Brian Monteith: See beyond glass to get Smith's house in order

WHEN it comes to looking after old buildings the last resort should be to let the state become the owner of our historic treasures.There are exceptions to this general rule. The best way to maintain Edinburgh Castle is for it to remain a garrison of our army rather than let it become some MacDisney theme park. The army behaves like a private owner giving the Castle a living role, rather than it being suspended in aspic by one of our many cultural quangos so that it never changes.

It is a fact that buildings must change so they are pertinent to their times. If they don't, they become redundant and are ripped down, or left to die a slow death.

Private owners are more likely to see the value in a building – it is their asset after all – and how it can benefit from investment and tender loving care. This is especially so with our smaller buildings as the ability of private owners to maintain large piles ended after the introduction of death duties at the start of the 20th century. Small buildings like Panmure House, just off the Royal Mile, and the former home of Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics. For the last 50 years, it has, unfortunately, been owned by various public bodies that showed no concern for its history or its preservation.

Its interior was once rich with original features. Now all that remains, other than a sturdy stone hulk with dull and dilapidated magnolia rooms, is one original fireplace – in the attic! Everything else was stripped out as it was used to deliver utilitarian democratic socialism or some other value-free ideal.

Fortunately, Panmure House has new owners. The Edinburgh Business School – a commercial wing of Heriot-Watt University that appropriately teaches market economics – bought it last year with the specific promise that it would return the building to the role of a meeting place to discuss the social, economic and philosophical issues of the day, as Adam Smith used it for.

Smith would regularly have the great minds of Scotland's Enlightenment round for Sunday lunch and a blether, and what better than to return the house to such a use? Not least as it is only a short hop from a parliament badly in need of some clear and original thinking.

However, like so many other charming buildings of its size, turning it into a public building that meets all the regulations of today requires a lift, fire escapes and other physical intrusions that make renovation expensive and difficult to comply with planning regulations.

It would be a pity, and ironic, if Smith's house could not be used for the sort of discussions he used to hold in it, just because of modern-day bureaucracy.

To resolve the difficulties – mainly caused by a lack of space – the architects have come up with a glass atrium that sits outside the faade of the building, providing a meeting space and stairs. Although some might consider this nothing more than a glass box, it is in fact an intelligent way out of the conundrum.

The alternative is to build some obtrusive stone appendage that disfigures the building and rips into the existing structure. Using local materials does not make a fire escape sympathetic to the existing simple vernacular.

Needless to say Historic Scotland – commonly known as Hysterical Scotland amongst many professionals – is objecting to anything that does not use old materials or is not a faux bolt-on. The only alternative is to turn the house into a private home, but a private domestic owner would not be obliged to provide public access, certainly not every day.

I can see that people might be surprised by the glass atrium, but it is less obtrusive than what the council has agreed to on the front of the Usher Hall or was put on the front of the Festival or Lyceum theatres.

In fact, the atrium offers some advantages. It does allow the house to be seen and if, in the future, the house needs to change again, it can be removed easily.

When one considers how a large alien spaceship like something out of District 9 has been allowed to land at the foot of the Royal Mile and call itself a parliament, the suggestion that a glass atrium on a small restored stone house is somehow out of keeping and obtrusive just does not hold water. We need our buildings to live.

Will the city council be brave enough to go against Hysterical Scotland and grant planning permission? Take a lesson from Adam Smith: if the house cannot pay its own way, it will be neglected, it will decay, and will be lost to the public forever.

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