Monday, 14 April 2008

Athens of the North transformed

Edinburgh - once the Athens of the North - faces a huge challenge as it seeks to adapt to the 21st Century. Should it be a creative and expanding capital city, drawing new investment and visitors from all over the world, or is it condemned to become a declining urban shell - a victim of traffic congestion, second-rate buildings, blighted suburban estates, and the fatal complacency of inactive leadership?

This is the choice posed by Edinburgh’s design champion, Sir Terry Farrell – and it is a challenge which at last has been accepted by some of Scotland’s most powerful figures, including, it now appears, the First Minister.

In recent weeks, Sir Terry has overseen an unprecedented appraisal of Edinburgh’s cityscape, in order to establish a series of key design and architectural issues which he believes must be addressed if the city is to secure a prosperous future.
Part of his work has involved lobbying politicians, and last night he said that, with the support of Alex Salmond, “it is clear a turning point has been reached” which could deliver a vision of a vibrant 21st century capital city.

His upbeat mood is in stark contrast to his feelings last autumn, when he told The Times that Edinburgh was in the grip of the “forces of lethargy”. A new political regime in the City Chambers and newly appointed council officers had now transformed the mood, he said.

Sir Terry, whose recent work includes the redevelopment of several London landmarks including Charing Cross and the new Home Office headquarters, was first appointed to his unpaid role as Edinburgh’s design champion in 2004. The April issue of the architectuiral magazine, Prospect, is devoted to his vision for “Project Edinburgh”.

Over more than 50 pages, he pulls few punches in his appraisal of the city’s past planning regime, singling out “complacency” as the most disastrous failing within both the public and the private sector, and highlighting a lack of vision from civic leaders living off the city’s reputation for historic architecture.

Sir Terry’s ally, Ricardo Marini, is even more outspoken. In a fierce attack on the “silo approach” of council officials he accused many of concentrating on specific issues of housing, roads, education and health provision but failing to grasp wider issues, such as th overall design of one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

“After four years, sadly there are senior officers who still think that what they have been doing is the right thing to do,” said Mr Marini, who is the city council’s design leader. “This inability to admit to having a problem is a glaring symptom of the challenges we still have.”

His charge is that over the past 40 years, Edinburgh has been developed on a piecemeal basis, with design decisions devolved to commercial companies rather than taken by civic leaders with a clear idea of how the city should look. This has led to areas of architectural blight, with little relevance to the great traditions of one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

In his manifesto, Sir Terry sets out 12 challenges, ranging all around Edinburgh and its environs. Many of his pronouncements run counter to existing development plans and are certain to upset powerful commercial and business interest within the city.

One section of his report is devoted to docklands and urges the development of an “urban framework master plan”, stretching from Joppa in the east of the city to Port Edgar in the west. The scope of the project cuts across proposals for 16,000 homes on a 144 hectare site at Leith Docks prepared by RMJM architects for Forth Ports, which have already been submitted for outline planning approval.

A spokesman for RMJM said that this vast scheme had been worked up in consultation with the council. But the firm appears to be at odds with Sir Terry’s design philosophy.

“I am saying to the council, ‘What demands are you making of the developers?’ I want to know how that development links to Leith and to the city centre. These are the questions I don’t have answers to, either from the council or from the applicant,” Sir Terry told the Times last night.

In the centre of the city, Sir Terry laments the condition of Princes Street, at once “one of the most spectacular streets in Europe” and yet “something of a failure” with “second rate” buildings, going on to question whether shopping should be its primary role.

“On Princes Street it is not possible to build large stores without radically altering the streets behind. Yet despite these constraints, Edinburgh keeps trying to convert this great part of the New Town into a kind of mammoth shopping complex,” said Sir Terry.

His alternative mixes flats, boutique hotels and clubs in the upper levels of buildings, which are currently used for storage, and the introduction of cafes and restaurants at street level. He stresses that the impact of the city’s controversial tram system should be minimised and “appropriate for a world heritage site”.

The area around Picardy Place, the huge road junction at the north east end of the city centre, is heavily criticised as a “depressingly triumphant example of the erosion of place”, through the demolition of buildings in the 1960s and the huge rise in motorised traffic. Sir Terry warned that impact of the tram could make conditions in the area worse. However, he welcomed new proposals for the nearby St James Centre which he suggested could bring a new sensitivity to the development in the area.

Sir Terry had little to say about Caltongate, the most controversial city centre building project. This £300million development planned on council land close to the Royal Mile, has been bitterly opposed by local residents and conservation groups and Sir Terry has still to be given the opportunity to see plans for the site.

His comments in Prospect suggest he remains unconvinced by the vision for the area. “With the building of new council offices and with the proposed Mountgrange masterplan for the Caltongate, Waverley is now being encircled by city centre developments that are strengthening the connection between the Old and New Towns. But nevertheless, the station itself still seems like an enormous plug or block, and various ideas have been mooted as to how to utilise and reconnect the urban realm around it,” he said.

Other ideas mooted by Sir Terry include the completion of “unfinished business” at the west end of the city, around Lothian road. New buildings, he said, were required on Morrison Street, on derelict land close to the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, and pedestrian facilities had to be improved at the junction between Lothian Road and the Western Approach Road, “one of the worst examples of suburban highway planning foisted on a town centre”.

He also called for the transformation of Edinburgh’s outer estates, to improve the quality of life for their residents. “Because Edinburgh’s heart is of such internationally recognised quality, this makes the comparison with its blighted outer zones all the more stark,” he said. “Social housing estates planned after the war were never properly integrated with the rest of the city and can be deeply depressed, both physically and socially. Edinburgh’s outer estates are non-urban in the truest sense.”

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