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WRECKING EDINBURGH – Scottish Review of Books
by David Black


August 9, 2016 | by David Black

It seems metaphysically appropriate that Edinburgh, a city riven by an urban duality, should have had two singular and very different golden ages, as well as two distinct architectural personalities.

The first golden age needs no introduction. It happened between 1760 and 1790 and has been well-documented by James Boswell, Thomas Carlyle, Henry Cockburn, and other Enlightenment luminaries. The second Golden Age took place exactly two centuries later, and has been comprehensively forgotten by all but a dwindling few with long memories. It is doubtful if anyone bothered to hold a wake. In both periods the city was the leading character in its own extraordinary drama. For the space of a respective generation, Edinburgh captivated the world, or at least that portion of it which cared about culture, beauty, history, the written word, and the more refined pleasures of life. It was the spirit of the city – a spirit epitomized by its architecture – which made such things possible. For that great drama, the revels now are ended. The spirit, inexorably, is being snuffed out by a city council with planning policies which approach the worst excesses of the 1960s, when entire Georgian streets were destroyed by the wrecking ball.

The grain of the old Edinburgh is now being inexorably lost. Once a stage set of unparalleled magnificence hewn from stone, it had monuments as grandiloquent and declaratory as its dark recesses were mysterious and exciting. For Hugh MacDiarmid, this was ‘a mad god’s dream’. He was not alone in regarding it as a mystical event. ‘How could I describe it?’, Felix Mendelssohn had written a century earlier, after taking in the prospect of the new High School and the glittering Forth from Arthur’s Seat. ‘When God in heaven takes up panorama painting you can expect something terrific.’ 

To appreciate fully Edinburgh’s second golden age it was perhaps useful to be there, while some understanding of the grim era which preceded it informs that appreciation. Nineteen fifties Edinburgh had its official festival of music and drama, but was otherwise a provincial backwater noted for poker-faced rectitude, a dearth of decent restaurants, and a bourgeois suspicious of arty types. It had one defining and unbeatable asset however – a glorious architectural setting. By 1960 the first shafts of light were penetrating the cultural gloom. There were Fringe productions from the beginning, but the term gained currency with Beyond the Fringe, starring Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, and Dudley Moore. A much-cited key moment (but by no means the only one) was in 1959, when American ex-serviceman Jim Haynes opened the Paperback Bookshop near George Square. With a cramped performance space, it attracted wide interest – ‘this is the worst hotel I have ever been in’ Laurence Olivier later wrote in the visitors’ book. The Paperback’s downside was its chronic lack of space. The solution was the Traverse Theatre, which opened in 1963 in a former brothel, ‘Kelly’s Paradise’, and the adjoining doss-house, ‘Hell’s Kitchen’. With its combination of experimental theatre, new writing, art gallery,  and a restaurant and bar which was without question the most laid back sitting room in Edinburgh, it attracted international attention. 

It should not be forgotten that this outburst of vitality had a much overlooked precedent. The Gateway Theatre in Leith Walk, gifted to the Church of Scotland in 1945 for ‘dealing with the youth problems in a thoroughly modern manner by providing recreation and entertainment of a healthy character’, would never be at the avant-garde cutting edge, but it had provided opportunities for actors and playwrights to earn a crust. With a pool of talent which included Tom Fleming, Sadie Aitken, Lennox Milne, Moultrie Kelsall, and Robert Kemp, the Gateway Company was the basis for the city’s Royal Lyceum Company, which last year celebrated its 50th birthday with an award-winning production of Waiting for Godot. Yet the Traverse was different. A magnet for both creators and culture-hungry consumers of the arts, it served a disparate community. While MacDiarmid and his protégé Alan Bold were extolling the virtues of dialectical Marxism in the bar, the star of Ben Hur,  Charlton Heston, was hosting an exhibition of his (remarkably good) drawings in Richard Demarco’s gallery downstairs.

On-stage, the Traverse offered such gems as David Bowie’s Pierrot in Lindsay Kemp’s Turquoise Pantomime (they would go on to create Ziggy Stardust). The off-stage activity included musicians and poets. South African Dennis Brutus, recovering from gunshot wounds sustained during an attempted prison escape, recalled his time on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. A home-grown ‘banned person’, Hamish Henderson (the BBC once kept him off-air for his supposedly unacceptable views) would follow a song with an account of his own involvement in the liberation of Italy. The Liverpool poets also made an impact, especially when three of them – Roger McGough, John Gorman, and Mike McCartney (who changed his name to McGear to assert independence from his  brother, Paul) – formed a musical group, The Scaffold, which would go on to produce a million selling No. 1 hit with ‘Lily the Pink’. The Traverse was also a star-spotter’s paradise; where else could you find David Frost having dinner with Marlene Dietrich while Ronnie Barker walked by? I write as one who, in the humble capacity of waiter, presented the blue angel herself with a plate of spaghetti bolognese, to be duly rewarded with a languid look and the memorable knee melting words ‘Zank you veree much’.

