EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
Modern developments in Edinburgh tend to be received hesitantly at best by locals in the city - the desire to protect the style and heritage of the Old and New Towns sometimes feels like a reluctance to countenance any modernisation or improvement, and it's not unusual for 'new' buildings to be greeted with widespread outrage.
But Edinburgh has always been a city of development and growth, from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century 'high rise' houses which rose in the Old Town, to the major 'New' Town of the eighteenth century. The Victorians systematically 'improved' the Old Town in the nineteenth century, and as Edinburgh became a major European capital of the twentieth century there have been waves of development that have either removed or built onto existing structures.
So here's my potted history of Edinburgh's ever-changing cityscape, starting with those original efforts to modify the city properties to accommodate more people as the population steadily rose.
Demolishing the existing houses in order to build bigger ones was impractical and expensive, and the challenging physical geography of the city made horizontal growth almost impossible, so instead Edinburgh developed as a vertical city.
Buildings would be modified by adding an extra level to the top of the structure, creating a new floor of accommodation space. These would be added through the years as needed, as the city drew communities from outlying towns and became the focus of an exodus of people from further afield with the dawn of industry and mechanisation.
A great visual example of this can be found on Bakehouse Close, just off the Royal Mile. At the back of the building here, the different 'layers' of the building can be identified like strata in natural stone.
My coloured scribblings on this photo show the various different phases of construction on this building, from the original late sixteenth century structure to the late eighteenth century.
It's not always easy to parse one period of development from another, as the building increased in size as needed, and later phases of development consumed earlier sections of the structure.
Here the building has four or five visible storeys, but towards the top end of the Royal Mile, where the landscape is more dramatic, the steep hills meant up to 12 or 14 storeys were possible.
Within these phases of development, doorways and windows were frequently bricked up or knocked through, as the function, layout and structure of the properties changed. Doubtless the residents at the time bemoaned the level of construction and development to their city, the way locals do today!
By the 1740s, Edinburgh's population was swelling beyond manageable proportions. The city had an area of just half a square mile, with in excess of 50,000 souls crammed within its walls. Overcrowding, filth, deprivation and squalor were to be found on every corner and in every property, and so the city authorities planned an expansion off the ridge of volcanic rock that marked the first major expansion to the city in its history.
Building the New Town from the 1760s onwards became a feat of engineering, as well as a major commerical enterprise. Land was bought and sold, property developers converted pastures and grazing land into residential streets, and for the better part of a full century the city's growth and development seemed unstoppable.
James Craig had laid out the city's formal grid system of streets, with the intention of creating grand, broad streets of high status residences. However, his vision was nearly derailed in the early stages by two deviations from his structured layout...
A property developer by the name of John Young had taken the council's incentive of £20 cash to purchase the first plot of New Town land, and promptly built two sets of semi-detached/duplex accommodation facing each other across a fine courtyard. Thistle Court, as it was known, was typical of the Old Town style of rubble-built housing, and the courtyard offered the familiar layout of space that grander Old Town residents would have expected.
The trouble was, it wasn't the terraced street that James Craig had planned for! So tucked away behind George Street, near St Andrew Square, this small development remains the oldest surviving development of the Georgian New Town, even though it completely failed to conform to the expected standards and layout.
A second deviation from Craig's plan would also be the kind of incident to leave modern residents frothing and foaming at the mouth, and it can be found on St Andrew Square itself.
Craig's vision for the city was a symmetrical layout of straight lines and garden spaces, 'bookended' with a large church building at both the eastern and western ends of the city. On Charlotte Square today you'll still find the former St George's Church, which was the major feature of visual impact at the western end of the city. However, at the parallel space on St Andrew Square, the space where Craig had drawn his church is occupied by the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
That was as a result of a wealthy businessman named Laurence Dundas convincing the council to allow him to occupy the land instead of giving it over for the church to use, because it represented the grandest and most high-status location in the city. St Andrew's Church was bumped onto George Street itself, and Dundas lived with his family in the grand villa which passed into the ownership of the bank in the nineteenth century.
