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.