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The slow ruin of Edinburgh

The planting of a “golden turd” in the heart of Scotland’s capital reveals the grotesquely skewed priorities of current urban planning

If you go down to the east end of Princes Street in Edinburgh, and turn left onto Leith Street, you’ll find a very worn 1960s building at the centre of a construction site. The building in question—the St James Centre, a widely disliked shopping and hotel complex—is being gradually demolished in favour of something you can see depicted on the hoardings in front of you: a routine glass and stone-cladding mall, around a new hotel which is wrapped in a coil of orangeygold fabric, in a style which can only be described as excremental.

This £1bn development is taking place in the centre of a Unesco World Heritage Site, one of the most photographed, most admired and most protected urban ensembles in the world. In Unesco’s judgment, the combination of Edinburgh’s medieval Old Town with its alleys and high buildings and the Georgian New Town, with its neo-classical grandeur, “provides a clarity of urban structure unrivalled in Europe.” The “golden turd,” as it is known locally, forms the tip of an iceberg of poor quality architecture and planning in the Scottish capital, which extends from substandard new residential districts, lumpen office complexes and unsympathetic renovations of older buildings. How has this been allowed to happen in a city which, one would have thought, 15 years after devolution and a couple of years after a narrow independence referendum, might have been expected to be full of the sort of confident, well-designed architecture that would be normal in most European capitals? And if Edinburgh is an independent capital-in-waiting, as the SNP advocates, why has nationalist rule made so little positive difference?

One reason why the new St James Centre, to the questionable designs of Jestico + Whiles, is being allowed to go ahead, is that nobody aside from a few concrete fetishists with Instagram accounts has ever had much of a good word to say about it. “Well, at least it’s better than” is a common shrugged-shoulders response when a new building is proposed in, say, Southampton, or Bradford, or Swansea; it is setting the bar extremely low for Edinburgh. Perhaps because of this, there have been many attacks on the new scheme, and on what it represents.

The Edinburgh-based arts magazine, The List, put it at the top of its “flops of 2016”: “architecture depends on taste and perspective, like any art,” they conceded. “But did nobody look at the gold swirl which is intended to make its outer edge look like an uncoiled printer ribbon and think ‘doesn’t that look like something else?’” “Lo, the ‘turd hotel’ was born, and Edinburgh’s World Heritage status is at risk.”

Owen Hatherley is the author of several books about architecture, most recently “Landscapes of Communism” (Penguin) and “The Ministry of Nostalgia” (Verso). He lives in Woolwich, London
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In Prospect’s April issue: Ross McKibbin, John Curtice and Lisa Nandy examine the state of the Labour Party and question its survival at the next general election. McKibbin takes a long view and suggests that the party’s problems started long before Jeremy Corbyn, Curtice argues that breaking the party is unlikely to go as well as some may think and Nandy argues that tackling unaccountable power could help restore faith in the party. Nicholas Timmins says the NHS has always experienced financial crises so is this time any different? Lucy Wadham charts the rise of France’s Front National. Also in this issue: Owen Hatherley explores Edinburgh’s architectural conundrum, Freya Johnston on Jane Austen and Avi Shlaim on the tragedy of Yitzhak Rabin—the last best hope for peace.