EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
The architecture of Edinburgh is one of the constant delights of the city - no matter how many times I walk these streets (and I've walked them A LOT!) I'm always seeing new details or new features that I never noticed before.
But there are several instances in the city of architects dying before their buildings could be finished, and even (in one notable example) of a building being abandoned before it could be completed.
So here's a brief introduction to some of Edinburgh's unfinished architectural business...
GEORGE MEIKLE KEMP
Not an especially well known name amongst Edinburgh's architectural luminaries, Kemp was a joiner and carpenter by trade, but was also a self-taught architect who created one of the city's most significant structures.
In 1836, shortly after the death of the writer Sir Walter Scott, a public competition was launched to design a monument which would adequately celebrate this incredibly popular and influential figure. The top three designs would each win a prize of 50 guineas, and one of the designs would be built.
Kemp had no formal architectural training, and although he was a gifted draughtsman and had an eye for the detail of gothic structures of the Borders abbeys and Rosslyn Chapel, which he'd seen as a child, he'd never actually attained a design qualification. He submitted an entry to the competition under a pseudonym, and was thrilled when his design was chosen as one of the three winning entries.
Edinburgh was a city full of master builders and designers at that time, and his success (despite his lack of qualification) made him an unpopular figure in the architecture community. Nevertheless his design for a monument to Walter Scott commenced construction in 1840, and quickly took the 'gothic rocket' shape by which it is popularly known today.
In 1844, as the construction was nearing completion, tragedy struck. Kemp never made it home one evening, and his body was discovered floating in the canal near Fountainbridge a few days later. Suicide was ruled out, but whether it was foul play or accident which led to his drowning was never proven.
Kemp was buried in the St Cuthbert's kirkyard, and his ten-year-old son laid the final top stone of the monument to complete its construction six months after his father's death. Kemp never saw the finished monument which stands on Princes Street today.
Remembered as the architect who created the classical style of Edinburgh's New Town, Robert Adam came from a family of architects, and was such a notable figure in the late eighteenth century that on his death in 1792 he was afforded a burial plot within Westminster Abbey in London, lying alongside historical luminaries such as Mary Queen of Scots, Isaac Newton, Charles Drawin and (more recently) Stephen Hawking.
Adam's work across Scotland and the rest of the UK was extensive, but there were two major projects in Edinburgh which were left unfinished at the time of his death.
Most notably, perhaps, was the development of the University of Edinburgh's Old College, which Adam had designed as a double quad structure housing some of the university's prime teaching spaces. Construction began in 1788, but came to a halt four years later at the time of Adam's death.
Funding at this time was also a challenge, and so the building was left unfinished for nearly thirty years, until Adam's plans were passed to a luminary of the next generation of Edinburgh architects, William Playfair. Playfair made several major modifications to the plans - reducing the double quad to a single open space, for example, which reduced the cost of the construction significantly - and oversaw the development to its completion.
Adam would never see the finished Old College building, one of the most beautiful features in the Old Town, but neither would he see the completion of the site which would perhaps have the greatest impact and influence on the city as a whole.
The New Town of Edinburgh had been growing and developing steadily since 1767, with structures built westwards along George Street in sequence. The initial houses were all designed by different architects and developers, and the patchwork effect of styles and designs came to be considered unattractive, and ill-fitting with the highly stylised plans for the city.
Adam was commissioned to design all of the buildings around Charlotte Square, the western extent of the original New Town development, to create a harmonised sense of architectural style, and his plans started development in 1791, a year before his death.
Today, the style of Adam's Charlotte Square properties is reflected and reproduced right through the New Town, being taken on by later architects and developers and creating a unified sense of classicism which marks Edinburgh's New Town as a gem of Georgian style. Alas, Adam would never see Charlotte Square completed, nor would he know how influential his style and vision would be.
