Architecture and Identity

This is the first in a series on ARCHITECTURAL MODERNISM AND THE DEATH OF THE SCOTTISH IDENTITY an investigation by David J Black.

The ‘date which shall live in infamy’, according to Franklin Roosevelt, was December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and brought America into the war. It’s time for a rethink and a change of location. How about we move things on 78 years and 6 months to May 7, 2020, the day Edinburgh World Heritage Trust (EWHT) hosted a virtual debate led by three modernist architects under the banner ‘Is Edinburgh’s Architecture at the Dawn of a New Golden Age?’ This body should perhaps consider changing its name to ‘Edinburgh World Anti-Heritage Trust’ for all the good it seems to be doing. It operates under the aegis of UNESCO, and is ostensibly charged with a responsibility for safeguarding the fabric and character of what was not so many years ago one of the world’s great historic cities, and a distinctly Scottish city at that.

Any suggestion that EWHT has set itself up as a PR agency for ambitious modernist architects and their developer pals would, of course, invite the riposte ‘but we’re just opening up a discussion.’ I seem to recall Tommy Robinson advancing a similar plea after one particularly unsavoury outburst, but we’ll let that pass for now. The infamy in Edinburgh is of a rather different order, though its keynote, as in Pearl Harbor, is essentially about destruction – not so much of the Pacific Fleet as of our community’s civic and architectural identity. EWHT would probably defend its decision to hand the top table to three modernist architects as somehow stimulating and edgy, and I can’t really argue with edginess, having myself condemned some of the organisations which purport to care for the civic heritage as ‘the Vichy-Quisling school of conservation’ which was perhaps a tad excessive, given that there are many perfectly decent individuals in their ranks who don’t deserve the epithet. Some of them are (or perhaps used to be) my friends.

I confess that I’m not entirely averse to that brand of modern architecture which doesn’t do vulgar street bullying – we’ll come to a few of the bad’uns shortly, but let’s start positive. Edinburgh Festival Theatre steps back from the street line in deference to a historic context which includes Robert Adam’s university and William Playfair’s neo-Greek Surgeon’s Hall and is a well presented example of modernism as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always liked Malcolm Fraser’s Scottish Poetry Library, while Richard Murphy was kind enough to take me on a tour of his Dunfermline Carnegie Library, and I was mightily impressed. All three of those examples, it may be noted, performed a function within, and for, the wider community, so an ethos of public ownership applies.

The question here is not so much whether the architecture of modernism is a poison first visited upon the earth by such opportunistic nihilists as Le Corbusier and Mies van Rohe, whose arid ideological strictures have been drip-fed into the minds of architectural students everywhere for several generations, but whether a body which ostensibly exists to safeguard Edinburgh’s built heritage has any business postulating a theorem that the rash of recent architecture inflicted on the city – most of it a wanton denial of its familiar civic identity – by actively promoting the frankly laughable idea that we are entering a new golden age of architecture.

If the event had been organised by the Edinburgh Architectural Association or the Royal Incorporation of Architects, fine. It also happens to be the case that the three architects involved had some interesting things to say – Malcolm Fraser, in particular, made valid points about the need for architects to respect the community. The aims and objects of EWHT, however, should not be about endorsing modernism at the expense of the heritage. What sort of message does that send?

The real damage being inflicted in Edinburgh today has nothing to do with serving the community, and everything to do with the ruthless steamroller of global avarice. Take the case of the infamous ‘Golden Turd’ hotel at the east end of Princes Street, the centrepiece of a shopping mall and luxury flats scheme. This was the outcome of a hugger-mugger deal made at the notorious international MIPIM conference in Cannes which The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty has described as;

a jaunt so lavish as to be almost comic – where big money developers invite town hall executives for secret discussions aboard private yachts, and whose regulars boast that they get through more champagne than all the liggers at the film festival. Suitably oiled-up, local officials open talks with multinational developers to sell council housing estates and other sites.’

If that sounds a bit dodgy, there’s worse to come. Edinburgh council and the Scottish government agreed to subsidise this trashcan-centred MIPIM deal to the tune of £61.4 million from public revenues – that’s right! Our politicians bought into a project which has had the effect of accelerating the catastrophic decline of Princes Street. You just couldn’t make it up.

