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)

The Urban History Man. Richard J. Williams interviewed by Richard J. Williams

IMG_0383It’s an unusually perfect day in Edinburgh and I’m sitting in Richard’s 1878 tenement flat, in the kitchen to be precise where sun is streaming through the big sash window. He fusses with the kettle. Do I want tea? Coffee? A cocktail? (‘I make a great breakfast caipirinha’). I settle for water, fresh from the Pentland Hills that are just visible from the window. ‘Good isn’t it?’ he says, referring to the water. ‘It’s the lead that makes it.’ He pulls up a chair, which screeches on the wooden floor, frightening a cat from its slumbers. So why did he agree to this solipsistic exercise? Well, he says, scratching his beard, it was time to get a few things straight. And ‘I wanted to do a conversation about research’, he adds, ‘which you rarely get a chance to do in enough detail.’ So I start by asking him the question that all doctoral students dread. What is he doing? What exactly is his contribution to the sum total of human knowledge?

RW: Oh God (laughs). Well actually I invited you to ask that question because I’ve so often struggled with it myself, especially when asked to say something straightforwardly disciplinary. I always end up saying ‘I’m not this, and I’m not that’, you know, without ever really coming to the point. So I did want you to ask that question…


Well the answer is actually pretty simple. I’m interested basically in why cities look the way they do. You’d think it’s an obvious question to ask, but it isn’t because the people who ask it invariably have some agenda. So they lament the way things are, rather than keeping the question open. And there aren’t very simple answers. People like to think there are, but there aren’t. The production of something as complex as a city involves multiple actors, most of whom are perhaps not even conscious of being actors at all.

Can you say what you mean by that?

Well, people – I mean us – habitually think that cities are somehow designed. I want a method of looking at cities that incorporates things like material decay, but also use and inhabitation, and also if this is even possible their representation in things like films and art.

That’s clearly impossible.

Of course it is. But still I’d like to try because our perceptions of cities are conditioned by all of these immaterial factors. We don’t simply see them. We see them, like any other object, through what we expect and have learned to expect.

Can you give an example?

Brasília is a good case. I spent a lot of the last decade thinking and writing about it because it seemed to be such a reviled object, at least in Europe, and particularly Britain. Critics and journalists would routinely invoke it as an example of why the 1960s were so bad. It was always a great disaster, a dystopia – everything about it was appalling. It had a quite amazing status. Of course practically none of the people who invoked Brasília had actually been anywhere near the place, and in the rare cases that they had, their impressions dated from the moment of inauguration, 1960, when Brasília was still a building site. So it was this amazing discursive object. I went for the first time in (scratches head) about 2001 and found a place that was for the most part clean, well-ordered and perfectly normal. Yet the myths, the stories people told about the place, the memories of the candangos (note: the original settlers of the city)  – these things were all essential to the perception of the place.

Did you have a method for producing this synthetic knowledge?

No. But I knew that visuality was important.


Well, anecdotally, it seemed clear that around the visual, almost everyone had a view. They’d complain about eyesores, and the way things looked, ‘mess’ and so on, as if these things were straightforwardly resolved. Even perfectly intelligent people would start raging against modernist architecture. They seemed to lose their minds in the face of the visual.

Why do you think that is?

I don’t know, exactly. But I think it has something to do with seeing the visual world as a threat, something about it resisting control. For that reason I want to start with the visual and use visual artefacts to keep questions open as long as possible. That is something that art history was always good at, when it was good. I don’t have much patience with art any more, but I do still respect the way art history at its best used visual objects to keep questions open. It showed how meanings could be highly contingent on circumstance, how reception was important as production, and how ambiguity is in fact the condition we all live in, rather than something undesirable that has to be corrected. These are all pretty good things to understand in relation to cities. Who knows, if we could understand these things better, we might build better ones.

So what you’re proposing is an art history of cities?

In some ways, yes. It uses the visual as a way of keeping questions open as long as possible. I did a PhD in art history and still have a lot of respect for the methods. Panofsky, Gombrich, Tim Clark later on.

But isn’t that just another way of aestheticising the city? I mean, you’re always railing against the heritage lobby, but this sounds like the same thing, just in a different style.

