Thursday, 3 April 2008

"Caltongate" Calamity

This article appears in the Spring Newsletter of ICOMOS UK (not available on line as yet)

Written by Conservation Architect, James Simpson OBE

Edinburgh Old and New Towns World Heritage site:
“Caltongate” Calamity

On 6th February, the Edinburgh City Council was minded to approve major elements of the “Caltongate” re-development scheme, in the face of massive opposition from the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust and others, including a specially formed Canongate Community Forum which, through an effective web-site, has mobilised community support to keep homes for locals in the heart of the Old Town.

The “Caltongate” Site extends to 3.46ha on the North side of the Canongate, between Waverley Station and Holyrood, highly visible from the Calton Hill. The whole site is within the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh World Heritage Site, inscribed in 1995. The plans commended by Councillors include a new five-star hotel, conference centre, houses and offices in the Old Town. It would involve the demolition of one listed building, all but the frontage of a second, and several tenanted houses.

Proposals to reduce 1930s stone-fronted tenements facing the Canongate were put on hold, with the developers, Mountgrange, being asked to look at ways of retaining the buildings for affordable housing. The Councillors’ decision will now be considered by Scottish Ministers.

ICOMOS-UK objected to the development, not on the grounds that the main part of the site - the former New Street bus garage - should not be developed, but because of the disastrous and unnecessary enlargement of the site to include adjacent land and buildings owned by the City Council, the disruption of the topography of the North side of the Old Town ridge, the unnecessary and unjustified demolition of listed and unlisted buildings in the Conservation Area, and for the sheer unattractiveness and inappropriateness of the proposals. As one resident put it ‘YES the bus garage site needs to be developed, but NO this is not the correct scheme and it will jar with everything else around it ....’.

The Old and New Towns were inscribed on the World Heritage list for their remarkable juxtaposition of two clearly articulated urban planning phenomena: the ‘herringbone’ burgh of the early Middle Ages, set on the tail of the crag, and the regular layout of the Enlightenment New Town, laid out on the high ground to the North. The harmonious relationship between these two contrasting historic towns, set astride what Sir Bernard Feilden has called the ‘great arena’ of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley valley, each with many important buildings, is what gives Edinburgh its unique character.

The burgage plots of the Canongate, founded as an ‘abbatial burgh’ dependent on the Abbey of Holyrood, were typically small and it is this pattern which gave the area its essential character and grain. Where this scale and grain has been respected, as in the development master-planned by John Hope to the South of the Canongate, the result is widely admired.
By contrast, the proposals for “Caltongate” - an entirely spurious name, incidentally - are overlarge and have ‘footprints’ which are large in relation to their height - quite the opposite of the successful Canongate South scheme - where some blocks are even higher than the maximum height indicated in the Master Plan for the area. They are also, by general consensus, architecturally undistinguished and out of place in the Old Town.

The “Caltongate” development as it stands will have a profoundly negative impact on the values of the World Heritage Site: it is also a missed opportunity to show that, if the fundamentals of size, scale and grain are got right, new development, however brave architecturally, can be successfully integrated with urban landscapes of international value. Edinburgh was for many years been seen as a trailblazer for urban conservation, commended for its far-sighted town planning policies initiated by Patrick Geddes - the father of town planning and of urban conservation - which had allowed the city’s skyline and urban spaces to evolve but maintain their significance over time.

Caltongate” is symptomatic of a new trend towards development of extensive areas of cites as single projects - reminiscent, alas, of the Comprehensive Development Areas of the 1960s. Bath Western Riverside, a large, highly contentious scheme in the centre of the Bath World Heritage Site, is another. It extends to 35ha and thus occupies the same footprint as the Royal Crescent, the Circus, Queen’s Square, connecting streets, and some land to the south-west of these three great urban spaces, all combined. In Liverpool, Peel Holdings are floating plans for high-rise buildings, including 23,000 homes, along swathes of the land either side of the Mersey which would transform Liverpool in to a mini Shanghai.

All these projects raise the issue of how planning and redevelopment at this scale can respect the urban grain or sense of place in cities which have been recognised as having attributes marking them out as being of world significance. How should we define what is needed? As with so much else, Patrick Geddes’ principle of ‘conservative surgery’ puts the proper approach to the improvement of old cities in a nutshell. Geddes’ principles were followed to the South of the Canongate; not alas at “Caltongate”.

James Simpson gives the views of a long-standing Edinburgh resident on “Caltongate”:
Edinburgh is under greater threat than it has been since the 1960s. Everything about the “Caltongate” proposal is wrong:

· even more than the unlovable new City offices in Market Street, it intrudes into the Waverley valley and its podium disrupts the topography of the Old Town.

· the sheer size of the project cuts across all the principles of urban conservation, first expounded by Patrick Geddes. The New Street bus garage site was already large; it should not have been enlarged further.

· the traditional scale and 'grain' of the Canongate are ignored.

· the demolition of a stone tenement, part of the Canongate street frontage, and of Listed Buildings, including one owned by the City Council, should be unthinkable.

· the very name “Caltongate” is, in its meaninglessness, an insult to the intangible heritage of this most intellectual of cities!

· the process through the planning system has been tortuous and exhausting for all concerned.

The suggestion that this particular development, and others like it, are essential for the wellbeing of the City is, frankly, bizarre. It is surely self-evident that it is the sheer quality and consistency of Edinburgh in architectural and planning terms, which are the foundations of Edinburgh's greatness. The recent succession of overlarge and inappropriate developments, of which “Caltongate” is currently the most important, are undermining those foundations.

Change is essential, and conservation is often said to be the management of change. If the “Caltongate” project is stopped in its tracks, then work can begin again in earnest on defining the sort of change which Edinburgh needs. This project must be stopped.

See yesterday`s post on what YOU can do to stop this project