A Report on The Evergreen Annual Summer Lecture 2017, ‘Revisiting Waverley Valley: The new Ross Pavilion in Context’

The 2017 Evergreen Annual Summer Lecture took place on Wednesday evening 26 July at the Augustine United Church George IV Bridge, Edinburgh. It timed happily with the end of the public consultation on the 7 shortlisted competition entries from teams of designers to replace the 1935 Ross Theatre/Bandstand in West Princes Street Gardens.

The speaker was John Byrom, former Director of Edinburgh University’s Master of Landscape Architecture Programme, and who, in warning to his audience, described himself as very old, very deaf and very opinionated. The competition’s design brief called for a top quality replacement of the Ross Theatre/Bandstand, serving not only the large crowd special events of Hogmanay and the Festival, but also a wide range of smaller performance opportunities, and a ‘visitors’ centre’ ‘reimagining and rejuvenating’ West Princes Street Gardens within a new masterplan. All of this would have been grist to the mill of Patrick Geddes’s celebrated valley section and to his planner biologist interest in place and people.

So much for the background to the subject. John Byrom, in response, gave an illustrated summary of the history of the garden, of the ideas of the Jacobite Earl in exile, of James Craig; of the efforts of the Princes St. Proprietors to successfully block the City Council’s attempts to build along the south side of Princes St; of their negotiating a lease from the Council to form and pay for a garden over what was then the stinking morass of the Nor Loch; of its draining and planting; also of the coming of the railway (sunk and screened out by William Playfair) and at last, the garden’s opening to the public in 1876 with its upper and lower promenades attempting to import from the Mediterranean the idea of the paseo – the daily outdoor stroll, and of seeing and being seen.

The success of this import into Scotland depended on close attention to the seasonal sunpath and its shadowing, and on the provision of carefully placed and designedoverhead and side shelters against, for example, the wind driven rain sweeping around the side of the castle rock and the effect for 3-4 months of the year of the cold shadowing of the castle rock itself over the lower grounds of the garden. And against all this as the great proscenium and background to the garden itself, the dominating drama and theatre of the Castle Rock skyline itself, the touring centre of the city’s presence worldwide and its UNESCO World Heritage listing. 

The design exercise, as the brief asked, of ‘reimagining and rejuvenating’, at least in the short term, resolved itself into providing shelter firstly for the performers in a new Ross Theatre band stand, and at least some shelter for their audience against threats like the 2003 winddriven wash out. But above and above all of this, do we really need architectural statements? Why can’t both of these kinds of shelter be met by our clever engineers using hydraulic cages to make the performers’ stage and itsroof disappear invisibly beneath ground when not in use? Why can’t they design lightweight retractable roofs in section to be lost in the embankment when not in use? Two of the seven shortlisted designs are modest enough and capable enoughof being treated this way. The other five illustrate large undulating canopies which distract from the dominating presence of the Castle Rock and diminish its scale, and which in themselves as ‘architectural statements’ look to have been derived from the penguin pool in the London Zoo.

Why do architects insist on ‘making statements’ and, if they choose to do so in our most precious city centre open space, why cannot our clever engineers make them invisible? So argued the speaker.There followed a short illustrated circuit of  Waverley Valley and its as yet unused assets for future park development. These included the broad and empty slope behind the National Gallery asking to be formed into terraced seating as a  classical amphitheatre and proscenium against the end elevation of Playfair’s building. Why also should we not allow the possibility of connecting up the Craig-Mar East:West axis with a promenade connection under the Mound? There was, and is, still space and headroom to do so , just as there is still opportunity higher up for a smaller Mound underpass and promenade connecting up with the Playfair steps. And why has s no shelter been given to pedestrians along the long journey from Princes St and up the Mound?

In the discussion following, the speaker pointed out that 25 million pounds provisional budget would not cover the visitor centre costs and that there  appeared to be a strong argument for phasing it in separately and later at the St Cuthbert end of the garden, as a means of disciplining the present piazza and  best using its sunny shelter.

Comments were raised on the overcrowded tree planting and the need over time to thin and reshape this against the prevailing wind and to open up larger areas of lawn. Doubts were raised about the creeping commercialisation that has occurred in St Andrews Square and East Princes St. garden. The west garden’s integrity as a Garden was paramount and that its future betterment depends on the respect it needed in conserving its topsoil resources and biodiversity as parkland within the archipelago of the city centre’s oakwood-based gardens and to the strict exclusion of any further fairground vending. The speaker warned that the bigger enemy of municipal open space was the well intentioned clutter. He recommended the need to pay close attention to the services of an ecologist and in bringing a coordinating master plan for the garden (within the control of the whole valley) to the very front of this initiative and not as something merely tacked on at the end.

And all this, in the name of the city’s great pioneering biologist town planner Patrick Geddes and his fundamental insistence on the importance of place and people,and all things evergreen.

John Byrom's long awaited book The Care and Conservation of Shared Georgian Gardens will be published by The Word Bank in September 2017. You can order it here:

 http://eotdt.org/index.php/the-word-bank/350-the-care-and-conservation-of-shared-georgian-gardens