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Despite self-harm, Scotland's magnificent cities still shine

Rory Olcayto
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It’s not ‘ye banks and braes’ that define modern Scotland, but its surpassing urban architecture

To outsiders at least – and to some Scots, too, I’m sure – Scotland appears to be a rural nation. But it’s not. It is no more rural than England and Wales. According to government statistics from 2011, just 19 per cent of Scotland’s population is classified as rural: that’s the same as its southern neighbours. Scotland, facts show, is defiantly urban and it has four very fine cities to prove it.

Aberdeen and Dundee have their charms, but the story of urban Scotland is very much the story of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Both have dramatic townscapes, perhaps the most dramatic in the British Isles, and both have their own, very specific natures. Glasgow: easily bored, forever in a state of flux, and a surreal mix of starchitectural bling, Victorian excellence and modest, home-grown Modernism. Edinburgh: static, snooty, yet still home to some remarkable modern architecture, from Benson & Forsyth’s Museum of Scotland to the Scottish Parliament by EMBT and RMJM. These two cities - one, really, when you squint at a map of Scotland’s Central Belt - are metropolitan to their core. It’s why we’ve dedicated this edition to recent work completed there by some of the best architects working in Britain today.

Only now has Glasgow begun to think seriously about what kind of city it should be

Sadly, Scotland’s premier cities excel also in self-harm: from the destructive planning that to this day leaves swathes of Glasgow in a dreadful state of decay, to the less-than-worthy additions that Edinburgh planners – perhaps trying to shake off their stuffy image – wave through (Jestico + Whiles’ hotel at the St James development springs to mind). The truth is that both have much to learn from the past 20 years of development in English cities. Only now has Glasgow begun to think seriously about what kind of city it should be, and news that plans are in place to roof over the M8 canyon that rips through its centre is welcome. A recent 112-page council document, Made in Sauchiehall and Garnethill, produced by Gehl Architects, Nick Wright Planning and Icecream Architecture outlines this idea, and many others, including a shared space approach to Sauchiehall Street, could take the city in the right direction. The emergence of its own scene, not dissimilar to east London’s, of young architects and artists kickstarting their own projects is worth noting, too. The older guard, Elder & Cannon and Page\Park, continue to re-shape the urban core of Glasgow with fascinating arts projects and exemplar housing.

In Edinburgh two architectural firms are at the top of their game. Recognition of Reiach & Hall’s achievements has been slow but the rest of the UK is catching on: Neil Gillespie and his team are producing work as good as London’s best, evidenced by their Stirling Prize shortlisting this year; and Sutherland Hussey Harris continues to produce Neo-modernist jewels. Its sculpture workshop, featured here, is exquisite, yet (and this is a worrying pattern) was overlooked by RIAS for an RIBA award. We also focus on Richard Murphy, whose practice is approaching its silver anniversary. The house he has designed for himself is a masterpiece and AJ’s house of the year; but, again, wasn’t even shortlisted by RIAS. As I said, self-harming – it’s a Scottish speciality (think of how badly Glasgow treats the legacy of Alexander Greek Thomson). Yet somehow, incredibly, its magnificent cities still shine.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Well said Rory Olcayto, Both Edinburgh and Glasgow have been ill served by planners and councillors. In Edinburgh's case there is little reported in the newspapers which usually just print the PR of the developers. This excellent cry for help might also have mentioned Thomas Hamilton's Royal High School ,the jewel of the Scottish Enlightenment, now threatened by an aggressively inappropriate hotel plan, with interiors compromised & its curtilage destroyed by Mayan-llke bedroom blocks. If passed this might well rob Edinburgh of its UNESCO world Heritage status, in a city already destined to have over-scaled junkitecture soon to be built Caltomgate development, commissioned from Alan Murray Architects by the Council as 'the least worst' plan. Could a new era of the Scottish Endarkenment is upon us? With the addition of the meretricious golden turd hotel already sanctioned to rise behind Robert Adam's Register House, can the Edinburgh's urban apocalypse now be far off. Murray Grigor

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