If you go down to the east end of Princes Street in Edinburgh, and turn left onto Leith Street, you’ll find a very worn 1960s building at the centre of a construction site. The building in question—the St James Centre, a widely disliked shopping and hotel complex—is being gradually demolished in favour of something you can see depicted on the hoardings in front of you: a routine glass and stone-cladding mall, around a new hotel which is wrapped in a coil of orangey-gold fabric, in a style which can only be described as excremental.
This £1bn development is taking place in the centre of a Unesco World Heritage Site, one of the most photographed, most admired and most protected urban ensembles in the world. In Unesco’s judgment, the combination of Edinburgh’s medieval Old Town with its alleys and high buildings and the Georgian New Town, with its neo-classical grandeur, “provides a clarity of urban structure unrivalled in Europe.”
The “golden turd,” as it is known locally, forms the tip of an iceberg of poor quality architecture and planning in the Scottish capital, which extends from substandard new residential districts, lumpen office complexes and unsympathetic renovations of older buildings. How has this been allowed to happen in a city which, one would have thought, 15 years after devolution and a couple of years after a narrow independence referendum, might have been expected to be full of the sort of confident, well-designed architecture that would be normal in most European capitals? And if Edinburgh is an independent capital-in-waiting, as the SNP advocates, why has nationalist rule made so little positive difference?
One reason why the new St James Centre, to the questionable designs of Jestico + Whiles, is being allowed to go ahead, is that nobody aside from a few concrete fetishists with Instagram accounts has ever had much of a good word to say about it. “Well, at least it’s better than” is a common shrugged-shoulders response when a new building is proposed in, say, Southampton, or Bradford, or Swansea; it is setting the bar extremely low for Edinburgh. Perhaps because of this, there have been many attacks on the new scheme, and on what it represents.
The Edinburgh-based arts magazine, The List, put it at the top of its “flops of 2016”: “architecture depends on taste and perspective, like any art,” they conceded. “But did nobody look at the gold swirl which is intended to make its outer edge look like an uncoiled printer ribbon and think ‘doesn’t that look like something else?’” “Lo, the ‘turd hotel’ was born, and Edinburgh’s World Heritage status is at risk.”
Sadly, the tale is not unique: Private Eye’s Piloti column tirelessly argued throughout 2016 against a dubious proposal for a ziggurat-like hotel above one of Edinburgh’s finest classical buildings, the Royal High School. Unesco wrote a strongly worded communiqué on the latter, which was then narrowly rejected by Edinburgh Council in favour of retrofitting the building as a music school. The decision to reject the hotel scheme came, when some Labour members in the Labour/SNP coalition council shifted to opposing the scheme, as the SNP and the Greens had advocated. However, this was a rare example of development being contested on party political lines. In the forthcoming local government elections on 4th May, planning and architecture feature minimally in the debate; there is little sense that the coming political rebalancing of the council, most likely away from Labour, will make much difference to architecture at all.
For many conservationists, what Edinburgh is about is the skyline and the festival, a city whose purpose is largely to be looked at and admired, like Venice or Florence. However, it’s a capital too, a bureaucratic, administrative city, and it is also—as it has been for centuries—one of the major financial centres in Europe, and its delinquent banks, notably RBS, were at the centre of the 2008 financial crisis. These have had at least as much influence on its architecture and planning as Unesco and the festival (which sells over two million tickets to its events every August).
But what Edinburgh has managed, with some aplomb, is an often shrill stylistic debate when anything that might change the skyline is mooted—as the head of Art History at Edinburgh University Richard Williams has pointed out: “Edinburgh being Edinburgh, any sort of change does produce a sort of neurotic reaction”—with a large amount of new building, often carefully shrouded from the heritage views. The results, however, especially in large-scale projects, have been poor for some considerable time. The real problem might lie elsewhere.
The politics of separatism gives, or ought to give, the despoilment of Edinburgh a particular charge, but, at root, most of its architectural problems are British problems. Its inability to plan coherently, its chaotic, hobbled attempts to bolster public transport, its willingness to let the market do what it likes as long as it’s in certain places, its neglect of social housing, its hulking speculative office blocks, the ever-present dominance of the financial services industry, the baleful effects of private finance initiatives (PFI)… these are all specific to the UK and the grim reluctance with which it faces architecture and urbanism.
It is not that Edinburgh is a free-for-all. Indeed, its planning system is stronger than that of most British cities; the Scottish Property Federation recently published a report complaining about the slow pace and harsh standards of planning in the Scottish capital, claiming that in Edinburgh, only 72 per cent of developers’ applications were successful (as against 100 per cent in Glasgow). The problem lies somewhere else, not in oversight from local government—which is far better than in most cities, as one would expect—but from the way buildings are procured and built.
