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What Sort of Edinburgh Do We Need To Build?

August 31 2010

 What Sort of Edinburgh Do We Need To Build?
In a piece penned for today’s Scotsman, and submitted to Urban Realm, Malcolm Fraser takes a close look at development in Edinburgh. In it Fraser urges the city to move on from a “bankers urbanism” template and move to a model that places architecture, and respect for the built environment, at its heart. It is reproduced in full below.

The world has changed.  Our institutions have been slow to recognise this, most just waiting, desperate, to “get the confidence back” – forgetting that it was hubristic over-confidence that got us in this mess in the first place.  But the economic catharsis we have suffered needs us to fundamentally change our relationship to such things as business, resources and development.  How then is the institution that is Edinburgh faring and how is it facing this challenge?

First, though, how has it fared – what has the hubris bequeathed us?  Urban de-generation:  Craigmillar, for instance, demolished by a business model whose ever-ballooning houseprices were to finance its replacement;  or the towering bijou-citadels of Platinum Point, built as a luxury “Forth Riviera” on Leith’s Western Docks.

This is “Regeneration” who’s masterplans and business models assume the world to consist entirely of thrusting young executives in high-rise apartments, sooking g&t’s on wee balconies stuck out in the teeth of the Forth’s gales.  And it is not just the big masterplans that lack any focus on ordinary families and old people, for every lumpen development from Leith to Gorgie cares little for the critical amenities that a rounded community requires. 

For the clearest expression of such social failure go west, to the Commonwealth Games site at Dalmarnock in Glasgow.  Here “Regeneration”, with architects RMJM – Fred Goodwin’s new employers, no less – means evicting old residents and demolishing streets of beautiful red sandstone tenements because they are, according to the RMJM business vision, “really depressing-looking”, and the unglamorous locals stand in the way of their “aspirational housing for young people”.

Bankers’ Urbanism has failed us, financially and socially.  But it has also failed us architecturally.  Edinburgh has been built on a beautifully-clear set of progressive architectural Visions:  the mediaeval mercatplace of the Old Town;  the enlightened, rational Georgian New Town;  and the Civic and Commercial confidence of the Victorians.  “Bankers’ Urbanism” does not quite stand-up, as an architectural Vision, to these of our past;  and the dense “doughnut blocks” (fat to the edge, empty in the middle) of RMJM’s Leith Docks masterplan, and dense doughnut blocks-but-with-pediments-nailed-to-them of ersatz-classicist Robert Adam’s Newhaven and Granton masterplans, would fail to produce environments fit for how we live in our Edinburgh today.

But there is reason to believe that those that run the City understand the extent of the failure and the need to move-on.  There’s a single document, “Delivering Capital Growth” which sets-out, for the first time, all the myriad policies and initiatives for the City, in one place.  But even more interesting, to me, are the evolving “Area Development Frameworks”.  The City has quietly torn-up all those grandiose masterplans and we start again, with the City authorities themselves – rather than the principal landowners – leading a process that brings together all the relevant communities’ interests.  

But my question is, then, about leadership, and an architectural Vision as bold and relevant as those of the past, for if we fail to match the vigour of the city we have inherited we will continue to quietly betray it.  When I look at supposedly top-quality modern design in the heart of Edinburgh I can see how it ticks boxes:  is a bit modern but respects tradition; is kind-of traditional urban; ticks some sustainability box (a wee bit wood here and there, maybe); has suffered through mediation and consultation.  But these buildings seldom feel like more than the sum of their boxticks:  don’t feel like they have heart and life, that they are architecture.
The same goes for the masterplans that were produced:  boxticks without vision, without architecture.  So the Area Development Frameworks’ emphasis on consultation, consensus and shared aspirations is all well and good, but what is the big picture: what sort of Edinburgh do we need to build for ourselves? 

This is just about the most liveable city I know.  Its heart exemplifies what we might call the “City of Wellbeing”: walkable, amenable, a mix of bustle, calm and chance meetings, a place where we can live happy, creative and economically-effective lives with far less of the social dislocation, car miles and concreting-over of the countryside that suburbs and newtowns offer us.  The tram – post financial-distress – will help spread this liveability out from our core. 

Our Vision must build on such amenable values: First, it must cherish the built environment we have inherited.  Business has been eager to convince us that “sustainability” means demolishing good, solid buildings from the past, with hundreds of years left in them.  This is usually because “it would cost thousands to repair the roof”, allowing Business to get paid millions to replace them with something shoddier, that will be falling apart in 20 years.

