The Burning Question

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IT WAS never the most salubrious part of town. Standing on the South Bridge where it swept imperiously over the Cowgate, chains of tawdry shop fronts stretched away at either side. Over the iron railings, the murky depths of the Cowgate slithered off towards the Grassmarket, encased on either side by dirty stone tenements that reeked of last night’s beer.

Despite its proximity to the Royal Mile, it was not the picture-postcard Old Town of Edinburgh that tourists travel thousands of miles to see. Up on South Bridge, there were no "destination" shoppers of the type that would patronise the smarter retailers over in the New Town. Down below on one of the city’s most ancient thoroughfares, the thriving pub and club sub-culture was rarely of the blond wood variety.

It has been this way for decades, yet when fire took hold eight days ago and engulfed the tangled blocks of buildings that connected the bridge to the Cowgate the impact was felt throughout the world.

Shops, pubs, clubs and livelihoods were destroyed by the fierce blaze that took almost 24 hours of concentrated effort by professional firefighters using all the modern armoury of their trade to put out. Georgian and Edwardian buildings, some more than 200 years old, were still gutted to the point that demolition of the jagged remains was a necessity.

Reports of fire raging through the "heart" of Edinburgh’s historic Old Town may have been wide of the mark, but in a city whose main selling point is its architecture, any attack on a part of the fabric was wounding to the whole. Especially when that fabric was part of a visionary scheme by Robert Adam, the renowned 18th-century Scottish architect, who left his mark on some of Britain’s finest buildings.

Although the term had not been coined at the time, the South Bridge was effectively a flyover, albeit an elegant one that connected the burgeoning New Town to the university. To carry wheeled traffic from one side to the other and avoid the steep gully in between - with the Cowgate at the bottom - a flat platform was needed and Adam came up with the practical solution.

Although he never built it, the town council liked what it saw and compulsorily purchased every piece of land on which it was to stand and every building in its way. Even a wing of the Tron Church, on the junction of the High Street and the earlier North Bridge, was shaved off to make way for what historians would later call "one of the most heroic building projects of Georgian times".

Robert Kay was the architect commissioned to carry out the work and he completed the bridge in the early 1790s. It was partially paid for by selling off the valuable buildings plots at each side to developers, and the unique bridge and tenement cityscape that persists to this day in the area began to take shape.

Many of the buildings worked at two levels with shop front entrances off South Bridge above and Cowgate below. As time went by, some of the old tenements stretching away down Cowgate were themselves replaced by commercial premises with arcaded fronts.

What was lost last week was the corner building dating from the 1790s that fronted onto South Bridge but descended several storeys to the Cowgate below. Once it was Allen’s department store but it had more recently become Leisureland, a collection of cheap cafes and amusement arcades beneath a late-18th-century gable.

To the immediate south was a more handsome Victorian building constructed by architects John Lessels and John Patterson in 1873 to replace an earlier structure. Stretching around into Chambers Street it housed shops, offices and some university departments.

Neither building had been listed by government heritage experts for their architectural value. Perhaps ironically, that honour went to a building in the Cowgate which was once a shop but more recently has become famous as the Gilded Balloon, one of the Fringe Festival’s principal venues. Above was the La Belle Angele nightclub and fire investigators believe that it was close to this building that the fire started last Saturday night, although the exact cause could be hidden under piles of rubble.

Built heritage experts concede that the most severely damaged buildings were not the most elegant, stylish or historic within the bounds of Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site. They paled in comparison to the Category A and B-listed treasures of the Royal Mile and the New Town. But with their multitude of uses they were what gave the area its character.

Ranald McInnes, principal inspector of buildings for Historic Scotland, the Scottish Executive’s heritage agency, said: "They may not be truly wonderful buildings in their own right but their significance is that they are part of a set-piece. It would be too easy to take what has been lost for granted."

The World Monuments Fund, a non-profit group that campaigns for threatened architecture, is equally at pains to ensure that the essential character of the area is not lost. "These buildings were part of the essential grain of that area of the city," said the Fund’s director Colin Amery. "You wouldn’t build it that way today but that is what gave it the atmosphere that people enjoyed. Architectural muddle was central to that and it would lose its character if it was too well planned."

Architects with the specialist knowledge to repair old buildings and restore them abound in a country like Scotland, which has more than 47,000 listed buildings. There has to be. According to Historic Scotland, a listed building catches fire at a rate of one a month, often with devastating consequences. Last year, Dundee lost Morgan Academy, an A-listed school, and Glasgow University’s A-listed Bower Building, which houses precious historic books, suffered 7m of damage. In Edinburgh, C-listed Lauriston Church, Edinburgh Castle’s barrack block and an early 19th-century flat all went up in flames.

