Architecture 999: Call to list Scotland's 'witty' postmodern fire station

To most, it is a place where firefighters assemble and train in wait for the next callout. To others, it is also a postmodern delight.

A bid has been made to elevate Tollcross Fire Station in Edinburgh to listed building status with a distinguished group of architects applying to Historic Environment Scotland to have its finer features recognised and protected.

Docomomo Scotland, which devotes itself to the celebration, recording and study of 20th century modernism, described Tollcross Fire Station as one of Scotland’s best buildings of the 1980s which borrowed design elements from Charles Rennie Mackintosh while making “witty” reference to other architectural styles.

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"It is an early example of the postmodern 'turn' in Scottish architecture, and demonstrates particularly well the vitality of public-sector design during the 1980s, with significant architectural interest and design value. In particular, the design makes numerous, often witty references to architectural history,” the organisation said.

Firemen and fire engines on parade outside the newly-opened Tollcross fire station in Edinburgh, April 1986. The fire station is credited with developing a new, artistic design for public buildings. PIC:: Stan Warburton/ Bill Stout

Tollcross Fire Station, which opened in 1986 at a cost of £2.2m and replaced the cramped firefighting headquarters at Lauriston, which opened in 1900 and was designed with horses and horse-drawn vehicles in mind.

The new building was drawn up by Wick-born architect Donald William Bain, who worked with Lothian Regional Council Department of Architectural Services and also on the development of Livingston during the 1960s.

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Bain’s building at Tollcross helped represent a change in direction for the fire service, which put a new coat of arms on show at the station. Two lions holding a shield bearing the words “Ready Aye Ready” guarded the building, the emblem replacing one of two thistles on a background of flames and water.

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Tollcross Fire Station - an essential base for the emergency services, and also an architectural delight to some. PIC: Julie Bull.

For architects, the fire station’s windows onto Ponton Street are of particular interest given they echo in miniature the ‘hen run’ at Mackintosh’s masterpiece, Glasgow School of Art.

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The gridded window design also references one of his “typical” design devices.

Docomomo Scotland said the fire station was a “highly significant” example of 1980s UK postmodernism and reflected the “vitality” of Scottish public sector architecture during the decade.

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The statement added: “Postmodernist designers frequently played games with their sources, transforming them and collaging them to create

dramatic new compositions: this was a consciously ‘artistic’ approach to design.”

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The building also speaks to a particular ‘Edinburgh style’ as well as the work of revered Glasgow-born architect James Stirling, whose creations included the brutalist Andrew Melville Hall student residence at St Andrews and the New State Gallery in Stuttgart, Docomomo Scotland said.

“In effect, Tollcross Fire Station adopts Stirling's own method, which was to borrow, magpie-like, from architectural history to create something clearly

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new but with clear, witty references to the past – a past which here simultaneously draws on Edinburgh, Scottish and international precedents,” the statement added.

Docomomo Scotland said Bain and his fellow Lothian architects were responsible for some “quality work” during the 1980s and early-1990s, with postmodern principles also explored at other buildings, including Bathgate Fire Station and Leith Academy.

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Historic Environment Scotland is now reviewing the building to determine if it meets the criteria for listing.

A spokeswoman for Scottish Fire and Rescue Service said it was aware of the application.

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