The story so far: In Part One, the vibrant mixed community of St James Square slowly declined under exploitative, ever-neglectful landlords.
Part Two: 1955-2000
The first stirrings of change came from Her Majesty’s Government.
In the mid 1950s, HMG, in the form of the Ministry of Public Building & Works, was looking for somewhere to house Scotland’s fast-growing, post-war army of civil servants.
At first it looked as if St James Square might become the site of a new Crown Office and then it looked as if it might be an extension to the nearby Scottish Office in Waterloo Place.
But Baillie Bruce Russell, a Tory councillor for the suburb of Morningside, had other ideas. To Baillie Russell handing the site over to HMG did not seem like a good plan. So, at a meeting of the Corporation’s Development sub-committee on 27 November, 1957 Russell suggested ‘…a planned scheme for the redevelopment of the area in the vicinity of St James Square, St James’s Place, Swinton Row, Little King Street and the adjacent portions of Leith Street and Leith Street Terrace and to obtain reports from officials making recommendations…’
The officials duly set to work, looked into the conditions, decided that Russell’s idea was feasible and even desirable and the scheme was eventually rubber-stamped by the full Planning Committee two and a half years later on 4 March, 1960. St James Square and the surrounding streets were designated a Comprehensive Development Area. The Corporation (as the council was then called) began putting out feelers for developers and architects to transform St James Square into something of which Edinburgh might be proud. And make money at the same time.
Compulsory purchase – a dismal record
At around that time the Corporation began slapping compulsory purchase orders on the 800 or so households in and around St James Square. The official record makes dismal reading. As the tenements gradually emptied many people, usually elderly, were left fearful of the intruders who came at night to pillage the buildings for copper, timber, slate or anything else they could find. Workmen who’d arrived to board up doors and windows were startled to find old people still living in what were supposed to be empty flats. But the Corporation were adamant. St James Square had to go. By 1965 it was largely gone.
Four biggish firms took Edinburgh’s bait. They were Murrayfield Real Estate, the Hammerson Group, Ravenseft and a joint venture called STW (which was ‘a consortium’ of Standard Life and Taylor Woodrow). Ravenseft dropped away early, leaving Hammersons, Murrayfield and STW to slug it out. STW hired a firm of London architects called Diplock Associates with the lofty Sir Basil Spence, architect of the vaunted Coventry Cathedral, acting as consultant. Meanwhile, Murrayfield Real Estate wheeled in the Dundee-based firm Ian Burke, Hugh Martin & Partners who’d designed the Overgate Centre in Dundee. And when STW backed out the Diplock/Spence operation transferred to Hammersons whose man in charge was a seasoned developer called Arthur Ketling.
For most of the early 1960s both sets of architects – Diplock/Spence and Burke/Martin – produced drawings, reports, perspectives and models under the gimlet eyes of the Edinburgh Corporation and the Royal Fine Arts Commission. The latter took a very dim view of the Burke/Martin scheme. In a letter to the Corporation dated November 1964 they wrote:
As a contribution to the city’s unique architectural heritage it fails. From various viewpoints, the totality of the building in their siting, massing and heights, does some violence to the landscape of the city.
Planning advice ignored
Strong words. And they should have meant that the Diplock/Spence operation had a shoo-in. But that’s not what happened. Both teams were invited to Edinburgh on 16 December, 1964 for a final presentation to the Planning Committee. The meeting did not go well for Hammerson’s team. They felt the decision was slipping away from them. Basil Spence tried to save the day by asking his old pal Sir Jack Dunbar, ex-provost of Edinburgh, to arrange a meeting with the Lord Provost, then Duncan Weatherstone. Dunbar did as Spence asked but Weatherstone declined to meet Ketling and Spence.
So when the full council met on 6 October, 1965 they announced that the winners of the project were Murrayfield Real Estate and the scheme would be built to the (by now derided) design of Ian Burke and Hugh Martin. Afterwards Sir Jack Dunbar wrote to Spence to say he’d made ‘a few inquiries’ around Edinburgh’s City Chambers and ‘I understand this decision was reached in spite of the advice of the town planning officer and other corporation officials.’
The Hammerson team were outraged. In fact Russell Diplock wanted the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) to launch a formal inquiry and suggested lobbying the influential Architectural Review to produce ‘an immediate study of both schemes…’ Arthur Ketling, however, argued that going public would give Hammersons the reputation of being ‘bad losers’ and ‘difficult to work with’. So Diplock and Spence swallowed their outrage and conceded defeat.
There’s a bleak irony in the words Burke and Martin used to describe James Craig’s 18th century square of tenements. They called it ‘A congested conglomeration of largely obsolescent buildings, badly sited and planned and unworthy of their neighbours, and completely ignoring the great potentialities of the site.’ Burke and Martin’s object was to create something ‘worthy of the high standard of the architectural and town planning environment and amenity of the surrounding area’.
Cheapskate concrete monstrosities
The councillors of Edinburgh heartily agreed and left the men from Dundee to do their worst. Which they did by erecting a shopping centre, multi-storey car park, hotel and collection of government offices that were grandly named New St Andrew’s House. To the Edinburgh Evening News the development was nothing but a ‘… collection of cheapskate concrete monstrosities…Perhaps the biggest crime perpetrated in the area’.
I’d half forgotten that Burke and Martin’s ‘crime’ also included a spikey, rotunda-shaped replacement for the existing Roman Catholic cathedral. Thankfully, it was never built. They also wanted all the tenements on the east side of Leith Street to be knocked down and replaced by four or five clusters of 16-storey tower blocks linked by a high-level walkway that marched across Leith Street and into the new shopping centre. That idea never saw the light of day although all the old tenements that used to stand on that part of Leith Street are long gone.
