Alexander McCall Smith: Development is ruining Edinburgh’s fragile beauty

McCall Smith takes aim at modern development, including the St James Quarter revamp
McCall Smith takes aim at modern development, including the St James Quarter revamp
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ONE of Edinburgh’s most celebrated authors has slammed the city’s evolution in a damning critique of the modern architecture he claims is ruining Edinburgh’s heritage.

World famous novelist, Alexander McCall Smith, 68, best known for The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, said the fragile beauty of his beloved city was being eroded in an “act of artistic destruction”.

Apex City Hotel, Grassmarket, Edinburgh.

Apex City Hotel, Grassmarket, Edinburgh.

“We haven’t quite reached the tipping point where the city has ceased to be beautiful,” he said. “But we are approaching that tipping point. This is a city whose beauty is very fragile.”

In particular, he branded the new St James Quarter design a “monstrosity” and criticised city planners for not learning from past mistakes.

He said: “The distressing thing is that we can look back on the mistakes of the 1960s and think that we understand them, but we seem to be repeating them. That’s the extraordinary thing.”

Today, Edinburgh’s planning leader responded by saying Mr McCall Smith had failed to acknowledge the “excellent development” which is taking place in the city centre.

Artist's impression of the St James Quarter. Courtesy of Laing O'Rourke'

Artist's impression of the St James Quarter. Courtesy of Laing O'Rourke'

Mr McCall Smith made the comments in a feature at the weekend in The Times, where he highlighted what he said were the worst offenders, including the new entrance to Edinburgh University’s McEwan Hall.

The historic graduation venue is undergoing a £33 million overhaul with the addition of a new glass-covered circular entrance pavilion in the middle of the newly landscaped Bristo Square which critics claim blocks the view of the iconic 19th century building.

Mr McCall Smith also lamented what he said was thoughtless development in the New Town which he said jarred with the classic architecture of the area. And he rounded on the controversial hotel proposal for the Royal High School on Calton Hill.

“To put in something that competes with the beauty, that destroys it, particularly something so clearly wrong in terms of its surroundings, is simply extraordinary,” he said. “It is an act of artistic destruction.”

The City of Edinburgh Council paid out �87.5m in claims. Picture: TSPL

The City of Edinburgh Council paid out �87.5m in claims. Picture: TSPL

While the author admitted the city must continue to develop and change to meet the economic needs of a burgeoning international city he said this shouldn’t be at the cost of heritage.

“People have to make a living and a city has to have businesses which pay rates and provide employment. That doesn’t mean you have to do it in a brutal, insensitive and ultimately destructive way.”

In the article, Mr McCall Smith also said council planners haf allowed the spread of pubs and clubs along George Street to affect the delicate “balance of use”.

And in the east end of the city centre, just minutes from the re-development of the St James Quarter he said there was another “carbuncle” which breaks up the harmony of St Andrew Square. The circular Costa coffee pavilion “looks like a ventilation shaft,” he said.

The major new Standard Life development in the heart of the New Town World Heritage Site, meanwhile, resembles “a nuclear reactor”.

And of the city council HQ on East Market Street, he said “it’s like a seaside ice-cream parlour. It has nothing to do with the Old Town.”

Mr McCall Smith suggested the Old Town was suffering from a crisis of identity. “The issue is whether we want city centres to be lived in,” he added.

But the city council’s planning convener Lewis Ritchie, said the author’s analysis had failed to acknowledge the “extent of excellent development” in recent years.

And he said he took his role as “a custodian of Edinburgh’s architectural heritage” extremely seriously.

“Citizens demand that we strike the right balance between protecting our unique built environment on one hand while ensuring that the capital keeps pace with the demands of being one of the UK’s fastest growing and most productive cities.

“What most people tend to agree on is that Edinburgh is a breathtakingly beautiful city, but it’s not a museum. People understand the pressing need we have for new development, for new homes, for new investment; but they want to see that growth and expansion managed in a planned, consistent and joined up manner.”

In the last few years, he said, the Council has gone to great lengths to “deliver on these objectives”. “While we must continue to do more, what the article acknowledges but fails to truly consider is the extent of excellent development that has come to the city in recent years. In the last week alone we’ve seen an innovative and extremely effective project at the category A listed Old Royal Infirmary gain planning approval, while the £25m reimagining of the Ross Bandstand was unveiled after a thrilling competition that captured public interest and drew some of the world’s best designers.”