Huddled in its ancient tenement down a narrow close off the Lawnmarket, the Traverse was only part of the story. A groundbreaking 1963 International Writers Conference, organised by the publisher John Calder, Jim Haynes, and George Orwell’s widow, Sonia, brought together a star-studded galaxy – Americans Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Mary McCarthy, and William Burroughs, Scots Hugh MacDiarmid, Muriel Spark, David Daiches, Edwin Morgan and Alexander Trocchi, with Lawrence Durrell, Stephen Spender, Malcolm Muggeridge, Rebecca West and LP Hartley from England. A year later enfant terrible critic Kenneth Tynan chaired a drama conference with a billing which included Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Charles Marowitz, Lillian Hellman, and Laurence Olivier. For the press, the highlight was a ‘happening’ in which nude model Anna Kesselaar was wheeled on a trolley across the McEwan Hall organ gallery. Subsequently, Calder and Kesselaar were charged with obscenity, but the case was thrown out by a judge who simply couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.

If this golden age was proving to be controversial, it was also becoming democratic and socially inclusive. In 1962, when the Craigmillar Festival was founded in one of the most deprived areas of the city, such festival regulars as Billy Connolly, Bill Paterson, Richard Demarco, Sean Connery, and Yehudi Menuhin engaged with a local population which was accustomed to being ignored. The Festival, once criticised for its elitism, was embracing, and being embraced by, the people. 

From today’s vantage point, it isn’t always easy to appreciate how much Edinburgh’s historic buildings were part of the festival. In 1960, when the Sceptics Theatre Company staged David Hume’s First Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion in the Paperback’s miniscule basement theatre, the audience would emerge into the same eighteenth-century townscape which Hume and his contemporaries had known, with one or two updates. Across the street, the raucous folk duo of Robin Hall and Jimmie McGregor might be entertaining customers in the Charles Tavern, while two minutes walk away the Incredible String Band was doing much the same, if rather more esoterically, in the Crown Bar in Lothian Street, beneath the rooms where the renowned essayist and opium eater Thomas de Quincey had once lived. The destruction of such buildings knocked much of the spirit out of the Festival, and The Gateway is a dismal case study. It closed shortly after the Lyceum’s opening and became studios for Scottish Television, until it was bought by Queen Margaret University. The curtain finally came down in 2005 after a valedictory production of Journey’s End. Health and Safety regulations required an upgrade, but no-one was prepared to pay for it. The Gateway’s fate is analogous of much that has gone wrong in contemporary Edinburgh. It was acquired by a developer who built student flats after demolishing everything behind the original listed 1882 facade – a grim symptom of a corrosive Edinburgh malaise. With single-occupancy studio flat rentals approaching £900 per month, including flat screen TVs, large beds, and ‘contemporary high gloss kitchens’, the ‘Gateway Apartments’ are hardly targeted at the average struggling undergraduate. 

Amongst the city’s many latter-day curses, the explosion in student ghetto accommodation is particularly pernicious. True, even well-off students have to live somewhere, and such cheap ’n’ cheerful rabbit-hutch ghetto developments, it could be argued, reduce the demand for private rented tenement flats in multiple occupancy and many of the associated problems. Even so, these segregated communities bring few, if any, benefits to the municipal revenues, or indeed to the segregated student community. The city’s 78,500 students are exempt from council tax and rarely have high net disposable incomes to spend in local shops, which in effect means the local services they enjoy are subsidized .

  The Gateway represents the tip of an iceberg which is transforming the demography of the central area outside the square mile of the New Town as the traditional resident population gives way to a transient army of students billeted in a growing number of self-contained barracks. Today’s student housing provision is a lucrative global business and should not be confused with such not-for-profit housing charities as Edinvar, established in 1973 to provide affordable social housing in Edinburgh’s Southside, much of it, but by no means all of it, for students. Take the case of the Student Housing Company, which has completed three ‘student ghetto’ projects in Edinburgh. It was launched in 2011 by ‘Threesixty’, registered at Gray’s Inn Road, London, and formerly the Knightsbridge Housing Company. ‘Investors clearly smell money in the air’, states Threesixty’s website. But who are these investors? One is Oaktree Capital Group LLC based in Wells Fargo Tower, Los Angeles, a corporate giant with almost $100 billion assets under management. Another operator, the Unite Group plc, began in Bristol and now provides accommodation for 46,000 students in 28 UK cities. In Edinburgh it has six blocks totalling over 1,000 rooms, with consent for another of 581 rooms at St Leonard’s, while a further 237 room development by Manchester-based Buile is going ahead almost next door at Lutton Court. 

