has been so favoured.

When we also discover that the two principal bodies charged with monitoring and approving Edinburgh's city centre developments have attacked the proposals with uncharacteristic vehemence, have recommended their rejection, and have charged the city with a lack of planning coherence then, at the very least, we should be sitting up and asking some hard questions.

No one - neither the city council, the conservation bodies, nor the architects themselves - doubts the importance of the sites. Describing the "Caltongate" project, which proposes to demolish several listed buildings in order to create a new concourse joining the Old Town to the eastern quarter of the New Town, the city's "Master Plan" states: "Very rarely, a development changes the entire dynamic of a major city. Bold and contemporary, it is in total harmony with the commercial life and history of Scotland's capital."

That is not the way the Cockburn Association, Edinburgh's principal conservation body, sees it. "We object in the strongest possible terms to the developments," it states. The Master Plan is "inadequate", indeed it scarcely qualifies as a master plan because it omits crucial areas such as Waverley Station and "fails to set out general principles of actions, intentions and attitudes to the area". Its heritage report is "inaccurate" and "fundamentally flawed". There is no justification for demolishing protected buildings and some of the proposals "make a mockery of our city and its designation as a Unesco World Heritage Site".

Will we, in 200 years time, be fighting to save these
buildings with the same enthusiasm?

The World Heritage people agree, describing the plans as "unsuitable... unnecessary... and insensitive". It urges the city council to reject the scheme.

To be fair, the council is listening hard to the objections, and is involved in an ongoing discussion with both bodies. But, meanwhile, its new headquarters on New Street is nearing completion. It already dominates the site, blocking off some classic views of Calton Hill, and any Master Plan will have to work round it.

Murray himself, with whom I spent an hour last week, defends his scheme with commendable passion. He argues against the notion of an overall blueprint for the city, claiming that Edinburgh has always evolved from project to project, and that diversity is its greatest attraction. "I don't look at the city as an aesthetic object," he said. "I prefer Lévi-Strauss's definition of the city as a human invention." He says the problem about a "vision" is that "you lose the fine grain of difference", and he claims that the "genetic structure" of the city will remain intact while all these developments are carried out.

He is equally robust in defending his plans for the replacement of the unlovely Lothian Regional Council headquarters on George IV Bridge, which will involve a major restructuring of the area that joins the High Street to Victoria Street, one of the most complex and intriguing parts of Edinburgh's Old Town. Here too his plans have been attacked by the World Heritage Trust as "out of scale and sympathy" with the existing buildings, and a disappointment for such a crucial site. His response is to say that there are some people who will always oppose change. "I am either applauded or pilloried," he says, "but one thing we can't do is run away from these important projects."

Now that Murray has also been contracted to carry out the even more prestigious Cowgate development in the heart of the Old Town, his practice is humming, and since he has clearly won over the council and the developers to his brand of what he calls "urbanism" rather than architecture, it would be churlish to begrudge him his success.

But what are his buildings like? The most obvious one is the massive glass structure that greets anyone driving down Leith Street beneath the Calton Hill. This is part of the famous Greenside Place - once touted, improbably, as the site of the new Scottish Parliament. Here plate glass is the dominant material. There is a massive round tower made of it, an ornate bridge over the street, then the vast Omni cinema and restaurant complex, also made of plate glass, which was part of Murray's master plan, though not built by him. I might as well say straight out that I do not warm to it. It seems out of context with its setting, it conceals much of the view of Calton Hill from the west, and it is as anonymous as a city office block. I prefer his design for the Tun complex on Holyrood Road, which strikes me as being far more in context with its surroundings.

Murray defends the buildings on the grounds that they are well used and popular. Popularity is important, of course - unless buildings are people-friendly, they will never thrive. But it is not enough. Edinburgh demands more than just usefulness. If it is to have contemporary architecture at the heart of its ancient sites, and I would argue strongly that it should, then the buildings must be as distinguished as their surroundings. They must justify their presence. They must be outstanding.

All this should be a matter of the keenest public debate. We should be more closely involved in learning what is being planned, why it is being planned, and whether the city itself has a vision of what it wants to achieve. Whatever Murray may think of aesthetic overviews, Edinburgh presents an image to the outside world which it changes at its peril. We need to know whether that change is for the better or for the worse. Perhaps instead of another Restoration series, the BBC should consider a Renewal programme to ask what future generations will make of the buildings we are planning today.

©Magnus Linklater