Architect's heart of glass
Columnist, Scotland on Sunday
Filed 25 Jul 06
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
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
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
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
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.