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Thorny issues on the waterfront

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12 Apr 2006

You couldn\'t MAKE it up. A new, man-made island in the River Forth intended to form a key part of Edinburgh\'s much-hyped waterfront development. Not content with constantly telling us that plans for this part of the city will rival the waterfronts of Barcelona and Copenhagen, Waterfront Edinburgh, the ultra-secretive and highly paranoid company owned by the City of Edinburgh Council and Scottish Enterprise Edinburgh and Lothian, is now promoting the capital\'s own version of Dubai – a thistle-shaped platform for yet more speculative flats and hotel accommodation. New beaches will be created too – just the thing for a north-facing waterfront and definitely the place for the buy-to-let community to walk their dogs. Local political heavyweights such as Elizabeth Maginnis (a director of Waterfront Edinburgh) have been unequivocal in support – a thistle-shaped island will apparently bring a new, non-Trainspotting breed of tourist to the areas of Granton and Pilton, attracted by a piece of modern symbolism unmatched by any of Edinburgh\'s existing architectural treasures.

Architecture + Design Scotland has already expressed reservations on MAKE\'s ideas for this part of the waterfront and questioned the thin level of detail presented for the new island. Such studied politeness, however, fails to expose the project\'s utter banality, and the brief mention in the A+DS report that the concept drawings – once approved – will be worked up by Waterfront Edinburgh\'s anonymous in-house design team can only encourage large dollops of scepticism as to the project\'s ultimate quality.

The issue of carpet-bagging, \'signature\' architects perpetrating capricious interpretations of national identity wherever they go is also moot. Quite what place such colonial symbolism has in the devolved Scotland of the 21st century may be open to debate, but what is not in question is the sub-second-year student level of the idea.

One of the more remarkable consequences of devolution has been the diminution in the instinct to scream loudly about Scotland\'s identity, and current debate on what constitutes an appropriate anthem for the country indicates the extent of confusion now existing on how to express a national sense of self-worth. Traditional symbols have become so meaningless and irrelevant that the proposition to use upturned boats in Northumbria as the image for the country\'s Parliament was acceded to without serious cultural debate.

So to the thistle, Scotland\'s national weed. As with so many aspects of the country\'s history, its appropriateness or otherwise here is a distraction. Its use in this instance is simply to push the planning permission envelope and in this respect is no different from so much of the other dross promoted for Edinburgh\'s waterfront. What is new here is the idea that the sea and the land beneath it can be colonised for profit by development agencies with no legal ownership of either. This is not the floating pontoon landscape of \'Ramblas del Mar\' that supports public leisure facilities in Barcelona harbour, but a permanent variation on the simplistic symbolism of Palm Island in Dubai, a place created virtually from scratch on the back of oil wealth in a physical and cultural desert. Lacking both context and hierarchy, the latter is an anarchic architectural landscape in which every new project seeks pre-eminence.

In the case of Edinburgh, the lack of an authoritative urban design presence as manifested in Barcelona by Oriol Bohigas has resulted in the background architecture jockeying to be foreground. In among such chaos, abstraction is invisible, and a return to one-dimensional, literal ideas makes sense to urbanistically challenged clients. Edinburgh’s waterfront doesn\'t so much need its own Tracy Island as it does the urgent services of International Rescue to save it before it’s too late.

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