Wilson's Weekly Wrap
The trashing of a great city, part 1
March 6 2010
Of course this is an all too familiar tale, although in this instance the collapse of the Spanish economy has probably put paid to such expansionist dreams for a very long time, whilst in Edinburgh the downturn in construction – particularly on the city’s waterfront has meant not only a dearth of developer ‘contributions’ to the planned network’s cost, but also to the long-term postponement of the line intended to service that part of the capital and thereby stimulate its further development and, naturally, further contributions to the tram line’s cost. Yes, Catch 22, but the parallel with Seville is telling – like Edinburgh that city went through a traumatic construction period only to find the end result to be an insignificant component in what was already an excellent public transport network. By this I mean that Seville didn’t actually need trams but, like provincial cities the world over, its politicians convinced themselves they were needed if the city was to be regarded as ‘modern’.
So to Edinburgh, where the planned line doesn’t actually make any sensible connection into the existing public transport network, nor does it service those parts of the city that most obviously need accessibility, viz. the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and the Waterfront. No, in their wisdom the powers-that-be decided on an unbelievably circuitous route to RBS International at a cost of £520m+ to replace the existing satisfactory and affordable bus and taxi services. Whether or not the line ever gets as far as the airport will depend on the availability of funds significantly in excess of the budget mentioned above: the money won’t come from government and is unlikely now ever to come from developers so, on the citizens’ behalf, councillors intend to borrow up to and beyond the hilt in order to get close to the sniff of another line and to ensure the capital’s economy is in hock for the rest of the century. Oh, and to seek out and approve some of the most repugnant developments ever seen for the sake of some fast cash.
The trashing of a great city, part II
But maybe that’s too general a criticism of the capital’s lords and masters: let’s get specific. A few weeks ago I mockingly referred to the ‘Och Aye,’ the latest wheeze on the part of council officers to introduce new spin to the capital’s tourism wheel-of-fortune. At the time it was first announced, there was no indication of where the money would come from to pay for this ring on the bright water of the Forth and I naively presumed it was yet another of those ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ ideas that Edinburgh’s lacklustre politicians specialise in punting via the city’s Evening News and which, being the patsy paper it is, it publishes. You can imagine my surprise therefore, to find ‘Scotland’s National Wheel’ had rolled back into town on the back of news that council officials have signed a memorandum of understanding with ‘Great City Attractions’, the project’s promoters, to develop the bloody thing.
Why you might ask, but the answer lies in the collapse of Waterfront development and the lack of any clear Plan B for the area. This is more of a Plan Z, the idea being that a big wheel will attract tourists down to Leith, thereby creating new focus on the area, “kick-start the regeneration of the area” (yet again) and provide the impetus to qualify it for ‘tax incremental financing (TIF), a cute name for a complex method of borrowing against future business rate income. This, in a city already a billion pounds in debt and with huge and unspecified bills yet to come on the tram fiasco.
Nevertheless, this latest wheeze could be almost credible to even the most gullible punters were it not for the fact that between Big Wheel announcements 1 & 2 the owner of large tracts of the Waterfront had put forward its own grand scheme for the area. Having seen its land and property valuations collapse, Forth Ports plc has swiftly moved to do what it does best, i.e. screw the city, with a proposal to build a biomass plant that it claims will provide the capital with most if not all of its electricity needs. There are only two or three downsides to this cute notion, for although it suits the port operators to capitalise on assets that Mrs Thatcher so kindly took from the many to give to the few, it does require the mass importation of timber to feed the plant (fine for a company that earns much of its income from the ships docking at its berths) and thus negates the supposed carbon benefits of this type of energy generation. You may of course ask why homegrown timber can’t be used and the simple answer is there is not enough of it to ever feed the sheer number of biomass plants currently being proposed around the country. More to the point though: the plant proposed is massive and with its two humongous chimneys should put paid forever to the idea of an upmarket residential ‘new town’ on the city’s waterfront. And quite why anyone would ever want to go for a spin on a big wheel in order to get a better view of such a plant’s operations is anyone’s guess. The fact is that the existing plans for the Waterfront are shot and no amount of Tiffing around with them is going to resuscitate a bankrupt business model.
The trashing of a great city, part III
By now you’ll have realised that Edinburgh’s shortbread tin image is being quietly put to the sword by a combination of apathy, ignorance and greed. And the project that most quintessentially demonstrates the damage that can be done when all of these characteristics are in concert is the City Council’s intention that the old Royal High School on Calton Hill should be turned into a boutique hotel. When I first wrote about this culturally illiterate scheme way back in the Spring of 2009, I was asked by some if it was my idea of an April Fool joke, but tragically the answer remains no. The City, having failed to give more than nominal financial support to the idea of the building becoming a National Museum of Photography, took it upon itself to offload Thomas Hamilton’s masterpiece from its property portfolio. The latter idea had in any case imploded when the project’s chairman and former secretary to the Queen, Michael Shea (now deceased), interpreted the National Lottery Fund’s trustees standard questions on an application as a personal insult and gave them such a say-away that they simply walked away. In the several years since that debacle the Council failed to put any real energy into finding another cultural purpose for the building.
