Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Capital News

Someone bought the following to the republic`s attention, which is an excellent summary on recent events in the capital. It is from Wilson`s Weekly Wrap which appears in Architecture Scotland.

"Thinking out of the box, or just out of the box?

Like buses, you can go a long time without seeing anything in the Scotsman that is even vaguely about architecture and then – lo – two features in one week. Well, not so much features as opinion pieces by a duo of well-known architects stationed on separate sides of the Caltongate divide. The first, by Malcolm Fraser, sought to articulate the protagonists’ position and whilst it made a bold case for seeing the proposed architecture as a continuation of Edinburgh’s strong urban traditions, it lapsed early on into a justification of the kind of statistics so well-loved by politician and, by default, developers – the supposed number of jobs created in construction and the predictions of total jobs established as a result of the finished development itself.

The trouble with this argument is that developers are not actually in the business of creating jobs but, more fundamentally, in the business of making themselves piles of dosh. If the development equation most profitable to them also responds to outdated political imperatives, all well and good, but this usually equates to those aspects of their projects they can pre-let to others who actually are in the business of front-line employment. No pre-lets, no development finance: precisely the problem that brought down Mountgrange, the developer for Caltongate – put simply, nobody else saw commercial benefit in their project just at the time when the company most needed them to.

The question is whether or not the scheme that proved so seductive to the City of Edinburgh Council and the Chamber of Commerce will, when the economy begins to recover, prove to be quite as enticing. In any case – and Malcolm surely understands this all too well – the number of jobs created is never contingent upon the quality of the architecture proposed and any project for this site could just as easily max out the figures to suit its case for political approval. Whether or not the scheme is – as Malcolm asserts – hugely better than previous proposals for the site will no doubt be the subject of ongoing debate given that these predecessors were simply (as it was for Caltongate before the crunch) the most financially beneficial for the developers of the day. None were perfect, none were based on any assessment of the actual civic needs of Edinburgh.

So to James Simpson, an architect who, by virtue of the long tenancy his practice previously had in an office just off the Canongate, knows the Old Town just as intimately as Malcolm. As a noted conservationist, James makes the case for a more Geddes-ian approach, albeit less specific since he is not fronting an alternative project. James is spot-on in one respect though – history does show that times of high economic pressure are often bad for historic cities, although whether or not the principles espoused by Patrick Geddes could provide an alternative funding scenario for the Caltongate site is not a question likely to be tested by the City of Edinburgh Council.

The prime movers of the anti-Caltongate cause, however, has been SOOT (Save Our Old Town), a loose agglomeration of local residents and others that, in the wake of Mountgrange’s demise, has boldly initiated the formation of a ‘Canongate Community Development Trust’ to consider and promote an alternative vision for the site. Nobody should doubt the intentions or the energies of this group – they have been far sharper in generating press and public support than the aforementioned Mountgrange, despite the latter’s considerable investment in marketing and public relations. But the real question for this large city centre site is one the Council long ago abrogated responsibility for: the need for a proper civic vision that transcends the development imperatives of specific interest groups whichever sector they happen to come from.

Realpolitik in Charlotte Square
Given the way the tectonic plates of local politics have been shifting of late, it was probably bound to happen, so the only surprise is that it’s taken so long for Edinburgh’s World Heritage Trust (EWHT) to be banned by its two principal funders from commenting on major developments in the city. Not wishing to be seen to be wielding the big stick themselves, the city’s Council and Historic Scotland appointed consultants who – shock, horror - came to the conclusion that the Trust was “too adversarial” and was responsible for “considerable tension” with the two partner bodies that until now have provided it with £1m plus of public money per year.

The City of Edinburgh Council has, as the Wrap has mentioned before, always found itself confused by the World Heritage Site status awarded to its Old and New Town areas as a result of an application to Unesco by Historic Scotland in 1995 and consequently has tried to accommodate it in the only terms it understands - tourism and commercial benefit. Giving the EWHT carte blanche to veto duff planning applications certainly wasn’t part of that agenda, and there can be little doubt that the Trust’s acerbic comments on the Council-approved Caltongate project was the straw that finally gave the municipal camel the hump.

Not that it admits as much – no, Jim Lowrie, the current chair of planning, insists the Council is simply trying to “streamline” the planning process in the capital. What streamlining means in this instance is a requirement that the Trust direct its energies towards the promotion of the World Heritage site to tourists, to work with schoolchildren and to develop projects to restore historic buildings and monuments. The latter has a particular piquancy, given that the Council and Historic Scotland have long since ceased to allocate the levels of funding to the Trust that facilitated useful grant aid to building owners. And just to confirm it’s got the message, an EWHT source is reported as saying that “we’ve been told to keep our heads down or face substantial funding cuts…it was very much a case of take it or leave it.”

In days gone by (and surely that’s the world most loved by the EWHT board?), political pressure of this sort would not be tolerated and from the chair down, mass resignation would be the order of the day rather than be seen as the patsies who succumbed to totalitarian stricture. Not so, it seems: as chair of a now revisionist EWHT, Charles McKean has simply commented to the effect that ”the recommendations made reflect a change of emphasis towards more targeted grant-giving (sic), project work in the public realm and interpretation of the World Heritage site. That may well be the case, Charles, but it does make the rest of us wonder what the last 14 years of street-by-street, building-by-building combat by the Trust have really all been about. "