The debate on the future of the Royal High School and Edinburgh’s heritage has come to the fore recently. I welcome that as nothing enhances the quality of decisions so much as a healthy debate. Having previously led two major campaigns to save the Royal High School, I can tell you it’s not easy.
Before I was council leader there was the proposal to locate the Scottish Parliament on Calton Hill. Later as council leader I fought to make it the home for a Scottish National Photographic Centre. Tragically both proposals were rejected.
So, can we change the views of one of the city’s most iconic buildings? Well, actually we already have. A new restaurant was built (without planning permission) on Edinburgh Castle. An international icon for centuries, it’s profile was changed dramatically. And guess what? Nobody minds.
Since being built visitor numbers have rocketed to over 1.5 million, and the paint on the restaurant was barely dry when the city was awarded world heritage status. To my knowledge there’s never been a single formal complaint about it.
However, the story goes that Edinburgh can’t do development like “other great cities”. One highly regarded journalist rattled off cities that “cleverer with their architectural heritage”. That list was Berlin which has the turquoise Humboldt Box, Prague with its “dancing house”, Toledo, home to the distinctly utilitarian “Collective Houses”, Vienna with the Spittelau psychedelic waste incinerator and Amsterdam which has the truly horrific “bathtub” extension of the Stedelijk Museum.
Before we criticise standards of our own new buildings, remember that there’s generally no such thing as love at first sight with architecture. Dickens described the Scott Monument as “a failure . . . like the spire of a gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground”. The fantastic Cockburn Association said that the Caledonian Hotel would “stand witness for all time of the apathy of the generation that tolerated its erection with scarcely a protest”.
Edinburgh is the home of the Enlightenment. I have no advice to those involved in taking these decisions other than to say that we should let the decisions be taken without threat, rancour or any backward glances at other cities facing exactly the same dilemmas. The decision should be taken on what is best for preserving a wonderful building and what’s best to help make the greatest small city in the world even better.
Donald Anderson is a former leader of Edinburgh City Council