Inspired by his recent commission for The Evergreen, John Reiach, photographer and Old Town resident takes a fresh look at the topography of the place he lives in.

As I stroll round the Old Town, gazing up at the fine surviving mediaeval buildings, and glimpsing the neo-classical grandeur of the New Town below, I am struck by how little good 20th and 21st century architecture is to be seen. 

Even the Victorians – not renowned for their visual elegance – seem to acquit themselves better. Their two finest buildings survive: from the 1860’s the original Royal Scottish Museum on Chambers Street – if that counts as Old Town – and from the 1890’s the romantic mediaeval pastiche – complete with non-functional, playful arts-and-crafts embellishments such as the cat perched on the roof – that is Ramsay Garden, inspired by Patrick Geddes.

So what of the last 100 years? Much infill demolition and rebuild as necessary sanitary improvements were made during the 1920’s and 30’s to picturesque but dilapidated tenements in the Grassmarket and along the Royal Mile, ‘fitting in’, aesthetically cautious, worthy but dull.

Post-WW2, more imaginative housing designed by the conservationist – a contradiction, one would have thought, but no! – Robert Hurd at Chessel’s Court on the Canongate, and, across the road, a few yards further down the Mile, bold use of concrete, using traditional motifs, a kind of vernacular modernism from Basil Spence, in the early and mid-’60’s respectively. Respectful of the neighbours and yet assertively of their time, reflecting the optimistic post-war years.

A Canongate Doorway, 1950s [Eric de Maré ]

Since then, not a lot. Part of the trouble is the City of Edinburgh Council’s perception, rightly or wrongly, that the punters don’t like ‘modern’ architecture, especially in a ‘historical’ context. And then acting on it. Repeatedly submitting his designs for housing (again on the Canongate), and being told again and again by the Planning Committee to modify them, until there was almost nothing left of the original idea, the architect Richard Murphy despairingly spoke of ‘death by a thousand cuts’. The result is inevitably bland. And when something interesting does slip through the net, such as Malcolm Fraser’s Scottish Poetry Library (opened in1999), it’s still not safe. Recently planning permission has been granted – in the teeth of widespread opposition – for the removal of the Library’s salient exterior feature, a set of steps which neatly doubles as seating for a little outdoor recital space, visible and accessible from the public footpath (thus democratically including the wider community and helping to dispel poetry’s elitist stigma). The offending steps are to be removed on ‘health and safety’ grounds – children play on them, the occasional rough sleeper dosses there, and we can’t have any of that. The newly vacated space will soon be enclosed as the building is extended to include a ‘retail outlet’. And you thought the purpose of a library was to lend books! To judge by the new drawings, the original building will be unrecognisable. More honest to demolish and start again.

The Royal Scottish Academy, black with soot, prior to cleaning [Eric de Maré /RIBA Library Photographs Collection]

The one truly world-class postwar public building in the city, never mind the Old Town, is surely the ‘new’ Museum of Scotland by Benson and Forsyth, opened in 1998, both an imaginative triumph in its own right, and for the way it complements the aforementioned Royal Scottish Museum without compromising its modernism. The two are literally joined. Being inside and walking from one to the other, in either direction, is a magical experience. It’s a big building on a tight site, matching the older building in monumentality, but playful in a way reminiscent of Ramsay Garden, tipping its hat to the past, but not too solemnly. Incidentally built for around £45 million to the Holyrood Parliament’s £400m. 

The densely packed Old Town presents problems for the architectural photographer, or would but for the steep slopes it is built on. The Museum for instance, how to get far enough away to see it and put it in some sort of context?  Simply walk up to the Castle esplanade and look across the sooty mediaeval and Victorian roofscape to its bright, funky modern-ness, against the backdrop of Arthur’s Seat, and the hills of Midlothian 15 miles beyond!

