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Scottish Provident Institution
Letter by Malcolm Fraser, Architect
7 Jul 2014
Scottish Provident Institution in Edinburgh
Scottish Provident Institution12 August 2013
There’s a wonderful thread on the Hibernian Supporters website titled “1960’s architecture in Edinburgh… is good for the city”, where a group of Hibbys debate the merits of the best of Edinburgh’s modern buildings, offering sophisticated praise for buildings they agree to be “masterpieces”.
They’re clear that some development from that time was poor but eloquent about the best, giving the lie to the patronising view that “ordinary people don’t appreciate modern architecture”. This opinion, formed on behalf of us all, gives the Establishment an additional stick with which to attack our built environment. The standard arguments for demolishing masterpieces from the past are that “it would cost thousands to repair the roof” (so we spend millions demolishing and building anew) and that “it’s no longer fit-for-purpose” (see my daughters’ Boroughmuir School where, instead of adapting its sturdy 100 year-old fabric for the next 100 years the Council are building a new one, outside the existing catchment area, that will be “fit” for a fraction of that). For a modern masterpiece we add the dreaded “modern buildings are not proper heritage, and ordinary people don’t like them”.
The 1960s was a wee golden age for Edinburgh architecture. The best of its buildings include the Commonwealth Pool, Mortonhall Crematorium, the original Pollock Halls and Basil Spence’s Canongate tenements – all exhibiting the openness, structural innovation and play with light that characterised the humane architecture of the time. But the favourite of many of the Hibby sophisticates and possibly the most celebrated – it sits above them all at number 8 in the Prospect List of the 100 Best Modern Buildings in the whole of Scotland – is the Scottish Provident Institution on St Andrew Square.
It’s a beautiful building, its open, light-filled floors clearly of its time. But is also sits beautifully in its New Town context and the Georgians would surely have admired its calm rationality, clear entry and generosity in inviting light into its floors. It’s a Georgian house, brought forward in time and scaled-up to match the Victorian commercial palazzos that surrounded it.
It is listed by Historic Scotland as a building of national importance, its heritage validated by praise and academic evaluation from august bodies such as the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland and the Scottish Civic Trust. It’s in good condition, provides open, flexible space, and sits in a vibrant part of town.
And that town – our Edinburgh – relies heavily on such Heritage for its wealth and happiness. Our built heritage and its magnificent integration into our extraordinary geology is the Unique Selling Point that sits behind all our other claims to vibrancy, giving us the ability to attract and retain business and tourism as well as host the world’s greatest Arts Festival. Our Heritage is our wealth; but it also, under some dumb economic models, stands in the way of our “economic development”; and so this fine building is up before the Planning Committee tomorrow, with a Recommendation of Approval for its demolition.
How has this happened? First of all is what the Cockburn Association, in a formal complaint to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, describes as a deliberate deception by the Council’s officers, in pretending that this is not a formal “demolition”, in order to avoid the proper tests and protections that would then apply. The proposal is to take the whole building down …and then glue a few bits of the old frontage back onto a new building, to provide a façade that looks a bit like the old. Aside from the fact that such scrapbook-façadism is universally derided, trashing and traducing our heritage for no benefit, the proposal clearly is, in the technical sense, “demolition”, as Historic Scotland – the Council’s principal advisors here – have clearly stated to them. The officers’ position, that a bit of glueing somehow avoids the use of the bad word, is untenable.
I hope and trust that, as I write, there’s a wee panic going on in the Planning Department. It’s unusual for institutions to admit they’ve erred… but I think they might save themselves from censure if they bethink themselves, withdraw the report and go back and insist that the description and, therefore, process, changes.
They do have my sympathy though, as all such institutions are under huge political pressure to cave-in to the tiniest, daftest commercial demands of the “economic development” imperative.
Here’s a little example of its daft power from my own experience as an architect. I worked on a lovely New Town building with a grand arcaded stone opening to a rear saloon, which was being redeveloped and rented-out to a restaurant. The agents controlling the deal wanted the arcade ripped-out, as it made the building theoretically more flexible. I countered that the restaurant would like that arcade; but was told that we should take it out, then trick it back in plasterboard to suit.
We stalled and, happily, ran out of time to do the work. But the disconnect between the funny money of the agent’s figures, and the real value in the arcade, was an eye-opener.
It’s a similar issue on St Andrew Square. The whole block is to be redeveloped and the agents want theoretical space throughout that has a greater floor-to-ceiling height than our small listed section. But the final development will require staff rooms, restaurants, meeting rooms, executive offices and suites with different requirements that would sit happily in this space and any good architect (can I volunteer?) would love the challenge.
The purpose of the listings process is to protect the heritage which is of such core value to a city like Edinburgh. Put a different way you could say that it is there to stop developers doing the dumbest thing available to them. If they have to work a little harder here, and be a little more imaginative, then that is what is necessary – and entirely justifiable – in a place like Edinburgh.
I look forward to the Council showing a bit of backbone.
Malcolm Fraser, Architect
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St Andrew Square, Edinburgh
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