For Everyone
Who Loves Edinburgh

Athens of the North - Hugh Buchanan

Posted on 10 Feb 2015 by Marion

 What a wonderful opportunity. The chance, as architects and developers, to add your names to the roll call of Edinburgh’s Enlightenment. To be granted the privilege of building upon the very rock which invited comparison with Athens, and how fortuitous that the property company involved invokes, through its name, Duddingston House Properties, the spirit of that enlightenment figure Sir William Chambers.  I looked forward to seeing the plans. Thomas Hamilton’s stern classicism would surely be reinterpreted with flared black basalt doorways and pedimented pavilions. The recurring motifs of the wreaths and fluted columns would surely be referenced in the planned accommodation blocks of the proposed hotel - building on the brand that has made Edinburgh famous across the world. 

Er no. Their display boards were situated in one of the handsome halls of the Royal High School. They pointed to a picture of David Chipperfield’s museum of literature near Berlin. The accommodation blocks would look like that. Like CD racks on their side.

I asked the developer Bruce Hare and his architect Gareth Hoskins why they hadn't considered a classical solution. Not 'of its time' apparently. Even a mention of Philip Johnson's Sony Building in New York set a shadow to cloud their brows and the P word -pastiche- was muttered. And anyway, they told me, by virtue of its rhythm and form the CD rack on its side is classical.  Sadly only in their heads.  While they talk about the Tholos and Stoa and the Acropolis they give you Cumbernauld. They don’t seem to realise that the classical motifs on Hamilton’s Royal high School serve an important function, they are not just decoration they represent the poetry of the place. The soul of the people.


Here is the paradox. Our most celebrated contemporary architects, while living in a beautiful classical city have a doctrinal suspicion of classicism. That is to say its motifs, its orders and idioms, presumably seeing them as hierarchical and elitist - and yet what is remarkable about Edinburgh, (and why the comparison with Athens was so apt), is the democracy of its classicism, from the grandest facades right down to the detailing on the humblest doorway in Broughton Street every person rich or poor feels ennobled by it.

 How any contemporary architect should feel compromised by drawing on that heritage is one of the mysteries of the modern age. Especially as that heritage is our principal income generator. So who here are the dreamers? Certainly not the conservationists who are simply trying, in economic terms, to keep the golden goose alive.

When the classicists Hawksmoor and Wren - presumably men of an integrity equal even to that of Edinburgh modernists - were commissioned to work in gothic Oxford they altered their game to suit their surroundings. Not only were the hybrid results at All Souls and Christchurch sympathetic they were also gloriously creative and provide us with some of the best examples of their work.

So why is the current generation of modernist puritans so concerned with their own integrity? Who do they feel is judging them? The Architects Journal or the poor benighted citizens of Edinburgh who must, it seems, be regularly punished with doses of modernism like cold showers for the intellect?  If architects prefer the agenda of the Architects Journal they should not be building in a World Heritage site. Their much vaunted integrity should forbid it. Or do they crave the bittersweet sensation of seeing their buildings demolished in their own life time? For that is surely their fate.

It all reminds me of one of Neil Young's recent concerts. Half way through, his manager told him that the audience didn't like the new material and couldn't he play something in the second half that the audience would be familiar with? He went back on stage and complete with howling feedback defiantly played the first half of the set all over again. As he came off stage he muttered ' Well they ought to be familiar with that by now '. Neil Young could have been an Edinburgh planner. The patron saint of the failed experiment. Don't like the St James's Centre? I'll build you another St James's Centre.

 It seems to me that after years of diffident inactivity the development of the Royal High School is an absolute test case for Historic Scotland. There is a suspicion that HS are bowing to political pressure from Holyrood not to impede development and yet I'm sure that Mike Russell and Fiona Hyslop would be horrified if Edinburgh's heritage was to be prejudiced in their name. Come to that David Chipperfield would be too.