Aidan Smith: It's a skyline bully, a cityscape thug

So there I was minding my own business, doing what natives of Edinburgh do of a Monday morning and Febreezing my net curtains after a heavy weekend of scowling behind them. And there it was …

Tuesday, 8th June 2021, 7:43 am
Members of the public are pictured in a frame with a view of the newly built W Edinburgh hotel - also known as Ribbon Hotel - from Calton Hill. Maybe if you're young and a tourist you might like it. Those of us born here, some years ago, may disagree, writes Aidan Smith.

The Walnut Whip. The - sorry about this - turd. The local vernacular is the softer, squidgier toley. The steaming great pile of challenging architecture that is St James Quarter. Now that the cranes have gone and construction is nearing completion it’s making even more of a statement. And it’s looming over the citizenry at almost every turn.

You can be in a park, a couple of miles away as the urban seagull flies, and suddenly - whoomph! - there it is, staring at you, demanding an opinion from you, as the most divisive structure to have been plonked in Scotland’s capital since the Parliament.

Maybe it’s even more divisive than the Parly because that building sits low at the bottom of the Royal Mile and its nearest neighbour - the Palace of Holyroodhouse - is the holiday home of a 95-year-old woman who lives down south and she’s hardly ever there.

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The W Hotel, at the heart of the development, and the cause of the stooshie, is uptown. It is big. There is nothing prim perjink, douce or – to summon words sometimes used to describe Edinburgh - about it.

The Parliament in its situation has room to breathe and be modern. The W is hugger-mugger with domes and spires and clockfaces that are 250 years old and form one of the time-honoured picture-postcard images of the city. With that unfurling ribbon effect at the top - destined to always look unfinished or coming apart - it is not trying to fit in.

Indeed, it seems to be saying to New Register House, the Balmoral Hotel and the rest: “You got a problem, pal?” It is a skyline bully, a cityscape thug. View it from St Andrew Square and, in the crushed perspective, it looks like it’s about to mug the Royal Bank of Scotland building known as “No 36”, creep up from behind and steal all the cash. My branch, my savings.

And yet … and yet. Cities evolve. If the Royal’s dome resembles the bowler hat that its most prestigious clients would once have worn and the newcomer sports the wacky headgear of someone much younger and unconventional, then isn’t this Edinburgh changing and growing as it surely must?

Edinburgh has a hotel fetish, or it did when people were still travelling, but this is not just another one. Not looking like this, it’s not. And not in this location, a key spot, for here’s where the city’s dreariest thoroughfare (Princes Street) ends and the most vibrant and exotic one (Leith Walk) begins.

Personally speaking this is a site of special scientific interest. I’m proprietorial about the teeming corner and care how it looks and what goes on round about it. Edinburgh’s head post office used to be across the road from the new development and, on being told by a teacher that this was the exact point in the city from which all distance was measured, I once, unprompted, counted my footsteps from its front door to my front door then stood up in class and announced the stunning stat. (What a sook).

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When I was slightly older, the west end of uptown was frequently a place of disappointment as girls would promise to meet you underneath the Binn’s clock then fail to show. The east end, though, never let me down as a gateway to gloriously misspent youth. Soon, trolley-bags destined for the W will be click-clacking over the site of B.Hyam, bovver clobber specialists for Sta-Press trousers and Ben Sherman shirts. Further down Leith Street was a snooker hall. Then came a favourite flea-pit, the Salon, specialists for horse operas, and the Playhouse where I fibbed about my age to see Last Tango in Paris.

I cannot fib any more. I may not be old enough to actually own net curtains but am self-conscious enough to worry that I could be portrayed as being on the Brexity side of the stooshie. That I’m grimly hanging on to history. That I’m set in my ways and want to spoil other people’s fun. Maybe you’d have to call the rammy Inclusivity vs You’ll Have Had Your Tea.

I’ve had a rammy with myself: “Why don’t you like the design? Is there not something resembling it on one of your old prog-rock album sleeves, sketched by Roger Dean? As a child of the Space Race can’t you visualise it existing somewhere on Tracy Island, home of the Thunderbirds?”

But then I think it looks somewhat less than fabulously futuristic and more like a barrel - a giant version of the kind a competitive suburbanite would have on top of the bar in his living-room. And that swirly flourish: is it not reminiscent of a Great British Bake Off competitor squirting whipped cream in a last-gasp finish?

In other words, showing off. The design is architects showing off and now Edinburgh seems to be showing off, which is not my city’s style. The building is not intrinsically wrong, just wrong for here. It would enliven many a plain-looking city full of boxy buildings - witness how the Shard and the Gherkin stand out in plain-looking London. And it would look great in Glasgow (that’s a back-handed compliment, I think).

The drop-dead-gorgeous neoclassical wonder that is Edinburgh? I don’t think so. I mean, maybe I could succumb to its flashiness but right now, if it’s going to keep creeping up on me, there’s a real danger I’ll become nostalgic for what went before, even though the St James Centre had the Athens of the North looking more like Tirana.

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