John McLellan: A two-fingered salute to ideas of ‘good’ taste

An artist's impression of the controversial hotel at the heart of the St James development
An artist's impression of the controversial hotel at the heart of the St James development
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Lord knows I’ve tried, but I find it very, very hard to find anything positive to say about the Golden Turd soon to be pointing skyward from the hotel at the heart of the new St James Centre, a one-fingered salute to the rest of the city’s skyline.

I said as much in these pages when the design was first unveiled over two years ago and although there have been tweaks, the basic concept is untouched and will cock a snook at its detractors for years to come, author Alexander McCall Smith most prominent amongst them

The Melville Monument in St Andrew Square is illuminated as part of Bloom. Picture: Lesley Martin

The Melville Monument in St Andrew Square is illuminated as part of Bloom. Picture: Lesley Martin

Last weekend he fired a ferocious broadside at the new developments he fears are blighting the city, citing the St James Hotel as the worst example in a string of projects he abhors.

He also took aim at the city council’s Waverley Court HQ on Market Street and again he has a point. It’s wonderfully airy inside but on the outside it’s a box plonked in the Old Town, with the bland Everyman Joe statue outside the main entrance daring those who pass beneath to be average. Like the Golden Turd, it’s another two fingers to good taste.

Therein lies the problem; what, exactly, is good or bad taste? Jack Vettriano has made a very successful career out of what most critics regard as bad art, and while I tend to agree, it doesn’t make the views of the millions who like his stuff less valid.

Mr McCall Smith also loathes the new Standard Life building on St Andrew Square, but I like it and it’s a tremendous improvement on the concrete monstrosity it replaced, which itself was loved by people who know a lot more about architecture than me.

Similarly, New Waverley aka Caltongate, panned by an alliance of authors including Irvine Welsh and damned by my colleague Joanna Mowat as “not bad enough to refuse”, will be a lot better than the derelict bus garage previously on the site.

Like Mr McCall Smith I may dislike the Golden Turd and Waverley Court, but what would I like to see in their place? I have absolutely no idea, and most critics of buildings like these are unable to offer much guidance either. The Scottish Parliament building? I want to like it, but just can’t get my head round those stupid poles or the game console shapes. What would I have liked to see instead? Haven’t a clue.

Putting up a spirited defence, the city’s planning convener Lewis Ritchie said Edinburgh “is a breathtakingly beautiful city, but it’s not a museum”, and indeed the Museum of Scotland is a good example of a successful marriage of the old and new.

The never-ending problem in a city like Edinburgh is finding effective combinations of the modern and historic and the default for architects is to highlight differences, not retreat to pastiche, so there is broad agreement that imitations like the mock-mediaeval Radisson Hotel on the High Street should not be repeated. But when critics bemoan the damage being done to the Old and New Towns their focus is on the setting, not the buildings themselves.

An alternative would be strict Neo-classical rules for the city centre, but that might end up with every new building looking like Graceland. And we’re about to get a heartbreak hotel.

It’s a Blooming shame to lose St Andrew Square

I might be on my own in being underwhelmed by Bloom, the opening International Festival event last weekend. Atmosphere was distinctly lacking in St Andrew Square on Friday night, with people wandering around the labyrinth of temporary barriers to see hazy images and hear the indistinct soundtrack.

It felt like the precursor for a spectacular which didn’t arrive, not until the Tattoo fireworks anyway. OK, so the spectacular is the three weeks of performances to come, but if Bloom was one of the reasons St Andrew Square was cleared of Fringe venues and bars then a re-think is certainly called for.

The St Andrew Square attractions had a real buzz, especially on a sunny lunchtime, and alarm bells should be sounding about suggestions that “permanent infrastructure” should be installed and thus prevent their reinstatement. Permanent could easily mean inflexible.

July move would be a damp squib

There has been a suggestion that the Festival and Fringe should come forward to match up with the Scottish school holidays, but the room for manoeuvre is limited.

Those who argue that July would be a better month than August forget several points; the first being that it’s precisely because Scots go on holiday in July that August is the ideal time for us to enjoy major events at home.

Secondly, it’s not entirely clear how many young local culture vultures are missing out on shows by the time they go back to school next Wednesday, 12 days into the official Festival season. It’s not as if they are chained to their desks over the following two weekends.

Thirdly, the Fringe in particular is more than a just a gathering of artists but a showcase for the entertainment industry and more performers and producers can get here because the holiday season has kicked in.

But most importantly, the Festivals are not just Scottish events but UK and international so to ignore travel patterns elsewhere would be disappointingly parochial and potentially damaging if fewer visitors with families were able to come here because of their school schedule.

Starting in the first week of August and finishing the weekend before the August bank holiday might be feasible, but that’s probably the limit without creating a bigger problem than it solves. At least it could be extended by a couple of days and shift the closing fireworks concert from a dreary Monday night.

University got this one right

My colleagues on the development management committee have been taking a few pelters for agreeing to the demolition of the gatehouse at the old Royal Infirmary in Lauriston, the latest listed building on the site to feel the sharp end of a JCB after George Watson’s Chapel and the Red House nurses’ home. But removal of the rather unremarkable house will allow the main surgical building to be framed with a dramatic new entrance plaza, and while new owner Edinburgh University has rightly been pilloried over the years for many of its schemes, this is one it’s got right.

Corrections & clarifications

In recent weeks I may have given the impression the council’s Labour and SNP groups signed a coalition deal because I stupidly believed an official document which stated: “The SNP and Labour Coalition Agreement was signed in June 2017 with 53 commitments”. The policy and strategy committee heard on Tuesday it was actually just an understanding that similar stuff in the two manifestos would be “carried over.” So if I have led any readers to believe there was a formal agreement which contained specific commitments, and the signing ceremony was not a stunt, please accept my sincerest apologies.