Shitting in the Cathedral

In a week when West Princes Street Gardens was flooded with shit, Christopher Silver examines the role of the stuff in the capital’s latest architectural phenomena. “Gardyloo!”

Shit — imagine huge immovable mountains of the stuff, caked into the stones or rushing forth in biblical torrents. A great leveler, tramped in by the rich and famous and the poor and forgotten alike, shit was once the stinking unavoidable fact of urban life. A fact which made most cities places of deadly repute, best to be avoided unless you were very rich, or very desperate.

The pervasive problem of shit in early modern Edinburgh (‘Edina’s roses’ in Robert Fergusson’s ode to the city) was crucial in spurring the great leap that Edinburgh made across the fetid North Loch. The result is now the most complete example of Georgian town planning anywhere: the clean and rational New Town, which allowed the elite of the Scottish capital to leave the stench of Auld Reekie perched at a hygienic distance.

But, stand on Calton Hill today and you will find a view dominated by a structure that smears a great wedge of the New Town with a trailing brown stain. A structure that, as virtually everyone (other than a couple of members of the council’s planning committee) seems to agree, looks like shit.

Strangely, the structure’s proponents can’t decide on a better likeness for the monumental defecation: a kilt, a haute couture silk scarf, or perhaps a bundle of coiled ribbons.

I’d propose a fourth option instead. Edinburgh’s jobby hotel is a piece of conceptual art: a memorial to the pivotal role of shit in shaping the modern city. This heap inverts the long suppression of human waste underground with a vision of shit rising up and touching the heavens, gilded on its way by the accumulated waste of consumer capitalism.

It could also be a shit laid by one of the city’s forefathers. Perhaps Henry Dundas looks across, eyebrows furrowed, from his absurdly high plinth, at the towering excreta that has outgrown even his own absurdly tall monument.

One legacy of empire builders such as Dundas are today’s sprawling slum cities of the global south, vast and broken, and the ongoing lives of billions who live without access to mains sewer systems.

Thus, the construction of a golden turd, under which people can buy sweatshop brands, stands as a reminder that consumerism has an expensive taste for the labour of stinking slums. We feel so removed from the foul, deadly, realities of living with excrement that it comes back to stain the skyline by stealth.

Despite millions in public and private funds: in the end there is no more meaning to be had here than the nudge-wink of spectacle. In the end, maybe, the joke is on those wealthy few who will beam down to make use of the hotel: they came all this way to buy things they could buy anywhere.

‘Luxury lifestyle’ which the W Hotel brand promises to its guests, including those able to fork out thousands a night for one of their ‘Extreme Wow Suites’ is an ever more costly concept. In a time of fires and floods, our cities, and our life support systems, clearly cannot afford such indulgences and re-orderings in the service of such a narrow strata of desire.

The Mallification of Edinburgh

Though the hype tells a different story, the St James Quarter beneath the hotel can’t escape the dull reality that it’s just the replacement for a grim seventies shopping centre. It does some of that task well: its shape echoes the fine Georgian terrace that once stood here (dead twin to the immensely popular Victoria Street). There are improved pedestrianised routes at a choke point in the city, and it also offers some stunning views.

But the ‘streets’ are gated and monitored by security guards, the views are framed by cheap cladding, and much of the structure is given over to a car park. The actual function of these buildings becomes more obvious the more you linger. It seeks to offer, ultimately, the chance to ‘experience’ the city without ever having to leave its confines.

What is so obviously needed in its place – and has instead been so recklessly commercialised – is public space. This is the site for the central plaza that Edinburgh has never been bold enough to dedicate by restoring the missing square within the New Town masterplan.

You get something of a flavour of what could have been around the nearby Paolozzi sculptures at the top of Leith Walk. But in place of solving congestion with a public transport hub, installing more public art, and offering space for people to linger and, say, arrange to meet a friend or read a book, you have the same big brand chains that are available on Princes Street. Here, they are arranged in a Metropolis-like hierarchy of height ordered by brand equity.

All the while, towering above is the heavy presence of the looming shit, which is itself shaped to offer the pinnacle of contemporary Edinburgh civilisation – corporate hospitality events.

Looming Shit and a Collection of Follies

Edinburgh’s remarkable skyline has long played a fine trick on tourists. It offers, at first glance, a vision of continuity. But looked at in more detail it is instead a collection of follies, of oversized things built to serve ideas that they have outlasted.

