John McLellan: Show us the money, Irvine

Author Irvine Welsh is among those who have signed a letter against the Caltongate plans. Pic: HEMEDIA

Author Irvine Welsh is among those who have signed a letter against the Caltongate plans. Pic: HEMEDIA

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Is the pen mightier than the sword or, in the case of Caltongate, the JCBs which will be rolling onto the controversial Old Town site very soon?

A group of illustrious writers, including Irvine Welsh, pictured, Janice Galloway and Andrew O’Hagan certainly hope so, having joined Alexander McCall Smith in a last-ditch howl of well-written protest to halt the development of the infamous New Street gap site.

The Battery in Copenhagen. Picture: comp

The Battery in Copenhagen. Picture: comp

Their letter to our sister paper, The Scotsman, says that “a unique part of the world’s heritage” is threatened by “irreversible damage”.

Now far be it for me to accuse a group of very fine authors for indulging in a new collaborative work of fiction, but I fail to see how building on a gap site can in any way be described as doing irreversible harm to anything. They might not like the plan, but it’s hardly irreversible.

And lifting from the Cockburn Association playbook, they say that “Edinburgh today faces the greatest assault on its heritage since the failed Abercrombie plan of the late 1940s for massive city-centre redevelopment”.

The Abercrombie plan was indeed an assault on the city centre, in that it sought to tear down scores of historic buildings and turn Princes Street Gardens into a gargantuan roundabout.

Abercrombie threatened to deliver for Edinburgh what the Luftwaffe gave to London, but without the deaths.

The Caltongate area does resemble a bomb site, which once a year is turned into the equivalent of a multi-level trailer park to meet Festival hotel demand.

The plan produced by developer Artisan and its architect, Allan Murray, fills the gap, preserves a listed building and puts some rather uninspiring arches to good use.

I have argued before that some elements of the design could be improved, but to throw the whole thing out would in fact give the green light to a scheme which is much worse and can go ahead almost immediately.

Murray is a man who raises passions in the local architecture world, but he is clearly someone who understands budgets and the necessity to deliver value for his clients. Some have argued that the pool of Scottish designers is too shallow and for important projects like this the net should be cast wider than the likes of Murray, Richard Murphy, who master-planned the Haymarket site in conjunction with Leith firm Sutherland Hussey, or Malcolm Fraser.

So I asked some chums in the architecture world who could deliver world-class projects that might pass muster with cognoscenti. After all, was not Enric Miralles chosen for the Scottish Parliament because he was an architect of global renown?

Of undoubted international reputation is a humble Madrid architect called Rafael Moneo, whose souk in Beirut bears some resemblance to this project. Development in a historic setting as opposed to a former war zone? His new town hall in Murcia is interesting to say the least.

Or what about the Danish rock star designer Bjarke Ingels? The centre of Copenhagen is as historic as Edinburgh but somehow I doubt his design for the Battery district would go down too well here.

Closer to home, David Chipperfield comes up regularly in conversation. His practice is a relatively new international heavyweight with an impressive portfolio including a plan for a new legal district in Barcelona.

Or the up-and-coming Belfast firm of Hall McKnight, responsible for the Titanic Walkway and the MAC creative arts centre? They have some very imaginative ideas for human-scale projects in small, sensitive areas.

Anyone for Stanton Williams and their King’s Cross redevelopment or Sainsbury Laboratory?

But are any of these fine organisations likely to come up with something which would find favour with the Sons and Daughters of the Old Town? Somehow, I doubt it.

As for the letter’s call for the city to impose a ban on all speculative development, I really do wonder if some of these fine wordsmiths have genuinely lost the plot. So was the New Town a philanthropic, not-for-profit exercise? Er, no.

What we have here is a privately-owned hole in the ground for which there is no other proposal other than a vague demand for more social 
housing.

So here’s a proposal. All those who signed that letter should get together with their wealthy friends, buy out the current Caltongate owners and produce their own plan.

Ditto Craighouse.

Let us know when you’re ready.

ONE FOR ‘OUI’ CAMPAIGN

How nice it was of those French supporters to leave their message of support for the Yes campaign daubed across walls near Murrayfield after Saturday’s international.

Just as long as they realise independence won’t entitle them to occupy Leith for 12 years as they did in the 16th century.

Quite a few of them were dressed for war, in particular a gang of about 20 or so dressed as members of Napoleon’s Grande Armée seenmarching down Princes Street, tricolours aloft.

Following close behind were a few musketeers and then some Vikings, although what Vikings have to do with supporting French rugby is anyone’s guess. OK, so they conquered large bits of northern France, and Normandy is so named as a result, but the French are not reallyknown for their Norse tendencies any more than the Russians. Maybe it was Shetland RFC taking up the chase.

Although the eventual needless defeat was hard to take, at least the Scottishperformance was good enough to kill off any more chat about Scotland being relegated from the tournament.

Now it’s up to the SRU to sort out the game here so the conversation never arises again and we’ll be welcoming back the French in two years’ time.