By October 2014 the council calculated that there were a total of 15,939 students in dedicated accommodation, with planning consents having been granted for others. It is also proposed to convert the entire side of a street of eighteenth-century flats into 46 managed residential student units with original A listed Georgian rooms being subdivided. This point may seem somewhat extraneous to any argument about the physical degeneration of the city,  but it manifests a growing problem. For example, the build quality of these developments can mostly be described as mediocre, with the occasional aesthetic horrors such as Sugar House Close, off the Canongate. Meanwhile, with almost every available parcel of land around Leith Walk, the Old Town, and the Southside becoming a student ghetto, the resident population is being displaced. Pioneer planner Patrick Geddes’s injunction that ‘Town & Gown’ should co-exist in harmony has now given way to the all-pervasive supremacy of academia and its corporate developer friends. 

This problem has been long foreseen. As early as May 1979 the Southside Association urged ‘that the academic bodies in the area recognise the need to redress the balance of population in the Southside’. This injunction was ignored, and we are now witnessing a takeover. Edinburgh’s current crisis is arguably worse than the brutalist onslaught of the 1960s, when Southside comprehensive development area (CDA) plan did more than eliminate the Paperback. The Pollock Memorial Hall, where Mark Boyle’s light show featured the music of Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine, and the UK premiere of Brecht and Weill’s Happy End was the hit of the 1964 Edinburgh Festival, was sacrificed to make way for a Basil Spence modernist University chapel which was never built.    

The difference between then and now was that there was a fight back. In the 1960s, around half of the Southside’s eighteenth-century buildings would eventually be saved and it even became a conservation area. Nevertheless it had its heart ripped out while  concrete and glass ubiquity epitomised the worst of academe’s sepulchral modernism, adding insult to injury by poaching the names of Hume, Robertson, and Stuart to sweeten the architectural mediocrity. That first wave of planned carpet-bombing focussed on the area around Leith Street and the Southside. Another proposed horror included the elevated ‘Buchanan’ expressway, named after its originator, Sir Colin Buchanan, planned for the Meadows, with interchanges at St Leonard’s and Tollcross. There were a few individual losses elsewhere, such as the Hopetoun Rooms in Queen Street, with its remarkable ‘Temple of the Winds’ interior cupola, and the Life Assurance Building on Princes Street, but the New Town remained largely undisturbed. 

Public opinion and a supportive press made all the difference. Morningside matrons once their dander was up saw off Buchanan and his ring road. In  contrast, today’s Edinburghers stand apathetically by as their heritage is trashed, while organisations which once would have kicked up a fuss do nothing – the Southside Association, of which this writer was founding chairman, didn’t even trouble to respond to enquiries about the student ghetto tidal wave engulfing the area. More than half a century ago those who cared were from a remarkably diverse section of the community, from the great and the good to the incendiary and rebellious. The 12th Earl of Haddington, for example, was founding president of the Scottish Georgian Group (now The Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland) while the judge Lord ‘Jock’ Cameron, who took delight in introducing himself as ‘the man who hanged Peter Manuel’, was chairman of the Cockburn Association, which acted as Edinburgh’s ‘Civic Trust’. At the other end of the spectrum radical student rector, Gordon Brown, who lit up the politics of the  sclerotic left with The Red Paper for Scotland, also set up a ‘Rector’s Working Party on Planning’ and, with the Edinburgh University Publications Board, actively supported two campaigning anthologies, The Forgotten Southside and The Unmaking of Edinburgh. While they would have won no awards for design or proof reading (the contribution from the council’s housing convener and future UK foreign secretary, Robin Cook, even had his name mis-spelled!), their effect was far reaching. The overlap of shared interests could be surreal at times, as when photographer, Broderick Haldane, arriving midway through a Brown meeting in the Meadow Bar, apologized because he had been detained over tea by the Queen Mother at Holyrood Palace.

