Edinburgh. Toys. Pram. Etc.

The 'Turd', a.k.a. the proposes St James's hotel by Jestico and Whiles

The ‘Turd’, a.k.a. the proposed St James’s hotel by Jestico and Whiles

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.

The Year In Culture, Kind Of

1. THE WIND RISES. The last film by Hayao Miyazaki, animated by Studio Ghibli. A sprawling epic about the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. Humour, tragedy, pathos, the surreal – all human life is there. The aircraft are magnificently realised too, especially the huge Junkers G. 38, whose interior spaces form one of the film’s most intriguing tableaux.

thewindrises2. THE EDINBURGH SCULPTURE WORKSHOP. Designed by Sutherland Hussey, and completed in 2012 or so, it’s now into its second phase of development. A collection of studios and exhibition spaces supported by a mixture of private and public funding. It’s a very, very good building indeed. Simple top-lit spaces, robust surfaces, and spaces for reflection. An undemonstrative, deeply practical building it’s the exact opposite of almost everything built for culture these days. Brilliant.

3. ADVENTURE TIME. I came to this series late, now in its sixth season. The most mindblowingly weird programme ever broadcast on mainstream TV, it’s the visual equivalent of a nitrous oxide-LSD trip. But there’s real depth to it too. Jake the Dog is one of the all-time great cartoon characters, a classic hippy philosopher in the Jerry Garcia mould. Unlike Garcia, however, he has magical shapeshifting powers, useful in uncertain times.

4. DONGDAEMUN DESIGN PLAZA in Seoul by Zaha Hadid. I have all kinds of difficulty with Hadid and co., not least the vacuousness of their theory of ‘parametricism’. However this building is a complete triumph, because for once the formal ambition is matched by the ability of the (genius) builders. A swooping, bulging, genre-defying thing, it’s both architecture and landscape.

5. WHY THIS OPTIMIST IS VOTING NO. The referendum on Scottish independence was inescapable in 2014. The vast majority of friends voted in favour, and I could see perfectly well why they might. But after a struggle, I felt I couldn’t join them. The reasons are best explained by Carol Craig in an essay for the Scottish Review. A sensitive, beautifully written essay, it was one of the few interventions in the referendum to address its psychological complexity.

6.ALBERT SPEER: HIS BATTLE WITH TRUTH by Gitta Sereny. Published in 1995, it took me 19 years to read it after several attempts. A vast, rangy book, full of digression and repetition. Once I realised it was basically Moby Dick for the Third Reich, I was hooked. What I experienced as faults first time around now seemed necessary to express the moral complexity of the subject.

7.SUBARU IMPREZA I needed a cheap car quickly towards the end of the year and found myself with an ’07 Impreza with 85k on the clock. By comparison with modern cars, it’s tinny, unrefined, and pumps out far more Co2 than it should. It’s not even very fast. But it’s built to last decades, and has an engineering integrity that few designed objects have these days. In other words it is almost the exact opposite of Apple’s i-phone, which has the feel of integrity that it, in reality, lacks. (The car, needless to say, has no USB socket).

8. ARE YOU LOCATIONALIZED? by Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan. A two-part art installation in Portree, Skye and Lochmaddy, North Uist which turned public buildings into giant cartoon characters Part of the experience was getting there, of course, but this was also robust, funny work of real quality. The Lochmaddy part was a wall painted with a cosmic scene, babbling poetry through a trumpet-like beak. ‘Look’ said a beaming O’Sullivan, when he showed it to me, ‘it’s the Master of the Universe.’

9. THE LEGO MOVIE. Overlong, flabby and the closing live action is a mistake. The opening 15 minutes is however complete genius. The theme song is ‘Everything is Awesome’ by the Canadian duo Tegan and Sara. With the accompanying scene setting in the Lego City, the sequence is simultaneously completely stupid and totally profound. I showed it to awestruck students at every available opportunity.

10. HAWKWIND PLAY THE SPACE RITUAL. A one-off benefit gig at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire for badgers (yes, badgers). An average age of 68, the band played for over three hours. According to the Guardian’s Ed Vulliamy who was also there, somehow during the night they lost all the money they raised. If you know Hawkwind, you’ll know this sort of disaster goes with the territory. But it was a magnificent occasion, every bit as convincing as the ’73 original, and only £20.

Peter Hall and Non-Plan

urlPeter Hall, who died last week aged 82 was a planner, but also one of the most lucid writers about cities in any language. I routinely give my humanities students his Cities of Tomorrow (1996), an encyclopaedic account of the twentieth century’s attempts to rethink cities from England’s industrial north, to Berlin, to Le Corbusier’s Paris, to 1960s Hong Kong, and countless places in between. Its key argument is that cities need to be thought of as dynamic regions, rather than collections of historic monuments. It was published too early to say much about China – but as an account of what has most preoccupied Western planners and architects, there is nothing better. Not only comprehensive, it’s a funny, humane book that shows planning, fundamentally, as a discipline of ideas.

Cities of Tomorrow also shows how impoverished our conversations about cities can be. In the humanities, academics (and students) tend to despair change in general, and urban change in particular – which is why in places where their influence is strong, conversations about cities tend to revolve almost entirely around questions of surface. Europe’s historic cities fall into this category, and have become trivial places as a result.

Shortly after reading Cities of Tomorrow for the first time, I moved to Edinburgh to work. I arrived on a bright late summer’s day where the Firth of Forth and its coastline described (I thought) a big, complex urban region not unlike Bay Area where Hall had a professorship during the 1980s. I was instructed later that day by colleagues that Edinburgh was in fact the Old and New Towns, and to a civilised person, nothing else mattered. Edinburgh has been disappointment ever since. That said, rather influenced by Hall, I’ve always tried to inhabit it as an urban region, living its peripheries as much as its centre, and all points in between. Perhaps one day its leaders will think along Hall’s lines, and celebrate its regional character.

In context, Hall’s most provocative text remains the New Society essay he wrote with Reyner Banham, Paul Barker and Cedric Price, ‘Non-Plan’. Superficially an anti-planning diatribe, it’s in reality an argument for freedom, underpinned by the belief (shared by all the authors) that the relatively unplanned landscape of southern California had produced a better living environment for more of its citizens than the English equivalent. After many visits over the years to California, I still believe on almost every count they are right – and I still give ‘Non-Plan’ to students as a corrective to their highly aestheticised, conservation-minded view of cities. A few of them get it every year. Most don’t, it has to be said, although they appreciate its humour and optimism, and the accompanying cartoon-like sketches.

It’s not surprising my students don’t generally get ‘Non-Plan’., for they have a lot invested in what it attacks. They hope to make lives around conservation and history, and enough of them have the wealth and connections to make this refined life a possibility. But if anything, ‘Non-Plan’’s prescription seems more urgent than ever. Those cities of the world that have wished to restrict growth for aesthetic reasons have become cities of the rich. San Francisco’s average house costs $1 million London’s real estate is so highly valued, it has mutated from housing to become a global reserve currency. That can’t be right in the long term – and slowly governments in places
where this has become a problem have started to look at regional solutions. In the UK, that means devolution of power to metropolitan regions, and the development of a series of New Towns, both policies Hall had advocated for at least 40 years. Perhaps even ‘Non-Plan’ will get another run too. In any case, Hall’s marvellous work lives on.

Paul Barker, Reyner Banham, Peter Hall and Cedric Price, ‘Non-Plan: an experiment in freedom’ New Society 338, (20 March 1969)