Architect Mark Cousins examines Edinburgh’s ongoing struggle to maintain its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site and explores how our attitude to supposedly ‘radical’ buildings can change over time.
A hooded sentinel steps out of the shadows and seizes the over-sized thurible before releasing it to swing pendulum-like above the shallow reflecting pool – a solitary spotlight and billowing smoke all adding to the spectacle. This theatrical tableau formed part of NVA’s recent ‘Hinterland’ project, a poetic reimagining of Scotland’s most notorious ruin at Cardross, near Helensburgh. The performance celebrated the crumbling Modernist masterpiece by Andy MacMillan and Isi Metzstein, the young turks of their time, who worked for Gillespie, Kidd + Coia Architects.
Completed in 1966, St.Peter’s Seminary comprises a complex assemblage of inter-related spaces, sculptural forms suffused in light, embodying the enduring influence of Le Corbusier. Commissioned in 1958 by the Archbishop of Glasgow, it projected a confident vision of a forward-looking institution, as yet untainted by subsequent abuse scandals. The building’s sad decline might also be read as emblematic of Scotland’s rather uncomfortable embrace of ‘Modernism’ and an inherently parochial attitude towards ‘new’ architecture.
And so, despite being recognised as one of the finest contemporary buildings of its day, and winning various prestigious awards, it was quietly abandoned by the Catholic church after only a few years. It then suffered the ignominy of wanton neglect and systematic vandalism before being belatedly listed category A by Historic Scotland in 1992.
Only a tiny percentage of our built heritage warrants this status but it is crucial because this handful of buildings helps “…create the distinctive character that shapes our nation’s identity”. In theory, listing carries legal clout intended to protect said buildings from insensitive changes or inadequate maintenance regimes.
Sadly, by the early 1990’s, St.Peter’s Seminary was in such a ruinous state that it was folly even to contemplate any attempt at comprehensive restoration. Had the diocese been a bit more entrepreneurial or serious in its responsibilities as a custodian of Scotland’s heritage, perhaps the complex could have been converted to a swish conference venue or an up-market spa hotel for adventurous urbanites clutching their ‘Wallpaper’ city guide.
Whether you have read JG Ballard’s dystopian novel ‘High-Rise’ (1973) or watched Ben Wheatley’s recent film adaption, the public’s renewed interest in, and appreciation of, Modernist architecture is self-evident. In France, for example, Marcel Breuer’s brutalist ski resort at Flaine (1969) is flourishing, as are bookings to stay at Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation in Marseille and his Dominican priory at La Tourette. Of course all of the above projects merely demonstrate how our attitude to supposedly ‘radical’ buildings can change over time.
A Site for the ‘Tounis Scule’
Thomas Hamilton’s vision for a new High School in Edinburgh was equally ‘radical’ in its day. Born in 1784, Hamilton actually attended the original school (then at High School Yards) and went on to become a founding member of the Royal Scottish Academy. The Town Council’s decision to build a new school on the flank of Calton Hill with panoramic vistas across the Waverley Valley was a bold initiative in 1825. They agreed on a budget of £20,000 (to be raised by private subscription) but this Grand Projet was always intended as a ‘showy’ building – as befits the site’s civic prominence. Certainly its opening merited grandiose celebrations and ‘The Scotsman’ lauded it as “…one of the most classical and perfect edifices to be seen in Europe”.
The unalloyed romanticism and sheer chutzpah of Hamilton’s design is captured in the epic David Roberts/Thomas Hamilton painting which also provided the cover to Joe Rock’s catalogue for his 1984 retrospective ‘Thomas Hamilton architect 1784-1858’. This exhibition at the Talbot Rice Gallery helped foster a new appreciation of Hamilton’s particular genius, and Rock has documented this architect’s oeuvre for many years now (as evident in his website: https://sites.google.com/site/joerocksresearchpages/home). He maintains that “…the Royal High School is a building of international significance in the history of architecture, both in terms of its design and its setting.”
Even the most cursory dip into any academic books on Neo-Classicism and/or the Greek Revival will feature Hamilton’s work and cite the Royal High School as his seminal work. Indeed, the eminent American historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock enthused that “..this complex Grecian composition shows how well the lessons of the Athenian Propylaea were learnt by Scottish architects”, and he ranked it superior to William Playfair’s work.
A Site of Dynamism or Stasis?
The Royal High School was listed grade A in 1966, shortly before the Council decided to vacate this city centre site and relocate the pupils to the leafy suburbs of Barnton. In subsequent years, a variety of alternate uses have been put forward including a home for the proposed Scottish Assembly of 1978 and a dedicated Scottish National Photography Centre. Efforts to garner government support for the latter failed, and cash-strapped Edinburgh City Council (the building’s owners) in a reckless moment decided to offer it up to the market as a potential luxury hotel.
Wily developer Duddingston House Properties (DHP) seized the initiative and were awarded the project. They duly commissioned the well-respected Glasgow-based practice, Gareth Hoskins Architects, but it was a challenging brief and would require swathes of additional floor space to accommodate the desired number of bedrooms in order to make the venture economically viable. Many were appalled, however, that such a major development was being seriously considered, and even the London-biased broadsheets, such as the Guardian, Telegraph and Financial Times, took a keen interest and reported on the imminent despoliation of the city’s skyline.
The clamor of incredulity quickly gathered momentum: public meetings were convened, letters of objection (totaling some 2,176) were penned and distinguished luminaries queued up to fire off spirited rebuffs. Critics included Robert Stern (Dean of the Yale School of Architecture) who argued that: “The compromises to Hamilton’s Neo-Classical landmark that this conversion would entail seem far too high a price to pay for sacrificing a building that has for almost two centuries been a key player in Calton Hill, the Acropolis of Scotland’s Athens.”
