- Edinburgh: The Making of a Capital City
Edinburgh: The Making of a Capital City is not so much a celebration of Edinburgh’s past as a passionate and serious-minded attempt to secure its future as a dynamic capital city of global significance, written by a group of expert researchers who clearly care a great deal about their subject. In this regard, it represents a welcome departure from traditional approaches to the [End Page 352] history of Edinburgh that commemorate her ‘golden age’ (usually dated to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, of course) or perpetuate the romantic mystique of ‘Auld Reekie’. Contributors instead take a broad historical sweep, ‘warts and all’, to present what is expressly intended to be a statement of recent research–culminating in an argument that the city is unique in the way it has self-consciously renewed and regenerated itself over nearly one thousand years of history. In the process, they suggest a range of identities less familiar than those symbolised by the Castle or Princes Street – Edinburgh as an industrial city, as a city where tenement housing provides a unifying visual theme, and where modern developments at Leith harbour and Edinburgh Park lead the way for the New Towns of the twenty-first century.
Typical of the approach taken throughout, as well of the consistent quality of analysis, is a starkly revisionist account of the conception, design and onward development of the Georgian New Town by Charles McKean, Professor of Scottish Architecture at the University of Dundee. Professor McKean argues that the New Town was the product of haphazard development and unintended consequences, rather than visionary control, with the apparently sequential phases of New Town development actually competing in ‘close combat’ with each other in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and the Old Town brought ‘perilously close to accidental death’ as a result. He praises the New Town’s ‘unique and serene classical consistency’ (though note its exclusivity as ‘a closed community. No public spaces whatsoever: no place to riot in’), but warns that this end product had far more to do with the city’s inhabitants than its governors: ‘Perhaps the greatest lesson of all is that though the city fathers proposed, the people disposed’.
This balance between public and private agency is in fact one of a number of important themes that pervade this collaborative portrait of Edinburgh, present again in Dr Lou Rosenburg and Jim Johnson’s account of the piecemeal redevelopment of the Old Town in the nineteenth century, which was promoted by public health authorities but carried through by private associations and individuals, especially Patrick Geddes. Other important themes featured include, naturally enough, the impact of nature on the built environment, most obvious in the geological features that define the city’s historic boundaries, but also present in the design of the Scottish Parliament building as an interpretation of Scotland’s landscape; European influences on urban and architectural form, whether this be in the Norman layout of the early-medieval settlement, or in the inspiration that planners of the New Town found in the reconstruction of Lisbon, or indeed in the selection of international architects like Enric Miralles to undertake keynote projects in recent years; the convergence of political, cultural, economic and social factors that have continually redefined Edinburgh’s identity; the success of smaller-scale, piecemeal redevelopments, rather than visionary, city-wide masterplans; and the tension between conservation and innovation in architectural design and urban planning.
The contributors weave these themes together to create a comprehensive, often surprising account of the development of Edinburgh, with over one hundred illustrations to help the reader relate key themes to the living cityscape. If anything, the determination to provide the widest possible historical perspective proves counter-productive, however, and more detailed case studies of recent landmarks would be welcome to demonstrate how these themes in Edinburgh’s past continue to shape and inform modern developments. Most notably, the authors refer only in passing to the Scottish Parliament...