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Friday18 August 2017

Olympics should look to Edinburgh

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As the Edinburgh Festival shows, the ephemeral can show the way forward for serious projects.

I bicycle to work every morning up the Cowgate, through what is effectively the arse end of Edinburgh. By night it’s a gutter paved with smashed bottles and spattered with stag party vomit. By day it’s deserted by all except knots of the homeless, hanging around for a hostel bed. In the middle of it is an empty site, cleared by fire in 2002, the wreck of scheme after development scheme, and now silent.

But at the moment, the Cowgate is coming alive. Scaffolding is covering sites derelict ever since the crunch; and lighting rigs and sound equipment are being unloaded into doors one never imagined could open. In a week’s time, every abandoned cellar will be a theatre, every alley a bar, every staircase a cabaret stage. Last year a pink bus drove into an 18th century ruin and turned into an art gallery.

It’s a remarkable transformation in which, as if by some surreal agency, the dormant potential (commercial, cultural, and, yes, architectural) of the Cowgate is unlocked. Of course, by the time I write another column, the Edinburgh Festival will be over and the Cowgate will have returned to its previous condition. There won’t be a legacy plan. Nothing will have been listed. Nothing will remain.

Remind you of anything? In two years time this week, the Olympics will open in London. They will last for no longer than an Edinburgh Festival, and they will have cost some £9 billion to stage. The Olympic Delivery Authority argues that the games will result not only in the regeneration of a large swathe of the East End, but in a legacy that will be felt in improvements to sports provision all over the country.

But judging by the catcalling this week, the games are going to be the wasteful party to end all parties. In the current economic climate there will be no money for all the social engagement activities originally envisaged. In their absence the only legacy of the games will be a series of monumental white elephants – buildings, as we otherwise call them.

While sparkling stadiums rise in London, in Edinburgh theatres are confected from gaffer tape and walkover. Building regulations are cursorily observed, if at all. It doesn’t matter if the cellar vault is leaking, so long as the cans of Red Stripe are still being served at the bar. Not ideal conditions, one might imagine, for a flowering of the arts.

But it’s only because all those theatres, bars, cabaret venues and art spaces are makeshift that they are able to exist at all. It’s only because they are temporary that they can unlock the potential of buildings that, for the rest of the year, remain dead, as architects, developers and planners agonise over the details of more “serious” permanent proposals.

“Serious” architecture has much to learn from frivolous ephemera. Festivals and games are just that, and in relation, architecture is nothing more than contingent scenery. The Olympics, remember, are older than London. The real legacy of the games must be the social changes they provoke, rather than the buildings they produce, however magnificent they may be.

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