Apart from the gross abuse of taxpayer’s money there’s the small matter of a planning authority selling out on its mandatory impartiality by buying into the project. In addition, the component of affordable housing was to be relocated on cheaper land several miles away, leaving the developer free to market its luxury apartments to the international super rich. Edinburgh citizens, it seems, are no longer wanted in their own city. Who would have thought such a thing possible?

And the lucky developer? While the names upfront were Nuveen Investments and THI, the parent was North Carolina Pension Fund TIAA, with over $1 trillion funds under management. Given that the US Congress stripped it of its non-profit status in 1997, TIAA is really a no-holds-barred international opportunity-bagger whose less savoury activities include the destruction of swathes of the ecologically fragile Cerrado of Brazil as well as investments in arms manufacturers like Smith & Wesson, despite such events as the 2012 massacre at Sandyhook Elementary School.

TIAA’s US contributors are mainly teachers and academics, so this latter stock caused a bit of an upset in school staffrooms, if no great change of heart in the board room. TIAA remains an active merchant of death, with over $250 million invested in the military (including nuclear) and civilian weapons trade. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, presumably unaware of her new partner’s contribution to the bristling arsenal of our closest ally, described the £61.4 million bung as an ‘innovative funding model, which will see the Scottish Government work in partnership with City of Edinburgh Council and private developers TIAA Henderson Real Estate.’ So that’s all right then.

But let’s move on. Another chapter in urban infamy concerns the Royal High School. That one of Scotland’s finest buildings is a school built by civic decree rather than a stately home or a palace should, in any normal democracy, be a matter of pride, but not here. Although it had been converted into a Scottish Assembly building in 1979, when devolution finally arrived Tony Blair’s London government ruled that a classical building on a hill was just too Jeffersonian for the Jocks. A Cool Britannia modernist icon in the Canongate by a Spanish architect was much more his sort of thing, though not in a fiscal sense. Scotland’s budget had to carry the budget-busting £437 million cost. The rumour that Tony vetoed the Royal High because he is an ex-Fettesian remains unproven.

This fracas had not long subsided when another idea for the Royal High School was presented; A National Photography Centre. Calton Hill had accommodated the studios of pioneer photographers Hill and Adamson, and the school had been the subject of one of the first (1843) townscape calotypes in Scotland, so it seemed like the perfect venue. Support and sponsorship came flooding in; then the poisonous politics of Scotland intervened. First Minister Jack McConnell seemed reluctant to back the venture – we found out why courtesy of The Edinburgh Evening News.

Senior council sources have told the Evening News of fears Culture Minister Patricia Ferguson is collaborating secretly with Glasgow City Council’s culture chief, Bridget McConnell – wife of First Minister Jack McConnell – to take the project west

The First Minister’s wife was in the process of taking culture out of Glasgow council’s hands as CEO of an exciting new stand-alone quango, Glasgow Sport and Culture, and fancied a trophy for her empire; Edinburgh’s proposed photography centre was in her sights. Jack, naturally, didn’t want to upset the wife. In the event Bridget wielded her Lady Macbeth dagger, and neither Glasgow nor Edinburgh got anything as Scotland’s cultural identity took another hit.

This left Edinburgh, yet again, with a redundant A-listed classical temple on a hill. Something had to be done to lessen the embarrassment, so in 2009 the cash-strapped council launched a competition, inviting developers to submit proposals for the building. 54 bids were received, and a competitive tendering process initiated. Finally, in 2010, a 125 year lease was granted in principle to Edinburgh based developer Duddingston House Properties (DHP). Its proposal was for a £35 million boutique ‘arts hotel’ with restaurant, cafe, and public gallery. Given that this same developer had been scandalously neglecting the listed former Odeon cinema in South Clerk Street it seemed like an odd choice, but at least matters were moving forward.

