Buildings That Shaped Scotland

Perhaps the lecture that I had been most looking forward to (and the one that was the most directly relevant to my project), this panel brought together most of the authors behind the brilliant new publication Who Built Scotland. This, an exploration of the architectural history of a nation, is soon to be published in partnership with Historic Environment Scotland. I was lucky enough to be able to get my hands on an advance copy myself, and am hoping to have a write up posted as soon as I finish.

Bringing together a selection of five diverse authors with a connection to the Scottish Nation, Who Built Scotland covers over 5000 years of history distilled into 25 buildings. The panel saw four of these authors talk about one of their favourite buildings each, many with a personal connection. Again, I do not wish to simply try and recount an hour of conversation and debate, but merely pick up on the elements relevant to my own work… Of course, ‘merely’ is a biot of an udnersatement, the topic of the talk being so

The most striking thing about the buildings selected was the sheer diversity and spread of buildings. Working in the Edinburgh context, and especially providing a detailed historical investigation into the edifices of Calton Hill, it is easy to become blinkered to the wide spread of Scottish Architecture, of which the monuments of the hill are just one (albeit important) part of. The narrative of Scottish architecture, bibulous as it may be at points, is rooted in a the far past and geographical conditions and traditions often unique within the United Kingdom. After hearing this discussion, I realised it was little wonder that Enric Miralles traveled across Scotland to try and immerse himself as best as he could in its varied conditions.

But, touching upon points raised in previous posts can some of these conditions and traditions be found, still extant in Edinburgh? It is inherently dangerous to try and frame a city, especially a capital ) as some kind of microcosm of a nation (as they often are portrayed). But Edinburgh, with its odd, distinct’ ghettos of urban conservation’ is more prone to this than other cities. It still retains the medieval “fish-bone” street pattern of the old town. The progressively more characteristic design throes of the New Town are still apparent in building and especially urban form. Victorian sprawl fills in the gaps in the urban fabric all the way down to Leith. The natural landscape is still incredibly, dramatically observable. It may not have the scale or sheer beauty of the highlands, but geological forms such as Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crags, Castle hill and of course the Calton Hill exist to sign post in such an obvious way the influence of the natural landscape on Scottish architectural and urban development. So no, Edinburgh is not a microcosm for the rest of Scotland, it cannot be. But it is perhaps a caricature of the architectural history of a nation.

It was again perhaps when the questions were opened to the floor at the end of the discussion that yielded the most interesting responses from the panel; responses which have a huge bearing on the issues being tapped into in my own project.

The most discussed of this was the notion of access, and of integrity. The trade off between the success brought by opening up our built heritage to the industry of mass tourism, and the adverse that has on both the quality of both existing, preserved and future built environment is a source of constant tension.

The impact of mass tourism to our sites on the degradation of the sites themselves, or occasionally more worryingly, the way they are preserved (And strangle future development) is a key issue in architectural conservation, and one that will be a focus of my upcoming paper on project implementation.

This of course is symptomatic of the notions of ownership surrounding our built heritage. When these edifices are an important part of our cultural past and help to constitute our identity today, they transcend the usual modes of ownership which govern our built environment. They become part of our collective heritage.  This means that their upkeep and access to them becomes a vitally important part of their management, which is especially interesting when the place in question is actually privately owned.

Alexander McCall Smith received a round of applause when he aptly pointed out the distinct example of this in Edinburgh, the Royal High School. The furore behind the future of the building, its past significance and different ideas for development are well documented within this project, and throughout this site. It is intriguing to know that in addition to national interest, the building clearly holds sway over the hearts of many residents of the city itself as a point of civic pride of Edinburgh.

More to the point, notions of ownership and “drawing the line” over who the heritage “belongs to” proved to be a contentious concept for many in the crowd. Some of the audience seemed to express disdain that these amazing sites described were open to all to visit, and not just those who live around them. Again, clarifying ownership of these totemic sites is a difficult balancing act, however I firmly side with many on the panel who expressed views that experiencing these buildings should be open to all. Besides, that’s what an “open, inclusive, future Scotland” is supposed to look like, isn’t it?

Another aspect of this, as raised by the panel and those within the audience, was the issue of “integrity.” If these buildings are to be maintained, and access to be granted for all and actively promoted, what is the best way to conserve them? This of course will be further addressed in my own designs later on in the project, and the tensions that these different approaches create (especially with the planning system) highlighted in the future implementation essay.

I was pleased to hear Jamie Crawford reference the 19th century art-theorist Alois Riegl when discussing these issues. I will hopefully dedicate more time to this specifically, but Crawford reiterated that in Riegl’s view the most open and democratic approach to allowing people to access the past is simply to let the structure show it has aged. Then, without any other knowledge, education or prior information, anyone who experiences the site will understand instantly the visceral age of the edifice. How this is managed, and the tensions that this creates with other notions of preservation is a complex one, however it was gratifying to hear talk of Riegl in a forum such as this to finish on.


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