Ha ha! That’s a good point, of course. But I’m not principally interested in aesthetics, rather the way the visuality helps keep other questions open. I basically think cities are good for us, and I want the most people to have the most opportunities. Exploring the visual world is often a way of asking awkward questions. So, for example, I’m fairly certain that the adherence to a single design aesthetic, whatever it is, has a limiting effect on the material opportunities of a city. The green belt, for example in the UK. It is an aesthetic position more than anything else that ends up being a tax on the poor. I’m quite convinced of that now, despite having spent large parts of my life enjoying them one way or another…


Walking my parents’ dogs, mainly. But I don’t think the interests of a few dog-walkers should be allowed to trump the access of millions to reasonably-priced housing.

Can you say more about the kinds of sources you use? You once said that you got a lot from what we might call ‘professional’ discourses – what architects and planners say to each other.

Yes, that’s right. I work with academic material like everyone else, and draw on the usual urban theories. But I’ve always spent a lot of time with the professions themselves, especially the professional magazines. There’s a tendency for academics to ignore this material as it’s not always very sophisticated in a way that they recognise. But often they’re dealing with ideas that are as complex as anything academics deal with. It’s just that they have to explain them to a range of different constituencies, with a range of different expertises. I spent a lot of time with architects in the 1990s and 2000s in the UK, and felt that what was being played out in public, in the journals was very important. In the early 1990s, the climate was still deeply anti-urban in the UK and the US. That it changed so dramatically has a lot to do with what was happening in the journals.

You don’t automatically bash the real estate business.

No, that’s right. Part of the urban story of the past 20 years is the realisation by the business that there were market opportunities in cities, so they had to learn a new range of concepts in order to make the most of it. Those shifts are quite legible in magazines like Property Week and Estates Gazette that really nobody apart from people in the business reads. But it always seemed to me that it was there that you really found out what was going on, why for example there had been a gap site somewhere for a generation  (…..) Then there’s the developers themselves. When I was starting to research cities for the first time, I found people connected with the business very open. At least the people I talked to. Howard Bernstein, the CEO of Manchester City Council, for example, a public official, but a man with a very sound business head. He gave me a whole afternoon of his time in, um, 2002 or thereabouts, and then let me have his head of planning give me a tour. They were both extraordinarily generous with their time, despite the fact that they were as busy then as they had ever been in their lives. But they saw I was interested in their ideas. The profit motive mattered, clearly, but they were interested in a much longer-term transformation. You got the same thing from Tom Bloxham and Carol Ainscow in the same city. They needed to make money, obviously, but they weren’t driven by it. Ainscow (note: she developed Manchester’s Gay Village) was as interested in sexual politics as anything else. If these people were just interested in making money, they’d have found a much easier way to do it. Real estate development is hell a lot of the time. You have to really like buildings to do it.

Are there any other developers you admire?

Of course I sound like a Neo-Con nutjob saying I admire developers (laughs)….But yes, I do, at least some of them. John Portman (note: inventor of the atrium hotel) is amazing. There’s a hilarious piece on his Bonaventure Hotel in the French journal L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui from 1977 or so where the writers are so determined to hate it because it’s a product of the market…but in the end they grudgingly admit it’s a really radical building, possibly more so than the Pompidou Centre. Yes, Portman’s great. A real iconoclast.

You really sound like a Neo-Con now.

I’m really not. I’m just not a fundamentalist. I don’t automatically believe that markets are evil.

What are you doing now?

A few things. We want to set up a research centre in Edinburgh of some sort on the cultures of cities, and we have seedcorn funding to start. My colleague Igor Stiks will run it. He’s an expert on, and a participant in various urban-social movements, particularly in south-eastern Europe, and we’re both interested in the way younger people are developing new modes of urban citizenship. That seems to be a global phenomenon, and also seems to cut across political divides to some extent. Igor’s particular interest is in progressive change, Occupy and so on. I’m interested in the way generally people are developing new modes of urban behaviour and urban aspirations. We’ve a bit of a network already. Christoph Lindner in Amsterdam. Sharon Zukin in New York if we can persuade her. We’ll see…

And there’s a book.

