When 'good ordinary' design is an extraordinary feat
'Good ordinary' is the verdict from Kenneth Powell on Reiach and Hall's Westport office development in Edinburgh (pages 28-37). In the context of historic cities, delivering 'good ordinary' is an extraordinary feat. The city has never been short of 'soloists'. The castle alone has played an exemplary role as civic symbol, reference, vantage point and quintessential picture postcard view.
With Benson & Forsyth's Museum of Scotland and Miralles'Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh has proved itself able to commission major (stand-alone) public buildings as outlandish and as bold as any city in Europe. But it appears to be less sure-footed about reconciling the character and grain of its historic core with the requirements of modern-day business.
There is little, or no, consensus as to how best to proceed. Projects for the most high-profile sites routinely face opposition not only from planners and the ubiquitous conservation and residents'groups but from rival architects. Malcolm Fraser demonstrated his ability to reconcile contemporary architecture with the character and urban grain of the old town when his Dance Base studios opened to (almost) universal acclaim, and scooped the RIAS Award for the best new building in Scotland. Yet, despite being commissioned by the owners, his right to rebuild the damaged Cowgate site has been questioned by the local architectural community (an unofficial competition for the project has named Ron Gallaway Associates as the winner). Even Foster seems to be struggling in his bid to marry local sensibilities with the demands of commerce.
His masterplan for a 7.5ha city-centre site has been criticised by residents, the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland and Edinburgh City Council's planning committee for being out of scale with the historic quarter and impairing the castle's sightlines.
Edinburgh is right to be protective of its architectural heritage. But it would be catastrophic if city-centre commissions were to stay in the hands of those adept at navigating local politics or simply avoiding attention.
While there is a desperate need for 'good ordinary' architecture, there is never any excuse for 'bland'.