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Comment by Peter Wilson

10 Jan 2007

Plans by its new owners to refurbish The Point Hotel in Edinburgh have caused dismay among architects who enjoyed Doolan’s very controlled minimalist approach writes Peter Wilson

Minimalism has never been particularly popular in contemporary Scottish architecture, partly because it requires real skill to isolate or conceal the construction detritus required by modern regulations and also because clients here tend to want to see where their money has been spent. Not for us the calm, monastic interiors of John Pawson or the sleek sophistication of hotels such as The Hempel in London. In truth – and despite the fleeting existence of the odd restaurant or bar interior – we just don’t do simplicity well. Complexity without any contradiction is the bag into which we choose to pitch Scotland’s top design awards. So it is that one of our few worthwhile attempts at the genre is about to be airbrushed out of Scotland’s architectural history. The Point Hotel in Edinburgh is to undergo ‘refurbishment’, that most contradictory of architectural terms. All hotels go through regular renewal, and in its short existence, The Point has undergone several upgrades to its rooms and public spaces. These, of course, were carried out when Andrew Doolan – its then architect–owner – was able to cast his very particular eye over any design changes needed to a hotel which he was determined would have a distinctive architectural presence in Scotland’s tourism capital. Andrew’s untimely death two and a half years ago, and the subsequent sale of the property, perhaps made its proposed transformation inevitable. But it is odd that the current proprietors now find the existing design style of the rooms to be “cold, stark and masculine” since they must have been aware of these characteristics when they bought the hotel. More tellingly, their claim that the style is “just not what visitors to the hotel are expecting these days” indicates an unfortunate desire to follow the field rather than lead it. The arguments are really all about fashion: “People have different ideas than they did 10 years ago, and we felt it needed a radical refurbishment for the hotel to remain a success.” It could be construed by some as “radical” to take something unique and distinctive and homogenise it to international standards of cosiness, but this would be to give credence to an absence of faith in the vision that led to The Point being listed among the top 50 designer hotels in the world. The Point was not, and could never be, a ‘perfect’ entity since it was a conversion from a former Co–operative department store. But that, in a sense, added to its charm: a genuinely modern experience behind a hotchpotch exterior that attracted many celebrities to stay there rather than at the more highly starred and chintzy establishments in the city. In the end, there are plenty of buildings that nobody really cares about, designs that can be substantially altered without anyone noticing. But throughout the world there are also examples of architecture considered to have qualities so significant that – even when removed – are recreated, their continuing absence regarded as a major cultural loss. The proprietors of The Point may well find that in their desire to ‘refresh’ things they have lost more than they have gained, and that what they had was – by a significant margin – better than what replaced it. Emperor Charles V of Spain, on seeing the new Christian cathedral inserted into the heart of the Great Mosque at Cordoba, remarked: “You have destroyed something unique to make something commonplace.” While it’s hardly in the same exalted pantheon of great buildings, the imminent disappearance of The Point’s interiors is arguably as significant a loss to the contemporary architectural culture of Scotland. Peter Wilson

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