But the Burke/Martin scheme did manage to wreck the west side of the street by demolishing the handsome tenements that curved down from Princes Street and featured a ‘terrace’ or walkway at first-floor level. For some reason, that particular stretch of Leith Street was dominated by mens’ tailoring businesses: John Collier, Burton, Jackson the Tailor, Claude Alexander, Waverley Tailoring, J Hepworth & Son, Weaver to Wearer. There was also a decent billiard hall where my pals and I misspent our youth (and pocket money) when bunking off from school.
Plainly the John Lewis Partnership were unimpressed by the Burke/Martin scheme and commissioned Basil Spence to design their new store at the northeast corner of the development. For the authors of The Buildings of Edinburgh, Spence’s design restored ‘a sense of sweeping urbanity to the northeastern approach with a pleasingly curved street facade of sandstone and glass’. But it was never big enough to make a real difference. Between them the Murrayfield Real Estate Company and the Ian Burke/Hugh Martin Partnership had created a development that was described by one civil servant as a ‘building designed in the 60s, built in the 70s and totally unsuitable for the 80s’.
Brave new world
And Murrayfield Real Estate drove a hard bargain. At the time (the mid 1960s) the Corporation was also toying with the idea of developing the old Waverley Market (now Princes Mall). In May 1964 one AGL Wright from Murrayfield Real Estate wrote to say: ‘I would record that I consider that it will be necessary for my company to propose that any offer to develop the above (i.e. St James Square) should be made conditional upon no shop development taking place at Waverley Station’. The threat seems to have worked. The Waverley Market plan was shelved. And the shops opposite the St James site were bought out and closed down to ensure the success of Murrayfield Real Estate’s brave new world.
While Edinburgh’s shoppers were happy enough (or so it seemed) with the shopping centre and the multi-storey car park, the Scottish Office civil servants who were shunted into ‘New St. Andrew’s House’ were less than delighted. By the early 1980s complaints were emerging about the new offices: bad ventilation, windows refusing to open, static electricity generated by the carpeting. Then came a bit of an uproar about the prospect of Legionnaires’ Disease in the cooling system, which proved to be false to the relief of everybody in the building…
But by then Britain was worrying about the quantities of asbestos that had been used in modern buildings. The Civil Service unions started fretting about the possibility of asbestos being used in New St Andrew’s House and in 1987 the (now defunct) Property Services Agency (PSA) were called in to investigate. The PSA’s final report – Asbestos Removal and Associated Works Feasibility Study – dated 1990 declared that there was indeed something to worry about. There was asbestos ‘in office areas or in ceiling tiles within the toilet areas.’
The PSA’s engineers also concluded that the asbestos was not a particularly dangerous threat but could easily become one:
From loss of adhesion between the sprayed material and the concrete soffit, from delamination within the sprayed material or from surface shedding of asbestos fibres.
They went on to present three options: do nothing; seal the asbestos; remove all asbestos. For their part the PSA ‘strongly supported’ the total removal of the asbestos. It took the Glasgow firm Enviraz 26 weeks to strip the asbestos out of the eight levels of New St Andrew’s House.
Leave it to the pigeons
By then the mandarins of the Scottish Office had decided enough was enough. The cost and the disruption were too much. It made more sense to find a new site for a new building and leave the Burke/Martin building to the pigeons. Three sites were considered: one on the Union Canal, one on London Road and one on Victoria Quay down at Leith Docks. In the end HMG opted for Victoria Quay on which they plonked down £47.5 million’s worth of sandstone-clad building designed by the firm of Robert Matthew Johnston Marshall (now better known as RMJM or sometimes ‘RamJam’).
By the summer of 1995 the Scottish Office and its 1,400 or so civil servants had abandoned New St Andrew’s House. Government ministers and the most senior suits went back to the late 1930s splendour of ‘old’ St. Andrew’s House on the west flank of the Calton Hill while the rank and file marched down to Victoria Quay in Leith where they were joined by colleagues from other government outliers around Edinburgh. The shopping centre was sold to Coal Industry Properties and New St Andrews House (by then asbestos free) was sold to the Dublin-based developer Donegal Place Investments.
Which left the new Irish owners of the unloved and unlovely building scratching around for an occupant. They renamed it St James House and spent a few million tarting up part of an upper floor in an attempt to sell it as desirable city-centre office space. This got nowhere. But then George Mathewson, in those days Chief Executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), walked into the picture having briefed the Edinburgh firm of Michael Laird Architects to prepare drawings for a brand new ‘world headquarters’ on the site. The project, it was said, would reinforce the RBS commitment to Edinburgh and Scotland while reviving a flagging part of the city. There was applause all round for Matthewson’s idea.
But the idea did not survive the advent of Fred Goodwin, Matthewson’s successor as CEO in 2000. Goodwin decided that the New St Andrew House site was an economic disaster waiting to happen. In October 2000 Goodwin dumped the project (to Matthewson’s reported dismay) and commissioned a sprawling new headquarters building on the site of the old Gogarburn mental hospital a few miles (and 10 minutes by RBS limo) from Edinburgh airport. The RBS ‘campus’ is now connected to the east-bound lane of the A8 by the ‘Fred Goodwin Memorial Bridge’.
And the ‘new brutalist’ behemoth that was once New St Andrews House and then St James House was left empty, shuttered and oddly forlorn.
In Part Three, the dark, grey hulk of brutalism gives way to a promise of ‘city-enhancing placemaking’. And a vision of the ‘Golden Turd‘