Business Comment: Terry Murden

Dismal building design is blighting our historic cities

They may be functional, dirty and noisy, but at their best they are works of physical art on the grand scale. Our cities, with their sprawling avenues, gracious crescents and curious back alleys evoke excitement, adventure, sometimes danger, not just in the way we inhabit them, but how we see and evaluate their visual delights.

Scotland has bequeathed a fabulous built heritage equal to anything the world has to offer. Glasgow was gifted the unique style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Alexander Greek Thomson. Aberdeen glories in the magnificence and uniqueness of being the ‘Granite City’. Edinburgh, the Athens of the North, bathes in the beauty of James Craig’s Georgian New Town and the rustic charm of the old.

Yet for how long will we wonder at our cities of beauty?

St James 1
St James, Edinburgh

All that 21st Century Scotland seems to offer is a series of mundane and downright awful architectural abominations that are little better than the post-war catastrophes they will replace.

In Aberdeen, it is Marischal Square; in Edinburgh the builders are creating new developments at Haymarket, Caltongate and (soon to come) St James. Glasgow is delivering an even bigger number of projects, including 1 West Regent Street, Queen Street station, and the Candleriggs development.

What is the common factor? Not only are they among the biggest development schemes in Scotland, they are all, give or take a concrete pillar or two, big glass boxes that possess no grace, no style and nothing that will mark them out as reasons for visitors and residents alike to be proud of them.

They are featureless intrusions that have no sense of place, no empathy with their surroundings and, frankly, no right to impose themselves on those who have to live and work among them.

The built environment is important to us all because it is part of all our lives. There is no doubting that our surroundings influence how we interact with each other, not just on a physical basis, but in terms of how they create mood and attitude. Intimacy in architecture translates into a corresponding intimacy in individuals and communities. It is why villages are described as close-knit and why brutal urban environments breed brutal people.

It is no accident that visitors enjoy meandering around alleyways, cobbled narrow streets and graceful piazzas. We seem to have forgotten this in our rush to build dreadful shops around soulless car parks, or hideous new office blocks.

Edinburgh’s £850m substitute for the tired and grim St James shopping centre will aim to recreate some sense of intimacy into a design that at least echoes the New Town’s crescents. So far, not so bad. But there is nothing in the design that shouts “wow”. James Craig, whose birthplace overlooking the back of this dismal corner of the capital is marked with a blue plaque, would surely be happy that the old place is being given a makeover, but there will be no wall-mounted badge for the new designer.

We thought lessons had been learned about this relationship between people and buildings in the mistakes made when the tower blocks were welcomed as replacements for the slum tenements. For all their social ills they were also home to a neighbourliness that the towers could never replicate. Likewise, town centres that once bustled with variety and local character were cleared to make way for hideous off-the-shelf shopping malls that locked their doors at 5pm, turned their backs on town centres, and killed off the personality that each once possessed.

1 West Regent St
1 West Regent St, Glasgow

Now we’re doing it to our workplaces, throwing up square boxes everywhere, each one stacked high and sold to the highest bidder, usually to an institution more interested in yield than whether they add anything of value to the local community or the environment.

Edinburgh was recently voted among the most beautiful cities in the world. On that basis alone, it has the most to lose and it should be a worry that its status as a UNESCO world heritage city is being closely monitored as it flirts with approving more monstrosities.

These are important issues because the decision to go ahead with a development means we all have to live with the consequences. Sadly, a lack of imagination on behalf of modern architects combined with a lack of ambition by local authorities suggests there will be no pause in this process until our towns are littered with glass boxes.

No doubt the architectural community will protest at such accusations. But just ask when was the last time a modern building was lavished with praise for its contribution to the environment. The Scottish Parliament may lay claim to receiving such accolades, but they came mainly from the professional bodies, not the public, many of whom regard it as a shocking carbuncle, made more embarrassing by its location opposite the noble Palace of Holyroodhouse.

It surely underlines the argument about the poor quality of modern design that each time a development is unveiled it receives a hostile reception, often resulting in public demonstrations. From Caltongate (renamed New Waverley to distance itself from the project’s controversial past) to Marischal Square (the object of a campaign and legal action to have it halted), the public have had enough of being expected to accept bad developments. The biggest of all ironies is that the Marischal Square development will replace the much-hated St Nicholas House that finally came down and gave the public hope of creating something of beauty to replace it.

Marischal Sq
Marischal Sq, Aberdeen

One reason for the current generation of mediocrity is that new developments are rarely the creation of an owner-occupier. In days past, it was Mr Macdonald and Mr MacGregor who built their emporiums as a symbol of their own business stature. They wanted the community to admire their commercial and residential buildings as a reflection of their own achievements and position in the community.

These days, retail stores and office blocks are occupied mainly for rent by multinationals and chains whose owners are institutions such as pension funds and who have no affinity to them beyond providing a function. They are built to the ‘highest environmental standards’ and they create ‘Grade A space’. But in essence they exist to sell products and services and make money. Nothing more.

As long as they provide good workable space, a high return on investment, and the lowest possible cost of maintenance, then it doesn’t matter if their rectangular glass and aluminium construction jars with neighbouring sandstone buildings.

In any case, these gems of the past will probably be lost to make way for more featureless boxes.

What do you think? Leave your comments below.


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