Then, in December 2014, DHP principal Bruce Hare joined forces with David Orr’s Urbanist Group and the £35 million boutique arts hotel morphed into a rather more inflated vision for a ‘world class’ £75 million luxury international hotel with 147 bedrooms, three restaurants and bars, a spa, swimming pool, fitness centre, and 3200 square foot ballroom.

Problem. The 2010 award had been for a 125 year lease of a public asset to a preferred developer who was to create a £35 million boutique ‘Arts Hotel.’ The proposal was now for a £75 million international luxury hotel. 5 of 7 listed structures on the site were to be demolished, the main building substantially altered, and two vast modernist accommodation blocks added on each side. This was by no stretch of the imagination the scheme which had won the 2009 competition. Moreover, it involved a particularly damaging act of vandalism on one of the most significant Neo-Greek buildings anywhere.

Was this legal? EU law prohibits a modification to a contract awarded by a public authority after a competitive selection procedure as a breach of the principle of equality of treatment between tenderers. The only option is to terminate the current contract and conduct a new procurement procedure under new conditions, according to the EU regulations. These regulations were, and still are, binding on the UK and its devolved parts.

True, Edinburgh Council evinces a chronically cavalier attitude to EU law in planning matters. In another Hoskins Associates scheme, the hideous redevelopment of the south side of St Andrew Square for Standard Life Investments, the demolition of seven buildings – three of them B-listed – took place without an Environmental Impact Assessment as required under EU regulations. It was helpful, of course, that in an act of craven pusillanimity the collaborative government agency Historic Scotland de-listed two of the buildings; even so, EU law had manifestly been breached.

These things aren’t always the fault of wicked global capitalists; Standard Life is an Edinburgh Headquartered company, albeit active in 80 countries, with a CEO, David Nish, who in that particularly bullish year (2014) scooped a pay rise of around 23%, taking his annual remuneration to just short of £5.5 million. Nice work if you can get it.

Disappointingly, city heritage guardians the Cockburn Association, even under the chairmanship of a Supreme Court judge, more or less sat back and let this breach of EU law happen. True, it did make a few noises off about the razing of Sir William Kininmonth’s 1960s brutalist Scottish Provident block, while maintaining a blissful silence in the case of two important, if now fashionably overlooked, stone buildings by the significant late Victorian Edinburgh architects John Carfrae and John MacLachlan. Historic Edinburgh was being thrown to the wolves by its heritage bodies.

If this isn’t an attack on the urban identity of the Scottish capital it’s hard to know what is. A pernicious seepage of low-grade development, combined with these high-profile arrogant, profit-driven, big-gesture civic insults, has been infecting the city centre for years. Unless it’s checked soon the damage will be catastrophic, future generations will have had their patrimony stolen from them, and the distinct cultural identity of Scotland will be undermined.

The steamroller must be stopped, but how can our hard pressed communities stop it? That’s a question we should all be pondering.






Comments (33)

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  1. George Farlow says:

    Is something rotten in the state of Edinburgh? To state the obvious.

  2. Fay Kennedy says:

    Can smell it here too in Australia. It’s reekin.

  3. David McGill says:

    And lets not forget the Virgin Hotel planned for the India Buildings in Victoria Street/Grassmarket. This 225 bedroom hotel, which is apparently essential if Edinburgh is to fill the huge shortfall in tourist accommodation in the capital, will not only put an end to any silly ideas for the expansion of the Edinburgh Central Library, but will block out all natural light to the main reading rooms, thus negating the need for the motto above the main entrance: ‘Let there be light’. Apparently this will be removed and placed at the entrance to the City Chambers.

    “We must stop destroying this magnificent city. It’s all very well catering for visitors, but we need to ask: why do they come here in the first place? They come here to see one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

    So, if we want to have visitors, let’s not wreck it. We have a responsibility to the world and at the moment we are showing ourselves unfit to discharge it. Shame on us. Shame.”