I hope that Edinburgh is turning a corner and understanding the bankruptcy of this argument.  I take solace that my proposal, to repair and renew my daughters’ school at Boroughmuir instead of abandon it and move to a new campus, was adopted by the Council.  And I would encourage the Council to use other assets imaginatively: like encouraging the old Granton Lighthouse’s use as the centre of a Creative Hub of artists and craftsmen;  or assisting Community and Cultural uses into the old Canongate School in the former Caltongate site, or the Environmental Centre at Bridgend Farm – both projects I am supporting.

Such initiatives would be quieter than the big developments that were once hoped-for;  but, aside from the virtues in reusing such buildings, we might find that the crash has focussed us on supporting more rooted and sustainable enterprises.

Second, when we make buildings and communities anew – as we will across Edinburgh’s Waterfront – we need to build an architecture as clear in its aims as those we admire from the past, but which suits our need for Wellbeing today.  If we care in our lives for things like sunshine in our livingrooms and a garden to tumble out to, and neighbourliness and somewhere for a barbeque; and a place to kick a football and a walk to the shops and our work where we, on foot, are king, instead of the motor car, we should demand this of new development.  And we must do more than make pale, gutless copies of the Visions of the past, and build a new architecture around such things, for our City and of the 21st century. 

The best Waterfront masterplan I know is for the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik.  It is clear and geometric, but allows for the kinks and retained buildings and features of the old waterfront.  And its detail shows how plots are divided for closes, squares and setbacks, all to encourage sunlight and gathering places.  It then allows different developers and architects to create a strong but varied waterfront – that reminds us strongly of Nordic urban development, or Stromness in Orkney… or our own Old Town.

Its architect is Edinburgh’s own Graeme Massie Architects.  There are other Edinburgh practices doing inspirational work elsewhere, like Sutherland Hussey, recent winners of a masterplan for a new Chinese city for 800,000 people.  We need architects of such care and craft to raise our aims and aspirations in this, their own city, too, where they have been unable to win any work at all, instead of the Business corporates that roll-out their standard lumps.

I hope that this Area Development Framework initiative, that is so timely and so welcome, can benefit from uplifting input from key local architects.  And I am also reminded of Council Leader Jenny Dawe’s suggestion that Edinburgh needs to run some key architectural competitions.  There is no better investment to make on behalf of our City’s future, than to set out a clear Vision for our City, and engage some inspirational architects to work with our Planners and communities to add to our city in ways we can be proud of.