What makes the difference this time is the devastation of almost an entire block of buildings.

The nearest parallel in Scotland in recent history is the fire that swept through the Old Town near to St Giles Cathedral in November 1824, just up the hill from the present fire site. Thirteen people died, 400 families were made homeless and 26 Old Town tenements, extending down from the High Street to the Cowgate, were destroyed after a fire started in a printer’s shop and spread rapidly. The cleared ground has been a hotch-potch of development ever since.

More recently, the old Chiado district of Lisbon nearly disappeared overnight after fire destroyed 18 tenement-style buildings, some of them dating back to the 17th century. When the fire was over, only charred facades remained but the Chiado’s restoration is now seen as a blueprint for other ancient cities hit by catastrophe.

A noted Portuguese architect, Alvaro Siza Vieira, was commissioned by the government to draw up a master plan within weeks of the fire. A third of the building space was given over to housing, a third to shops and the rest to cafes, restaurants, cinemas, galleries and a large hotel. The brief was to breathe new life into the area and connect it to surrounding districts.

Today, the restoration is complete and the Chiado is again part of the thriving heart of the Portuguese capital. The project cost around 30m, with finance coming from the European Community, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), private donations, and central and local government.

"The Chiado was a grouping of old buildings on a steep slope, so there are many parallels to be drawn with Edinburgh," said Emery, the WMF director who visited the area last month. "One of the good things is that the government and the city between them owned much of the site so that it was easier to get a restoration up and running quite quickly."

Whether such financial help will be available to Edinburgh to restore the site is unlikely. EU aid to Portugal was based on its lowly status at the bottom of the national wealth league table. Unesco policy is not to help comparatively rich Western countries with money, even though it was instrumental in declaring Edinburgh a World Heritage Site. Although council leader Donald Anderson approached the Scottish Executive for aid last Friday, it was not in any real expectation of extracting national largesse.

After the fire had been put out, Anderson’s first task last week was striking the balance between safeguarding the city’s heritage and getting both traffic and commerce moving again.

With brick-by-brick demolition of creaking facades expected to be in progress for weeks, if not months, two vital traffic arteries will be severed for some time. The ruined businesses aside, those traders still in operation were facing a painful disruption of their trade at one of the most lucrative times of the year.

What civic leaders most want to avoid, however, is the half-acre area hit by fire developing into an ugly gap site. But with around 18 owners of affected buildings all likely to want a say in the rebuilding of the area, property experts expect a protracted struggle unless the council moves quickly.

Anderson is quite clear on the direction he wants to go in and that is to persuade the owners to sell. "What’s important is to get the site under one or two ownerships," he said. "We won’t make any progress really until the site is rationalised in this way. If we can get to that stage then I think from then on, development could happen reasonably quickly. But first of all we need to discuss with all the owners what their intentions are and then move on."

Agreeing a deal with the owners would be his preferred option, he said, but he did not rule out using the council’s powers of compulsory purchase at some stage. "We could compulsorily purchase but at this time that is a last resort," he added.

Ownership aside, the future of the site could be determined by an open architectural competition, similar to the one that installed Spaniard Enric Miralles as the designer of the new Scottish parliament building at Holyrood. Debate is already raging over how much of the original buildings should be preserved, or whether the whole site should be cleared for an imaginative new contemporary scheme.

Sebastian Tombs, president of the Royal Incorporation of Architects Scotland (RIAS) is looking forward to the battle. "We are now mature enough to discern what is worth keeping and also what isn’t, but that does not mean we should not have hot debate about what should replace the buildings," he said. "Of course, it is a matter of great regret for the people who lost their businesses but we should relish the challenge of restoring this complex part of the city’s core."

As the site was a historic part of the Old Town, it needed more than either just a replication of what was there before or a modern pastiche. Most conservation bodies would favour a Lisbon-style master plan approach. "We need a sensible debate about the quality of the buildings and public spaces there," said Tombs. "The Cowgate was extremely dark and dingy and had very narrow pavements which put late night revellers at risk. We need to make it an environment that is filled with light and safe for pedestrians."

In the end, it is Edinburgh’s reputation as one of the world’s great architectural masterpieces that is being put at stake once again. "It is as if the corner of a Rembrandt has been hacked off," said Amery, "so it is extremely important that we don’t rush in and make a mess of it. What happens now will be a test of the city’s resolve for many years to come."