Napier University Interior Architecture, South Bridge Cowgate, Edinburgh architectural lecturer and author

South Bridge by Ed Hollis

Edinburgh Architecture, Scotland – City Centre Buildings

Ed Hollis, Napier University Interior Architecture Tutor on the South Bridge / Cowgate

South Bridge by Ed Hollis


South Bridge / Cowgate article by Ed Hollis

This is the time of year for appalling adverts for bargain stores, and one has always attracted my attention is my favourite Dorian from TV’s Birds of a Feather strolls through What Everyone Wants (as if) offering a touch of glamour to one of the tackiest stores to grace our streets.

This store should, I detect from an irrepressible desire to snigger, be beneath our notice. Indeed, the city fathers and tourist boards hardly promote it and its environs as great destinations. Yet I would suggest that they should be. Away Castle! Away New Town! For the structure of which What Everyone Wants forms but a part is indeed the greatest monument in the city of Edinburgh.

In Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’, Kublai Khan has commanded a census of the empire he rules, but has never visited. Civil servants report to him with statistical information on all the cities of the empire: populations, trade figures, house prices pour into the imperial chancery. Yet he still needs to know more: what are his cities like? He asks the unknown visitor at his court: a certain Marco Polo, to describe them to him.

Polo describes all the cities of the empire in terms of stories: there is the city founded by a disparate group of men who all dreamt it, for example; or the cities legible only in writing; or the city whose airport is everywhere and identical. The great Khan is pleased, but does not realise that all the cities Marco Polo has described are his home town: Venice.

We can do the same by taking a taster from each of the horizontal layers of our structure. Like a child eating a trifle, taking cream first, then custard, then cake various different meals may be sampled. And like Marco Polo, we need never travel more than 100 yards from Edinburgh’s city centre.

The skyline of the structure is an axis between a spire and a dome. The spire (appropriately gothic) speaks of a house of religion. The dome (appropriately classical) speaks of a house of secular learning. In between, rows of similar roofs describe of the commoners leading a life smaller than, and bridging between, these two temples to wisdom.

How very dull to gaze so high, and to eat only cream. To custard. A route across the structure from Poundstretcher to Costcutters to Poundsavers is a shameless bargain trawl; and let none of us pretend that we have never gone there, in search of lightbulbs, health-hazard non-stick pans, screwdrivers that break apart as you turn them, or the late night pot noodle.

This years colour is a sort of addled lime green: kitchen bins, pan sets, washing up brushes all seem to have acquired this colour as if overnight. Last year it was dark blue and yellow that pulsed out from the stacks of injection moulded plastic. Last year lava lamps, this year optical fibre palm trees. Tawdry, or more properly St Audrey, was a saint whose holyday fair was famous in the middle ages for the trash that could be brought there. Her shrine is now surely to be found in Ali’s Cave (or as we are now meant to call it, ‘Home Ideas’).

As if a rainy battle with irate mothers and prams in front of such a spectacle were not enough, there is the traffic to contend with, which roars past alongside. But what appears to be road proves on an evening visit to our structure to be a roof. Just below the street a series of pubs are to be found. All are packed, all exude the fumes of armpit and beer, and music pours out of each one. In one it’s some obscure student thrash band no-one can hear over the shouted conversation.

At another a more reverential attitude is required: the room is silenced every single night around 12.30 (and this is true) for the same old man to sing the same old music hall tune almost inaudbly to a mawkish piano accompaniment. This pub, rough and ready as it is, has been struck dumb by an astonishing (and appropriate) rendition of Debussy’s ‘La Cathedrale Engloutie’.

Once it was finished it was closing time and a fight took place to the soulful accompaniment of gaelic closed harmony. Under the road the Cuban Brothers, notable DJ’s, spin their discs in their underpants, accompanied on one notable evening by the breakdancing of the inimitable Ali G. On other occasions a black-tied opera singer has been known to clear the same bar with a full volume rendering of Nessun Dorma, the well known football anthem.

Even later and further down, can be discerned great stone vaults through a haze of dry ice, poppers, and strobes. I used to work in an office adjacent to a club at the bottom of our structure. On the many nights we worked late there we were regularly importuned by the freezing boob-tubed hordes queueing outside, desperate for a pee, telling us they loved us, or asking what the hell we were doing working so late.

But when night is done and lights are low, the medieval streets beneath the dance floors become a zone of hysteric and maniacal laughter, which never sees the light of day. Yes, torture tours, ghost tours, even more scary ghost tours are led through the vaults. Guides point portentously at fire exit signs or abandoned typewriters, muttering of the curses associated with them. Innocent tourists are found later unable to contain their derision, and unable to describe anything of significance that they saw.

Thus our structure is, if sliced horizontally, a large story containing short stories or scenarios, from lofty and noble speculations at the top, through pulp fiction to the gritty novel noir or horror story at the bottom.

Before I start to sound like Judith Chalmers, talking about lands of many contrasts, eclectic mixes and vibrant streetlife, it would be as well to attempt to eat our trifle like grownups (dull as it may seem), and take it in proper standing-up slices.
What connects, asked TS Eliot, the philosophy of Spinoza and the smell of cooking? What connects, one might ask, Ronald Reagan, egg and chips, and Abba’s Dancing Queen?

