Scottish Architecture, James Dunbar-Nasmith, Murray Grigor

Big Debate : Conservation v Evolution

Edinburgh Development, Scotland

Review by Adrian Welch

Big Chief Powwow
‘A Meeting of Friends’

“The Big Debate will feature some of Scotland’s leading figures from the architecture, arts, planning, conservation and construction worlds”.

RIAS @ The Hub, Castlehill, Edinburgh

Speakers & Titles:

Professor Charles McKean False Oppositions
Murray Grigor Historical Kitsch
James Simpson Let us have real architecture!
Terry Levinthal Nero fiddles…
Sir James Dunbar-Nasmith The Big Debate of the phoney war?
Richard Emerson Say hello to the Zeitgeist
Richard Murphy Let’s not be beastly to Richard Emerson
Frank McDonald The Construction of Dublin
Ian Begg Vive la difference
Malcolm Fraser Corduroy trousers, stainless steel bicycle clips

All titles exactly as per Programme

Introduction

I half expected a bunfight. As Martin Hulse said, “I came expecting a war, but instead we’re looking at ways forward“.

My philosophy on life is that we should try to achieve results through consensus, and this is how I work as an architect, especially on site. However, I empathised with Ian Wall when he decried the “Friday afternoon lovefest” of architects concurring, agreeing to be best friends. Sometimes it’s best to disagree. I also vehemently believe that Edinburgh is weak and timid in it’s outlook – and consequently in its architecture – like much of the British Isles. Once we were strong, the Enlightenment was alive here, expressed in the written word and built form. This is not an architectural problem per se, but a problem with a society that seems rudderless and struggling with vision despite the renewed vigour of devolution. A booming economy has little relevance to this issue: Edinburgh will be great again when it forms a strong cultural platform, not just a strong financial base.

I took more notes from Malcolm Fraser than any other speaker as he was alive with down-to-earth realism yet at-one with imagination and deeper understanding of the real issues. But the logical integration of conservation with evolution – Fraser is both ‘conservationist‘ (Prospect) and ‘modern architect‘ (Hub) in a way adds to the cosiness; he has many ‘conservative’ Clients and is surely yet to experience the knock backs that Murphy has. Whilst not encouraging the irascible approach which was thankfully in short supply – except from Dorothy Bell, who seemed to be taking us all on

[more in the review] – any artist knows that frisson, contrast and disjuncture cause creative energy. As architects we are not mere artists, and have to harness the above at the same time as satisfying masses of legislation and managing a team, but the same impulses are required for great architecture. The notable buildings of the past were almost all controversial, astonishing, annoying. This is what Richard Murphy may be to some, but books of his work [and the work itself] will no doubt still be around when this cosy consensus is long forgotten.

My family links across Europe’s great cities suggests we should not be so smug. Is Edinburgh held up in Barcelona architecture lectures as often as the other way round? I think not. Are we building a confident, popular Opera House, Concert Hall and Library as they are in Copenhagen? I think not. We may not want to progress with a radical agenda like the current darlings of the Modernists, the Dutch (or is it the Swiss?), because we have a totally different context – as we were reminded, the term ‘panorama’ was invented here – and that almost sacrosanct view from Calton Hill* can be both bad and good. ‘What are you all complaining about?‘ demanded Dorothy Bell. Lack of firm support for quality, inventiveness and creative freedom.

The word ‘conservation’ came up many more times than did ‘evolution’: this doens’t merely ‘hint at’ but ‘sums up’ the retrograde approach, the looking back, the Scottish way. The majority of the panel was of a conservationist bent. All those statistics, what do they really tell us: all great cultures have realised not to canvas the masses for a way forward; to do so here suggests a weak agenda that needs propping up. The Romans didn’t go round asking legionnaires their thoughts on rustication or dentil spacing. Yes we all know ‘heritage is good, new is bad’ in the people’s eyes, but that is to be countered and balanced, not encouraged.

At least let’s admit that there is no radical architecture in Edinburgh, or is the timid tinkering seen to be such by some? With the exception of the Museum of Scotland (and maybe the Parliament when it’s built?) I cannot see a single building that is recognisably notable in international architecture circles. Chatting to Ben Tindall earlier this week he suggested the Museum wasn’t nearly as radical as the Hub, just a rehash of Le Corbusier’s Indian work: well it’s not perfect but the whole effect is stimulating and of World significance. It puts Edinburgh on the map: that is undeniable.

The Poetry Library and the Fruitmarket Gallery are super wee gems (success doesn’t have to mean large and bombastic) and should be instructive to foreign architects as well as locals, but where are the great larger projects. Our new schools, for example – do they have an intellectual underpinning like Hertzberger’s, or as Hulse stated, are they just ‘drivel’? The New Infirmary at Petit France – does this represent progress, let alone quality architecture, or as Fraser suggested, is it of ‘lower evolutionary status?‘ Eyes that don’t see. ‘What’s wrong?‘ A lot.

* my favourite spot in Edinburgh is Duguld Stewart’s Monument, Calton Hill.

REVIEW
Archived to reduce bandwidth
Summary

So where is the common ground? And, do we need common ground? To take up Malcolm’s point about a ‘layer for our time’, a radical, innovative development is rarely achieved by consensus. I’m not arguing for arguments but the idea of some unified empirically-tested order is best avoided. Previous generations have tried to categorise aesthetics without success, and although many aspects of architecture can be neatly summarised, the shades of meaning and belied were the battlefield here.

The consensus was that there are a lot of bad architects out there and that the planning system is negative and underfunded. We knew this before we took our seats. The real nuggets lie in the details. For the evolutionists, how can we possiby tell a family that the kitchen has to be on another floor that the dining room (Murphy’s point re old New Town properties)? For the conservationists, why is it that it is mostly they who get involved in fighting for better quality on the ground (Levinthal’s point re the key planning battles in 20thC Edinburgh)?
It was these specific points that were most intriguing to me, and weren’t often answered [maybe the format could have been tweaked to allow say Murphy to respond to Fraser on the Royal Infirmary points – the Debate would have been the best forum, but there was a lack of continuity].

The shared drinks between opposing parties afterwards suggested that at least there is a respective consensus, a crucial dialogue and this kind of consensus must continue to be fostered. Almost everyone – in architecture circles that is – agrees that Edinburgh has few modern buildings of international note. The council and business community seem happy with the way Lothian Road and Edinburgh Park are growing and Forth Ports are merrily building up Leith Docks, but are Edinburgh’s Clients aware of how unadventurous most new buildings are here? Edinburgh needs architectural consensus like a shot in the head: this city needs shaking up, urgently.




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Comments / photos for the Conservation v Evolution Edinburgh New Town Architecture page welcome: info(at)edinburgharchitecture.co.uk

Conservation v Evolution – page : adrian welch / isabelle lomholt