That rearguard action meant that many of the Southside’s streets were saved, as well as a number of its landmark buildings. What a difference a few decades make: recently, its local councillor complained on his website that the Southside has too many listed buildings, and no-one raised an eyebrow.  You would think a few lessons might have been learnt. Apart from anything else, the monuments of the 1960s are truly dispiriting. What sort of city is it that can reconfigure a quarter as characterful as that of Bristo-Potterrow into a dreary townscape resembling a flyblown industrial back lot in a poor neighbourhood of Milwaukee? Or demolish a residential quarter like St James’ Square to build hideous concrete government offices above an undistinguished shopping mall? Why, Edinburgh – particularly when it’s collaborating with a commercial real estate company and an empire-building university. On the other hand, those who opposed the urbicide – to use a term coined by Jane Jacobs – which was the 1963 Southside CDA plan, while they would lose several battles, eventually won the war.  

Today, these hard-won gains are being thrown away. The mechanisms for urban desecration are more subtle, and less accountable, and the dynamic is global. As civic amnesia supplants civic virtue even the once sacrosanct New Town is under threat, as the recent – and ongoing – demolitions of historic buildings around St Andrew’s Square demonstrate. UNESCO World Heritage status, it seems, is a cynical sham. Edinburgh was once home to Patrick Geddes, the ‘father of town planning’. Now, however, ‘planning’ has been supplanted by ‘economic development’, and the game is to follow the money and exploit every opportunity as the waves spread ever outward. It is the greenbelt – the peripheral lungs of the city – which is now being sacrificed to development. 

Of course, such civic-sanctioned vandalism is not exclusively an Edinburgh problem. The rot is universal, and takes many forms. Paris, Tokyo, and Bucharest are similarly afflicted. For Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, Rafael Vinoly’s $1.3 billion skyline-ripper at 432 Park Avenue, New York (inspired – no kidding – by a trash can) is ‘the tallest, ugliest, and among the most expensive private residences in the city’s history – the “Oligarch’s Erection”, as it should be known – a catchment for the rich from which to look down on everyone else, it is hard not to feel that the civic virtues of commonality have been betrayed’. The ‘civic virtues of commonality’ have certainly been betrayed in Edinburgh. Scotland may have a new parliament and politics, yet in a UNESCO World Heritage Site planning policies are not so much in the visionary spirit of Robert Adam’s generation, as reminiscent of General Sherman’s scorched earth tactics in the American South. 

The modernist heist of the present age owes a great deal to the 1964 Venice Charter, as issued by the Second Congress of Architects and Specialists of Historic Buildings. Article 9 states that any addition to a historic building ‘must be distinct from the architectural composition and must bear a contemporary stamp’. Thus a few words written more than half a century ago have provided corporate modernists with a lucrative licence to impose their own solipsistic stamp on the built heritage. Europe’s Environment Commission, too, has a less than perfect record. Edinburgh’s east New Town, in particular, has taken a hammering, though not all the blame lies with global capitalism. Home-grown Standard Life Investments is behind a modernist excrescence in St Andrew’s Square which replaced three listed buildings ripped down without an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) as required under EU law. Conveniently, Europe has ruled ‘under the principle of sincere co-operation’ the breach ‘appears to have been regularised’ since the council carried out an EIA screening after the demolitions had occurred. As Humpty-Dumpty famously said ‘when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’. In this case the word is ‘breach.’ 

An Edinburgh developer also plans to demolish the last surviving First New Town block between St Andrew’s Square and Adam’s Register House, while the council’s investment arm, EDI, is co-developing an Old Town hotel which will be ‘unapologetically of its time and culture’ – a euphemism for yet more modernism in a townscape which the American architectural historian Henry Russell Hitchcock once lauded as ‘the most extensive example of a Romantic Classical city in the world’. 

The other corporate curse afflicting Edinburgh is unbridled hotel mania. A ubiquitous mid-range budget brand coupled with ‘high end’ provision threaten to over-supply the city, if VisitScotland’s anticipated bed-night predictions are accurate. The decline of the indigenous B&B trade in outlying areas suggests that the mass influx of out-of-town operators who take their profits elsewhere is clearly having a negative effect on the local economy, yet mid-range and budget hotels are springing up everywhere.

It was a mix of capitalism and civic virtue which gave Edinburgh its finest historic buildings. In those days, however, capitalism was rather more site-specific and could satisfy Adam Smith’s belief that enlightened self-interest brought social and cultural benefits for the community, as well as profits for any investor who, as a member of that community, on the whole preferred approbation to opprobrium.  Now Smith’s notion of  moral optimism is dead. Investment is purely opportunistic, with a global spin which detaches it from the reciprocity implicit in the old relationship between capitalist and community. The partner in EDI’s unapologetically modern hotel joint venture is Dutch, for example. An even more eye-popping proposal seeks to enlarge the internationally significant Royal High School by adding ‘Inca Terrace’ high blocks on either side. Though promoted by a local developer, the scheme is backed by the Rosewood Hotel Group, operator of New York’s Carlyle Hotel, which is based in Hong Kong with its ‘European’ office in the United Arab Emirates: you can’t get much more globally detached than that.

