Well, it’s been an interesting couple of days, you might say. An early morning start on Radio 4’s Today on 12th September, where along with the urbane Adam Wilkinson of Edinburgh World Heritage, we debated the city’s UNESCO World Heritage status. That status is perceived by some in the heritage business of being under threat, from the city council’s negligence on the one hand, and development on the other. Adam and I agree on a good deal, as it happens, and the atmosphere in the studio was amiable. I suggested, playfully, that losing UNESCO’s approval wouldn’t greatly matter: most tourists came for the comedy at the Fringe Festival (I’m sure this is statistically true, but no matter). I also said, again playfully, that I thought Edinburgh’s attitude to its built environment was ‘neurotic.’ Those who speak for it tend to see threats where none exist; their stock-in-trade is the catastrophe; as I’ve discovered to my cost in the past, they react on a hair trigger.
Sure enough, my few seconds of airtime produced a reaction, on social media, via email, and most spectacularly in the Herald newspaper. The rage expressed in all these media illustrated precisely why I used the word ‘neurotic’, and it’s this peculiar group psychology of Edinburgh’s towards the built environment that was my concern, rather than its buildings per se.
I’ve explored this attitude in the past for the journal Foreign Policy, again to controversial effect. And more recently I explored it length in Chris Breward and Fiona Fisher’s anthology British Design, where I traced it back to Lord Cockburn’s famous/notorious 1849 letter to the then Lord Provost, on the ‘Best Ways to Spoil the Beauties of Edinburgh’. This psychology is primitive, lower-brain stuff, and as a result it can give my remarks a primitive-seeming quality too. One of my most powerful critics over the weekend, a local architect (whom, as it happens, I greatly admire) accused me of being simplistic. Why was I reiterating this tired old idea, Edinburgh’s progress being held up by a fusty establishment, resistant to change? Well – I reiterated this tedious idea precisely because it is so strongly there. There is no getting away from it – as the Herald article, and many others show. Unlike other cities, there is no shared understanding, however basic, of what the city should look like. And consequently, change seems threatening.
So if I’d had more time, I’d have said this: (1) EDINBURGH’S TOUGH. The reaction by the heritage lobby is suggestive of a delicate place, in need of constant protection. I don’t think this is right. The landscape and plan are extremely robust, as a view from Salisbury Crags attests. The bigness of the landscape, not to mention the sky, accomodates a vast range of building styles and qualities. (2) AND BIG. Not enormous, but it is a complex, surprisingly sprawling, largely suburban regional capital of half a million, and if you take the travel-to-work area into account, it’s half of Scotland. In that context, the heritage voice, while noisy, can’t be allowed to be the only voice in the room. Lots of people have a stake in this place, not only those who would prefer it were a museum. (3) CITIES CHANGE. There are some particular issues around recent developments and their perceived quality or otherwise. But the conversation about development in the city too often polarizes into an infantile battle between those who want it, and those who want to stop it at all costs. That battle doesn’t do anyone any favours. There can be a much more constructive conversation between past and present, present and future, as – if you actually read it properly – the 1948 Abercrombie Plan for the city shows. And as I said in an earlier piece in the Edinburgh Evening News, great cities aren’t diminished or threatened by change: they embrace it. (4) MISTAKES ARE ACTUALLY FINE. We can’t, and don’t always get things right first time; we learn what works by doing. And as I’ve said elsewhere, if we get it wrong, we can always do it again, or adapt.
Edinburgh has some local difficulties to do with planning, and the monitoring of quality: I was powerfully reminded of that over the weekend, and in fact sympathise with many of my critics, as well as Edinburgh World Heritage. But what was again striking to me was the sense of fear in the conversation. Every side in the debate – heritage lobby, architectural modernist, neo-Georgian traditionalist, whoever – perceived threat in change, whether from developers, the actions of the city council, or even the opinions of obscure academics. So widespread is this anxiety about the future, and so multifaceted, for the time being it makes a sensible conversation about Edinburgh’s buildings if not impossible, certainly very hard. (The council’s tendency to make covert deals is, I am sure, a form of collective avoidance). And that is why I used the word ‘neurotic’, and stand by it.