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Scottish lyric

Frank Arneil Walker finds inspiration in the heart of Edinburgh

One of the joys of any medieval town is its unpredictability. Some things, of course, can be confidently expected - castle, church, market-place, the passing parade of street-front gables. But behind this public face is another, more secret realm, full of surprises.

Narrow lanes bend and beckon intriguingly. A shaft of sunlight gleams on glass or plaster, illuminating some hidden courtyard. Round a corner a forgotten tree shimmers in the shadows.

At first intimidating, sinister even, but always tantalising, this 'backlands' world reveals itself step by step, glimpse by glimpse, a dense network of intimate inner places rich in urban delights. No less than Prague or Venice, Edinburgh exerts this seductive spell.

The Royal Mile teems with impressions.

History, it seems, is in the bricks - or, at any rate, the stones. The eye ranges up and down, wonderfully agitated by the texture of past and present piled together along the High Street and Canongate. Not the least exciting are those sudden sights seen down dark pends and vennels; perhaps a precipitous flight of steps tumbling in the gloom, a narrow view of sky and skyline, washing blowing in the wind. Down Crichton's Close it is a sparkle of bright blueglazed brickwork. This is the Scottish Poetry Library.

Backlands poetry

Designed by Malcolm Fraser Architects, the library is small but exquisitely fashioned, tucked into a narrow rig site falling south behind tall street-front flats. A fragment of sixteenthcentury masonry forms part of the north gable.

On the east, a seventeenth-century wall with three arrow-slot openings is assimilated down Bull's Close, its chance height regularised in the raking sill of a clerestory punctuated, outside the glass line, by small circular steel columns marking the building's four structural bays.

These columns carry steel T-beams tilted in a monopitch roof to the front of the building on Crichton's Close. Here the columns rise through two storeys ahead of a framed glazed wall protected from the sun by brise soleil shading at first floor.

Oak-boarded panels double as heavy sliding shutters, enabling the facade to be opened at lane level to the small forecourt paved in carved Caithness stone which provides the public approach to the building.

On this terrace, close to the entrance, is an austere granite lectern from which plein air poetry readings can be given, the audience accommodated on a bank of tiered seating rising to the south. Part auditorium, part fore-stair rising to a balcony at first floor, this starkly effective piece of sculptural theatre, formed from Northumberland mudstone, is clutched by blueglazed brick, returning from the south gable. The brick, subtly pointed in a muted grey, which declares the coursed nature of the construction, but remains subservient to the rich ultramarine glaze, wraps itself around the end of the building, splashing colour into a dark alley. Along the skyline of the west facade, the roof 's elegantly tapered T-beams cantilever out under a glazed eaves canopy.

Open plan

The library is entered from Crichton's Close. To the left are a reception area and a small open office. To the right, ranged against the east and west walls, are the lending and reference bookstacks, disposed to create pleasant reading areas and carefully spaced below the dipping clerestory down Bull's Close to give glimpses out through the eyelets in the old masonry.

Placed in the middle zone of the building's narrow width, which is illuminated by circular roof lights in three of the four bays, are a lift and a straight-flight stair. These provide access to a mezzanine overlooking the west terrace. On this upper level, made possible by the building's cross-section with its raking roof, are a children's library with movable bookstacks to create space for discussions and a members' room which is quaintly distinguished by a small bay window pushing through the brickwork of the south gable.

Both these areas can communicate with the balcony and the terraced seating outside. Lift and stairs also connect to a storage basement which takes advantage of the site's fall to the south.

Past and present in harmony

This is a building conceived by perceptive intelligence. Site and light are paramount. The library absorbs memories; both physical, in the incorporation of vestigial masonry, and more metaphysical, in the allusive fore-stair seating so essentially up-front in its form and function. Yet it does not compromise. Locked securely in its historic location, it is of its own time, with frame-and-fill construction emerging from the complementary solidity of stone and brick.

There is, perhaps, just a hint of modishness, for the up-tilted glazed eaves along the west facade is already something of a cliche. But the canopy is so logically articulated, with none of the self-consciousness that sometimes afflicts this detail, that the surrender scarcely matters.

Throughout the library there is this same careful clarity rhyming with a limpid airiness that lifts the spirit. Prominent among the quotations etched into the glass of the mezzanine balcony are the words of Ian Crichton Smith:

'THIS HOUSE, THIS POEM . . . THIS FRESH HYPOTHESIS.' In the backlands of Edinburgh's Old Town, the Scottish Poetry Library succeeds as all three.

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