And for a very particular reason it seems, if we are to follow the enigmatic logic of the current Planning Committee Chairman, Jim Lowrie, who recently pronounced that “culture costs public money and hotels don’t.” I hesitate to say this Jim, but that’s kind of the point of public money in modern society – to recognise the bigger picture and do the things intelligent humans deem important but which the private sector has no capacity or desire to provide. In Jim’s world a big wheel like the Och Aye has value because someone else is paying for it whilst Scotland’s contribution to one of the greatest catalysts of change in the 20th century doesn’t because public money might be required to support its display.
It’s difficult to think of any other city in Europe that would be so cavalier with one of its genuinely iconic buildings – in this instance an edifice that contributed hugely to Edinburgh’s appellation as ‘the Athens of the North’ – but then these other places don’t so simplistically equate heritage with tourism. Again, in Jim’s universe, visitors appear to come to Edinburgh for its hotels and not for the architecture and urban design that prompted the inclusion of its Old and New Towns on Unesco’s list of World Heritage Sites.
And so, the relentless move towards an act of vandalism that Attila could only have dreamt of: the deracination of one of Scotland’s finest neo-classical constructions. To give the process a thin veneer of respectability, the Council held a ‘competition’. Not a design contest mark you, but a developer beauty parade to see who would stump up the most dosh for a lease on the Old Royal High School campus and also provide the readies to transform and run the place as a ‘boutique’ hotel. In principle, other proposed uses were acceptable, but as far back as last Spring the council’s ideal solution was already being intimated so anyone who came up with anything else was simply incapable of reading the political runes.
Now, if a competition intended to give a project a thin veneer of respectability is itself dubious in character, then judges of some repute will be required to prop up – or camouflage – the shaky foundations on which it has been predicated. In this instance two notable figures stand out – Ricardo Marini, former bag carrier for Sir Terry Farrell when he moonlighted as the capital’s urban design champion and Professor Charles McKean, chairman of Edinburgh World Heritage Trust and, in his former life as Secretary and Treasurer of the RIAS, a fierce critic of mickey-mouse architectural competitions. Ricardo continues to be employed by Edinburgh’s Planning Department so one can understand that he might have found the task a little ridden with local difficulties for him; Charles chairs an organisation that, although witnessing a decline in its income from the city’s coffers, is still substantially funded by a Council that has sought to restrict EWHT’s opportunities for opposition to its madder projects – better therefore to have the organisation widdling within the tent than without, as the saying goes. Other possible critics such as the Scottish Civic Trust were even more cheaply bought off with the absurd suggestion that because the building had been empty for 40 years a boutique hotel was better than nothing. Only an organisation denuded of useful purpose could possibly think that toeing this particular party line was ever likely to disguise its willing participation in the irreversible cultural emasculation of this especially important building.
So to the ‘competition itself, a perfect examplar of the fact that when you ask daft questions you get remarkably daft answers. Now it should be said immediately that Bruce Hare, the ‘winning’ developer in this instance and an architect himself, is far from being daft, nor indeed is his chosen architect for the job, one Gareth Hoskins OBE, but in going for this project they have opened themselves to some fairly sceptical scrutiny. Gareth is, of course, the currently acceptable face of Scottish architecture but he should perhaps beware since the role has proved to be a fairly nebulous one and very much subject to the quirks of establishment fashion as previous holders (David Page, Richard Murphy and Malcolm Fraser et al) have found, often to their cost. Projects like this fall into the ‘live by the sword, die by the sword category’ – a bit like another recent hotel project in the city’s Haymarket area.
The Council is of course committed to putting another 5000 hotel rooms into the capital so it matters not a jot to it where these might be located, especially if it can offload a costly maintenance and security problem in the process. At this point it should be mentioned that the main building of the old Royal High School - comprising as it does three main spaces - is not one that easily converts to hotel rooms with en-suite lavvies. Not unless the plan is to make it very, very boutique and only actually provide three extremely spacious versions of the genre. I suspect however that it is the accommodation you can’t really see from anywhere and which lies between Hamilton’s building and the face of Calton Hill that will provide the external face of the new, deluxe tourist suites.
And if these visitors can get off their boutique bidets for long enough to have a look at Edinburgh what will they find? Well, within the first 500 metres or so they can visit the recently-opened Apex Waterloo Place Hotel, a new upmarket Travelodge and the Balmoral Hotel – indeed, a veritable parade of prestige pensiones – so maybe Jim Lowrie is right and that this is indeed the reason people now come to the city. Indeed, ‘Bugger History – we have Hilton’ might well be Auld Reekie’s new motto and a fine testament to the prevailing political mantra of apathy ignorance and greed. But, in delivering the non-cultural function demanded for the old Royal High School, Hare and Hoskins may find they have been the active facilitators of a triumph that does Scotland’s architectural profession no favours in the eyes of the public. Pyrrhic? I’d say so.
