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A step too far: Malcolm Fraser’s poetry centre is being dumbed down by its director

If there’s one thing Scottish institutions are really good at, it’s fostering daft design, writes Rory Olcayto

It has been a big week for politics in Scotland, with hard-to-answer-questions doing the rounds. Not ‘How come there’s no floods here, even though it rains more?’ but ‘Should we stay or should we go?’ and ‘Will we get to keep the pound if we quit the UK?’ and ‘Why would the European Union kick us out if we vote yes to independence?’

These are big, big questions, and there are no clear or easy answers.

But then, as quite a few south of the border who have read about the pointless removal of the steps up to Malcolm Fraser’s excellent Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh, not to mention the farcical state of affairs over the Clydebank home with a 10-level, 60m, access ramp designed for its wheelchair-using resident, are no doubt saying: ‘What a bunch of muppets.’

Are these stories related? Of course they are. It’s all about design, stupid. Or about stupid design. And Scotland, sadly, often the font of all things fundamentally architectural on these isles - the Adams Brothers, Mackintosh, Stirling, etc - is also really good at fostering daft design.

Or, rather, its institutions are. Let’s look at the Poetry Library first. Under new proposals, Malcolm Fraser’s excellent 1999 scheme will have its big chunky steps - a staircase-cum-seating area - removed and replaced with a glass porch and terrace by Nicoll Russell Studios. Now it’s not good form to have a go, and the AJ has always had a soft spot for NRS (remember the Whitetop Centre in Dundee, AJ 04.08.94? Brilliant. Its more recent Scottish School of Contemporary Dance, also in Dundee, is pretty good, too).

But, really, Malky Fraser is right here, and not just because he’s hurt at seeing his own design defaced. NRS - you should have said no!

As Kieran Gaffney, of Konishi Gaffney has commented online and in our Letters pages this week, ‘the loss of the stairs is a crime’ and a ‘generous urban design [is] to be replaced with a kind of bland golf-club-exclusive-balcony’.

Fraser, you might argue, only has himself to blame. He walked off the job after failing to convince the client that any reworking of the plans should follow his own proposals, which would have seen the steps retained. Maybe Fraser just isn’t persuasive enough.

Don’t buy it. Why? Because library director Robyn Marsack has implied that the steps made the library, which receives most of its cash from the public, feel a bit ‘too special for many people to enter’.

She wanted rid of the steps, no matter what. It’s not because her organisation’s marketing and outreach programmes are failing to engage the public. No, no, no. It’s those bloody steps.

And that, I’m assuming, was, ahem, a step too far for Fraser - and, yes, he is on the more sensitive scale of the architectural tantrum spectrum - but then you’d walk away too, no?

Marsack is just plain wrong: if she thinks NRS’s new glass porch approach will have Begbie, Renton, Sickboy and Spud charging down the wynd for a poetry reading come Friday night, well … dream on, MacDuff.

Now for that ramp. Have you seen it? A zig-zag monster that has erased the home’s garden and looks like a crowd control pen for kettling unruly mobs?

Yes, it gives better access to the family of a wheelchair-using citizen. But at what expense? It cost 60 grand. Was rehousing the family considered? That’s not always an easy answer, of course.

But then, as Hellman pointed out in his email to news editor Richard Waite: ‘Have they not heard of external wheelchair lifts? Duhhhhh


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