Modern doesn't mean monolithic

Share this article

THERE are certain things in life which, when bigger, are undoubtedly better and more beautiful. Diamonds for instance. Or the size of a potential husband's bank balance. Even the latest Mulberry handbag. But there are times when size really shouldn't be what matters.

I was recently at a party where I was introduced to a friend's former flatmate, who it turned out was an architect of Polish descent from South Africa.

Of course that meant we got to discussing the proposals for various development sites, in particular Haymarket, and while I expressed my horror at the idea of a 16-storey hotel looming over the historic site, his take on the subject was slightly different. "It's not big enough," he claimed. "I would build it far, far taller."

Thankfully he has nothing to do with this particular development, and hopefully won't be able to leave his personal mark on the city in any kind of permanent fashion before he returns to Cape Town, where skyscrapers are more the norm.

While it's true that the city can take new architecture in its stride – DanceBase in the Grassmarket is a wonderful modern building fitting snugly among the old tenements, as is the Point Hotel in Bread Street, and the ultra-modern Glasshouse Hotel in Greenside Place.

The towering block at the east end of Fountainbridge – on the site of a former BT exchange – dwarfs everything around it. The Scottish Widows building in Morrison Street still has the undesirable ability to leap out when you journey into town along the Corstorphine Road, pulling the eye away from the Castle. Then there's the Scottish Parliament . . .

But the hotel plan for the former Morrison Street Goods Yard site takes the whole issue to new heights of architectural vandalism.

While the design may look quite the thing if it was being built down at the Waterfront next to the other skyscrapers going up in an area where they're starting almost completely from scratch, at Haymarket it sticks out like a cactus in a flowerbed of pansies.

The man behind the plan, architect Richard Murphy, believes Edinburgh is a "very difficult" city to be modern in, yet one of his contemporaries and rivals, Malcolm Fraser, says much of modern design is "dreadful", "disheartening", "dull and thoughtless" and that the major drive for architects and developers is "will this get past planning?".

Hopefully, this time the groundswell of public opinion will see this proposal thrown out. Already the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust has condemned the size of the development, warning classic views of the city will be ruined, while Architecture and Design Scotland, the Cockburn Association and the West End Community Council have all voiced concerns too.

While it's understandable that the developers and architects want to build something of significance at Haymarket, what they seem to have failed to take into account is the scale of what has been produced. Surely "significant" doesn't have to be a byword for "monolithic"?

Perhaps it's time for Edinburgh's planners to follow in the footsteps of Washington DC. There, the entire city is subject to strict building height limits – no new building may be more than 20ft taller than the width of the street in front of it. This was done to ensure that structural steel skyscrapers didn't overwhelm the city. Does that make it any less attractive to tourists or residents?

We all live in the real world and realise that developers have to get as much building for their buck as possible, but does that necessarily have to mean destroying the character of a place? Surely Edinburgh is a challenge for architects, a place where they can really put their talents to good use, rather than just throwing up another glass and breezeblock structure, or worse, something in a mock style of the New Town.

What Edinburgh needs and deserves if it is to move on rather than die – as Allan Murray, the mastermind behind Caltongate puts it – is thoughtful rather than thoughtless development.

What's the rush?

Apparently we are living our lives at breakneck speed (apart from when we're trying to drive round Edinburgh of course), with everything from meals to sex being rushed – and as a result we are all facing physical and psychological meltdown.

Personally I had the double meltdown when the children arrived, but I can't quite believe the statistics on this one. If a third of Scots are eating meals in an average time of 15 minutes, sales of Gaviscon most be going through the roof. And what about the 13 per cent who say they spend ten minutes or less "making love"? Surely it takes longer than that to get the old control pants off?

According to the psychologists it's all going to get worse – soon people will be having sex while their microwave chips are cooked. Gives a whole new meaning to simultaneous climax.

Simon's sound proof

What did Simon Pia do in a former life to deserve the one he has now? He's just spent two years working with the high-octane, high-pitched Heather Dee on Talk 107, and now he's got Wendy Alexander in his ear on a daily basis.

I can only think that rather than losing his marbles as has been suggested since taking the post of spin doctor to the Scottish Labour leader, it's his hearing that's failing.