    – Alexander McCall Smith

  4. Ross McEwan says:

    If we allow private developers/owners of any property land or building to develop without a “real” planned city for them to work in The City of Edinburgh will get what it gets. Financial outcomes in the short term are all they see.
    We need to take control of all land and all property without any financial recompense to the owners. Development needs to take place only on a “needs” basis only not for speculation.
    The City centre needs to look outside of its narrow confines and it has 1 of the best undeveloped Waterfronts in Europe, but while that is in the hands of Forth Ports, and now the City itself but the defunct EDI it will be a wasted opportunity.
    In 15 years in Edinburgh, the Waterfront is still a wasteland a national disgrace whilst thousands of homes are required.
    Edinburghs elite will win the argument whilst the City is run by a council with NO vision and who are bought off by developers promising the earth to the city and never delivering.
    An “architecture” centre run by the profession is NOT the answer, all successful “architecture” centres are the independent ones the ones where critical debate is led by public demand not by developers asking for approval. It is led by a huge transformation in how buildings are procured which currently favours the big practices and developers.
    A huge change is required.
    But will it happen, I fear not.

  5. Malcolm Fraser says:

    Wow. I have spent all my career campaigning for the social in architecture, Edinburgh’s heritage and its place as a homely, people-centred place, and against the misuse of capital, the destruction of value and the commercial consumption of this place. More than just shooting my mouth off – which I do, to the detriment of my career – I have actually, in my built work, shown that you can develop the city in a careful, respectful and also confident and – dare I use the word – modern way. In particular I have tried to advance an ideal of “modern” that embraces wellbeing and conservation, carbon-capture and heritage, and believe we should be trying to build a modern vernacular out of this. But none of that matters to David because I am that word, modern, and there can be no greater crime to the conservative than retaining an optimistic view of progress. Pearl Harbor yer tweedy erse.

    1. I thought David writes in praise of your work Malcolm?

      1. Malcolm Fraser says:

        It’s like being patted on the head by Boris Johnson, who would have been proud of the fatuous Pearl Harbor reference.

    2. Ross McEwan says:

      This polarising of the debate by David debases the whole argument as he misunderstand the nature of how Cities have developed over the centuries. He plays to the romantic, there are lots who are with you but they need to “enlighten” the old guard and any form of typical Edinburgh Elitism will only lose the argument for the Modern.

      1. David Millar says:

        Didn’t strike me as ‘elitist’ at all. The city is being destroyed by profit-seeking vultures and you don’t need to be a ‘romantic’ to see this.

      2. Rosemary Addison says:

        With a bit of luck the grim reaper of CV-19 will return the economic balances to avoid over-investment in failing air and tourist visions of fantasy.

    3. John S Warren says:

      Mr Fraser,

      I confess I have not visited the Edinburgh Poetry Library, but a quick google of the building and site (I do have familiarity with the Canongate and Horse Wynd from long ago!), gave me a useful indication. I love the sensitive impression of the building for both the place and history: as a non-expert I would call it Post-Milennial Modern Vernacular (in spite of the 1999 date!). It took me back to Stuart Coghill’s delightful little ‘remembrance of things past’, in his book: ‘Lost Edinburgh: Edinburgh’s Lost Architectural Heritage’; Edinburgh: Birlinn, (2010): a poignant tour of Edinburgh’s grievous lost past; especially the wonderful, evocative photographs from 1867, when so much of the old town, especially but not exclusively around the Cowgate, including the important College Wynd, were just demolished wholesale.

      What you created with the Poetry Library, and what you discussed here: “an ideal of ‘modern’ that embraces wellbeing and conservation, carbon-capture and heritage, and believe we should be trying to build a modern vernacular out of this”; was both clear and persuasive. It represented for me what we should do with our cities; live in the present, but through what I am calling Post-Milennial Modern Vernacular, live with a little grace and elegance; and never, ever forget our past, but refuse to romanticise ti, or try to re-live it – you can’t: for the past should remind us who we are, and how we arrived here.

      1. Malcolm Fraser says:

        Thank you John; sadly the Poetry Library has since been botched and tescoed by a neoliberal developer.

  6. Kate Kelly says:

    Brilliant article David. I hope it will be read by everyone at Heritage Scotland, the Cockburn Society and EWHT – and a much wider audience.

  7. KLD says:

    This article checks all the usual boxes: casual insinuations of bribery and impropriety, sneering dismissal of architecture that the author doesn’t find pretty, basic factual errors, and hand-wringing about Edinburgh’s heritage being destroyed.

