Thoughts on a visit to a Public Exhibition (6 March):
I have just returned, heavy hearted, from a visit to Edinburgh’s Old Royal High School in Regent Road. Plans are afoot to turn this rather beautiful Greek Revival building into yet another world class five star hotel under the stewardship of a global, sorry “worldly (sic) operator”. Something does need to be done of course, but not another hotel, please. What I found particularly depressing in the exhibition was the inevitable jargonize, much of which I simply couldn’t understand. If you were there, I was the balding one muttering under his breath trying to capture the flow of the prose, and the sense of the proposal. Here’s a snatch – and remember this is an important and controversial development : “It is acknowleldge (sic) by the mayority (sic) of stakeholders that finding such a use is most (sic) appropriate solution to the building’s current situation”. I could scream; I could weep.
Do please call me old fashioned but I can’t help feeling that clarity of expression betokens clarity of thought. If the developers go about their building work in the same way that they craft their English prose, God help the City of Edinburgh. I am attaching a few pictures of the interior. The idea of turning this fine building into a National Gallery of Photography was a good one; it was a shame that, for whatever reason, this was never pursued. It might also have been a fitting parliament building.
The developers’ leaflet and website material set out to reinforce a sense of historical continuum central (or “key”) to their case. To acknowledge that the proposed development represents, in fact, a break from the past, both in terms of design and purpose, would be damaging to their cause. The developers’ language is superficially convincing but in many respects quite meaningless; their statistics impressive but often speculative (“the proof of the pudding etc”). Restoration and redevelopment are inevitably linked to “former glory” and “sympathetic to their surroundings”. These are well worn phrases: subjective at best, clichéd at worst.
How seriously are we to regard the developers’ historical sensibilities?
In their historical survey of Calton Hill, they paint the delightful but laughably inaccurate picture of Provost Drummond (sic) laying the foundation stone for the nearby Nelson Monument in 1784. This is poor – very much chuck it on the wall – history. Lord Provost George Drummond was long dead by 1784 and, as I daresay most school children know, Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The monument was erected in Nelson’s memory after his death. If you take the trouble to climb up Calton Hill, you can read this on the memorial above the door. As with the strangulated language of their exhibition, the developers once again show indifference to their readers. The details don’t matter, they appear to suggest, but I think they do. As citizens of Edinburgh, we deserve clarity. We deserve accuracy. We feel a sense of pride in our city. We deserve better than this sloppiness. We live here, after all. As it happens, we don’t know whether the original architect, Thomas Hamilton, would have considered the punching out of windows and the opening up of the Regent Road door as restoration – forget former glory –nor will any attempt to contextualise or suggest by inference assist. He might well have thrown his hands up in horror at the idea. His conception, in any event, had a wholly different purpose: a civic one.
The proposed “redevelopment” goes much further. Whatever option is adopted– two large accommodation blocks, each as large as the old building are to be erected either side of the old school for the “world’s highest spending visitors”. Ancillary buildings –another interesting example of use of language – are to be demolished. “Much needed public space improvements” and ideas about the arts which I don’t fully understand (but sound good), are thrown to us like bait. The irony, though, is that the proposed development – for this is what it is – is to take place in a part of the city whose character is daily being transformed by development work. One just has to look immediately below Regent Road. Why should this new cadre of “uber- tourist” wish to stay in an area which has become prey to developers? Within a quarter of a mile of the proposed site there are three other five star hotels. It is a source of immense sadness that plans to adapt the Old Royal High School for a civic purpose have not been realised in the forty or so years since the school moved premises. Is Edinburgh, then, to be no more than a venue?
Babies and bathwater, horses and stable doors: these are the words that come to mind. “Worldly”, of course, is the perfect word for the proposed hotel, although not perhaps in the sense that the developers might wish.