The worst things that have happened to Edinburgh’s architecture in the last 20 years have been well out of the tourists’ view, where there is less at stake, and planning decisions are less heated. One example is the scandal of the 17 schools built in the city under PFI, which had to be closed because of safety concerns. Not only drab and miserable as architecture, these schools have proved inept in terms of building, the result of a procurement system where quality is relentlessly driven down through an enforced system of subcontracting and “value engineering.”
Another is the redevelopment of the docklands and the Western Harbour in Leith and the harbour in neighbouring Granton, which were filled, especially in the years before the financial crash of 2008, with an indifferent landscape of speculative apartment buildings, miserable pseudo-public spaces, introverted shopping malls, all using poor materials which have worn appallingly in the harsh North Sea climate. But neither of these interrupt anybody’s view of Calton Hill, the castle, or Arthur’s Seat, so they’ve been much less publicly criticised than anything which creeps into the view established 110 years ago, when the clocktower of the Balmoral Hotel completed the view that appears on the postcards.
As a result, one of Edinburgh’s foremost architects, Richard Murphy, used the acceptance speech for a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) award, granted, tellingly, to his own small-scale house, to say “Scotland is one of the worst countries to be an architect,” as a direct result of the procurement system; “it doesn’t matter how good you are, you cannot get a job—they favour the big commercial practices, and this has spread to universities… there is an enormous hypocrisy in Scotland—you have an architecture policy, an architecture unit (in the Scottish government), and at the same time a policy which is putting design practices out of business.” He urged young architects to leave Scotland.
"Overall planning has been a consistent problem. This is a city which, in theory, should be one of the great exemplars of town planning in the UK"What makes this especially strange is that in the 1990s and early 2000s, Edinburgh had managed to create a strong and independent architectural culture. Architects like Murphy, Benson & Forsyth, Malcolm Fraser, among others, had distinguished themselves with usually small-scale interventions into the fabric of the historic city, modern without being aggressive, contextual without being sentimental. Two late-90s designs by Fraser, the Poetry Library, off the Royal Mile, and Dance Base, off Grassmarket (see image opposite), were especially notable for their subtlety and skill. Fraser, who is also a prolific commentator on the city’s architecture, had to liquidate his practice last year as it was hit by the aftermath of the recession. Asked about the effects of the Unesco listing, he argues that “it’s mostly been business as usual. Edinburgh’s innate conservatism has saved it from major destruction in the past, but now rubs horribly against the normal open-for-business ethos that politicians and planners embrace. You could say that the Unesco listing has made development more risk averse but there is, in any case, a general tendency to avoid risk, innovation and beauty by making proposals as bland as possible.”
Compounding the blandness is the quality-sapping consequences of the PFI and Public Private Partnerships. “We have set aside the ideal of public service and common good which once drove public architecture, handing leadership to construction conglomerates and the bankers who direct them. We are saddled with enormous debt and shoddy buildings as a result.”
After the SNP—long-time critics of PFI—came to power, the Scottish government abolished it with some fanfare. The replacement, however, was similar in its effects on architecture. The Scottish Futures Trust (SFT) was sold to the public as a means of “stripping out the fat” in the public sector, making savings and “creating improved value for taxpayers,” as Alex Neil, the SNP’s Minister for Infrastructure and Capital Investment, put it. “The SFT model and contractor ‘Hub’ monopolies that succeeded PFI are not sufficiently better,” says Fraser; architects are still mostly “seen as ‘supply-chain components,’ whose costs need driving down.” And whereas the debates over independence might be thought to have had a beneficent effect, “the SNP has failed, so far, to deliver much new and radical, though there are hopeful initiatives in land, planning and tax reform edging forward.”
Independence might still offer ways out of this, Fraser suggests: “an independent Scotland might have the gumption to promote enterprise and equality through a national bank of reconstruction, massive public investment into innovative housing finance and models and renewable industries. A general focus on the craft of making things would be nice.” That has been one of the things most obviously absent in the city’s recent projects. The hideously cheap and nasty renovation of Waverley Station, in a valley between the Old and New Towns, with its trespa-clad stairways up to Princes Street, is a particularly horrible eyesore.
