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Friday18 August 2017

Edinburgh: time to take off the mask

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This has been a momentous week for one Edinburgh practice. Last Friday Richard Murphy Architects (RMA) turned 18. The usual suspects were there: Isi Metzstein dispensed apothegms at one end of the room while, at the other, sat Steve and Gail Evans of Inscape Joinery, who crafted those complex house extensions that launched the practice’s reputation in the early nineties.

It’s been a long time since those beginnings, which brings me to the other aspect of RMA’s eventful week: the Scottish government’s rejection of a 17-storey hotel tower proposed for Edinburgh’s West End. RMA is in talks with the developers, deciding how to respond to this latest setback.

It’s a story of the sort that has been told many times over in Edinburgh. A modern scheme is kicked into the long grass by the conservation lobby. The reason given by the government for its decision was that the new tower would interfere with views of the castle. Murphy has criticised the “timidity” of its approach.

This is the latest battle in a longstanding war to decide the fate of a city whose appearance has been its chief asset since the 1840s, when Lord Cockburn attacked the building of Waverley station. It is salutary to observe that the merit (or otherwise) of contributions to Edinburgh’s skyline is still judged in Cockburn’s terms of “curious, and matchless position... strange irregularity of surface, its picturesque results”.

And salutary, too, to remember that the station was named after a set of gothic novels. Edinburgh is, without doubt, very beautiful, but it is a romantic fiction: one of those painted dreams beloved of 19th-century architects. Above the Mound, a spire perches on top of a perpendicular Oxbridge college, which looms over an Ionic temple and a Doric academy. All of them were built by the same architect, within a few years of one another, in the age of iron and steam. Even the precious castle owes more of its architecture to the 20th century than the Middle Ages.

Which is to say that the battle to “preserve” Edinburgh was lost in the very beginning. The city has always been an entirely modern invention, a phantastical spectacle. If its fathers have any sense, it will continue to be.

That is not to call for New Jerusalem Radieuse. A few months ago, Murphy won planning permission to build a contemporary home in the heart of the Georgian New Town, and if he can stop fiddling with the design, it might actually get built. In more general terms, RMA’s approach to the alteration, rather than the mere preservation, of historical buildings has become orthodoxy in Edinburgh. Ironically, the area that has benefited most from this approach is the ancient core, whose jumble of buildings of many dates lends itself well to inventions and alterations.

But Edinburgh is yet to find a way to feel the same enthusiasm for larger interventions. Until it does, not only will it remain locked in some ahistorical picture, but crucial city sites such as Haymarket will lie vacant and valueless.

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Readers' comments (8)

  • I agree that the objection to the Haymarket project given by the government "was that the new tower would interfere with views of the castle" shows timidity. Better to be open & forthright and state that the refusal is because of the really boring design that is not in scale with the surroundings and does not respect the existing grain, If the site lies dormant & vacant until a developer with better values emergres so be it. If we have to wait 50 years for a better design and a better use at least it will preserve a great city from a piece of dross that woud be a blight upon the western approaches,

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  • Murphy's earlier work was great, but that tower as a piece of architecture was not good at all. If you want to build high, you have to use the scale right, and unfortunately Murphy can not go away from domestic scale succesfully. If Edinburgh is to build high it has to be with quality, and the project at Haymarket or the lovely Edinburgh Waterfront (aka Platinum Point) does not do it well enough. Murphy is a great architect if he sticks to Scarpa and DCA. But is great to see Ed Hollis having a column that is certainly brilliant as he is a fantastic writer, and architect.

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  • So, you didn't actully bother to read Danny Onn's report before writing this then? Shame. Still, all those local people who would have lost their light and their privacy who objected clearly don't count. And it was more the interference with the historic skyline in general, and St Mary's nearby spires (part of the reason why Edinburgh is a World Heritage Site is that skyline) which was the problem. But there was more, the whole scheme has been rejected, not just the Tower. Also, it contradicted many of the council's own planning policies. Here's the report, read it! http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/212607/0088605.pdf

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  • Mr Hollis neglects to point out his five years working with Richard Murphy...

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  • Mr Hollis neglects to point out a great deal; he neglects to point out that the reason the development was refused was because it went against a number of City of Edinburgh Council's own policies, would have a detrimental effect on the neighbouring houses, and failed to protect the whole historic, iconic skyline (particularly the neighbouring spires of St Mary's Cathedral) which is one of the reasons the adjacent Old and New Towns are listed as a World Heritage Site. The entire, not particularly good, development was turned down, not simply the Murphy tower. Other architects were involved, although the Masterplan was by Murphy. A public planning inquiry deals with public law and policy, and there were a number of reasons cited in the Reporter's recommendations to Ministers to refuse. Mr Murphy and the developer had their opportunity to put forward their case at the inquiry, and did so. It's a great pity that Ed Hollis has listened to Richard Murphy and not dealt in the reality of the situation. He should read the planning inquiry report, he might find it instructive.

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  • Ed doesn't make any comment about the quality of Mr Murphy's tower... but it's nice to have a cute journalist writing.

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  • Excellent article! Mr Hollis gives a balanced view of the issue facing Edinburgh.

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  • I agree Edinburgh needs to think more widely and positively about the role of new architecture in enhancing the urban landscape, but... the RMA tower design is an eye-sore, ugly and overbearing. Criticisms of the conservation lobby only make sense in the context of good new design, which is few and far between judging by recent developments in the city.

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