The planting of a "Golden Turd" in the heart of the city reveals grotesquely skewed planning prioritiesby Owen Hatherley / March 16, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.