An Edinburgh pavement near the top of Castle Hill, [ Eric de Maré ]

And this pattern is repeated. Round almost every corner, I need only look up, down or across, and a vista reveals layers of history – down a close, across a valley.  The geography of the town is as important as the individual buildings: the bleakness of the 1960’s Dumbiedykes estate is relieved by having one of the most spectacular backdrops of any housing project in Europe.  The view down to the New Town and across the Forth to the hills of Fife from Ramsay Garden is as memorable as the building itself. Indeed it is arguably part of the building.

And these layers of time reveal themselves without the efforts of the heritage industry – people on the Royal Mile running around hamming it up in 18th century costume handing out leaflets to entice visitors to buy tickets for ‘ghost tours’ complete with imaginative (‘gruesome’) accounts of the past. Heritage porn, or, as the architectural film-maker and critic Murray Grigor puts it in one of his barbed neologisms: disnaework. In a sense the Old Town has become a victim of its own success: its special appeal – historic buildings in a spectacular volcanic landscape – attracts a constant stream of visitors, whose spending power has in turn spawned a thriving ‘heritage’ industry devoted to selling Ghost Tours and Jimmy-hats,  which in turn has exerted pressure on the local authority to refuse planning permission to put up exciting, elegant modern architecture using a mix of traditional (wood, stone) and contemporary (concrete, plate glass ) materials to complement existing older buildings. Compare with Italy for example, where the planning authorities care for and protect their historic towns and cities yet encourage the discreet intervention of good contemporary design. Here we seem to be terrified of any architectural evidence that we live in the 21st century. The issue of whether the beleaguered Old Town residents want to live in a museum or somewhere with a future is a vexed one, as local services are left to the vagaries of market forces and increasingly valuable public properties housing vital amenities such as nursery schools are sold off by a City Council desperate to pay for expensive vanity projects.

Canongate Church [ Eric de Maré ]

And when, as recently, the Council has been successfully ‘lobbied’ by developers to allow contemporary architecture in to the mix , it’s the wrong kind of contemporary architecture. And the wrong kind of development. Perhaps withdrawal of World Heritage status from the city centre, as is apparently being mooted in the light of the Caltongate  decision, would be salutary in focussing the minds of the local community on what kind of people they want to represent them – local councillor Joanna Mowatt described the Caltongate plan as “not hideous enough to reject’ – and more importantly on what kind of Old Town they want to live in.

My brief for the Evergreen publication was to take a series of black-and-white photographs that would show the Old Town’s architecture in the context of the landscape it finds itself in. So, vistas in all directions, as described. I am lucky enough to have a set of photographs taken in the 1950’s of Edinburgh street scenes, in post card form, by eminent architectural photographer and writer the late Eric de Maré. To use these post cards as the starting point seemed apt given that they too are black-and-white, exploiting the sharp northern light, the city and its dramatic backdrop transformed into a theatre set. And also to see how much, and how little, the place has changed in 60 years. De Maré’s black-and-white images have a timeless quality. Apart from a few giveaways  -  clothes, haircuts, gas lamp-posts, sooty stonework  -  many of them could have been taken today, or in 1839, the year photography was invented.

Publications that may be of interest:

Building Scotland: A Cautionary Guide by Alan Reiach and Robert Hurd  (Saltire Society 1945)

Eric de Maré’s post cards of Edinburgh (Gordon Fraser c1954) Currently Out of Print.  A selection of Eric de Maré's architectural photography may be seen online at www.RIBApix.com and at the Architectural Association's website.

Edinburgh edited by Colin McWilliam  ( Buildings of Scotland series, Penguin 1984)

Renewing Old Edinburgh: the enduring legacy of Patrick Geddes by Jim Johnson and Lou Rosenberg  (Argyll 2010)

and of course ‘The Evergreen’, due out very soon!

PHOTOGRAPHS:

RSA photograph by Eric de Maré / RIBA Library Photographs Collection.  Other images RIBA and the Gordon Fraser Trust.  ALL PHOTGRAPHS BY ERIC DE MARÉ , FROM THE SERIES OF POST CARDS OF EDINBURGH PUBLISHED BY GORDON FRASER IN THE 1950s