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Thursday31 July 2014

Creed has lit up the Scotsman Steps

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An artistic intervention has succeeded in transforming a less than pleasant journey

It is less than 50m from my office to the entrance to Edinburgh’s main Waverley Station. That’s 50m as the crow flies; but, in this precipitous city, it’s also 206 steps from my office down to its platforms, a lung-buster not far short of the descent from St Paul’s Cathedral’s Whispering Gallery.

One hundred and four of them belong to the Scotsman Steps, a piece of grand and paternalistic Victorian city-embellishment now so notoriously scuzzy that the tough Pete McLaughlan from my office, commuting to and from the badlands of the west of Scotland, favours the long diversion down Fleshmarket Close – eponymous with the Ian Rankin lowlife crime novel and none too fragrant itself.

I’m a saft wee Edinburgh boy but I favour the direct approach and, for this reason, have braved the Scotsman Steps’ scuzziness, by my reckoning, more than 10,000 times in my life. Out of all of those ascents and descents I have only once witnessed something genuinely Inspector Rebus, but none have ever been remotely pleasant.

The steps have now been repaired, renewed and transformed, to the extent that traversing them is now not only a pleasant experience but a completely joyful one. The main work – stone and ironwork repairs, and new lighting and glazing – has been funded by an alliance of Edinburgh City Council and the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, with Haworth Tompkins as conceptual and McGregor Bowes as conservation and executive architects.

But, critically, the team has involved the nearby Fruitmarket Gallery which, with a basket of funders, has commissioned the involvement of Turner Prize-winning Glasgow artist Martin Creed – he of the lights going on and off fame, that icon of Turner tabloid outrage. Sweetly, appropriately and artfully, he proposed that the steps be reformed in a rainbow of marble; and shades and swirls of pink, cream, grey, green and blue marble from countries including Italy, India, Turkey, China and Croatia spiral the steps, a different marble for each tread and riser.

For Adam Wilkinson, director of the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, there are shades of Ruskin and the Stones of Venice. But on the other hand Creed eschews high art and seems content that he is just doing the right thing, making something nice to walk on. While a cynic might observe that it’s taken a truly monumental effort of partnership and funding to achieve what seems, in retrospect, to be this simple, “right” thing, given the overblown, iconic horror of much contemporary partnership-led public art (eat your heart out, Olympic Delivery Authority), achieving such simple and uplifting rightness is an even more significant triumph.

Coupled with improved maintenance and the gating of the steps from the last train into Waverley at night to the first to leave in the morning – as was the pattern when the steps first opened – there is every chance that this perfect alliance of contemporary art and heritage-repair will translate directly into an increase in human happiness. Pete and I hope so. I look forward to being warmed, delighted and uplifted for my next 10,000 traverses, at least.

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