Another figure associated with the New Town would also never see the finished product. James Craig was the young architect whose grid-system plan for the New Town was revolutionary in the 1760s when he proposed it - three broad streets running east-west, bisected by smaller streets running north-south. It was a vision that was clean, classical, and in complete contrast to the narrow, winding lanes of the Old Town, and created an entirely different sense of space for the city's new era of expansion.
Although he died before the New Town with finished, Craig did perhaps have some sense of its impact and importance, as he came to resent the demands upon him for commissions that replicated his early grid system, and wrote to a friend complaining of the "monotony of the straight line" that developers sought from him.
Craig died in 1795, a quarter of a century before the first phase of the New Town was completed, and was buried in what was, for a long time, an unmarked grave in the Greyfriars Kirkyard.
Playfair was the neo-classical architect of the nineteenth century who followed Robert Adam's lead in creating distinctive styles of work which continue to populate Edinburgh's city centre. Almost any building with Grecian-style columns can reliably be claimed as either built or inspired by Playfair, but there is one specific structure which remained unfinished not just during Playfair's lifetime, but right up to the modern day.
On the top of Calton Hill, overlooking both the Old and New Town areas of Edinburgh, stands a distinctive range of columns that helped to give Edinburgh one of its nicknames, 'the Athens of the north'. This structure was original intended as a full scale recreation of the Parthenon in Athens, a Grecian temple structure that would serve as a war memorial to the dead and wounded Scottish soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars.
The foundation stone for Playfair's design was laid in 1822 during the historic visit of King George IV, and fundraising efforts began to raise the estimated £42,000 that would be needed to complete the monument.
The first round of public subscriptions raised £16,000, and construction work began on the columns.
Then, the fundraising dried up, the public stopped donating, and money for the project became scarce. Various suggestions have been made for why the public lost interest in the project - partly the Napoleonic Wars were considered a dim and distant series of conflicts that the people of Scotland didn't have an immediate or visible connection to, and so their interest in commemorating them waned steadily. One other factor was the death of Walter Scott, and the subsequent fundraising for George Meikle Kemp's monument in his honour - as an immensely popular writer and social figure, it's plausible that where people had money spare to donate to a public monument, they favoured the celebration of Scott over the commemoration of the Napoleonic Wars.
Either way, a decision was made that Playfair's monument would remain unfinished, and construction stopped after the range of twelve columns which adorn the top of Calton Hill today. What was originally to be known as the National Monument is today better known as Edinburgh's Shame or Edinburgh's Disgrace, becase of the decision to leave it unfinished.
The last notable architect who never saw his work completed was the Catalan architect Enric Miralles. He was just 45 years old when he died of a brain tumor in July 2000.
The project that Miralles was working on at that time was considered to be the greatest of the buildings he designed during his career, and it can be found at the bottom end of Edinburgh's Royal Mile, opposite the Palace of Holryoodhouse.
The modern Scottish Parliament Building is a controversial structure for several reasons, but the style and vision which Miralles brought to this previously neglected area of the city is the factor which visitors continue to find challenging. The building resists easy definition or understanding, and instead is a whole collection of symbolic references to Scottish culture, history, landscape and people - it's a truly eye-opening structure which was awarded the UK's highest architectural honour, the Stirling Prize, on its completion in 2004.
The building itself evolved over its construction, which may help to account for its variety of styles and features, but the most significant influence on its development was Miralles' death, which occurred just a year into the build and before the final vision of the parliament complex had been completed on the drawing board.
The project, suddenly without its lead architect, had to be taken over by another figure - and it was to be Miralles' wife, an Italian architect named Benedetta Tagliabue. She brought her own vision to Miralles' magnum opus, and saw it through to its completion.
Today the parliament is a highlight of the city, and deserves to be seen even if its style is considered to be challenging or ugly. The inside of the building is an incredible feat of light, space and style, and is worth exploring. Whilst he avoided much of the later controversy that came with the parliament, it's a shame Miralles didn't live long enough to see his intriguing building completed.
Explore more of Edinburgh's architecture with my private city walking tours!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
Search the blog archive...
© COPYRIGHT GARETH DAVIES 2014-21