    What it doesn’t offer is the slightest jot of advice or constructive criticism.

    1. Clearly touched a nerve ‘KLD’.

      This is part of a series so you can see how it pans out.

      Happy to correct any factual errors?

      1. KLD says:

        I am certainly hopeful that the series will rise above the yellow journalism of this initial effort, “Bella Caledonia Editor”.

        The claim that the St James Centre is being subsidised by the Council is wholly inaccurate. The £61.4 million is funding public realm and infrastructure improvements on Picardy Place, Leith Street, and the surrounding streets along with an energy centre. The £61.4 million cost is being met by the Scottish Government and the developer, not the Council.

        I will leave it to others to interpret troubling dog-whistle phrases such as “a distinctly Scottish city”.

        1. I’m not quite sure why I’m the “Bella Caledonia Editor” (?) but I am sure that claiming the capital of Scotland to be “a distinctly Scottish city” is in no way shape or form a dog-whistle phrase, merely a statement of fact.

  8. Edinburgher says:

    Another platform for David Black, woohoo. Have yet to witness him offer constructive solutions to the problems he revels in.

  9. Blair says:

    Long time reader, first time commentator just dropping by to say that is probably the worst bit of drivel ever published on this site.

    1. What seems to be the problem Blair?

      1. Edinburgher says:

        Along with McCall Smith, Hugh Andrew, James Simpson and Hugh Buchanan, Black’s part of a coterie that wants to revive a 50s establishment view of Edinburgh.

        Unkinder individuals might say ‘gammon’.

  10. Malcolm Hutchinson says:

    Good to see you’re still in fine form David. You’ve definitely upset the current little insider groups that think this rancid, warped and potentially corrupt Council is somehow enhancing the city of Edinburgh. They and their ghoulish ‘partners’ in the dodgy developer game ably reinforced by their parasitic supporters are threatening the future resilience of the city let alone it’s heritage past. The mundanity and mediocrity of the planning and architecture of the last 30 if not 50 years is a searing indictment on the vested interest groups like the Council infested “Edinburgh” World Heritage creation. No doubt the fear of exposure to the wider public of this and the other cabals active in the city has hastened the Council’s moves to shut down democratic oversight even before the pandemic with Blunder Boy McVey and Vacant Day now working in little invitee only strategic “discussion groups”. No doubt you will have caused some unease by promoting the, to them foreign, concepts greater transparency and accountability. I look forward to more from the tweedy usurper of this and charlatans….

  11. Malcolm Hutchinson says:

    The only “yellow journalism” in the city of Edinburgh is that provided remorselessly by the PR and marketing vehicles of the Council through their favourite vehicles of propoganda also known as the Edinburgh Evening News and The Scotsman. ….that and those acting under cowardly pseudonyms as human shields for the current warped, lying and disgraceful Council.

    Maladministration and malfeasance are the least of the evidence based accusations that can be laid against them. The arrogance, indifference, collusion and woeful lack of decent public leadership by this, probably worst Council the city has ever endured, in both political and management elements needs opening up to the light of day. Not sheltered by those presumably benefitting from its increasingly delusional decisions.

    1. Ross McEwann says:

      Why are you hijacking this debate about the City and making it now wholly about your obvious hatred for the current adminsitration and possibly any administration unless it is working to YOUR agenda.

  12. Craig P says:

    It’s strange to see property developers defended quite so vigorously in Bella comments, and with reference to their opponents as ‘gammons’. I’m generally not in agreement with crusty old reactionaries, but when it comes to central Edinburgh’s built environment, the Cockburn Society has a better record than the city council.

    If you really want your eyes opened, read the chapter ‘Edinburgh’s Narrow Escape’ in George Rosie’s Curious Scotland, about the long battle in the 1960s & 70s against the council’s plans to bulldoze a motorway through the Meadows and New Town.

  13. Kevin Brown says:

    Good article, and thank you for writing/posting it.

    I am a Glaswegian, and cannot say if the story I am about to relate is true or not. But it seems like it ought to be true.

