Acropolis Now for Edinburgh’s Unesco status?

The National Monument on Calton Hill, sometimes dubbed 'Edinburgh's Disgrace', was never finished for lack of funds. Picture: Neil Hanna
The National Monument on Calton Hill, sometimes dubbed 'Edinburgh's Disgrace', was never finished for lack of funds. Picture: Neil Hanna
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IS the Athens of the North on the verge of destroying its priceless architectural heritage, or just rejuvenating its timeless global appeal, asks Chitra Ramaswamy

CALTON Hill on a rare summer’s afternoon in April. At the summit of one of Britain’s first public parks, it’s business as usual. A fierce wind whips around the monuments despite the still air at ground level. Tourists wait patiently to climb the 143 spiral stairs of the Nelson Monument. Children clamber up the giant steps of the National Monument, pausing for the occasional selfie. Students loll in the grass with a picnic and a few cans. A renegade cake tin rolls down a grassy slope. The atmosphere is peaceful, reverent, as close to a museum as you can get atop an ancient volcanic rock.

The view of Calton Hill, reminiscent of its Athenian forebear. Picture: Neil Hanna

The view of Calton Hill, reminiscent of its Athenian forebear. Picture: Neil Hanna

From the tourist on a weekend break to the local enjoying an intimate moment with their city, everyone does the requisite 360-degree swivel to take in the widescreen spectacle of Edinburgh. It’s impossible not to look, then about-turn and look again. This is the skyline, with its juxtaposition of Old and New Towns, nature and architecture, water and land, which inspired Felix Mendelssohn to write his Scottish Symphony and Walter Scott to declare it “mine own romantic town”. And that, in 1995, led to Edinburgh being designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.

“My love affair with Edinburgh deepens by the day,” sighs Mark Erskine, 53, a dapper couturier in tweeds and trilby who moved here from Paris in December and is dawdling in front of the Old Observatory House, once inhabited by New Town architect James Craig. “I’ve been coming here since the Eighties. What’s extraordinary is how the city has so beautifully harmonised its architecture over hundreds of years. If that were to change, it would be a crying shame.”

The capital is one of only five World Heritage Sites in Scotland and the only one to encompass a living, working, constantly developing city. Edinburgh, also the world’s first Unesco City of Literature, is now on the brink of finding out whether last year’s nomination of the Forth Rail Bridge as a World Heritage Site has been successful. If it has, it would become one of the few cities in the world with not one World Heritage Site, but two. Yet, in the week running up to World Heritage Day on Friday, all is not well in the Athens of the North. A growing number of conservationists, campaigners, writers, and citizens believe a series of controversial planning decisions and building schemes are putting the city’s world class heritage at risk. There is talk of crisis at the heart of the historic capital. Twenty years on from being granted Unesco status, people are asking: is Edinburgh losing its grip on the past?

“It’s been clear for some time that the historic character of the city has been under threat,” says leading heritage campaigner David Black, who last week lodged a strident dossier with Unesco, calling for an urgent intervention. “Not from development, but from the wrong sort of development. The problem now is we’re caught in an architectural war of styles in which too many corporate modernists and their developer backers are hostile to the built heritage and go out of their way to create show-off buildings which degrade their urban context.”

Buildings such as the proposed plans for the Royal High School, a neoclassical masterpiece once touted as a home for the Scottish Parliament, then a National Photography Museum backed by Sean Connery, still considered to be second only to the castle in terms of its prominence despite lying empty for years. In February, plans to turn the 190-year-old building at the foot of Calton Hill into a six star hotel with huge extensions added to either side of the A-listed structure were unveiled. The developers and council argue the £55 million scheme will create 640 jobs and generate £28m for the economy. Nevertheless, the plans have been widely opposed. Last month nearly 400 people attended a public meeting to discuss the blueprint. And last week Black’s damning dossier compared Gareth Hoskins, the Glasgow-based architect assigned to the project, to “a Godzilla of the urban realm”. A statement released by the Royal High School developers responded: “We remain entirely focused on saving this building and creating a world-class hotel for Edinburgh.” The debate about the jewel in the crown of Edinburgh’s Acropolis rages on.

Outside the Royal High School, moments away from the throng of Waverley and the east end of Princes Street, all is eerily quiet. This is part of the Athenian complex that led Robert Louis Stevenson to write: “She has set herself off with some Greek airs, and erected classic temples on her crags. In a word, and above all, she is a curiosity.” The street is virtually empty. More parked cars than tourists. More A-listed buildings than people. Everyone who walks past is on their way somewhere else. There is no sense that this iconic landmark is a destination in its own right. Meanwhile the building continues to deteriorate. The only sound is from the resident pigeons cooing in the rafters. Broken bottles have been chucked through the cast-iron gates, Starbucks cups strewn across the grass. Now and then someone walking past pauses, not to gaze up at the towering Doric columns and magnificent portico, but to put change into a parking meter.

“I think this area would benefit from a hotel,” says Sonja Burghardt, a 36-year-old student from Germany. Studying hospitality and tourism management, she believes Edinburgh is “definitely” deserving of its Unesco status. “I think it’s doing a good job of preserving its heritage,” she says. “Cities have to move on and make compromises. There are ways of extending this building without losing its character, but the Old Town should be conserved otherwise Edinburgh will lose its Unesco status. It’s happened before to Dresden. They have to be careful.”

