Edinburgh deserves its status as a World Heritage Site. Its New Town is—along with Bath—the shining example of magnificent Georgian architecture. Its regular streets of coherent facades are interspersed with circles, squares and gardens and gifted with wide views of the city down to the broad Firth and the green hills of Fife beyond.
No wonder it is the second biggest tourist attraction in Britain, after London. With over 1.3m overseas visitors and ten times that in domestic visits, visitor spending pumped £1.2bn into the city economy last year; this figure has been growing at 10% each year and now employs 12% of the city’s workforce—not far off the city’s 15% in financial services. Throw in the various festivals scattered through the year and you have a world-class tourist magnet and a major asset in the Scottish economy.
Shame, then, that Edinburgh City Council (ECC) demonstrate little appreciation for this golden goose but rather demonstrate a perverse resolution to kill it off. Leave aside ECC’s corporate incompetence that led to the tram fiasco that tore up the city centre for a decade. Leave aside the natural incompetence of bureaucrats when it comes to the broader picture and not just securing their jobs. Leave aside myopic self-interest of major corporate bodies like Lothian NHS or the University of Edinburgh who have other priorities than wowing the tourists and the story remains a sorry one.
It was a fortuitous fluke that preserved the Old Town intact when the New was laid out elsewhere in the late 18th © and that riches flowing from the booming industrial revolution and British Empire were crafted by inspired architects into such magnificent townscapes. Even after the Georgian fashion passed, the Victorian heritage of the Caledonian, Scotsman, Carlton and Balmoral hotels, of Jenners, of spectaculat schools like Heriots, the Royal, Fettes or Stewarts Melville, of the leafy villas in Newington, Morningside, Ravelston and Trinity, of solid ashlar tenements in Bruntsfield or Marchmont, all contributed definitive heritage elements to the city. Even alterations to the Old Town, like the bustling curves of Victoria Street or Cockburn Street with their turrets and crow-step gables, added new interest to the warren of pends off the Royal Mile. Every building in Chambers Street is magnificent. The draining of the Nor’ Loch and ‘hiding’ Scotland’s main station out of sight was a stroke of Victorian engineering genius.
But, as the pragmatist says: “What have you done for me lately?”
For the story of the last half-century is a truly sorry one, with ECC—and especially its planning department—appearing to lose the World Heritage plot entirely. With partisan single-mindedness towards Edinburgh Corporation Transport buses that would have done Soviet planners proud, ECC shut down a tram network that dwarfed the current single line. They also successfully lobbied to have every suburban train service withdrawn so that Porty or St John’s Road or Clerk Street or Shandwick Place or Leith Street are permanently clogged with herds of double-deckers vying for access to a myriad of stops. Even if the locals know which stop and to have correct change, tourists stay away in droves.
But the real damage started in the 1950’s. The Midlothian County Council building’s intrusion into the Royal Mile, the University’s barbarism at George Square and Potterrow and the carbuncle that is the St James Centre came straight out of Mies van der Rohe’s minimalist playbook. Developers loved it because repetitive prefab units were cheap to make and could be sold off at high prices as ‘modern’.
And so the half-baked attempt to convert Princes Street to a two-level modernist shopping precinct, started west of Hanover St but pursued lamely, resulted in a free-for-all that makes the view of the castle from Princes Street so much better than the reverse. It matters little that the schemes of Lochend or Pilton or Craigmiller suffered the same misguided ’60’s social engineering that failed and need pulling down; none of that was visible (although whoever dreamed up Dumbiedykes has a lot to answer for). Even though the recent apartment block wastelands of Macdonald Road or Gorgie or Western Harbour will soon fray in a way solid-built tenements never will, most tourists will never find them. But they will find the more visible ‘improvements’—and find them shameful.
Whether it is the ugly modernist jumble on the south side of the Grassmarket that looks across at the historic (much more attractive) jumble on the north or the newly bleak glass-and-concrete canyon of the Cowgate or simply the tatty state of South Bridge, none of this meets creative planning—let alone World Heritage—standards. Whereas some effort was made to make the modern Radisson blend into its Royal Mile context, we lost the horrendous Midlothian building only to find the modernist anachronism that is the G&V Hotel, right across from the 1613 Gladstone’s Land.
Two hundred years ago, impoverished though people were, they managed to produce Ramsay Gardens. Patrick Geddes’ contribution to the cityscape was no pastiche, nor did it pay much homage to the traditional Old Town tenement architecture. But few would argue that it did not improve, if not become the jewel in, the view from the gardens below.
Are the present city fathers so in the packet of developers, so impoverished by their ill-found forays into trams and EARL, so browbeaten by their bureaucrat jobsworths that they cannot rise—as their predecessors did—to improve and enhance their magnificent city, rather than simply do more damage by default than the Luftwaffe ever did?