On the top floor of our structure can be glimpsed the ceiling tiles and fluorescent strips of an office. The peeling sticker on the door leading up to these announces that this is the University of Edinburgh Department of Artificial Intelligence. Here, in the 1980’s the cream of our scientists developed the Strategic Defence initiative at the behest of the great actor and president. One might imagine them poring over microwaves and Atari TV squash, mobile phones the size of fridges and Betamax videos, desperately searching form the key to our salvation from total destruction.

Doubtless, underfunded academics as they must surely have been, they had lunch on the floor below. Any passer by on the street can peer in upon their deliberations. Through a greasy vitrine diners flick cigarette ash onto fry ups, themselves flicked onto formica tables by waitresses who appear to work for what Reagan famously called the evil empire.

Reflected into congealing chip fat, coloured lights flash and wink as if the hostelry were the canteen on the Millennium Falcon. Yes, from Star Wars we have travelled to Leisureland. Our diner is not just a house of nutritional, but of virtual self indulgence. A trip down the stairs from the University department takes one from fantasies of mass destruction perpetrated by computers of mass destruction perpetrated by computers.

During the day the chattering of one-armed bandits is interrupted by the most horrendous screaming which percolates up from the street below. It is as if whole worlds were being destroyed by some death ray or cataclysmic natural disaster. This is the dying cry of thousands of bottles of obscure european lagers as they meet their end in the collection lorry.

At night the cries of the damned seem to float up to the empty street through the darkness, as if from some appalling inferno. Peering down from the side of the street into the abyss, the sight may shock and appal all those of refined taste and sensibility.

Below appears at night a throng of thigh-high leather boots, cheaply highlighted hair, and an atmosphere 1 percent oxygen, fifty percent CKone and forty percent fag smoke. All this around a door sinisterly entitled ‘The Kitchen’. Black-clad bouncers act as Cerberus to the lubricious underworld of the club that takes snap-fax. And there they are, the dancing queens formation dancing to dancing queen.

And all this in the same building. Who among us of neatness in mind and person could allow for such promiscuity and juxtaposition? Who among us would so shamelessly try to bridge between such disparates and desparates with a single mixed metaphor eight stories high?

Lest my prose overflow into excesssively fulsome floridity, let us return to facts. South Bridge, (for it is he) is a viaduct of 19 arches, finished in 1788 to the design of an architect whose name, so far as we know, is disputed. So it’s a Georgian bridge with buildings running along the sides.

Or it’s a Georgian building with a road running over the roof. Or it’s a wall of rooms you can live in. Or it’s a room of walls you can live in. It’s a work of art. It’s the frame for lots of works of art (some faithful Ali’s Cave shoppers think so, I’m sure). It’s just engineering. Whatever. That’s the facts.

And that is maybe what’s intriguing about it. It really is one building, and yet it purports to be a whole piece of city nearly a kilometre long. It’s a piece of architecture whose architect is practically unknown. It’s an incredibly robust piece of traffic engineering that can accommodate rocket scientists and nightclubbers, architects and opera singers.

For an architect, used to fielding questions about Prince Charles, flat roofs, and how modern architecture destroys communities, this is like finding the philosopher’s stone. Architects used, and are expected, to dream of designing everything, especially cities. Indeed, the ideal city is a long cherished dream.

Experts used, and are expected, to have all the answers. But that compulsive desire to design out all the problems and answer all the questions always seemed to eliminate what we wanted most. Designing the perfect city has always resulted in killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Look at the sister project to South Bridge. The New Town is one of the most beautiful and one of the most sterile urban projects ever conceived.

Pity the poor soul who lives halfway down Great King Street, and is faced with a freezing trek across wastes of granite setts and cliffs of Craigleith sandstone for the morning pint of milk. Poor Margiotta’s seems to hang onto its street corner as if onto the Old Man of Hoy, clinging on until eventually the well bred tide of good taste sweeps it out of the way down to Stockbridge. If there is any warning against the dangers of uniformity and beauty let the New Town Margiotta’s be it.

South Bridge, just as old, just as venerable, considerably more battered, actually manages to make one feel as if in one was a city. And yet it is also designed, also structure, also (underneath all the slap) still beautiful, and also, dread word, Georgian.
Why: I have no answer save the following observations.

Its very toughness as traffic engineering has allowed it to endure, rather than exclude, many changes and depredations. This is true not only over time, but with functions as well.

It provides many different types of space: from gloomy vault to cosy flat. Almost anything one might consider doing, save mass producing aeroplanes, could be slotted in somewhere.

It seems to be authorless. We do not have to ooh and aah at it, all we have to do is get on and use it. There is no architect to be impressed by, no sight to tick off the guide book. Nothing to get in the way of just living in and on it.

And underlying these observations is its ultimate talent: it not only accommodates disparates and desperates, but houses them. That is, it is not a completely abstracted spatial grid, but a real stony, memorable structure. As such it is what a city should be: memorable, but not too beautiful, diverse but not fragmented, old but not precious.

Let the bridge speak for itself. Maybe it really can provide what everyone wants.

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