    I had a meeting in Edinburgh with a friend and business contact last year, and asked him what was going on with the construction (and felling of old trees) at the National Gallery and in Princes Gardens? He replied that a large subterranean gallery was being added to the National Gallery. His understanding was that ‘marketing studies’ had been done, and these had proven that Chinese tourists highly appreciated pictures of ‘highland coos’, ‘stags in misty glens’ and the like. So the purpose of building the new gallery is to hang pictures such as these to help stimulate mass Chinese tourism.

    God help us all.

    1. Deirdre Nicholls says:

      What a totally meaningless statement. All those ‘I’s , a dubious story, an irrelevant reference to the writer’s birthplace and an unsubstantiated statement about Chinese tourists and their alleged preferences. What on earth was your point?

  14. Malcolm Hutchinson says:

    Incidentally Mr McEwan, if I have “an agenda” then it is about effective, transparent, honest, open governance supported by the highest levels of individual and corporate professionalism, integrity and management. It is also about the absence of the highest levels of decent leadership – political, professional and manaverial. None of the foregoing is now evident from the city Council, in fact wholly the contrary.

    If you believe that my comments are disconnected from the thrust of the article’s author and is equally disconnected from the policies, decisions, behaviours and impacts at the hands of this administration then you are mistaken, possibly delusional.

  15. Donnie Bradshaw says:

    To equate a discussion about architecture with the attack on Pearl Harbour is the most bizarre and tasteless idea of all time

  16. Arboreal Agenda says:

    I am no expert at all, but what is Scottish architectural identity exactly? Despite being in the title, this is hardly discussed though from what I can gather it is some old iconic buildings designed by Scottish architects in times when design was more localised. Or is it more that they are old buildings that have become associated with Edinburgh’s overall look but of themselves are not especially ‘Scottish’.

    This also begs the question of what new designs could somehow have a Scottish identity and I’m struggling to understand what that would really consist of in the 21st century. There are many great new iconic buildings in the cities of the world but to me, whilst they become part of the identity of a place and indeed identifiers of it, they do not have nationalistic character as such.

    Railing, Charlie-Boy like against modernist carbuncles has a long tradition and, God help me, I find myself concurring sometimes but allying it to notions of national identity strikes me as somewhat spurious.

    1. David McGill says:

      Arboreal Agenda, after forty years of practising architecture I too am at a loss to explain Scottish Architectural identity in design terms. Materials are a different matter. Being blessed with quarries, stone was the main choice as an external finish and the structural integrity of the material restricted buildings to four/five storeys thus creating the architectural ‘style’ of places liked the New Town and Old Town of Edinburgh. In large parts of England clay was the dominant material, hence facing brick was the choice.

      I think you are right in saying that it is the disposition and quantity of ‘nice’ buildings that tend to create the attractive individual look of our towns and cities , the more so when they are set in unique landscapes like Edinburgh or Stirling.

      The Armadadillo and the V&A Dundee are ‘international’ designs and could be sited in any number of countries, but have become identified with their location.

      1. Arboreal Agenda says:

        Thanks for an expert’s view David.

        Round my way, stone is also a very distinctive feature of the older architecture – millstone grit to be precise. But of course this type of material is in short supply these days though many new designs still demand stone facing of some sort to fit in. This makes sense but doesn’t always lead to especially good design, rather the opposite in fact as you get very mundane stuff and simply facing it in stone doesn’t make it much better. Done right and pleasingly, I’d often prefer something more modern.

        Maybe the point is (and you alluded to it in your earlier post) that big modern statement buildings tend to dwarf the older ones and take away some of that distinctive urban character. I once lived with an architectural student and we used to discuss this and he showed me some things that inspired him. One example was of a very impressive modern edifice but which seemed to take no account of the old brick terrace houses it loomed over and butted up against. He said ah, it but it is supposed to, it is ‘acontextual’. I said that’s a cop-out if ever I heard one.

        1. Deirdre Nicholls says:

          Listen to Malcolm Fraser.
          He knows what he is talking about.
          His words are based on experience, competence and visual literacy.
          All else is just noise.

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