Nothing Less Than Vandalism
Joanna Blythman on built heritage in today`s The Sunday Herald
This is a huge honour, so you might think that all the councillors and officials who passed through the portals of the city chambers would be circumspect enough to realise that even if the finer points of architecture were beyond them, you don't imperil such a listing. No such luck. Koichiro Matsuura, the director-general of this UN cultural body, has had to warn Edinburgh that if it proceeds with certain new developments (of which more below), its world heritage status may be threatened. He has requested that the city puts these plans on hold, pending Unesco's investigation, or risk having its Unesco status stripped from it.
Man from UNESCO, he say no
The alarm has been sounded, but smug Edinburgh Council shows no signs of taking heed. In the past it would have. For decades, conservatism and preservation of the status quo were the order of the day. Thanks to the vigilance of groups such as the Cockburn Association, most of the lunatic plans advanced for the city were thwarted, with the prominent exception of the St James Centre. Not bad going when you think that Glasgow got saddled with a motorway that savaged its Victorian grid.
Unfortunately in recent years Edinburgh has been plagued by councillors who, though their politics differ, have one thing in common - their egos are bigger than their brains and their judgement is wanting. Puffed up and romanced by developers and modernist architects who feed them the pretentious, self-aggrandising vocabulary of "iconic buildings", "signature architecture", "architectural statements" and "iconoclastic, brave development" - like teenage vandals carving their initials on the ancient stones of the Acropolis - they yearn to leave their hubristic mark on the city for posterity. Hence the spate of fatally misconceived plans that are being given the go-ahead, even though they perpetuate old mistakes and grind their killer heels in the face of Edinburgh's handsome heritage.
How on Earth was the capital's number one vandal, Edinburgh University, allowed to squeeze yet another architecturally meritless, oversized concrete block into Bristo Square? With its track record of flattening three sides of Georgian George Square and erecting the monstrous David Hume Tower, it should have been placed on a Gary Glitter-style register of recidivist architectural offenders never to be trusted.
Just next to abused George Square, the city's Quartermile development is partially completed. A riot of U-PVC and tinted glass that spurns more vernacular, sustainable materials like wood and stone, its overpriced, aspirational yuppie condominiums add only to our housing stock of exclusive, soulless, ever-so-slightly sinister compounds for the very rich.
Then there's the scandal of Caltongate, where two listed buildings on the historic Royal Mile are to be demolished to make way for a five-star hotel and conference centre - as if Edinburgh needs another. But the most monstrously inappropriate scheme yet given approval is the 17-storey (yes, that's right, 17-storey!) hotel and office development at Haymarket. This has been sold by its promoters as "a gateway of blade-like sharpness in the form of a tower" that will "act as a beacon at night" and function as "a gateway building marking the entry into the World Heritage Site from the west". What preposterous and fanciful nonsense.
I happen to agree, on the whole, with Leon Krier, guru of the New Urbanism school of architecture, who said that "the most beautiful and pleasant cities which survive in the world today have all been conceived with buildings of between two and five floors". Even those who go for all that "street in the sky" rhetoric spouted by ideologues of modernism ought to admit that Edinburgh is not Manhattan. However bored architects may be with working in the confines of a conservation-minded city, a philistine should see that 17 storeys are brazenly out of scale among Edinburgh's traditionally low-rise buildings.
It's hard to see Haymarket's proposed tower (above) as anything other than a grotesquely super-sized, overbearing monument to architectural arrogance and civic stupidity. Worse, I interpret it as a declaration that it is now open season on Edinburgh's outstanding urban heritage, one that ratifies the Caltongate precedent.
Former Lord Provost Lesley Hinds betrayed a rare flash of self-doubt after the Haymarket decision when she remarked that "we will be damned or we might be congratulated in the future".
I'll place my bet now. The Haymarket tower will be viewed as Edinburgh's biggest post-St James Centre planning gaffe and those who voted for it as dangerous idiots.
St James Centre
It's not just the odd bad building here and there. The plans for Edinburgh become ever more scarring and radical. Part of me wants to see the miscreants punished by losing Unesco status, but then Edinburgh suffers along with them.
Sean Connery who visited the capital last week, perhaps warning the first minister of the danger the city faces
Time for the grown-ups to step in. Alex Salmond must hold an inquiry into both the Caltongate and Haymarket follies before the council fouls up the city's heritage for posterity.