Yes, another one for Reaktion, a history of the so-called Creative City. I wanted to put recent developments in some sort of cultural and historical context. Almost everyone in the developed world seems to have signed up to the creative industries, whatever they are – and there’s been a predictable negative reaction from the academic left. What I’m doing is putting a series of quite longstanding debates in context. I’m also hoping to produce a useable urban typology. There are big things like media cities, for example, but also smaller and more informal phenomema. The whole feel of eating and drinking, for example, the excessive sociability. When I was growing up, there literally wasn’t anywhere to go, and I think that applied in many parts of the developed world. Now there’s such an excess of it. And it’s global.

Will there be anything in it about sex?

Maybe, following on from the last book (note: Sex and Buildings was published by Reaktion in 2013). There’s certainly a question around all that frantic socialisation. The Creative city looks like a highly libidinal city in many ways, and work often morphs into something that to older people must look like dating, or at least flirting. But I wonder how much sex is really happening. Really busy people seem to like the look of sex, but don’t actually have time for it. I need a decent evidential base for that argument of course.

When is the book due out?

2016, we hope. There’s another project in the works too, on the visual culture of cities. But I can’t say any more about that until it’s a bit further on.

If you could do anything about cities now, what would it be?

It’s not in the gift of humanities professors to be prescriptive, you know. We’re just supposed to complain about things from the sidelines…

Oh, go on.

OK. There are certainly global problems around access to housing. The ‘great inversion’ as Alan Ehrenhalt calls it has drawn a lot of people to cities again, but the trade-off has been a general decline in the quality of housing and access to it, at least in the most popular places. The cost of housing in London or the Bay Area is pretty horrifying. I’d reduce the unit cost by increasing supply. There would have to be a bonfire of planning regulations, unfortunately, but that may be overdue. I’d also promote industrialised, systematised building. In the UK, everything seems to be done on a bespoke basis much more than it needs to, a problem made worse by the planning system. And I’d tear up the green belt. Did you hear my friend Karl Sharro on the radio the other night? He says just abolish planning altogether. I kind of agree with him. I have some sympathy with the old Parker-Morris standards, though, to get the basic level of space right.

That sounds like a recipe for sameness, a sort of grey-goo urbanism….

I don’t think it is. But even if it is, it doesn’t mean it stays the same. After all, in the UK there are probably ten million units of more or less identical terraced (row) houses, but more or less infinite variation in the way they’re used and inhabited. Buildings learn, as Stewart Brand says.

OK. Finally, I have to ask you about Scotland. You have really annoyed people there from time to time.

You know I can’t talk about that (laughter). Well I have a few supporters too. Scotland is in such a febrile state at the moment, it’s impossible to say anything without getting misinterpreted. But in terms of cities, it’s certainly a fascinating case. It’s got two of Europe’s great set pieces in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and a vigorous tradition of urban housing. The tenement is a really durable form. Unfortunately, Scotland just loves to regulate, and it’s obsessed with the past. So it’s impossible to either adapt buildings for contemporary conditions, or build housing where it’s actually required. If you live in Edinburgh (points at rattling sash windows) you’re not allowed to buy off the peg solutions for windows in tenements. Unless you’re rich, you’re basically encouraged to let them deteriorate. As for installing elevators, and adding extensions – well, forget it. There’s a huge amount of de-regulating that could be done. Not much political will, though. Same goes for the land issue. Edinburgh ought to be twice the size it is given the boom in financial services, but there is so much regulation designed to inhibit growth. That makes no sense to me at all. We need scale. Scale means opportunities.

Are you an optimist when it comes to cities?

Yes. You have to be, don’t you? And the return of cities in the developed world brings huge opportunities. It’s produced some hellish problems around housing, but I don’t see why they can’t be fixed. After all, it’s been done before.

Aeon magazine – can architecture improve our sex lives?

Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation complex in Marseilles (1952) was designed around the display of the body, its pools and terraces, meant for inhabitants to show off. Photo by Stephen Burrows. Courtesy Aeon Magazine.

Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation complex in Marseilles (1952) was designed around the display of the body, its pools and terraces, meant for inhabitants to show off. Photo by Stephen Burrows. Courtesy Aeon Magazine.