You could argue that the gods began this process with the archaic eruptions on Arthur’s Seat. Either way there is always some kind of mad rush lurking behind what now seems so ancient and austere. The silhouette of the castle: a collection of barracks and redoubts built in response to military emergencies down the centuries. The countless gothic spires: raised by a rash of competing nineteenth century sects now largely irrelevant. The Balmoral Clock: a side product of ‘railway mania’. Calton Hill itself: scattered with monuments to a raft of now largely forgotten people. The best known of the latter, the ‘National Monument’ was in fact so rushed in its execution that it was, notoriously, left incomplete.

The St James Quarter is also unfinished and the massive dump at its centre is yet to open. Maybe when the hotel’s galleries are peopled with all the glitz the world can throw at it its now empty windows will shine. Currently however, save for the odd blast of gold from direct sun light, it varies from a shade of russet to pewter: trashy, but not even vaguely glam.

The developers insist they have created something akin to the greatest works of human endeavour. St James Quarter managing director Nick Peel described the building as ‘a cathedral in a world heritage site’.

This suggests that Peel may simply have failed to notice that the new structure sits next door to an actual cathedral, St Mary’s, one of three within the boundary of the Unesco World Heritage Site. This latest, of course, is the only one to boast a branch of Five Guys.

Edinburgh’s skyline excels as a teaching tool. Perhaps one day this new landmark will stand as something strange and unrecognisable, as archaic as the geological formations on Arthur’s Seat. A tribute to the gods of a rampant, empty, consumerism that so many reached for as the world started burning.

If we are to survive, and not choke on the stench of such mountainous waste, we will instead require the serious ‘cathedral thinking’ of the climate movement to save us. We will need to embark on projects in the knowledge that we may never see them realised in our lifetimes, rather than cramming our lives full of ever more shallow, ever more costly ‘luxury experiences,’ leaving the poor and the young to clean up our shit.

Comments (18)

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  1. Colin Robinson says:

    See, in Glasgow, it would have been dubbed something like ‘The Walnut Whip’. My first impression, however, is of a busted watchspring. I believe the ‘ribbon’ motif is a nod to the New Town’s Georgian neoclassicism. At least, that’s what the worker-owned Anglo-Czech design practice that conceived it says.

    Whatever! It’s certainly not douce enough for the conservative Edinburgh skyline. But I rather like its near-Gaudian gallusness. And it takes Edinburgh another step closer to becoming Prague.

    1. maxwell says:

      What you fail to mention Mike is that it cost circa a billion quid. Lets pause and look at in the context of how we once reacted to the original St James Centre, it was almost universally loathed, still is, so years later the next step was to build a complex very much in exactly the same style that so many had told the authorities they hated. At the cost of a billion quid, a sum that could easily have allowed for something of spectacular beauty. Personally I dont worry too much at the view from afar, its the fact that it has buggered up the views from those internationally celebrated places, George Street and the approach to Register House that annoys me every day.
      I commend your web site, the Council fails us time after time and must be held to account. Lets try and not let them do it again.

      1. Colin Robinson says:

        The rooftop pub is being touted as offering guests and locals 360-degree panoramic views of the historic skyline. Perhaps you should emulate Guy de Maupassant, who supposedly ate lunch in the Eiffel tower’s restaurant every day because it was the one place in Paris where the tower was not visible.

      2. James Mills says:

        Could they not have just kept the loathed St James’ Centre and used the billion £’s to bribe the good people of Edinburgh to say they liked it ?

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          There would have been no profit in that, James.

  2. David Cross says:

    Modern architecture is such an easy target, especially when there’s an unoriginal jobby comment to be made. In fact, while everyone enjoys the golden turd joke, anecdotally I know I am one of many who rather likes the hotel.
    There’s lots of legitimate criticism to be made of the lack of public space and the unhealthy influence of the developers, but the easy swipe at an original and, at the very least, interesting piece of architecture (as opposed to many of the dull sandstone and plastics edifices around the city) is disappointing

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      I don’t think there’s a lack of public space or ‘agora’. I think that there’s rather a dearth of civic activity taking place in our public spaces. Our marketplaces used to be the centre of the athletic, artistic, business, social, spiritual, and political life of our communities; now, they tend to be given over almost exclusively to our business activities.

