Julie Morricc reports on a controversial ‘folly‘ on The
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The New Town of Edinburgh. said Robert Louis Stevenson. ‘was meant by nature for the realisation of the society ofcomic operas‘. and indeed a latter-day Offenbach or perhaps Gilbert & Sullivan would find a cue for a song in the current conflict at the foot of the Mound. Complacent in their neo-classical dreamworld. even the citizenry of Edinburgh would be pushed to overlook the activity at the corner of East Princes Street Gardens. A hoarding patterned with posters and nameplates has crouched there for some months now. while the shopper and the passer-by wait in doubtful anticipation for the result ofthis long confinement. 9
Long indeed. It was in August l983 that a firm of London architects won a prize of£2500 in a competition organised by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland. The briefwas to create ‘a space of European importance to act as a focus for Edinburgh‘ but the
maximum budget for the project was only £500.000. funded jointly by Lothian Region and the Government‘s Property Services Agency. From the beginning. the scheme was treated with irreverence: ‘It was difficult to determine what was a send-up and what was a genuine design‘. says Barry Cross. Assistant Principal in the Department of I lighways. ()ne plan had the RSA floating in a lake with punts on hand to get paintings and visitors across to the gallery. and one Russell Macaulay. student. of Bearsden. Glasgow won £100 for his spoof. First prize. however. went to Allies 8; Morrison for their design which comprised two squares on different levels. patterned paving. a row of ‘Roman shops‘ and. at the edge of the Gardens. a pavilion housing an information centre. Charles McKean of RIAS said at the time he hoped the work would be completed within 18 months.
Over five years later an ‘interim
scheme‘ costing just over £300.000 is nearing completion. In the meantime. the Property Services Agency has found that due to the delay funds are no longer available. an information centre has opened in the Waverley Market. and Timothy Clifford has taken over as Director ofthe National Galleries.
After the PSA pull-out. Lothian Region agreed to fund the entire project. The opening of the Waverley tourist office meant the pavilion could revert to the architects‘ ideal of a neo-classical folly with ‘no designated use‘. Things appeared to be moving. even if not entirely according to plan. In reality. the problems were just beginning. The area in question is superficially the responsibility ofthe Region‘s Highways Department. but the land underneath belongs in part to the City of Edinburgh and in part to the Crown. and is therefore the concern of the District Council and the National Galleries. Timothy Clifford is not shy in expressing his feelings about what is in store for ‘one of the most picturesque spots in Northern Europe‘. ‘I am reeling‘. he says. ‘We are trying to make the galleries as noticeable as possible. and the view is being blocked by this extraordinary shed. Bollards have sprung up overnight like a series of mushrooms. I don‘t think they were designed by Playfair‘. Aesthetics aside. the Galleries‘ main objection is to the sunken square planned for the area south ofthe RSA. Their primary concern is that there should be access for vehicles delivering works ofart to the gallery. A sunken arena flanked by steps would make delivery nigh impossible. It would also jeopardise what Clifford describes as ‘a very definite plan‘ for an underground gallery linking the RSA and the National Gallery. As they are both listed buildings. an underground connection is the only conceivable means oflinking them.
‘I am amazed at the perseverence of Lothian Region in the face ofthe objections raised by the National Galleries. Most people would have expected them just to give up‘. says
Graham Morrison ofAllies & Morrison. Instead ofcrawling. exhausted. back to the drawing-board. the Region decided on the ‘interim scheme‘. which comprises the resurfacing ofthe area. which everybody likes. and the building of the pavilion. The pavilion is proving controversial. not least because no one knows what to call it. Graham Morrison refers to it as ‘a little temple‘ and ‘a kind of bandstand‘. the Planning Department call it ‘a folly‘ and Timothy Clifford eventually threw in the towel and called it ‘a public pissoir‘. It is a construction of sandstone pillars with a Caithness stone roof. and will. hopes Morrison. provide a focus for events. He foresees it becoming a meeting place and looks forward to seeing how the whole area will be used during the Festival. ‘For three weeks of the year it‘s fine‘. says Clifford. ‘but the rest ofthe year it‘s a cold. draugth spot and nothing you do architecturally will make any difference‘.
The breakdown in communication between the two sides goes beyond differences ofopinion. Despite the Galleries‘ objections. both Allies & Morrison and Lothian Region are preparing to embark on the creation ofthe sunken arena when the ‘interim scheme‘ is completed in early December. ‘What‘s there is not obviously temporary‘. says Barry Cross. ‘We wanted to build something that wouldn‘t be abortive if the underground gallery went ahead.‘ Nevertheless. ifCross hears nothing from the Galleries in the near future. he will go back to the I-lighways Committee ‘and say perhaps we should be starting on Phase 2‘. The creation of the arena will. remember. prevent access to the RSA and scotch Clifford‘s plans for linking the galleries. Informed of this. Timothy Clifford is almost lost for words. unaware that anyone wants to see his alternative plans. or that the arena is still an option. Perhaps it‘s time the principals in this opera buffa sang another tune and started talking to one another.
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The List 25 Nov ~— 8 Dec 1988 5