Aeon magazine have just published this piece on Sex and Buildings:


It summarises the book’s argument, but adds a little at the end on an alternative future. It argues for a ‘commune-lite’, in essence, not far of what Le Corbusier imagined in Marseilles in 1948, or Ricardo Bofill in Barcelona in ’77. Bofill’s ‘Walden Seven’ is one of my favourite buildings, whatever Robert Hughes said about it. A visionary place that also seems to work for its residents. Now if some friendly developer would like to do the same here…

Incidentally, the piece has a few snippy remarks about Morningside, as does a forthcoming feature by Teddy Jamieson in the Herald. I should say I still live there, and despite its maddening character, have no plans to move. My complaints are those of  someone who know – for better or worse – he’s in it for good.

Sex and the ‘normal’ city

Morningside, Edinburgh, 2013

Morningside, Edinburgh, 2013

Edinburgh, where I live, has just published some remarkable new statistics. (http://www.edinburgh.gov.uk/downloads/file/10548/edinburgh_by_numbers_2013_14) This bastion of social propriety actually isn’t very proper at all. Of all households in this city of half a million measured in the survey, just 3% could be described as a conventional family unit, that is two adults with one or more children. That’s right: three percent of the total. Single parent households accounted for 9%. By far the largest proportion (41%) of households consisted of a single adult living alone. The remainder was taken up by adults living together in various combinations.

Edinburgh is an exaggerated case. If ‘normality’ is defined by two adults together with kids, then Manhattan is about 10% more ‘normal’ than the Scottish capital. But Edinburgh’s experience does parallel that of cities in the rest of the industrialised world. They are getting older and greyer, and more people are choosing to live alone.

So what? Well stats like these contrast abruptly with the nature of the built environment itself. Edinburgh is strongly defined by four-floor tenement buildings constructed between roughly 1820 and 1920, and home construction in the city in private and public sectors, continues to take a lead from the tenement form. What’s interesting in this context is that it defines the city in terms of the normative family. In effect, the tenement is the normative family in stone. So there are clearly defined private and public spaces, rooms clearly intended as bedrooms for a married pair, smaller rooms for children, public rooms to be kept for ‘best’ (traditionally for receiving the minister of the local church) and so on. The built image of the city doesn’t any longer represent its lived reality.

Arguably this doesn’t matter. Our housing has been remarkably good at adapting: in Britain’s university towns, middle-class Victorian family homes have proved ideal for groups of cohabiting students. These buildings won’t last forever, however, and neither will the social trends that currently sustain them. Sooner or later, we’ll have to build in our own image again.

In terms of sex, all this is important. Compared to previous generations, we can expect extremely long lives, and increasingly healthy ones. Because they’re long, we can also expect increasing degrees of sexual complexity; only a small part of our overall lives is going to be lived out in what might be termed normative surroundings. And there is increasing recognition that permanent monogamy is unrealistic (we may, most of us, still believe in monogamy, but the statistics suggest we act otherwise). So – shouldn’t we start to imagine different ways of building for life? In Sex and Buildings I describe a series of attempts to make buildings that better represented our sexual lives as lived. They mostly failed, sometimes spectacularly so. That shouldn’t put us off, however. We will have to build again sometime, and better to do so realistically, with our eyes open, than to insist on nostalgic fantasy.

For me, the ideal would be some sort of co-housing, the best-known example being Sættedammen in Denmark, established in 1967 (founding creed: ‘Children Should Have One Hundred Parents’. I didn’t write about co-housing in Sex and Buildings, but on reflection it seems to occupy the right space between the wilder forms of intentional community, and market-dominated individualism. It doesn’t explicitly challenge sexual norms. However, by providing shared facilities (childcare, gyms, swimming pools, saunas, party rooms) it provides time and space to play, starting to address the deficits that inhibit our sexual lives (sex ‘loves to waste time’ in the words of the psychologist Esther Perel). The odd thing is that we already strongly value co-housing, albeit in an occasional and time-limited form. University students live like this, and as adults, we do the same thing on holiday; both forms seem to provide a better environment to explore and develop primary relationships including sexual ones. Now if we can accept that some of our lives, why not the rest of the time?