The daddy of them all is the £850 million St James development of American pension giant Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA) This has the backing of the Scottish government and the city council under a ‘Growth Accelerator Model’ agreement which involved handing over a £61.4 million taxpayer subsidy to wholly owned TIAA subsidiary, THI. Apart from other considerations, such as the fact that TIAA, which invests the pensions of America’s schoolteachers and professors, has more than $800 billion assets under management, this collaboration blasts the impartiality of both the local planning authority and the Scottish government. For having bought into the deal they are unlikely to refuse themselves consent. TIAA, which had its Smithfield Market plans in London turned down by Tory minister Eric Pickles after after a public outcry, is finding life much more agreeable in sleepy Edinburgh, where (business sector funded) Essential Edinburgh CEO, Roddy Smith, enthuses:  ‘The transformation of South St Andrew Square has been fantastic and we all await with excitement Edinburgh St James.’

The St James development back-story is a curious one. Aspirant Smithfield Market developer TIAA was founded by Andrew Carnegie in 1917, yet the horror it propose sto visit upon his native heath is a so-called ‘copper spiral’ hotel to be built alongside Robert Adam’s Register House. This resembles ‘something which the people of Edinburgh are enjoined to pick up after their dogs’, suggests the writer Candia McWilliam. Others refer to it more graphically as ‘the golden turd’. Certainly, it would be difficult to summon up a less appropriate design for a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If Tourette’s Syndrome had an architectural equivalent, this would be it, yet Edinburgh’s councillors, tied in by their £61.4 million Growth Accelerator Model subsidy, voted it through, along with a proposed ‘designer’ shopping mall. 

Carnegie would be even less impressed by the fate awaiting his greatest gift to Edinburgh, the French Renaissance library funded ‘for the good of the people for all time to come’. The council has approved a 225 bedroom hotel extension to be built on council-owned land by Buckinghamshire based developer, Jansons for Israeli operator Fattal-Leonardo. This will block out light and views of Edinburgh Castle, rather negating the ‘Let There Be Light’ motto carved above the library’s entrance. As for the rule of law, some light might help. The EU Environment Commissioner’s office has stated that ‘the EIA [Environmental Impact Directive] does not provide for an ex post screening procedure’ which can only mean, in the case of St Andrews Square, that the council breached regulations, yet nothing is to be done about it. 

Edinburgh’s losses are by no means limited to significant buildings in the World Heritage Site. A current case in point concerns a well-detailed villa, Comiston Farmhouse, built to the design of William Notman, a member of a talented family which seemed to have been the mainstay of William Henry Playfair’s office. John Notman, who seems to have been William’s cousin, emigrated to Philadelphia in 1831 and designed the city’s Athenaeum. He also submitted an 1846 plan for the Smithsonian Institution which clearly picked up its references from Playfair’s Donaldson’s Hospital.  Comiston Farmhouse, sadly, appears to be less well regarded. Despite a local campaign staunchly supported by the area’s Member of Parliament, it seems likely that the building and its wooded surroundings will be destroyed to make way for four blocks of flats with attached car parking, described by the developer as ‘a contemporary development of luxury 2-bed, 3-bed and penthouse apartments’.  

With the Inca terrace, ‘Mickey Mouse Ears’ addition to the Royal High School a further question arises. Developer DHP was granted a long lease after winning a 2010 council competition with a modestly scaled ‘Arts Hotel’ which respected the existing building. That scheme then morphed into a ‘luxury international hotel’ with extensive additions and a much-inflated budget, rather begging the question; did its 2010 proposals amount to a false prospectus? If so, shouldn’t the competition be re-run? For the moment, though, it is perhaps worth remembering that the Royal High – described by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland as ‘the single building’ which most justified Edinburgh’s epithet Athens of the North – before it fell vacant was the school which many of the capital’s most illustrious sons attended. One such was the author and editor Karl Miller who, before he embarked on his long walk home to Liberton, ‘used to pause on the Regent Road escarpment and look over the railway line leading out of Waverley Station on the way to London, and across, in the gaining light, at the conglomerate greyness of the storeys and closes of the Royal Mile, “slatternly tenements”, in Norman MacCaig’s word, “that made a Middle Ages in the sky”. Down below to my left was the Canongate Churchyard and Robert Fergusson’s grave, with its headstone erected by Burns to:

my elder brother in misfortune,
By far my elder brother in the Muses.

The school motto declared that the muses were of national importance: musis respublica floret. On these occasions, there and then in Regent Road, I felt sure that they were flourishing.’

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