Architect hits out at ‘bland’ Edinburgh designs

The St James Centre. Picture: Malcolm McCurrach
The St James Centre. Picture: Malcolm McCurrach
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BLAND designs and box-ticking developers are fuelling an architectural crisis in the Capital, one of Scotland’s leading architects has claimed.

Award-winning architect Malcolm Fraser has called for an overhaul of the planning system insisting it stifles innovation and promotes dull designs that neither offend nor inspire.

He claims “nitpicking” within the planning department makes architects “more frightened and less ambitious” and leads to a “miserable compromise” that pleases no-one.

Mr Fraser highlights buildings such as Radisson Blu on the Royal Mile, New Look on Princes Street and the St James Centre as examples of poor design perpetuated by the planning system.

“Developers look at the minefield that’s the approval process and believe that they have to keep a low profile,” he said. “They say: ‘Let’s keep it as bland as possible, tick the boxes’.

“By trying to do the right thing, the system ends up encouraging blandness and a lack of ambition. In reality, what we get is validated trash.”

And he said: “By trying to not cause offence the building becomes offensive.

“It’s like if you can think of the worst pop song that grates on your nerves because any great music has some grit and heart in it as opposed to trying to be as bland as possible.”

MALCOLM’S INFAMOUS FIVE

• Radisson Blu, High Street

“It’s a perfect example of how to trick people so it being decked out in heritage skin blinded people to the fact it obliterated three imported historic closes with its vast bulk. I would say we would want a building that was exactly the opposite, that was sensitive and respectful to the form of the Old Town.”

• Royal Infirmary

“The old Royal Infirmary was beautiful with views out to the Meadows and sunshine – proven to help people recover. The new building is in a dank hollow by a ring road surrounded by a sea of car parks.”

• Plans for new Royal Edinburgh Hospital, Morningside

“This development will be full of sterile zipped up courts and a poor relationship to nature guaranteed to wither the poor souls committed to it.”

• New Look, Princes St

“Princes Street is a fantastic, fabulous street with the most extraordinary view out, but seeing this does wither the heart. It is a miserable compromise between the existing building and a bombastic new build.”

• St James Centre

“I share everyone’s horror at what was done there. It’s good it’s being redeveloped. I still hanker back for the pre-St James Centre, St James Square. Leith Street was then a lovely two-level street, much like Victoria Street is today.”

Modern architecture should strike a balance between a “respect for local tradition” with “vaulting ambition” to do things that are bold, he said.

The current planning process, he said, “really wrings all the joy out of what you do”.

And the architect railed against the demolition of the modernist Scottish Provident Building in St Andrew Square as well as plans to gut the Scottish Poetry Library – a building he designed – branding prevailing design culture “art by retail”.

“Edinburgh is an exceptionally strong and vigorous place,” he said.

“It is so extraordinary that it can absorb an enormous amount of damage.

“I don’t believe that [Edinburgh’s] World Heritage ­status will be affected by bad planning decisions but that shouldn’t mean that we think everything is OK.”

As a key member of Architects for Independence, Mr Fraser believes an independent Scotland may be the key to attracting the sort of investment needed to help regenerate areas such as Niddrie, Craigmillar, Leith, Newhaven and Granton.

MALCOLM’S FIVE OF THE BEST

• Royal Commonwealth Pool

“I can remember as a boy aged 11 walking into that space for the first time and just being amazed by the light and the space and I still feel that sense of joy even when I look at it now. I love the beauty and simplicity of how it’s a couple of straight lines drawn against the crag of Arthur’s Seat behind.”

• Scottish Provident Building, St Andrew Square

“It amazes me a planning system meant to preserve and enhance the World Heritage Site should allow the demolition of this listed building.”

• Pollock Halls

”This is the oldest part of the university residences. It has a wonderful Scottish and Scandinavian feel to it. This was part of a golden age for architecture in Edinburgh in the 1970s.”

• National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street

“It’s a wonderful riposte to those who say modern architecture is not contextual. It is so wonderfully woven into its Edinburgh site.”

• Scottish Poetry Library

“I created it with a sense of generosity to how it opens on to the street but now they want to trash it.”

He claims a Yes vote in next month’s referendum would be an important catalyst for change including a renewed focus on social housing.

But he credits Edinburgh City Council for its current social housing strategy.

He said: “We are leading with the revival of social housing and a focus on the taxation and investment powers independence would bring.

“I should praise the council for what it’s doing with its 21st century housing policy.

“It is really leading the way not just in Scotland but in Britain, realising that we need to build more social housing again.

“It is about understanding there is a different focus in Scotland and we would hope to extend our remit or would encourage local authorities to build more social housing, ­borrow more money, reinvigorate their local communities and it would allow investment – whether it is infrastructure or housing.”