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Whose city is it anyway?

27 Sep 2007

Allan Murray Architects is currently designing buildings for some of Edinburgh's key sites. The practice has been criticised for its proposals for Caltongate and the Lawnmarket. Murray and partner Fairweather explain their approach

Allan Murray Architects is currently designing buildings for some of Edinburgh's key sites. The practice has been criticised for its proposals for Caltongate and the Lawnmarket. Murray and partner Fairweather explain their approach

Claude Lévi-Strauss described the city as the “the human invention par excellence”. Throughout the world, cities give us the physical manifestation of man's astonishing ability to create an almost infinite variety of responses to climate, topography, geography, cultural mores, economy and so on. Cities, quite rightly, draw our breath – prompting a wealth of writing on the subject. From the great urban novels to arid taxonomies, the city has been coaxed and prodded to reveal its ‘essential’ character. Edinburgh is no exception. It has variously been described as a stinking disease-filled midden, and one of the most glorious romantic cities of the world. Of course, both descriptions are correct, that is one of the annoying if charming problems with the city – we can never distill its essence, or come to a stable consensus of its character; each description creates a converse view. We hear regular calls to create a 'vision' for Edinburgh, but what does that mean? Is it a vision of its transportation systems, its drainage systems, its energy consumption? Is it a vision for its great institutions, a vision for its social equality, or a vision of what it should look like? Is it useful or even possible to proffer a single vision of the city and, if so, would we all share this view – and for how long?

Isaiah Berlin introduced the concept of the worldview of “the fox and the hedgehog”. The hedgehog views the world through the lens of a single defining idea, whereas the fox draws on a variety of life experiences and, for him, the world cannot be distilled into a single idea but is multifaceted, shifting, complex and contradictory. Berlin does not make a judgment as to the 'correct' worldview, only that great thinkers exhibit a proclivity to one or the other. In trying to understand Tolstoy's writings, Berlin sensed that he was able to think like a hedgehog but act like a fox. This duality is, I think, fascinating and helpful in understanding the city. Robert Adam the urbanist would exemplify a hedgehog tendency – civic and singular – but Adam the architect was undoubtedly also a fox – diverse and adaptable. The biologist Patrick Geddes's urban work in the city might reasonably classify him as a fox, and yet his work on regional planning could certainly be considered hedgehog-like. However, it is difficult to imagine two more different responses to the city, and yet somehow grand plans and little plans eventually become the same – they both add to the texture, the wholeness, of the city. Both thinkers share less a vision of a city, certainly not of the same city, but that there is an “idea of a city”. We are grateful that we have both Adam and Geddes. Innovative set pieces, beautiful unto themselves, inserted into the existing fabric; or less grand interventions – moving a wall here or altering a tenement there – both can and do add to the sum of the city, the ongoing collage of Edinburgh.

Does it matter that each thinker imagines a different city? Probably not – what matters is that each has a profound understanding of the ‘idea’ of a city. Neither, however, would recognise the abstraction and over-simplification of much post-war city planning. The Edinburgh work of Abercrombie for example failed to grasp the 'idea' of the city, instead replacing this with a generalised 'plan' for the city. His disastrous plan for Princes Street, and for Edinburgh University’s Cultural Precinct – albeit aided and abetted by some of the most successful architects of the day (Sir Basil Spence and Sir Robert Matthew who of course went on to build significant university buildings in George Square!) – was a nadir in urban thinking. In conceiving of the city as an abstract, simplified construct – a ‘tabula rasa’ to be recreated wholesale – Abercrombie lost the idea of a city. A city’s complexity is its strength, its frictions are also its spark, its history is its DNA, its people the lifeblood. Abercrombie proposed plans of great social and physical upheaval which nearly mortally wounded Edinburgh. As it is, the city bears the scars of George Square, the St James Centre and the 'dental caries' of Princes Street. We are right to be wary of the panacea. And yet we know that the city must evolve and respond if it is to continue to be relevant.

The argument between Cousin and Lessels' ‘improvements’ (the 19th century City Improvement Acts – love them or hate them – brought vitality, fresh air and a new life to the Old Town) versus Geddes’s conservative surgery (a programme of adaptation and reuse brought life back to many parts of the Old Town) dragged on well into the 20th century, leaving in its wake unfinished projects such as the areas around Waverley: Jeffrey Street, Market Street, New Street and the Canongate. The argument continues today. We might all reasonably argue however that the creation of proper streets and public spaces is the ‘staff of life’ for the city. Our proposals for Caltongate address the underlying patterns of the history of the area, the growth and change of the city from its medieval beginnings, the loss of the Parliament, the stifling growth of industry, the City Improvement Acts, as well as the return of the Parliament. Our plan brings clarity and structure, creating two new streets as well as linking the valley to the Parliament via a public square. Edinburgh’s DNA helps us define the singular idea – the structure of streets and squares – however, it is the architecture that ultimately provides us with the place-making. The vitality that is created through diversity and difference, the interaction of people, the scale and detail of the buildings – that makes the sense of the place. Caltongate will ultimately be a project by many hands, each architect adding their own particular understanding of the city but working within a structure that all of us could recognise as part of the history of Edinburgh.

Conversely, our hotel project for the fashion house Missoni is more figuratively about the solidity of the city, a sculpted urban block. Rather than ignoring or abstracting the context as Robert Matthew had done with the Regional Council Headquarters building, our proposals try to resolve and celebrate the complexity of its history: recognising the distinctive tighter
“end grain” of the medieval Lawnmarket, as well as the residual exposure of the fore-lands of the post-Improvements High Street, and the significant scale change and institutional proportion of George IV Bridge. Finally the building plays its part in reconnecting the wonderfully 'bohemian', sinuous, split-level Victoria Street and Victoria Terrace. The urban block of the Missoni Hotel is already rich, diverse and contradictory – sometimes the architect's role is simply to apply calmness.

If Caltongate requires a singular idea to structure it, then the Missoni Hotel requires lots of small ideas to resolve its site context. We believe that the urbanist, if he is also to play the role of architect, needs to know when to think like the hedgehog and when to act like the fox.

The current clarion call for a shared vision for Edinburgh might do well to look at how the city has evolved throughout history; there has never been a time where we can say categorically that there was a stable consensus on the character of the city, far less a vision for its future. Why should it be any different today? Can “big ideas” (a city plan) ever be realistically promoted as a singular vision? Abercrombie showed us all too well the dangers of making great abstract plans. Does a single vision for the city in fact need to be physical at all, is it more useful to think of the city as a melting pot of embryonic ideas – constantly evolving and adapting to societal and technological change? Should we be afraid of the complex, the messy; should we accept that the city is a collage of oppositions where the worldviews of both the fox and the hedgehog coalesce?

Edinburgh has recently promoted the strategy of interlocking parts, city 'tiles', distilling the essence of the city into key words and descriptive relationships. Such an approach might be useful in dealing with terra nova but seems inadequate when dealing with intense, complex and mature areas of the city. Urbanists are often given to a kind of pathology to order, putting great store in the well-ordered diagram – cities are not diagrams and any vision of cities even less so. Surely it is by the creative act of “doing” – where many ideas are brought forward, tested and considered – that we actually invent cities. When Lévi-Strauss described the city as the ‘human invention’, he was of course describing the city as a living thing; it was, and always will be, in the continual process of inventing and re-inventing itself. It is no wonder that attempts to understand the city are so elusive and liminal.

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