Streets in the sky - the rise and fall of Edinburgh's tower blocks

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‘Streets in the sky’ became a ubiquitous feature of city living in the post-war period.

Few architectural phenomena divide opinion quite like high-rise flats.

‘Streets in the sky’ became a ubiquitous feature of city living in the post-war period, no less in Edinburgh.

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Dozens of tower blocks were built in the Capital in the decades after 1945, becoming a symbol of modernity at a time of profound change.

Children watching the old Westburn blocks of flats being demolished at Wester Hailes, Edinburgh. Picture taken January 1993.Children watching the old Westburn blocks of flats being demolished at Wester Hailes, Edinburgh. Picture taken January 1993.
Children watching the old Westburn blocks of flats being demolished at Wester Hailes, Edinburgh. Picture taken January 1993.

But many of the brutalist buildings would become synonymous with social problems and deprivation after efforts to end the scourge of slum housing failed to solve the city’s underlying inequalities.

Areas such as Muirhouse, Leith and Wester Hailes had huge flat blocks added to their landscapes in efforts to improve conditions for the poor.

Martello Court on Pennywell Gardens was built in 1967 and remains one of the city’s tallest structures. Other famous blocks include Leith’s Cable Wynd House - or the banana flats - and the Oxgangs flats.

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Aerial shot of the new flats being built at Cables Wynd - aka 'The Banana Flats' - as part of the redevelopment of Leith in May 1965.Aerial shot of the new flats being built at Cables Wynd - aka 'The Banana Flats' - as part of the redevelopment of Leith in May 1965.
Aerial shot of the new flats being built at Cables Wynd - aka 'The Banana Flats' - as part of the redevelopment of Leith in May 1965.

The latter were constructed in the early 1960s and lasted just over 40 years before being demolished live on the National Geographic Channel.

In the heady days of their construction, they were branded the ‘Comiston Luxury Flats’, offering a leap into the future for residents of inner city slums who in many cases relied on outdoor toilets.

Sighthill’s Broomview House, Weir Court, Hermiston Court and Glenalmond Court also fell victim to the wave of high-rise demolitions since the turn of the century. They had been condemned by the city council due to construction defects.

The Oxgangs tower blocks, Caerketton, Allermuir, and Capelaw Court were demolished in the mid 2000s.The Oxgangs tower blocks, Caerketton, Allermuir, and Capelaw Court were demolished in the mid 2000s.
The Oxgangs tower blocks, Caerketton, Allermuir, and Capelaw Court were demolished in the mid 2000s.

Meanwhile, the Westburn development at Wester Hailes lasted barely three decades before going under the wrecking ball in 1994.

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However, Leith’s high-rises have won favour over time, with Cables Wynd and Linksfield House being granted Category A listing in 2017. Both blocks were immortalised by Irvine Welsh’s classic ‘90s film Trainspotting.

High-rise Edinburgh has perhaps been the city’s fastest architectural revolution. Scores of complexes were built and torn down within a couple of generations, with countless families forced to move as a result.

Those which remain, however, mean the legacy of that unrestrained building spree will remain a feature of the city’s skyline for years to come.

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