      Wouldn’t it be great if the development was occupied by skateboarders, street artists, buskers, preachers, parliaments, and fellows well met, as well as traders?

  3. Martin Coffield says:

    Two weeks ago Ma, Pa and the weans walked, or in the case of Pa, limped up Arthur’s Seat. The lovely sunny day afforded us a splendid view of the Embra skyline. “Is that a poo emoji?”
    Now I know.

  4. Drew Anderson says:

    “…the nearby Paolozzi sculptures at the top of Leith Walk…”

    The top of the Walk is at Shrubhill, about a block up from Pilrig Church. The “top of Leith Walk” is nowhere near the Paolozzi’s.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Good point, Drew. The top of the Walk is marked by the Boundary Bar, just up around the corner from Robbie’s. Folk are forever creating Edinburgh after their own image.

  5. Evan Alston says:

    Yes Chris, the lack of public spaces. I live in the Nu Toon and unless you pay for access you don’t get into the gardens round these parts. Me and my dog Sandybhoy walk round Charlotte square. A big green space, never used. Ever. We’d love to go in. The site you’ve written about should have been something glorious and piblic. One billion quid spent. I’ve sworn never to set foot in it. I won’t step on that shit.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      But the development is a public space, Evan.

      1. Get-that-shit-off-the-street says:

        A space stolen from the public, rather than a public space, though Scottish taxpayers without as much as a by-your-leave have paid a subsidy of £61.4 million into the pockets of developer TIAA, a North Carolina based pension corporation with over $1 trillion under management – that’s around a third of the UK’s ENTIRE pension fund holdings! And in a breach of then applicable EU state aid rules, by the way! TIAA’s other smart investments have included ripping up thousands of acres of the ecologically sensitive savannah of Brazil, and shares in the US personal weapons industry, which didn’t please so many of its teacher contributors in the wake of the Sandyhook massacre. Instead of blowing a gasket over that horrible dead guy on the column those with a more up to date social conscience should find out which of our councillors voted for this truly evil street crime and kick them out, along with any officials who advised them to support it. We should also encourage a mass boycott of these mediocre chains in a boring mall which makes Ocean Terminal look almost interesting. I would also propose starting a fund for anyone who professes admiration for the jobbie, since they clearly need our help and understanding.

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          No, it’s not been closed to public occupation. It’s still a public space.

          But, of course, we should be more careful in who we employ to develop such spaces. As for the aesthetics, I might pack a lunch and a flask and get the bus into Edinburgh to try them out. I must say that I find the ribbon conceit intriguing, but have the architects pulled it off? Only one way to find out – suck it and see!

  6. Mouse says:

    ‘The Coiled Spring’ is less catchy than ‘The Jobbie’. I don’t think the old St. James Center even managed a nickname apart from ‘oh God there it is again (look the other way – at least we don’t live in Cumbernauld)’.

    It must be a new wave in Scottish architecture that does without the concrete harling, mock-acropolis, or girder-box.

    What would people prefer instead? The Jobbie will look a whole shed-load better than the parliamentary Drumbiedykes extension in 20 years time when it gets concrete-rot and needs aluminium cladding not to look like a Soviet republic government edifice (but with bars on the windows like a prison). Apparently, I didn’t even pay for it much.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Each to their own, Mouse; ‘the Jobbie’ has one particular symbolism, ‘the Ribbon’ another.

      Best to go yourself and engage in a wee bit of phenomenology, releasing its presence from its hiddenness by ‘bracketing out’ or ‘clearing away’ all symbolisms and other accretions, and contemplating what that presence says to you (aletheia).

  7. Get-that-shit-off-the-street says:

    Actually I grow increasingly partial to ‘the coiled spring’ analogy given that one of the favoured stocks of developer TIAA a while back was in Smith & Wesson and Sturm, Ruger &Co, inc, manufacturers of such personal weapons as the military style semi-automatic AR15 which took the lives of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandyhook Elementary School about ten years ago, which caused many of their schoolteacher contributors to raise a petition. But hey, you shoppers, don’t let that distract you from visiting their dull shopping mall – just try not to think of the dead kids.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Or, indeed, the ‘Rifled Barrel’. The symbolism’s endless.

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