Opposition forces rallied and garnered support from Historic Scotland, the Cockburn Association, the Scottish Civic Trust and the Architectural Heritage Society for Scotland. Meanwhile the developer reiterated his promise to conjure up “…a world class hotel of international standing” and spent considerable funds in preparing a detailed application, which, presumably, had tacit support from some in the council.
Feelings were running high but the proposed change-of-use to hotel was narrowly rejected by the city council’s planning committee (by 9 votes to 6) with Councilor Nigel Bagshaw (Scottish Green party) attacking the proposal as “…crass, insensitive and a form of environmental and architectural vandalism.” Eric Milligan (former Lord Provost) and Sandy Howat (SNP group leader) insisted that the hotel was “…necessary”. The latter argued that it would in fact enhance the site’s outstanding universal value and added that “…we should be moving forward as a city”, which may be a commendable enough ambition but comes across as little more than a glib sound-bite.
No-one would refute that the Council has an obligation to seek out appropriate (and commercially sustainable) uses for its expansive property portfolio but why would anyone be so cavalier with such an iconic building, and why suggest hotel usage for a structure with virtually no windows overlooking the valley?
A Site of Outstanding Universal Value?
The formal Decision Notice from the council is peppered with damning phrases such as “adverse affect”, “detrimental impact”, “inappropriate scale”, “contrary to policy”, etc. and it is worth quoting the concluding remarks by Ian Bury (Head of Planning): “The benefits to the City’s economy and to tourism through bringing an at risk building back into a sustainable long term use are not outweighed by the very significant harm to built heritage and landscape of the city. In coming to this conclusion, regard has been had to the exceptional architectural and historic interest of the Royal High School and the quality of its surrounding environment. The development would cause permanent and irreversible damage. The adverse impacts on the character and setting of listed buildings, the New Town Conservation Area, the designed landscape of Calton Hill and the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage site would not be mitigated by the sophisticated design of the proposed extensions. Put simply, too much building is being proposed for this highly sensitive site.”
Such forthright views should reassure UNESCO who monitor the well being of every World Heritage Site and, in exceptional circumstances, can withdraw inclusion if they judge that a site has been irreparably compromised. Currently there are 48 properties on UNESCO’s blacklist of ‘World Heritage in Danger’ including Liverpool’s Maritime Mercantile quarter which was flagged up in 2012 because of ‘Liverpool Waters’, a massive redevelopment of the historic docklands area.
Edinburgh was inscribed into UNESCO’s select list in 1995 but its continuing inclusion hinges on being able to demonstrate adherence to its Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) which UNESCO précised as: “The remarkable juxtaposition of two clearly articulated urban planning phenomena. The contrast between the organic medieval Old Town and the planned Georgian New Town, provides a clarity of urban structure unrivalled in Europe. The juxtaposition of these two distinctive townscapes, each of exceptional historic and architectural interest, which are linked across the landscape divide, the ‘great arena’ of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley Valley, by the urban viaduct, North Bridge, and by the Mound, creates the outstanding urban landscape.”
Edinburgh’s urban landscape is not inviolate; the city is in constant flux with a plethora of projects evolving through protracted negotiation and compromise. However, commercially driven property developers invariably try to capitalize on choice sites such as the Royal High School, the former Royal Infirmary (now Quartermile) or Greenside Place (now the Omni Centre).
Most contemporary architectural interventions spark a catalogue of imponderable issues but architects are skilled at finding inventive solutions to complex conundrums. Of course, none of this is new, and similar deliberations took place last century when the Royal High School building was being mooted as a possible National Gallery. In 1904 assessors concluded that “…it must be carefully borne in mind that a building designed for one purpose can very rarely be successfully adapted for another purpose; the result in nearly every case is that the original building is spoiled and the new purpose is poorly realized. In the case of the Royal High School, a building known to lovers of architecture all over the civilized world, to touch it, even with a reverent hand, would be keenly resented.”
Our elected officials are tasked with the onerous duty of safeguarding the city’s beauty for future generations, but it is never easy turning away inward investment, especially when it bolsters employment figures. Everyone accepts that tourism is a major economic driver for Edinburgh, and the city has accommodated an avalanche of new (mostly budget) hotels of late. However, there remains a need for pukka five star, globally recognized brands, such as InterContinental, Mandarin Oriental and Four Seasons, largely to satisfy the lucrative Asian market.
The proposed ‘Ribbon Hotel’ which forms part of the £850 million redevelopment of the St.James Centre (at the east end of Princes Street) has been granted permission but Jestico + Whiles Architects’ twisting vortex form has raised heckles. It has already been colloquially rebranded as the ‘Golden Turd’, and critics have lined up to lambast the council’s apparent inability to protect the New Town’s integrity. The novelist Candia McWilliam is exasperated yet eloquent in her caustic condemnation of the city council: “To be entrusted with such an asset as the city of Edinburgh and to squander it, even, it could appear, to labour to destroy it, must be accounted inexcusable folly. Need all enlightenments necessarily be followed by an age of willful blindness?”
Regarding the Royal High School, it is noteworthy here that there exists a perfectly viable, fully funded alternative promoted by a recently-formed trust (see www.rhspt.org) to relocate St.Mary’s Music School to Thomas Hamilton’s imposing edifice.
One battle may be won but those wishing to conserve Edinburgh’s fragile beauty need to remain vigilant and resist those individuals apparently content to ‘destroy’ what makes the city unique for short-term profit. One hopes that the canny tortoise will vanquish the rapacious hare here and rescue this quintessential, ‘rus in urbe’ exemplar of hellenic architecture in Scotland.