Overall planning has been a persistent problem. This is a city which should be one of the great exemplars of town planning in the UK. The New Town, developed from the 18th century onwards as a rationalist series of grids, squares and circuses of handsome terraced buildings stands as one of Europe’s great consciously created architectural set pieces. Every new scheme in the last couple of decades, however dubious, has held it up as a model—from the grim waterside yuppiescape of Leith Docks to the sleek business district at Edinburgh Park (whose exurban location was justified by the prospect of a new tram line, which did emerge—15 years later), or, most questionably of all, the bumptious, heavy, overbearing office blocks that crowd around Tollcross and Exchange Square, to a late-90s plan by Terry Farrell. These latter two projects are what Edinburgh’s financial sector has instead of a Canary Wharf—they can’t build high, so instead they have built long, low “groundscrapers,” which are largely horrible, (see below right) but at least they don’t intrude onto any views.
Much contemporary architecture in the city is judged not on what it does, but by what it doesn’t do—if it’s in keeping, if it’s not in the way of any of the sightlines, then wave it through. If it does break any of those, then expect a fiercely fought campaign. In a way, it’s laudable—there are a few historic cities, like St Petersburg or Kraków, that could do with some of that dogged focus—but because all the energy is dragged into that act of self-defence, positive proposals for what sort of city, and what sort of architecture, might be worth fighting are few and far between for now. And if you’re out of the heritage zone, nobody much cares.
One of the planners who worked on the docks is Robert Adam, who was hired late in the day to make sense of the mess that developers had made of the place. “I was the masterplanner for Western Harbour in Leith and Granton Harbour,” he told me. “Both had already been masterplanned and the first parts had been built. These were thought to be unsatisfactory, and both plans went on ice in 2008. Nothing of our work came to anything in Granton but some was done according to our codes and layout at Western Harbour—more recently key aspects of our codes, such as enhanced ground-floor ceiling heights, have been forgotten.”
Their failure he puts down to “bad planning that was too simplistic. Even in economic terms there was oversupply of one type which saturated the market. They said, as they always do, that it all related to local character but I think tower blocks on a grid is stretching the point.” In this, relentless cost-cutting plays a major role. “Novation of architects [a legal term, meaning final responsibility for a building’s design lies with the contractor, not the architect] is now the norm. It’s a disaster, everything gets cheapened—in both senses of the word—and the architect, paid by the cheapener, is powerless and compromised.”
Some of the more intelligent projects in the city since devolution have, of course, been hugely expensive—the Scottish parliament building (above right) has its supporters, but cost £414m, 10 times more than originally advertised. The trams that were meant to link Edinburgh Park to the centre went way over budget. The initial cost estimate was £375m and the opening date set for 2003. It opened in 2014. Final cost, £776m, for just under nine miles of tramway. In the same time Edinburgh went through this farrago, Nottingham and Manchester built much more extensive and complex tram and light rail lines with little fanfare. In Europe, Le Havre’s tramway, longer than Edinburgh’s, with more stations and a 500-metre-long tunnel, took three years and the cost was £347m—less than half the price of the Edinburgh system.
A less trumpeted town planning tradition than that of the New Town is the “conservative surgery” advocated by the academic and planner Patrick Geddes at the start of the 20th century. Geddes’s anti-moralistic approach to historic architecture makes him either a great social reformer or a prophet of gentrification (or both). Believing that “slum clearance” unnecessarily put the focus on buildings as the cause for dilapidation and blight rather than overcrowding and poor maintenance, he was one of the first middle-class people to move to the then decidedly slummy Old Town, in the late 19th century, and convinced many of his students to do the same. His developments like Ramsay Garden display neatly these ideas about rehabilitating older buildings and stitching them together with the new.
Whereas the bold New Town tradition is dead in Edinburgh—a city that can’t even build a tramway properly has no business talking about its great culture of grand planning—the Geddes legacy has been behind most of the interesting new buildings in the city for the last 20 years, during which the pattern has been large-scale disasters and small-scale triumphs; while the vast site of Leith Docks was ruined, the miniature townscape of Leith Shore, with unfussy infill between older buildings, was a great success. Even now, in what is surely a fallow period for Edinburgh architecture, you can find things like Richard Murphy’s house, or the new St Albert the Great Chapel in George Square (right), a sensitive modern building almost invisibly slotted into the townscape.
According to architecture historian Miles Glendinning, one way that this legacy might be continued is by reappraising some of the architecture of the 1960s. An example he gives is Cables Wynd House, better known as the “Banana Block,” a Brutalist council block which snakes through central Leith, a building “dictated by its site” rather than imposed as if on a tabula rasa. Listing this building, rather than demolishing it (doubtless for some more Leith Docks-style speculative flats) would be genuine “conservative surgery” in Geddes’s terms. In some respects, 1960s projects were the last time Edinburgh did planning on a remotely impressive scale. There were sensitive infill projects, like Basil Spence’s work in Canongate, but there were also confident public buildings like RMJM’s sublime Royal Commonwealth Pool, and large estates near the centre like Dumbiedykes.
