29 January 2014

'Architectural Vandalism?'

As I was seated in the coffee shop this morning, I noticed a couple of interesting signs out on the sidewalk on the Royal Mile. One of them read 'Architectural Vandalism!' And the other implied something along the lines of 'fake old' buildings. A website was scrawled across the bottom. I was curious, so I looked into it and learned there was a hearing this morning, and a vote, on a long-contested architectural development in the Old Town portion of Edinburgh, which is generally refered to as 'Caltongate.'

Turns out it's going ahead. The vote was eight to six. Obviously I haven't been here over the last decade, during which this long and controversial plan has been making the rounds, but this has been in the news a bit lately. I thought it was interesting, since I've only just finished with a Scottish architectural history course so it's fresh in my mind. I'm not terribly political and I prefer not to get mixed up with petitions, etc. unless it's something I feel very strongly about one way or another. So here I'm just an observer, an outsider, obviously only learning of this on the day that the final decision was made.


But by virtue of the fact that this is the Old Town, distinctly separate from New Town (which is 19th century but still considerably newer-looking and blatantly commercial), I find it interesting that the city plans to build a modern commercial square, complete with hotel, residences and retail space. On the other hand, it's a derelict, vacant, unused space that used to be a bus station, demolished several years back. The picture above, which I took a few months ago, shows at the very bottom the land and some of the buildings that will be affected.

This area is nothing special right now with that big vacant plot there. That I completely understand. But I also feel the community's frustration when historic buildings must be demolished or overhauled in order to make way for some modern commercial venture. The building in the bottom right corner is apparently one of those that would be majorly affected; if not scheduled to meet the wrecking ball, it will be heavily modified. Below is a better picture of the entire site (via).

It's tough to say how I feel about this sort of thing. It's the same with cutting down trees or removing houses to build a highway. I know there are good reasons for doing it: jobs, tourism, land use, etc. But the art-and-architecture, heritage-and-preservation bit of me hates to see historic properties given the axe to make room for incongruous modern complexes in the middle of historic districts (let alone UNESCO World Heritage areas!). So here's to hoping they really do make an effort to preserve all they can and still create a successful use for that currently wasted space.

Again, I've only just come into this at the very moment when the battle has essentially ended. The city is going forward with the plans, and construction might already start this spring. We shall see...

How do you feel about big commercial developments? How important is the history of a building? Could you not care less? Is a modern, useful building preferable to a crumbling old building, no matter its history? Thoughts! ;)

Kate x


  1. As you said yourself, some things like this are necessary for the future but just reading this saddens me so much. I'm in America and we hardly have any really old buildings in much of our country. As an Art Historian, the architecture of a region is so huge and important, I also seem to side with the history of something over anything else. I understand the need, but doesn't mean I would be happy to see those old buildings be torn down.

    1. Pretty much my thoughts exactly.. and yeah, I was raised in Wisconsin where the oldest buildings are still very much 19th century... here in Scotland, that's "recent!" It's tough to see any old building taken down, even if it's derelict and useless.