Euan Leitch: Pulling down ‘monstrous’ block might be too Brutal

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The news that the City of Edinburgh Council is looking at the area between West Port and King Stables Road for redevelopment is not new.

A development brief for the site adopted in May 2010 has little regard for keeping Argyle House, with a preference for “active edges on public frontages”.

My organisation, the Cockburn Association, is not seeking the preservation of Argyle House, but recent reporting perhaps allows pause for thought: is the office building incapable of reuse? Is demolition the most environmentally sustainable approach? And maybe, more controversially, is it really such a monster?

The marketing material for the building makes it clear that the building can continue to be used as offices and at least one architect in the city has a study for a hotel conversion in a drawer. Reusing the building is infinitely more environmentally sound than demolishing it.

The office building was designed by Edinburgh architect Michael Laird in 1967 and the exterior finish is primarily aggregate panels with concrete details. It extends 11 levels from King Stables Road, with two wings curving to meet the stair tower in the centre and the entrance is across a moat on West Port.

The Ministry of Public Building and Works was one of its first occupants, along with other government services. Despite its size it does not block important views of the castle. Yes it is large, but not everyone thinks it a monster.

In 1974 Scotland’s leading architectural historian and conservation campaigner, Colin McWilliam, praised Argyle House in an article on conservation in Edinburgh for the Architect’s Journal for its “sound choice of unit-design, colour and composition, and perfectly good relationship with the castle”. In the same article he shared the public’s wrath for the St James Centre.

Dr Miles Glendinning, Director of Scottish Centre for Conservation Studies, has described it as a monument to the Welfare State and compared it favourably with 19th-century multi-storey textile mills, combining social and economic significance. Those mills were once “dark and Satanic” but we now visit some as tourist attractions or work and live in conversions.

In 1849 the New Barracks on the west side of the castle were described by Lord Henry Cockburn as a “factory-looking erection, lofty and offensive”. John Ruskin deplored the repeated classical details of the New Town and singled out Queen Street for its regulated monotony when he visited Edinburgh in 1853. The passage of time has altered views of these buildings and they are now category A-listed. In the mid-20th century some historic buildings were unfashionable and their poor repair confirmed prejudices that resulted in building losses that we now regret, such as St James Square.

Could perceptions of Brutalist buildings change with time? There is a vigorous campaign to save Preston Bus Station, derided by some, loved by others.

By erasing a building type from the city are we potentially diluting a rich mix? If Argyle House is our most discrete example, a fragment of a wider scheme that was never completed, it tells a chapter in the city’s architectural and urban story.

My own impression of Argyle House is that it is Queen Street compressed, that the aggregate has weathered well and that it could handle significant alteration and appease the café culture-keen council. The Scottish Provident building on St Andrew Square and New Club on Princes Street are perhaps more polite examples but they lack the sheer swagger of Argyle House.

Then again, there are those that think that, like archaeology, it should be recorded and covered up.

Local artist Tommy Perman’s work features fragments of some post-war buildings such as Linksview House in the Kirkgate and Lismore Rugby Football Club on The Pleasance. Perhaps looking at our recent architectural past through the eyes of an artist is one way of reassessing it.

Discussions last week drew a range of opinions from “get the wrecking ball out” to “brute of a beauty” to “sprawling boorish drunk at a genteel Edinburgh party”.

The one uniting opinion is that it offers a superb view from within. Is this past mistake a future point of interest?

• Euan Leitch is assistant director of the Cockburn Association

‘A very egotistical building’

ARGYLE House has long been regarded by critics as one of the worst eyesores in the city centre.

Others, however, believe the building to be one of the best examples of the Brutalist era of the 1950s-70s, and view it as a building to be cherished rather than demolished.

A recent blueprint for Edinburgh proposes flattening the structure to make way for a new cultural quarter.

This could incorporate new homes for both the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Filmhouse cinema.

City council design leader Riccardo Marini, who has headed efforts to draw up the new blueprint, was reported as describing Argyle House as “a very egotistical building” which “totally destroys” the area.

The West Port area is one of four in the city centre the council has proposed earmarking for new culture clusters.

The others are at Potterow, Fountainbridge and Picardy Place.