#1 Posted by NB on 31 Aug 2010 at 16:35 PM
Or in fact penned for February's Scotsman Conference? A good piece of recycling though.
Hugh Macpherson
#2 Posted by Hugh Macpherson on 31 Aug 2010 at 16:46 PM
an old, poisonous, self interested and ill-informed piece of puff which demonstrates why he is unable to win the sort of work he aspires to
maggie babe
#3 Posted by maggie babe on 31 Aug 2010 at 22:58 PM
Who was the architect who was happy the big failed masterplan in the old town against the communit? But as much as I do agree with your comments anove he has a lot of good points!!! The waterfront is horrible but it has been heavily masterplanned and yes Edinburgh is a great city, but any example of great architecture he refers to is from the past. Apart from that most people have to leave Edinburgh because there are no jobs for architects! sad but true and easy to complain when you live in Morningside!!!
mickey mouse
#4 Posted by mickey mouse on 1 Sep 2010 at 09:38 AM
I want to build lovely architecture! Everything new is hideous, and i am great and i am very progressive and i love myself....i want to ride my bike i am very sustainable...what a lot of non sense i think...better back with minnie mouse
#5 Posted by jt on 1 Sep 2010 at 10:23 AM
read more of Malcolm's fat to the edge thinking at
hubris, moi?
#6 Posted by hubris, moi? on 1 Sep 2010 at 12:20 PM
Unless you're waiting, desperate, then it's Simples
donald duck
#7 Posted by donald duck on 1 Sep 2010 at 19:07 PM
there is a problem with this architect in that all he does appears as self promotion no matter how worthy it all first reads... throw bricks at those he doesn't like & push his friends... and all that free advertising in the press thinly disgused... & yes this was the architect who was part of the caltongate scheme which would have demolished buildings...& backed that in the press against the local he's supporting the community he says... inconsistent... opportunist...?
mickey mouse
#8 Posted by mickey mouse on 1 Sep 2010 at 22:30 PM
caltongate the design was poor, how can you preach about good design and sign that? is it a double standard to accusse others of poor design and bankers not giving a damn about the community and doing that? I do agree about double standards, and maybe morally this is wrong! But is not for me to say, it might be just hipocritical, or opportunist but really I am more concerned about all the architects and students without work, struggling to live and work in Edinburgh and to support their families than a public school boy that lives in a posh part of town, with lots of money (nobody cares about this) and criticises Fred the Shred about being in ramjam. Really I do respect his early works and this article can make sense if you do not know who writes it and the context. As Alvar Aalto used to say it is not about architecture being fashionable or modern, is about architecture that speaks by itself and surely the project off the royal mile, was against the community and it was not very good. So off to see Miney and donald duck hahahaha
Dr Arnold
#9 Posted by Dr Arnold on 2 Sep 2010 at 21:32 PM
In response to the above:-
1. Few make the choice of where they attend school; that choice belongs to parents. To deride Malcolm Fraser for the school he attended is mean spirited.
2. To describe a man who left school decades ago, and has distingushed himself in his professional field, as 'a public schoolboy' is patently ridiculous.
3. Wealth is relative; it is not always the case that because a person does not live in the poorest part of town they are extremely wealthy (unlike Fred Goodwin, for example, who is very wealthy indeed, who left banking with a large pension, and whose salary at RMJM is substantial).
4. Many have suffered in the financial crisis.It is bankers like Goodwin who brought the country into the financial state it is. That has had a knock-on effect for architecture.
5. I understand, as with many architects in Edinburgh, Malcolm Fraser Architects has had to make redundancies. If architects are struggling to live and work in Edinburgh, and students are graduating seeking employment, then they require established, good practices with sufficient work to employ them. Unfortunately, as discussed in the article, a great deal of work is being carried out by less than outstanding large commercial practices, not the good ones.
6. Malcolm Fraser was one of a number of architects designing for the Caltongate site. The Masterplan for the site was from the office of Allan Murray Architects.
#10 Posted by Jim on 3 Sep 2010 at 10:35 AM
There can't be many architects paid what Fred Goodwin is paid to 'work' for RMJM. Apparently he was hired for his 'contacts'. Or possibly he was hired as he's a friend of the Morrisons?
mickey mouse
#11 Posted by mickey mouse on 4 Sep 2010 at 13:30 PM
commenting the above, I do agree the school that you go to is chosen by your parents. But to an important point, which kind of example is to employ one of the bankers that cause this crunch in an architectural practices?

Regarding the point about good design practices, I had a lot of colleagues from University that were working in the good established design practices (including the one from this architect) getting paid peanuts, working long hours and being treated not so well. Others worked in commercial practices (the work was not so great, but the egos were not so big), got paid a decent wage and learnt their profession being their own architects and not following the big master one.

Yes I do know the masterplan was another architect for Caltongate, but the quality of design and spaces was apalling. Surely Edinburgh can do better!. And for a good architect to be involved in that either you are short of money and have to pay the bills, or of principles to be involved in that against the community. And hey now that times are tough, criticize everyone else and say that the community is importnt. Opportunism, hipocritical choice? I am off to see Minnie Mouse
#12 Posted by RM on 4 Sep 2010 at 16:35 PM
Fine words from Malcolm, but where were you when some were protesting about Leith Docks and the dire masterplan of our great RMJM probably the worst piece of urban design to be seen in the past 300 years if not in time. Why did it take so long for the penny to drop inyours and everyone that developer banker led regeneration was always going to fail when the cost of a house meant 2 people would have to work for ever. My father used to say to me that no-one should pay more than 10% of there salary for there place to live now it seems that we need to spend 100% on it and then we get a pokey wee hole that has made everyone in the chain at least 100% profit from the small sub-sub-sub-sub contractor to the wbanker.
Malcolm were you invited to the area development frameworjk for the waterfront and if so why werent you there.
Fine words but actions are better.
#13 Posted by JM on 7 Sep 2010 at 10:36 AM
Caltongate Architects
Allan Murray Architects - masterplan
Allan Murray Architects + CDA - main section
RHWL + Page\Park - hotel
Malcolm Fraser Architects - Jeffrey Street and/or Leith Wynd building
Zone Architects - Market Street Arches

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