Charles McKean talk, Scottish Architecture design lecture, Royal College of Physicians discussion event

Charles McKean : Architecture

Edinburgh in Transition, Scotland

post updated 20 April 2024

Fifth Annual Cockburn Lecture

Delivered by Charles McKean
Professor of History at Dundee University and former Secretary of the RIAS – Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland

Charles McKean Talk

The Royal College of Physicians

Followed by a Drinks Reception in the Great Hall

Royal College of Physicians
image © Adrian Welch

May 13, 2002
Sub-title suggested by McKean –

‘Edinburgh: Over-controlled, Out-of-control, Invaded by Triffids’


“I am looking far beyond Cockburn’s Edinburgh”.
Edinburgh, “overwhelmed by its remorseless banality”.
“the Structure Plan is not good enough”.
“something needs to be done about the valley”.
“work with the valley, not against it”.
“Leith is very far from finished”.
“We have been occupied with form-making, not place-making”.
“Leith is not yet a living integrated town”.
“We can do better, we should be asking for better”.
“Planners are planners; some are bad, some are excellent”.
“the fact is a Structure Plan is rarely a vision for a capital”.
“Planning remains responsive not proactive”.
“Triffidopolis is the new name for Edinburgh”.

Three Planned Developments:

Festival Square:
architecturally ignorantly neoclassical”.
“nothing that ties it into the urban values of Edinburgh”
Edinburgh Park:
wholly wind-dominated”
“set of boxes laid out to a sophisticated idea”.

North Holyrood:
one part of Edinburgh I’m proud to take visitors”.

“Edinburgh has nothing compared to Glasgow’s modern adventures”, eg. .
“The city feels good, if a trifle smug”.
“The city’s divisions are widening, not healing”.
“If the spread continues Edinburgh will become a tiny town in amorphousness”

A Modest Proposal or Two:-
Princes Street
Leave the facade “as a wall” and develop Rose Street in conjunction with Princes Street Shopping to create an arcade at ground floor: Rose Street South Lane is a “ghastly part” of the city just forty foot from the main thoroughfare.

Nine New Towns
The often-forgotten 1943 Plan for Edinburgh talked of the ‘creation of self-contained communities’ on the edge of Edinburgh, essential to prevent large dormitory towns and the consequential traffic. McKean showed an overhead projected map of Edinburgh marked with new urban centres. Areas such as Craigmillar should not just be housing estates, but centres for activity, towns.

If we are short of land why on earth waste it” asked McKean to a slide of Edinburgh Park’s rolling lawns. His “strategy for the creation of nine new towns” was to produce a “future for the city worthy of its past“. In summary, he quoted a text excerpt, “people in cities lose the habit of intimacy the further they live apart”.


Questions & responses:

Re possible closure of Wester Hailes cinema: there exists a “real lack of connected thinking“.

Planner stated “the most interesting thing in ten years at the planning Department were the childrens’ plans for the South-East Wedge“.

Senior teenagers: “where do they go” – they need a centre, a place.

Financing the New Towns: through property price increases, etc.

Richard Murphy asked why all the architects mentioned had their first names mentioned except him & do the AHSS, Cockburn and Resident Associations have the ability to assess the quality of architecture proposals.
McKean responded by saying he could almost remember Michelangelo’s first name….that Edinburgh had no overall vision, was in protectionist mode and some results were truly awful.

He then said at least we had escaped the excesses of Glasgow, “Bewleys Hotel blown out, grossly overscaled”. He then suggested that the Parliament had caused problems for Edinburgh as well as benefits and he suggested a broad-based “Select Committee looking at Edinburgh with a decent and open exchange of ideas“.

He then complained about the Planning system, how he had objected to recent proposals on Corstorphine Hill to be told by a planner that if he hadn’t objected to the 1993 Structure Plan he hadn’t a leg to stand on! “therefore you have lost any say you may have:CORRUPTION OF PLANNING. I have a firm belief: most aspects of planning have been de-democratised”.

Vote of Thanks:
By Richard DeMarco
what a mess we’re in. In a funny way this lecture tonight was a call to arms.
McKean is “a man of integrity…he’s got no hope…he’s not afraid…Above all he is a man of passion…that’s what is needed now…He is a kind of leader”.

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photo from Mansfield Traquair Centre

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