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EDINBURGH LEADER BLASTS GLASS

AGENDA

It's a truth universally acknowledged that a new council leader in possession of a working majority must be in want of radical policy change.

Newly elected Edinburgh council leader Jenny Dawe seems to confirm this hypothesis.

In a disturbing move for city architects, the Liberal Democrat has wasted no time in jumping aboard the anti-development bandwagon.

'I just don't understand the trend for putting up glass boxes these days, ' she says. 'In 30 years' time? they will be seen as eyesores like David Hume Tower at Edinburgh University.'

Whether Dawe's controversial stance reects pride in Edinburgh's illustrious built environment or a darker, more disturbing prejudice against innovative development remains unclear. But her criticisms are about as welcome as Prince Charles taking over as president of the RIBA.

A cluster of agship projects known to be on Dawe's radar include Malcolm Fraser's Caltongate scheme and a massive £58 million expansion of Edinburgh Zoo, to take place over 20 years. She is also targeting Aedas' reworking of Haymarket Station, which includes an option - now looking unlikely - to demolish the existing station and Ryries Bar, both listed buildings.

'I can't see the justification for demolishing buildings of high quality. Just because they are old, it does not mean they should be knocked down, ' Dawe told the Edinburgh Evening News last week.

For Aedas' John Kingsley, project architect on Haymarket and formerly project architect on EMBT/RMJM's Scottish Parliament, Dawe's outburst is a worrying harbinger for Edinburgh's architectural future.

'I hoped that the Scottish Parliament would break down barriers to modern architecture in this city, ' Kingsley says, 'but they are still there.

'It's more difficult to practice modern architecture in Edinburgh - there just isn't the same freedom that there is in the rest of the UK. But there's no reason why good architecture can't sit alongside historic architecture - the Scottish Parliament would suggest this, ' he adds.

Edinburgh, a designated World Heritage Site, is Scotland's undisputed top tourist attraction. But it is also a working capital and not a mere museum piece. If the city is to retain its status as a progressive, business-orientated metropolis, then politicians will need to adopt an enlightened approach to modern architecture.

A city leader bemoaning the trend for 'glass boxes' might note that the Georgians loved generous windows. The Victorians, meanwhile, would probably have celebrated the advanced technology that today's glass uses, argues Malcolm Fraser of Malcolm Fraser Architects.

Dawe recently blasted Fraser's contribution to the £300 million Caltongate development - which will transform a huge swathe of Edinburgh's Old Town - describing it as 'hideous and grotesque' ( ajplus 23.05.07).

Fraser agrees that glass is often used carelessly, particularly when architects 'can't be bothered to think of anything else'.

However, he highlights the contradictions in Dawe's attacks. She lionises Edinburgh's listed built environment, but her views on the Grade B-listed David Hume Towers suggest that she is advocating selective preservation of the cityscape.

Last week Dawe attempted to limit the damage of her earlier comments by saying that she had been speaking as an Edinburgh layperson, not as the council leader. 'Whether I remain unenamoured or become enthusiastic, I would not dream of inuencing colleagues on planning committees, ' she said.

But this volte-face does not wash with Fraser. 'I'm not clear where she draws the line between her personal views and her leadership ones, ' he says.

Dawe's stance appears, on the surface, to signal a return to the 1980s, when only fauxGeorgian stone development was deemed acceptable in Edinburgh.

Even Historic Scotland has progressed from this myopic standpoint and, to its credit, has adopted a holistic approach to balancing the city's heritage with the urgent need for a modern, progressive built environment.

Alison Blamire, a board member on the powerful Architecture and Design Scotland and director of Arcade Architects, is disappointed by Dawe's retrograde rhetoric which, she argues, is a recipe for 'very dull architecture'.

'There has to be a continuum between the old and the new, ' Blamire says.

'We need to get away from this climate that in Edinburgh, architecture can't be modern.

'We have to take a mature point of view and encourage enlightened design, ' adds Blamire, whose practice transformed an Edinburgh traffic roundabout into a 'tropical island' last weekend as part of Scotland's first Six Cities Design Festival.

City planners are said to be 'spitting nails' over Dawe's outburst. Edinburgh is already a difficult place to get approval for new and radical architecture and Dawe's comments - whether as a layperson or a city leader - will do little to free Edinburgh from safe but lacklustre modern architecture.

No one is suggesting that Edinburgh should risk its World Heritage status to further progress. But a risk-free policy is a formula for mediocrity.

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