A place for poetry

In responding to my letter regarding the proposed destruction of the principle facade and fore stair of the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh’s Old Town, Lady Joyce Kaplan (Letters, 18 February) suggests that “20 people sitting on steps in Edinburgh does not equal national outreach”.

Whilst self-evidently true, this statement does, however, betray a quite unfortunate disregard for one of the key design features that has contributed to the success of this worthy institution and which has helped give it a deserved place in the pantheon of contemporary architecture in Scotland.

More pertinently, when this building was built, this element and its adjacent courtyard and reading space were reserved under the Holyrood North Site Masterplan as part of the Old Town’s public realm and I would strongly contend that it is not therefore within the gift of the library’s director and board to seek – or to use public funds – to effectively privatise these areas.

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It is no exaggeration to state that the opening of the building in 2000 put the Scottish Poetry Library on the national – indeed international – map, with few people having previously been aware of the existence of this institution.

It is a small, subtle jewel whose informed geometries situate it so elegantly within its deceptively sloping site and surroundings as to suggest it has always been there.

Such architectural sensitivity to location is not easily achieved and is not emulated by the banal and destructive proposals currently on offer. They call to mind the remark of Emperor Charles V to the church authorities when first seeing the Christian cathedral inserted into the heart of the great mosque of Cordoba: “You have destroyed something unique to make something commonplace.”

The Scottish Poetry Library may be small, but its architectural qualities are no less unique or culturally significant and I would re-emphasise my point that the current director and board, as custodians of this national institution, have a responsibility to Scotland and its built environment that transcends the pragmatic need to accommodate an enlarged collection of written and recorded material.

That the library’s success has caused it to outgrow its current accommodation may be a given; that this requires the refined face of the building to be the subject of botched surgery is not. A move to larger premises might well be seen to be the more sensible and responsible option.

Peter Wilson

Campbell’s Close