At the Cockburn Association, one of the world’s oldest conservation and heritage charities, director Marion Williams warns that although the city may not be in crisis “we’re teetering”. According to the association, which successfully resisted plans to build an urban motorway in the Sixties, the Royal High School hotel project is top of the list of decisions that could tip us over. “They’re not saving it,” she says. “They’re ruining it. They’re going to change that temple to the extent where I would question whether it was still a listed building. And for what? Another bland hotel.”

The Royal High School debacle follows a number of controversial projects in Edinburgh in recent years, from the demolishing of listed buildings in St Andrew Square to what The Scotsman columnist Joyce McMillan recently described as “the breathtakingly insensitive Caltongate project which has already almost cost the city its World Heritage Site status”.

Now rebranded as New Waverley after a decade of controversy, the £150m scheme was approved last year by the council. Taken over by a South African backer after the last developer went into administration the scheme will see a blend of housing, shops and hotels centred around a large public square on a derelict site in the heart of the Old Town that was once the city’s gasworks. The developers claim New Waverley will breathe new life into the Old Town. The detractors call it a crime against architecture. Thousands signed a petition saying they had “no confidence” in the city’s planners. One councillor who voted for the scheme declared it “not hideous enough to oppose”. And a letter signed by writers including Irvine Welsh, John Byrne and Janice Galloway stated: “Edinburgh today faces the greatest assault on its heritage since the failed Abercrombie plan of the late 1940s for massive city-centre redevelopment. A council seemingly without a clue, a planning department without a clear plan and a developer motivated entirely by short-term financial gain are conspiring to tear apart the fabric of this great city.”

For councillor Ian Perry, convener of the planning committee that greenlit the New Waverley blueprint, projects like this always lead to lively debate. “What was there before was a bus station,” he says. That’s its historic legacy. We haven’t knocked anything down. The main building we’ve managed to convince the development to save is the Caltongate building. Under the previous application they wanted to knock it down. This planning committee has agreed it should be retained. So I don’t see what the complaint about the Caltongate is in relation to heritage.” In a recent opinion piece in The Scotsman, he stated the council’s general position in no uncertain terms: “The World Heritage Site should not be seen as a barrier to development in the city centre.”

For Williams, the opposite is true. “The fact that they want to put a pend through to the Royal Mile is unbelievable,” she says. “If that pend is made the decision becomes reality. Everyone will want an address on the Royal Mile. People in years to come will say how on earth did we let this happen?”

Many people I speak to talk about the indelible scar left by Edinburgh’s tram project, the death of local democracy, and a cash-strapped council indebted to private business rather than the city, its heritage, and citizens. “I would categorically deny that accusation,” Perry insists. “We have very strict guidelines and 75 per cent of the buildings in a World ­Heritage Site are listed. There would need to be a very strong reason for knocking down an A-listed building. Whether Unesco status changes or not, and they’ve given us no indication to suggest it will, the buildings will still be protected.”

At St Andrew Square, where listed buildings were recently demolished to make way for a shopping mall, cranes continue to rise, and the work goes on. Perry tells me he can’t claim responsibility “for what was done at St Andrew Square because it was [done by] the last planning committee”. Andrew Martindale, head of heritage management at Historic Scotland, calls the demolition “regrettable”. Black has branded it an illegal act in his inflammatory dossier. And Williams, who demanded the planning committee change the wording from an “amendment” of the building to its “demolition” (which they did), refutes this interpretation. “I’ve seen the documentation and it wasn’t illegal,” she says. “David [Black] gets over-exercised and needs to be careful. I disassociate myself and the Cockburn Association from some of what he is doing because I don’t think it’s a constructive way to deal with a hugely complex problem.”

Nevertheless, she thinks the razing to the ground of the brutalist Sixties Scottish Provident building is a tragic loss to Edinburgh. “It was a staggering building of its time,” she says. “It was made of marble but because it wasn’t looked after like a listed building should be, it looked like shabby concrete. It should have been a spectacular modern intervention in the town. What we have is a monstrous mall in the making.”

For Martindale, the balance between preserving heritage and encouraging economic development is never easy to strike. New buildings go up, are routinely loathed by traditionalists, then years later become listed and are held up as examples of Edinburgh’s harmonious architecture. The Balmoral’s iconic clock tower, originally opposed by the Cockburn Association because it would block the view of the Scott Monument, is a perfect case in point. Heritage, as he puts it, starts yesterday. “Edinburgh is a working city, not a museum. And controversy isn’t necessarily a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of engagement and can lead to better quality planning.”

Back on Calton Hill, people continue to gather. In front of the National Monument, Krysztof Wrzos, a photography student from Poland who has lived in Edinburgh for eight years, is setting up his tripod. “I love photographing this city,” he says. “It’s incredible to me that these are the original buildings, that all this was left alone during the second world war.” His hand sweeps across the skyline, drawing a line from Arthur’s Seat to the castle. “Coming from Poland, that is very special for me.” And what does he make of the city changing? “I don’t think Edinburgh’s history is under threat,” he says, peering into the lens of his camera at a Greek monument on a hump of northern Ice Age rock that will forever be unfinished, paused in time. “Change brings life to a city. Then again, some things should be left alone.”