Town planning pioneer celebrated in new art creations

A dragon sculpture was Zoe Walker's contribution (with Neil Bromwich). Picture: Neil Hanna
A dragon sculpture was Zoe Walker's contribution (with Neil Bromwich). Picture: Neil Hanna
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When Toby Paterson was installing his new work for The Edinburgh Art Festival in Chessels Court, off the Canongate, he overheard a tour guide trying to explain Patrick Geddes. “How do you do that?” he muses. “Well … he was a sociologist and botanist and pioneering town planner, and kind of an anarchist …”

And one could go on: conservationist, social activist, environmentalist (although 100 years ago no one had heard the term). He worked in France and India, drew the city plans for Tel Aviv, met Darwin, corresponded with Gandhi, wrote a book on the evolution of sex. For Paterson, the Art Festival commission was a welcome chance to “dive down the rabbit hole” of Patrick Geddes research.

EAF Director Sorcha Carey explains that she was drawn to Geddes – in particular, his 1917 pamphlet The Making of the Future – when she was considering how she might respond to this year’s 70th anniversary of the International Festival and Fringe. “We’re a grandchild of that moment, a teenager compared with the EIF and the Fringe.

“I was reflecting on what we could do to mark that moment in a way that was true and authentic to our festival, but also engaging with and reflecting on the rich festival culture in this city.”

Geddes wrote his pamphlet even as the First World War raged, outlining his vision for a new post-war society. For Carey, that chimed with the vision of the Festival’s original founders in 1946, aiming to provide a “platform for the flowering of the human spirit” after another world war. “It seems to me there’s an enormous poignancy in those two moments, that 30 years before the Festival was founded, we had a manifesto in this city which was looking for new ways to live and was asking for art and artists to be central to that.”

She commissioned four artists with contrasting approaches – Paterson, Bobby Niven, Glasgow duo Zoe Walker & Neil Bromwich and New Zealand artist Shannon Te Ao – as well as organising Geddes-related events as part of the festival programme: “It was less about making a direct response to Geddes, and more about thinking about artists whose contemporary practices have got something to say in relation to the ideas that Geddes was thinking about.” All four pieces of work are woven into the fabric of the Old Town where Geddes lived, and where fragments of his legacy can still be seen.

Chessels Court, where Paterson’s work is installed, was one of the areas Geddes earmarked as community gardens, a highly innovative idea in the late 19th century in an area which was then an overcrowded slum. Paterson, with his interest in cities, public spaces and architectural utopias was immediately drawn to the square. “It was ideal,” he says. “And then I realised this is far too nice for me! I’m the one that usually ends up with the space that no one else can think of anything to go in.

“So, of course, I ended up asking: ‘Where’s the problem? What doesn’t work?’ and I ended up working with a bit of grotty tarmac in the midst of all this lovely cultivation.”

However, he had another problem. There was so much about Geddes that interested him that he barely knew where to start. “I probably lost a month going down a rabbit hole of research, and came out the other end going ‘Aargh! How can I possibly narrow this down?’ You could spend several careers making work in response to different strands of what he did. You have to step outside that, and just have confidence that you have got all that in your brain and will come up with something that will sit in relation to it. I ended up trusting my gut a bit, and also going back to being empirical and really looking at the space, right down to measuring the size of the cobbles.”

Looking turned out to be the key. Carey says: “All of Geddes’ work began with trying to see, trying to reflect and observe. If you think of the Outlook Tower [which he adapted, and is now the Camera Obscura], that was an architecture for seeing the city and understanding the city at different levels.” For Chessels Court, Paterson came up with the idea of a sculpture on an architectural scale, but open from all sides. He says: “You can view it from the outside and understand its sculptural form, but when you step inside it, it defines its environment.” The title of the work, The Sociology of Autumn, comes from a Geddes essay.

The other artists have responded very differently. Bobby Niven has created Palm House, a bothy-like space in wood and glass in a garden off Johnston Terrace, once another of Geddes’ community gardens.

Walker & Bromwich responded to his radical political ideas and love of pageantry, and Shannon Te Ao’s film installation in a former Magdalen Asylum off Canongate, brings a very different perspective. Carey says: “For me, Shannon’s work is perhaps the most oblique and external.

“He has a very broad range of references, all quite Geddesian in their thinking but not necessarily in their resolution. Geddes had a very optimistic view on life and really believed in the capacity for change. Shannon’s piece is more about staying in a place where there isn’t resolution.”

She says that, although Geddes died in 1932, many of his ideas are remarkably current. He coined the phrase: “Think global, act local”, was an advocate for locally produced food, for example, and believed that city centres are most successful when they are home to a broad range of people from different professions and background. In some ways, his ideas have gained a real currency in the last 10-15 years. On the one hand, there’s a sense of how important and urgent these ideas are, and also there’s a sense of melancholy that, a century on, those ideas are incredibly relevant.”

Paterson adds: “You come up with a really good idea and then you realise someone like Geddes had that idea 120 years ago. At first, you’re disappointed, but then you realise that the reason you’ve had it now is because that idea is just on the cusp of becoming current and accepted thought.”