Find your way out of the station and you see something else, and the suffocating Festival crowds become irrelevant. A Victorian-futurist high bridge soars overhead, and it plunges bisecting two tall towers, masonry on steel frames, baroque in theory, Gothic in practice. It's a scene as excitingly metropolitan as anything you'll find in Scotland's de facto rather than de jure capital in Glasgow, and it instantly replaces the initial feeling of irritation and dread with one of expectation and anticipation. Look to one side of this amazing mise-en-scene and you find a brutally craggy acropolis; look to the other side and there's a planned neoclassical city of great urbanity. Familiarity with Edinburgh might well breed contempt, but these first impressions are of awe. And awe also, at how this unusual and dramatic form of urbanism can have become so popular, with the teeming crowds all around. Take Edinburgh and make it into a list of things people like in cities, and you'll find it highly counter-intuitive. What people like, apparently, is highly coherent and even authoritarian town planning, steep and melodramatic topography, very tall buildings, the total dominance of flats, with hardly any single-family houses to be seen - and sombre, dark colour everywhere, with only tiny hints of the rustic or the twee. While with other places that it might be compared to – a Bath, a York – there's the sense that if tourism was taken away the whole thing might disappear, in Edinburgh you feel that it could get along very nicely without all this unseemly bustle, thank you very much.
I received a quick lesson in Edinburgh topography by travelling through the coherence of the New Town, watching it gradually devolve into tenements that could be easily relocated to Glasgow (although their settings could not be), then past a large (and here, especially incongruously crap) PFI school to Fettes College, who are hosting a public art event of some description. Tony Blair's alma mater has a darkling presence on the skyline in this end of Edinburgh. David Bryce's blackened, gory design towers domineeringly over an area of privilege as marked as anything in Mayfair. Yet it is also an area of flats, and flats built as flats. The axis leading away from it is lined by interwar tenements, showing the basic components of Scottish mass housing – the stone, the dignity, the high windows, the scraggy backsides – beginning to accommodate a few cosmetic features from the modern movement, such as moderne typography, glazed stairwells and the elimination of previous tenements' already minimal ornament. You wonder what might have happened if this minor reform had been taken as a model for post-war urban mass housing in Scotland rather than a botched revolution (or at least, until you find their much less attractive working class equivalents elsewhere in the city).
Edinburgh has within it a planning tradition which is the opposing force to all grands projets – the legacy of Patrick Geddes, the late 19th/early 20th century planner who recommended 'conservative surgery' to repair slum districts – such as the tall late medieval/renaissance tenements of the Old Town were when he started writing. One of the things about Edinburgh that makes it charming rather than merely impressive is the results of this at the bottom end of the Royal Mile. Here, tiny council estates, designed alternately in an unpretentious grey and brown Scottish Brutalist-Vernacular or in a arcaded neo-classicism evocative of reconstructed post-war Central Europe, are as dignified and undemonstrative as their repaired and renovated pre-modern forbears. The Gorbals or the East End of Glasgow should have been treated like this in the 1960s. However sensible Geddes-style incremental planning might be for these sorts of dense, highly developed areas, they also rest on a certain degree of architectural skill that, for some unfathomable reason, has been absent in recent additions. It isn't as if Edinburgh doesn't have the architects fit for the task – small-scale gems like Richard Murphy's Fruitmarket Gallery, or other small-scale interventions by the likes of Murphy and Malcolm Fraser prove otherwise. Yet the new housing around Holyrood is fine as planning and disappointing as architecture, as cheap as a new stunning development in the Thames Valley. The stone-clad bank offices nearby are even worse.
On brief acquaintance, there are two large-scale structures in Edinburgh after Geddes that abandon conservative surgery and instead go for the drastic and risky operation, one high-end, one low. The latter is 'St James' Shopping', the sort of structure to bring out the antimodernist in even your correspondent *, a complex whose ability to have received planning permission even in the 1960s is truly extraordinary, straggling as it does in front of the unforgettable symmetrical vista of Waterloo Place. Its recent redevelopment compounds the injury, labouring under the twin misapprehensions that it can all be made better via wonky shapes (iconic!) and stone-cladding (contextual!). Turn from that back to Holyrood, to the other non-conservative piece of surgery – EMBT's Scottish Parliament. This is not an easily dismissed building. Spreading into fragments at the foot of the hill, its complexities defy glib analysis, although on short acquaintance the most striking aspect is how Miralles and Tagliabue specifically tried to design the ubiquitous security features of a contemporary government building. Rather than leaving it to the Council, the architects helpfully provided bristly organic high fences and sensually curved concrete blast walls.
For all the local references, it does not grow out of the site in the same way as Edinburgh's other acropolis, the former Scottish Office of St Andrew's House. Thomas Tait's very '30s design has a nod here to Constructivism and there to Italian Novecento, but it feels organic to the landscape in a corporeal, non-rhetorical way.
Its grandiose planning is continued in the other Scottish Government building in Leith, but not much else. RMJM's paranoid panorama of business park misery is an example of how the derelict port has been transformed via all manner of pepper-potting, of luxury flats, bistros and the like. Not much of it seems to have trickled down into the later tenements, miserable Presbyterian things compared with their predecessors, nor into the port town's Brutalist blocks. These are sometimes fine, heroic architecture, like the famed, sinuous 'Banana Flats', but sometimes less impressive as urbanism, with the Banana block's car park a barrier between itself and the rest of the city. Otherwise, Leith is abundant in evidence that 'conservative surgery' in and of itself is not much better if the architecture is devoid of presence, elegance, or often even competence.
Now and again in Leith you find an infill site between warehouses and tenements that has a genuinely worthwhile building lodged in, but mostly it's a matter of will-this-do, shameful in a city with an architectural legacy like this. It's no use blaming it on the context - Leith itself can nearly hold its own with the city centre, with several hard, dark classical buildings that are fittingly muscular and robust, lasting as far as the spectacular Americanist concrete atlantis of the Flour Mills.
Yet the rest of Leith Dock is, and no exaggeration here, one of the worst new developments in the UK, and that it should have come to this here is unforgivable. Reading or Southampton can boast little worse than Conran's exurban, introverted Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre, some awful regen-cliché flats, or the pitiful Mint Casino. In any city this would be a scandal, let alone one as rich as this, with architects as talented, in a capital that has not exactly been short of investment. There is no excuse for this other than philistinism, stupidity, desperation and graft. The site is now pockmarked with wasteland, and Edinburgh Council need to be publicly shamed into clawing back at least some pride by starting over with something that is at least slightly worthy of its location.
* (on second viewing, the back side by the bus stop is pretty good)
Originally published in Building Design, 25/8/11