One encouraging feature of the last few decades has been the increasing willingness to find new uses for old buildings. Imaginative repurposing has become common. Such projects provide a counter to 'declinist' narratives about architecture and town planning.
A May 1972 special edition of The Architectural Review
was devoted to the theme of revival. It looked at examples from across Europe where imaginative new uses had been found. Because, as its editor Serban Cantacuzino put it, structures often 'outlive their function, buildings have continuously adapted to new uses'. The modern bulldozer had made it far easier to 'demolish and rebuild' but this type of erasure created 'fundamental ecological and sociological problems'. The environmental impact of creating brand new buildings has become much more evident in the five decades since.
The magazine was published during a period in which many British cities were going through a fairly brutal modernisation process, with many fine buildings lost. The TV series Heritage in Danger
typified the mood. In its wake has come a greater awareness of the value of our old buildings. For a time, there was a tendency to demolish buildings which were, due to economic and social change, no longer needed for their original purpose. Many industrial buildings were flattened.
These days, reconverted industrial buildings are among the most highly sought after. In a formerly highly industrial area of Edinburgh such as Causewayside, they provide a link to the city's past. A prominent theme of The Architectural Review
special edition was the way that dockland and canal-side warehouses and mills (such as London's St Katharine Docks) were starting to be preserved and repurposed; a trend which has become thoroughly embedded in the decades since. Many of the trends identified in the magazine (and in Cantacuzino's 1975 book of the same name) are now thoroughly mainstream.
One of the buildings featured in The Architectural Review
was Robert Reid's St George's Church in Charlotte Square. At that point it had, having closed as a church in 1962, been 'repurposed' as a public records office. This followed a lengthy and expensive stabilisation and renovation process, especially after dry rot had rendered the dome unsafe. By 1959, space at Old Register House had reached a 'critical point'. The initial idea had been to relieve the congestion by moving records to an 'auxiliary repository' on the edge of the city. Making public use of this unused and deteriorating building in the city centre was part of a growing trend for churches to be repurposed (and not just into pubs). Though much of the 'innards' of the building were removed, the building retains much of its original appearance.
Around the corner from Charlotte Square, in Princes Street, the need to find new uses for old buildings is a pressing one. Princes Street is regularly cited as a street whose character has been denuded of much of its architectural merit and character. The number of boarded-up shops speaks of the pandemic and longer-term shifts in shopping habits. There is a temptation to buy into a 'declinist' narrative about such streets. Instead of viewing it as a tale of terminal decline from a golden age, it instead suggests that a rethink is needed about the nature of the street and whether the shop units can be put to different uses. This is in line with the history of the street which was initially designed for solely residential use but rapidly evolved into Edinburgh's main shopping street. A further change of primary use may well happen over the next decade.
This story of Princes Street's evolution is captured in the painting The Demolition of the Crown Hotel
, by David Macbeth Sutherland (1883-1973), from the collection of the City Art Centre (itself an example of a successful repurposing having previously been an extension of The Scotsman
newspaper building next door. It then became a fruit and vegetable warehouse before conversion into an art gallery in 1980).
The Crown Hotel stood in Princes Street, on the corner of West Register Street. In the painting, we are witnessing its demolition in 1925. This is a scene of transition. A time-lapse of that site would tell us much about the evolution of the city. This is where the first residential property was built in 1769 in Princes Street for John Neale, a silk merchant, and where his son-in-law Archibald Constable, a publisher of Walter Scott, was established. We see therefore the transition from a residential to a commercial Princes Street.
In the 19th century, Waverley Station opened. The hotel was built for railway travellers but made way for Woolworths. Woolworths embodied the consumer revolution of the mid-20th century and, in some sense, the era of Americanisation of our retail. Today Apple, emblematic of our
era, occupies that site. No doubt its use will, in time, change again.
Around the city, imaginative use of new buildings has taken place. The Cockburn Association recently announced the cancellation of their 2022 Doors Open Days
event; the pandemic having hit the association's funds seriously. It is hoped that it will return, after this 'sabbatical', in 2023.
In recent Doors Open
weekends, I've visited some excellent examples of buildings with new uses including Dovecot Studios which was previously Infirmary Street Baths, the Mansfield Traquair Centre, and Panmure House which has been comprehensively restored. Custom House in Leith is another building slowly finding a new use. The new hotel being built next to Edinburgh's Central Library has divided opinion, especially the way it will 'shackle' the library. One positive is that Cowgatehead Church (1861), with its distinctive octagonal entrance tower, is being repurposed as part of the new development.
Failure to restore and repurpose is still, sadly, common. The B-listed Haghill School in Glasgow now faces demolition, after years on the buildings at risk register. However, every month we hear about new efforts to revive old buildings. The Friends of Roseburn Park converting a derelict toilet block into a community cafe being a very recent example of a welcome trend. Similarly, the proposed transformation of one of the Granton Gas holders into an amphitheatre is an ambitious example of the genre. Using the shell of an old building will reflect the highly industrial past of this rapidly changing area.
Another area of the city undergoing a rapid transformation is Fountainbridge. Only a few remnants of the industrial past remain as a new section of the city emerges. The scent of brewing no longer hangs in the air. However, Edinburgh Printmakers have beautifully restored the last remaining building of the once vast North British Rubber Company. They have, through their artistic activities, breathed new life into an industrial building and added variety to an area that is in danger of becoming characterless.
One lacuna in this is the general failure to find new uses for old buildings from the mid-20th century. As Owen Hatherly has recently written ('a nation in thrall to the wrecking ball', The Guardian
, 31 March), the pace of demolition of modernist buildings is rapid, with many excellent examples being lost. Many of them could be 'gently restored' and given a new function, adding variety to our cities.
The demolition of the former RBS building on Dundas Street/ Fettes Row is well underway; its jagged entrails exposed. It seems a pity such a quirky building with its sloped concrete outer walls and terraces could not have been repurposed (though apparently it was structurally weak, making reuse prohibitively expensive).
We sit writing this in a cafe which had previously been a fishmonger and then a charity shop, and has now been beautifully restored. As Serban Cantacuzino put it in 1972, we derive a sense of 'continuity and stability' from the process of adaptation and finding new uses. It's a way that a place evolves in an organic way, connecting the past to the future.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher based in Edinburgh
Eva Vaporidi is a visitor and monument assistant supervisor based at
the Museum of Edinburgh