Thursday, 4 September 2008

True Identity of Caltongate Architect Revealed

David Brent the "Mastermind behind Caltongate"
Edinburgh – from world heritage site to Basildon of the north?

NORMAN Foster's Sage music centre at Gateshead isn't one of the most immediately appealing of buildings: a gigantic silver seaslug crawling along the south bank of the Tyne.

Yet, once you are inside, it works brilliantly, not just as a concert multi-hall, but as a belvedere, presenting Newcastle as a sharp panorama – the Norman castle, the great railway station, the five Tyne bridges, the classical blocks of Dobson and Grainger, even the 1960s offices run up by Dan Smith. The northern-facing site pays off in the evening, as the sun sets over this lot.

Which should send visiting Scots back to think again. The panorama from Edinburgh's Princes Street is still stunning, even if largely Victorian, dropping from the Castle Infirmary, past Patrick Geddes's Ramsay Garden, Pugin's Tolbooth, St John's Church, Playfair's Assembly Hall and the Bank of Scotland to the old City Chambers and the crown spire of St Giles'. The trouble comes when you turn to Princes Street itself, which is an architectural disaster worthy of the late great Rayner Banham's puking vole award.

The daft Scott Monument, faux-Tudor Jenners and Sir J J Burnet's grand Edwardian Forsyth's apart, the street is a horror-show of bad planning and worse architecture. The Abercrombie Plan of 1948 envisaged a double-deck shopping street. Although the city fathers dropped nearly every other aspect of it, bits of this scheme were realised in the 1960s at the cost of William Burn's New Club and Charles Barry's magnificent Standard Life offices. The big drapers and grand food shops left, along with Crawford's Tea Rooms, and the southern high street slithered in … and in due course, as elsewhere, expired. This is the territory of Frasers and Marks & Sparks, mobile phone shops, standard-issue Waterstone's and naughty knickers stores, and pretty demeaning.

David Brent`s Caltongate looking towards Waverley Bridge

No wonder Unesco isn't best pleased. The cultural organisation has threatened that if changes aren't made to two schemes – Caltongate and Haymarket – bang may go Edinburgh's world cultural heritage ranking.

Only a collective failure of taste can explain the total nullity of the Caltongate scheme, a Basildon clone promoted by the English developer Mountgrange: something even the council can defend only on the grounds that "it will attract investment". Designed by and for David Brent would sum it up.

It's as if Scotland's architectural ambition, having made its expensive statements in the National Museum and Holyrood Parliament – extraordinary and oddly timeless buildings – has held its tongue, and instead the spirit of boil-in-a-bag Georgian has seeped in from an exurbian sprawl characterised by the journalist Iain MacWhirter as having "the texture of dead skin".

What to do? To the west of Haymarket there's a real need for a first-rate transport interchange, as Waverley Station isn't up to the expected growth in rail traffic without expensive tunnels, and a western site could make use of the under-used South Suburban line. As for Caltongate, think about the young architects – many of them Scots – who took Enrico Miralles's sketches and made such a remarkable building out of them.

And think, too, that the real glories of Scotland aren't medieval or Georgian but Victorian, in all its rumbustious vitality: town halls, schools, railway stations, shooting lodges, workers' dwellings. Every glen or town will produce one extraordinary building, and the cities show scores, ranging in Edinburgh from Playfair's gigantic Donaldson's School for the Deaf only a few hundred yards from Haymarket, to Robert Lorimer's tiny Italianate St Peter's Church in Morningside, built for Wilde's Dorian Gray.

David Brent`s Building for Caltongate on East Market Street

Why not get the youngsters to reimagine the Caltongate site and on it re-erect some of these often-endangered buildings as its foci, rather as the Holyrood parliament incorporates the venerable Queensberry House – creating a new route from Waverley Station into the Old Town, and an imaginative, working museum of Scots architecture?