Gina Davidson: Gillespie’s plans are a lesson in poor design

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IT is very easy to fall into the Prince Charles camp of condemning modern architecture and design, especially in Edinburgh where a multitude of multi-storey eyesores have been added in recent years to those which already blighted the landscape – the brutal legacy of the strive for “modernity” in the 1960s.

Of course, there have been some marvellous new additions to the cityscape in recent years, from the National Museum of Scotland to the Scottish Parliament (yes, I know I’m in the minority) but much of what’s appeared has sorely lacked in the way of inspirational design.

So you might think that with each new monstrosity of glass and breezeblock created – all in the name of regeneration but ultimately to host office workers or tourists on a city break – the planners would ratchet up the demand for better design. However, that doesn’t seem to have been the way it works, but I hope, with the latest massive application for planning permission, that will change.

The impact of the places in which we work, study and live on our health and even the way our brains work is fast-becoming accepted as a real problem. So where better to start to get it right than with a brand new school?

Yet the final design for a new James Gillespie’s High School in Marchmont, which was revealed this week, is as much of a letdown as a row of Cs on a school exam certificate when you were expecting As.

The current school is no longer fit for purpose, so it’s to be replaced, much to the delight of parents, pupils and staff. And as someone who spent six years of her life there, I admit to having a vested interest in seeing how it would change.

But while the design brief talks a good game about the importance of the working environment on children’s ability to learn, and teachers’ ability to teach, the end result is as dull as a French grammar lesson.

Going by the impressions of how it will look, the new buildings seem to be built from the same horrible brownish bricks with which it was originally constructed back in the late 60s.

It’s the kind of brick that should be kept for building electricity sub-stations, not a 21st-century school of excellence.

Despite its construction materials, what Gillespie’s always had going for it, was its “campus” feel. Pupils would have to move from building to building in between lessons, giving them fresh air, a time to chat, and a chance to stretch their legs. More importantly, travel between classrooms also meant that pupils associated the change in surrounding with a change of mindset appropriate to the subject.

And there was also a great deal of outdoor space in which to congregate at break times, with the grass and trees softening the look of the place.

Apparently the new design aims to retain the campus feel, but instead of having many separate blocks, there will now be one giant brick and glass monstrosity, stretching almost the length of Lauderdale Street – and at the Warrender Park Road end it even rises to three storeys in height. Within this there will be three “courtyards” or “outside classrooms” to be utilised by staff when lessons demand.

Ultimately though, it could mean that, especially on rainy days, children are not outside at all. Unless they have PE or drama, which will be housed in two separate blocks.

Furthermore, the current school was not particularly intrusive on its residential neighbours, but the barrack-style of the new building will change the relationship of the school to its surroundings. What was a fairly open space will feel more closed in, sunlight will be lost (although this is apparently within the planning guidelines), and many mature trees which screen the school from the street will be cut down.

The one silver lining to this bleak architectural cloud is the retention of the A-listed Bruntsfield House. Not that anyone could have touched it. But it’s a shame that it will now be used mostly as a place for staff meetings rather than for pupils. When I was there the tiny rooms were used for musical instrument tuition and having to climb up its winding staircases added a certain historical theatricality to attending the school.

Obviously there was much consultation before these plans were lodged. I find it hard to believe that most could be in favour of what has finally been proposed, although desperation for a new school may just have led some to accept whatever is offered.

I hope that the city planners, the planning committee and those interested in having a true centre of educational excellence with architecture to shout about will ask for wholesale changes to what’s being planned.