The world’s greatest golf farce
And while on the subject of Gareth, whose new parity with rock stars Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt surely has not gone unnoticed (no, I don’t mean the dodgy hairstyles, although there may be something in that too, given his most prominent client’s endeavours in this area – no, it’s their OBE-Wan Ben Kenobi status I’m referring to), I see he’s now submitted his masterplan for Trump Tees to Aberdeenshire Council for planning approval. Nothing remarkable about this in itself since there can’t be an application in the whole of planning history likely to be more of a shoo-in with the councillors than this one – nah, the interesting bit is the fact that the Scotsman chose to make a meal of the story and illustrate it with the Brigadoon-style illustration that’s been hanging around since the beginning of this farce and which was produced by the former SMC Jenkins and Marr (now the northernmost outpost of the Archial empire) in conjunction with some American crowd of clubhouse designers whose names I confess I’ve long erased from the memory cells.
Now, in the past when said illustration has revealed its ugly visage, the nation’s architectural blogs have been rich with invective and detailed critiques of the piss-poor architectural quality of the thing. Two or three things seem to be different this time: first, Trump’s Chosen One is described as heading up “one of Scotland’s leading design companies”, a back-handed compliment if ever there was one since, by direct association with the image alongside, Gareth will now be forever linked to the dodgiest cowboy design this side of Dodge City; second, S+AD appears determined to continue in its well-tried and tested lacklustre mode by praising the masterplan sufficiently enough for its concerns over the hotel and other proposed buildings to be almost certainly ignored by the Planning Committee. For the record, S+AD has stated that some of the historical precedents for the buildings referred to in the masterplan are “entirely inappropriate” in the context of the overall development. From anyone else this would be damning criticism, as would its further comment that “though still of the opinion that a landmark building could work well on the site, we feel strongly (sic) that a prominent building on such a very sensitive site should reflect Scotland as a modern and vibrant nation, rather than create historical pastiche.”
Whilst S+AD is probably referring to the modern and vibrant nation that is currently tugging its collective forelock towards its latest absentee landlord, I feel honour-bound to leave the final word to Neil Baxter, Secretary and Treasurer of the RIAS, especially as it’s such a fabulously Woody Allan-esque “certain intrinsic otherness” sort of word. In the same feature, Neil’s big analytical point was “Hollywood comes to Aberdeenshire”, a phrase that had me searching the article for images of Lassie, but no, this is apparently “a Gleneagles for the 21st Century” with “an imposing but rather urban design. It is a big city building and setting it in the midst of the landscape will be intriguing and imposing.“ And now for that word – “People have worked hard on this design and it is actually very historic in the Scottish and French Style but also very ‘now’.” In that simple sentence I think we can all see what S+AD is getting a bit antsy about. But ‘now’ Neil? ’Now?’
Right by your side
In the same “laugh? I nearly cried” category must surely fall Sir Ian Wood’s determination to show what a bad hand of cards he actually has on his Union Street Gardens plan. Probably unwittingly, and certainly unadvisedly, Woody made a complete numpty of himself in the Sunday Times by trying to respond to Annie Lennox’s criticisms of the project with a defence that consisted of ‘what-ifs’, ‘maybes’ and ‘perhaps’, a game-plan that only managed to reveal the project’s almost total lack of design substance. Even the late arrival of cavalry from the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture with renderings of how the project might look only managed to show how far from being thought through his project actually is.
So, it’s presumably because his case has been coming across so poorly that Woody’s felt it necessary to play his Joker. Yup, I’m talking about that internationally-renowned urban designer, Sir Alex Ferguson, who, whilst not himself a native of Aberdeen, clearly has more credentials than Annie because (a) he managed the local football team a quarter of a century ago and (b) he’s now on Sir Ian’s team. Perceptively, Sir Alex claimed the proposed new square would “help restore civic pride and hopefully kick-start regeneration in other parts of the city” and “by raising the under-used gardens and covering over the eyesore of the dual carriageway and railway, Aberdeen can reclaim its former glory and enter the premiership of European cities.” And his biggest urban design insight? “Other major cities in Europe have a focal point, a place you call the city centre to which people are attracted and where civic events and activities can take place.” So there you have it: of such revelations are sweet dreams made, and who am I to disagree?
I see from Building Design that somebody is a bit sore about Page\Park Architects getting the job of upgrading the city’s Theatre Royal, home of Scottish Opera. Apparently the organisation’s general director, Alex Reedijk, is husband to Anne Goldrick, an employee at said architectural practice, the inference surely being that there has been some insider dealing going on. Now I must say that when I first read of Page\Park’s success in securing this project against seriously strong opposition (Caruso St John, Nord Architecture, Terry Pawson Architects and Tim Ronalds Architects), I put it down to the efforts of the less well publicised side of the practice, i.e. its long and very creditable experience in bringing new life to historic buildings such as Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson’s Holmwood. Obviously I was completely wrong, for in a city that now seems hell-bent on adding conspiracy theory and paranoia to religion in the list of crucial factors that affect its appreciation of football and politics, why should Weegie architecture be interpreted any differently?
Back to March 2010
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