Edinburgh’s carbuncles to go in revamp

Edinburgh’s carbuncles to go in revamp

A massive overhaul of the Scottish capital is under way – but will it remain ‘the most beautiful’ city in the world?

Ruaridh Nicoll
The Observer

It the ‘most beautiful town in the world’, according to Benjamin Disraeli, and is still the best city in Britain if you believe readers of this newspaper. But Edinburgh is set to change.

On the north-facing slopes of the Pentlands, with its streets packed tight among ancient spumes of extinct volcanoes, the Scottish capital is a mixture of medieval and Georgian architectural wonders, a Unesco world heritage site that avoided much of the damage inflicted on other cities in the 1960s.

Now, apparently, taste has improved and a massive overhaul of the centre can take place. The ‘rotten teeth’ along Princes Street are to be pulled out and spaces for walking established at a cost of £200m.

The St James Centre – ‘one of the ugliest buildings in Scotland, topped by what is definitely the ugliest building in Scotland’, according to city council leader Donald Anderson – is up for sale (and redevelopment) with a price tag of £160m. The Waverley area is to be rebuilt, at a cost of at least £600m, transforming the valley between OldTown and New.

‘I’m not daunted, I’m excited,’ said Trevor Davies, the convenor of Edinburgh’s planning committee. ‘It’s a huge challenge. What we have to do is respect and add to what our predecessors did in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s as big as that.’ The plans are emerging at such a speed that Sir Terry Farrell, the ‘city design champion’ appointed by the council in February 2004, has been struggling to keep up.

The architect of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, Farrell can already claim to have changed the face of the city’s West End. Last week, in an interview with The Observer, he was scathing about some of the changes that have already been made. ‘They are making all the mistakes other cities are ripping out,’ he said.

Until now, Farrell has been heavily involved in the development of the waterfront in Leith, creating a new neighbourhood ‘the size of Bathgate’, according to Anderson, and a ‘second focus to the city’, according to Davies. But last week’s announcements about the city centre have caused him to look along the proposed route of the new tram to the regions governed by the City Centre Management Company.

‘I’m trying to get urban design into the tramway,’ he said. ‘I have been trying to get more involved [in Princes Street]. I have been to see the city centre group more than once and have been agitating for them to get better advice.’ Princes Street has long been a problem for city planners, despite what one leading Scottish architect calls the ‘greatest retail context in the world’.

In 1943 a council report spoke of its ‘monotonous, chaotic, modern frontage’. An ill-fated plan in 1967 stipulated that all new developments would be linked with a first-floor walkway. More recently, underground galleries were proposed and then dismissed. Now the council is determined to do something, partly to offset criticism from traders about attempts keep cars out of the city centre.

‘We need to take out some of the carbuncles and replace them with quality buildings,’ said Anderson. The idea is to create far more retail space, linked by squares and walkways for cafe-style rambling.

The redevelopment of Waverley is, if anything, more dramatic. It affects not just the train station, but all the land extending east under Calton Hill. Farrell is entranced by the possibilities of changing this entrance into the city. ‘The main problem is the listed lump in the middle, where the coffee shops and ticket office are,’ he said. His solution is jack that up two storeys in the air to a level with Princes Street’. For Anderson’s part, hates the roof, which is also listed. ‘As a welcome to a capital city, it’s a pretty grotty entry,’ he said.

Ill-judged changes at Waverley are a cause for concern to Edinburgh’s most imaginative architect, Malcolm Fraser. Fraser fears for what he affectionately calls the valley’, saying the introduction of large numbers of shops would be a disaster. Fraser was among the many who were pleased when Edinburgh appointed Farrell last year.

The idea of appointing Britain’s first ‘design champion’ was praised as an attempt to avoid piecemeal development, and evidence that in Davies – the main driver behind the appointment – the city has a councillor it could trust and admire. Farrell watched the postwar slum clearance ‘without much reference to the people who lived there’ and the arrival of ‘zealots whose ardent enthusiasm for the motor car led to traffic planners cutting swaths through cities for new ring roads and motorways’, when he studied Newcastle University in the late 1950s.

According to his autobiography, Place, it was in Newcastle that he began to ‘explore alternatives the prevailing mood of desperation and demolition’. Yet, despite the support of Davies, there are concerns about how much effect he can have. His position is honorary, he makes his living running a practice that spans the globe, and Mayor Ken Livingstone has him redesigning London’s Euston Road.

‘There is concern that he doesn’t have the power or resources to influence anything to any great degree,’ said Fraser. The design champion agrees. ‘I am a one-man Ginger Group,’ he said, referring to a Canadian collaborative. The plans for Princes Street and Waverley, along with the sale of the St James Centre, are just the core changes in a boom city reinventing itself. Out to the west, the Gyle is two-thirds full and the new headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland complete.

The redevelopment of the old Royal Infirmary has created the largest brownfield city-centre site for a century. Then there is the shore of Forth, traffic changes, and the new financial district in the West End. Farrell’s appointment expires in a little over a year and he hopes to be replaced by someone with a salaried role, an aspiration Davies supports. Yet that suggests an agreement that may not extend far into the city chambers. Recognition that the traffic system is flawed is not universal. ‘In terms of removing cars, we’ve achieved the primary ambitions,’ Anderson said.

And as for replacing Farrell? ‘The question would be: Do we need to have somebody independent to oversee [these developments] on an ongoing basis, or can we manage with the resources we have? We haven’t taken any decision on that.’ Whether Anderson and Davies have a vision that proves greater than those of councillors who managed other cities in the dark days of the 1950s and 1960s remains to be seen. What is certain is that the North Bridge will remain standing. It was off that famous span, between Old Town and New, that Edinburgh’s residents would occasionally threaten to throw their under-performing city fathers.