The first phase of New Town took nearly 50 years to complete, meaning that for many people in the city, the area to the north of the Royal Mile would have been a building site for almost their entire lifetimes. And not everyone who could embrace the opportunity of the New Town did so - stories survive of at least one aged celebrity figure of the Old Town boasting that he had never even seen the New Town, never mind taken the trouble to visit it!
By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Old Town was crumbling and collapsing, with incidents like the tragedy of Paisley Close becoming dangerously close to common occurrences. Edinburgh Council was forced to develop a vision to improve and modernise the medieval city streets, and from the 1860s onwards a significant proportion of the original city was demolished in order to widen the streets, rebuild the houses, and improve the quality of life for the thousands of poor wretches who were unfortunate enough to call Edinburgh's Old Town 'home'.
St Mary's Street at the World's End was the first street to experience this modernisation, giving birth to the Scots Baronial style of architecture which filled standard homes and shops and functional buildings with the kind of decorations and architectural features more commonly found on more high status buildings.
This period of the Victorian 'improvement' deliberately sought to recreate some of the historic stylings of the original buildings, which is why today visitors are often surprised (and dismayed) to learn that buildings which look not unreasonably like ancient structures are often barely more than 140 years old, and are. in fact a full century newer than the surviving 'New' Town buildings...
During the twentieth century, whole swathes of Edinburgh's historic buildings were lost to the wrecking ball.
Princes Street remains one of the most badly developed of the city's streets, as decades of commercialisation have built successive generations of shopping structures on the site of what previously had been grand housing.
The 1950s and '60s were especially traumatic for the city, as concrete edifices were built where Georgian style had once existed, and there were even plans to run a motorway along the route of Princes Street, demolishing the city structures entirely in an effort to provide improved transport routes across the from east coast. We must be grateful such wanton cultural vandalism never came to pass, and Princes Street retains a few vestiges of its original style despite the efforts of high street stores to claim the territory for their own.
Edinburgh only got its UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1995 - far more recently than many people realise - and the protection afforded by this status extends to all the structures standing at the time... which is why many of those remarkably awful developments of the 1950s and '60s not only survive today, but are protected from demolition alongside the more 'historic' buildings that people tend to associate with heritage protection!
And the UNESCO protection has actually led to developers being forced to work collaboratively with the old structures in their development, creating interesting contrasts of style and structure that I think can show off the very best of Edinburgh as a modern historic city.
On Advocate's Close, the development of the Old Town Chambers in 2014 was designated as Scotland's best new building, despite some of the foundations and internal structures of the property dating back, in parts, to around 1500...
Similarly at Holyrood where the modern Scottish Parliament building won handfuls of prestigious architecture awards, despite many locals being both appalled and outraged by its visual styling.
But the wholesale renovation of this former industrial area saw buildings such as this pizza restaurant occupying a renovated brewery building, and a modern glass structure to its right enhancing the original brick warehouse, bringing life and style back to buildings that could easily have been lost. Forcing developers to utilise structures like this invites a creative engagement with the city's heritage, and results in intriguing combinations of old and new.
One of the very best examples of this combination of Old and New, I think, can be found at Quartermile, a development in the Old Town of the 1870s Royal Infirmary buildings. When the hospital moved out to modern premises in 2005, the former buildings were sold for development and are continuing to be updated into a combination of residential and commercial spaces, the mix of old and new styles creating a stunning visual effect that I think serves as a fantastic metaphor for Edinburgh as a whole.
Many buildings - including a lot of churches which passed out of function - have been reinvented as other structures with different purposes, and the combination of styles can be quite visually arresting when done well.
This city has presented to developers for centuries, and the contemporary drive to convert and renovate and expand and improve is not significantly different from the efforts to modify and develop the city over the past four centuries or so.
Without efforts to maintain Edinburgh as a functioning, contemporary city, we would risk turning into a museum city that is preserved in aspic or trapped behind glass, lifeless and ill-suited to the needs of the modern world. Successful development demonstrates that history and heritage need not be sacrificed for the sake of commercial enterprise.
Whilst not every attempt to modify and develop is necessarily successful, being open to the possibilities that exist - and the efforts made to preserve, protect whilst in the process of development - is essential in order to prevent Edinburgh becoming a city only of the past, and not of the future.
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