Mulling over the disappearance of Paolozzi’s magnificent sculpture ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and linking it to the burach that is Picardy Place for pedestrians, cyclists, car drivers and bus drivers, I penned the piece below for local newsletter the Spurtle:
“There was a time in the recent past when Edinburgh had more ambition. When building South Gyle, both shopping Centre and Business Park, the council-owned company EDI designated 1% of development money to public art. This can be seen all over here with ‘Twelve Poets at Edinburgh Park’ being a real highlight (take the tram to Edinburgh Park Central to find it easily).
“This initiative was part of the inspiration behind the commission by RBS of Eduardo Paolozzi and his largest sculpture ‘Wealth of Nations’ outside Drummond House. Our Covid vaccination appointments were at Drummond House so I was looking forward to admiring this great work when attending. To my surprise it was gone but the plinth was still there.
“However, it did make me think about the discussion about how to make best use of Picardy Place. To my mind this would make a great location for ‘Wealth of Nations’. Locating it here would provide great contrast with his ‘ The Manuscript of Monte Cassino’ outside St. Mary’s Cathedral. Once Sherlock returns and with ‘Dreaming Spires’ across the road outside Omni a new space where sculpture and a place to reflect on its impact and meaning would create a real contribution to civic space. Benches could be commissioned by Powderhall Forge or Edinburgh Sculpture workshop to complement the space.
“Really-going-for-it space could be created to have an Edinburgh version of the 4th plinth at Trafalgar Square. We have the opportunity to make this happen but are we inspired enough to have the ambition to make it happen? Over to you RBS and CEC to make it happen.”
Not more commerce
The responses were interesting. Why Paolozzi? why not someone else? Why not green space? One wag even referred to the Kinetic Sculpture here from 1973-83 which worked until the batteries ran out (that last remark was a joke). I had even forgotten to include the return of the clock at Elm Row and the pigeon sculptures at Elm Row which are currently stored in the Council building at Broughton Market.
But what was clear that it was a public space that was desired here, not more commerce. There is enough of that across the road in the Cathedral of Capitalism that is the new St James Centre/’Quarter
So what can be done here? Quite a lot I would venture. Now that the traffic engineers have had their say it’s clearly about time that the public, not the notionally public servants, have a say about this space. I still hold to the view that sculpture – and new work in particular , the 4th plinth idea – would work here. It would appear that ‘the Wealth of Nations’ is to return to South Gyle ( when?).
The juxtaposition of public works of art would allow a compare-and-contrast approach to styles , techniques, form and content that enhances the city. There is an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past (kinetic sculpture) and the present (traffic engineer dream/nightmare) to make this an urban space that works for all.
Cities for people
Given the volume of traffic here, whether its 3,000 pedestrians going into the Playhouse at the same time as a crowd heading for Easter Road for football, along with shoppers at St James and those seeking solace in the Omni, it has to be a space that gives respite. It could have seating that supports rather than what designer thinks looks good so that it can be used for waiting or conversing with friends.
The idea of greening the space may work and would help baffle noise from traffic to enable conversations to be heard. It could reference when this was ‘Little Picardy’ which led to the ‘sleepy town of Broughton’ described in Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’ and its sequel ‘Catriona’. But more care needs to be taken than when trees were put in Leith Walk and the cull that happened the first time the Winter salt was used. It can be done and good work by the council in this respect can be found at Western Corner with appropriate trees in tree pits to limit roots can be found . As can another magnificent sculpture: Alan Breck and Davie Balfour from ‘Kidnapped’.
The great urban designer Jan Gehl challenges us to see the city at eye level and to make ‘Cities for People’. He asks us to think of our cities in terms of ‘Life, space, buildings – in that order’. The buildings are there and surround Picardy Place but it’s not too late to reclaim the life and space here. A challenge for us all – whether citizen, public servant/representative. Let us at least try.
Featured image plus another: Kinetic Sculpture via Shootin fae the Shin: Somewhere in between ( by the way, In November 1993 it was given to Morris and Steedman, architects, who acquired it for their clients Grampian Enterprises: source Canmore )
Images of Monte Cassino and (current) Fourth Plinth via David Gow
Fourth Plinth? In her first piece for Sceptical Scot in April 2015, Co-editor Fay Young asked Is Scotland Brave Enough to Support a Fourth Plinth?