Library revamp is ‘cultural vandalism’

AS SOMEONE who, for nearly 30 years, has sought to promote internationally the best of Scotland’s contemporary architecture through public presentations, writings and exhibitions, I am appalled by the proposals to alter the Scottish Poetry Library in the Old Town of Edinburgh (your report, 13 February).

At the time of its construction in 2000, the building received Royal Institute of British Architects and Scottish Civic Trust awards for its carefully considered, yet imaginative reinterpretation of the area’s urban precedents and has stood since as a beacon of intelligent design in a city whose council is in thrall to the predations of hotel and student housing developers.

The Scottish Poetry Library was transformational in the regeneration of the bottom of the Royal Mile and, indeed, transformational for the reputation of its architect, who committed huge amounts of time, energy and resources to the project – not only in its design but also in assisting his client to secure the funding that enabled the library to materialise. Much of this money came from public sources and the library’s current director and board have a continuing responsibility to meet the conditions attached to this largesse.

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A significant aspect of the original applications related to a laudable ambition to generate outreach activity that would raise awareness and interest in poetry throughout Scotland – activity that with the removal of the garage below the fore stair and the fore stair itself seems now to be in danger of being permanently reneged upon.

The building’s external threshold of oak leaves impressed in concrete and supporting a lectern set towards an ingeniously reinterpreted fore stair provides not only an outdoor space for readings and performance but, perhaps more importantly, a truly poetic contribution to place-making in Scotland – something that is focal to the Scottish Government’s policy on architecture and to the activities of the nearby headquartered Architecture + Design Scotland.

To replace these unique elements with nondescript glazed boxes topped by the equivalent of a Torremolinos hotel balcony is an act of cultural vandalism.

In their defence, the authors of this proposal are unquestionably good architects but, as the old adage states, if you ask a stupid question you get a stupid answer. Unfortunately, in this case the resulting solution offers nothing of distinction to either the library or to the public realm of the World Heritage Site.  

The Scottish Poetry Library building is a modern architectural treasure of which we have all too few examples of international quality. The director and board should recognise that they have a wider responsibility than simply to provide a repository for the nation’s poetry collection.

On the corner of Crichton’s Close, which leads only a few metres later to the library, hangs a piece of artwork proclaiming “a nation is forged in the hearth of poetry” and this optimistic statement might equally be applied to the best of Scotland’s built environment. In this respect, the Scottish Poetry Library – and indeed Creative Scotland, the public agency supporting this banal transformation to the tune of £100,000 of public money – should recognise that the poetics of space are no less valuable to society than those held on paper and tape.

At a time when Scotland’s identity is so much a subject of debate, it is imperative that, as a national cultural institution, the Scottish Poetry Library should make a responsible contribution – it is, after all, its raison d’etre.

Should, however, hubris continue to prevail, the minister for culture, Fiona Hyslop, should step in and request that Historic Scotland consider the listing of the building – as nothing less than the professional and public credibility of the government’s policy on architecture is at stake.

Peter Wilson

Campbell’s Close