The most controversial projects were central—the redevelopment of George Square by the University and the partial rebuilding of Princes Street (both of which now look pretty decent to anyone whose eye isn’t affected by tedious prejudice against the 1960s), and the building of that now half-fallen old St James Centre (which has never been in any way decent). The experience of fighting against these—and losing—emboldened one of the most stringent conservation movements in Britain. But there was another consequence of keeping the centre mostly intact—a ring of poverty around Edinburgh, with places like Sighthill and Niddrie seldom visited by anyone in the New Town or the Old Town, in a seemingly permanent limbo between demolition of their 1960s towers, 1930s tenements and promised redevelopment schemes. Like few places in the UK except perhaps Oxford, Edinburgh is a deeply spatially segregated city.
A Unesco listing for a postcard in lieu of an overall idea for the city can “stop some quite offensive projects,” in Glendinning’s words—he mentions Richard Murphy’s cancelled Haymarket Tower, and the original plan for a “Gherkin” style tower on the site of the St James Centre as two examples—but it has led to a “sterile debate,” polarised between growth-at-all-costs and heritage fundamentalism. One possible escape from this deadlock could be offered by independence, not necessarily because it would boost new building, but perhaps the complete opposite. “Politically, I’m in favour,” says Glendinning, “though the consequences would be a recession and less building; but independence in Ireland led to a lot of serious architectural debate in the 1920s and 1930s, so there’s a possibility it might stimulate architectural quality”—if not necessarily quantity.
The sterility of the architectural debate doesn’t follow obvious party political lines, with a commitment to cost-cutting and “best value” common to the SNP, the Conservatives and Labour, with only the Greens so far laying much emphasis on the quality of buildings and public spaces. In 2013, the SNP government published a much-vaunted official architectural policy, the sort of gesture you might hope for from a movement advocating for Scotland’s political difference. Called “Creating Places,” it entailed various proposals mainly for improving town centres, but many architects were unimpressed, given that it said nothing about how its aims for “good design” would actually be achieved.
One explanation, argues Glendinning, for the vitality of Scottish architecture in the 1990s and its relative drabness today is that then, architectural expression was caused partly by a political blockage. “When John Major wouldn’t allow any devolution, it encouraged a lot of energy to go into culture; since then, it’s been directed into politics.”
"Edinburgh's 'European' identity has actually lessened since devolution in many respects"“Edinburgh,” according to Muriel Spark’s eponymous fascist schoolteacher in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, “is a European city.” Unlike Glasgow—which, architecturally, culturally and politically has been the more lively city for some considerable time—it did not shift towards support for independence in the 2014 referendum. It did, however, vote overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union in 2016. And Edinburgh, historically, most definitely is a European capital, for better or worse—a middle-class population living in the centre in flats rather than on the outskirts in houses, dense and tightly-planned inner city districts, a disciplined classical architecture—and, like Paris, but unlike London, with banlieues around the city where poverty and dereliction are concentrated. That “European” identity has actually lessened since devolution in many respects, largely because of the particularly British procurement methods it has, in tandem with the rest of the UK, enforced on itself, and the continuing hold of the persistent British belief that public goods are worth little, except, perhaps, when they can be classed as “heritage.”
What it hasn’t managed to acquire during the same time is what architects, commentators and politicians frequently spoke about—having new architecture and infrastructure on the level of European capital cities. The architecture of recent years in the Scottish capital that has been worthwhile often took from recent European models—from the interventions in historic cityscapes of the Italian architect Carlo Scarpa, to the Catalan modernism of Coderch or Miralles, the latter of whom saw the obvious parallel between devolved Catalonia and Scotland and was, not coincidentally, hired to design the Scottish Parliament building.
Compared with Birmingham, Edinburgh was not too disfigured by the construction boom of 1997-2008, and not too devastated by its collapse; but compared with Barcelona, Berlin, Hamburg, Malmö, Porto, Rotterdam, Vienna, Ljubljana or Helsinki, the creative legacy of those years is far poorer. The prospect in this instinctively conservative capital of an often-radical country is not and has never been a destructive big bang, but rather ruin by a interminable whimper of defensiveness and cost-cutting. For Edinburgh to attempt something more ambitious—a plan that would finally stitch this city that is one part typical shabby British town, one part straggling council estate and one part obsessively maintained heritage site into a coherent, egalitarian capital city—may or may not involve a break with the British state. But it would most definitely need a total divorce from a culture which regards architecture and planning as an optional afterthought after the historic views are protected and the building contractors are paid off. As it is, Edinburgh today is built with one eye to Unesco and the other to Serco.