This article by Toby Paterson is taken from the newspaper produced from the first group in residence as part of Scotland + Venice 2014. To see the rest of the newspapers from Scotland + Venice click here.
Find out more about Scotland + Venice here.
A FRESH ANGLE
ALISON AND HUTCHINSON’S HOUSING IN LEITH
By Toby Paterson
Not that I knew it at the time, but I first became acquainted with the work of Alison and Hutchison in 1990 at the age of sixteen whilst involved in two parallel activities; one being something of a loose, collective and ongoing exploration of the built up areas of central Scotland for the purposes of skateboarding; the other, a more structured experience of a fine art foundation course. The latter took place at Leith School of Art, just over the road from West Cromwell Street and its ensemble of deck access and high-rise 1960s housing. This introduction was prior to the crystalising of my view of the built environment into something more that just a passing interest, but the presence of the twin towers of Persevere Court and Citadel Court nevertheless made their visual presence felt.
Leith undoubtedly had an ‘edge’ to it at this point in time, feeling palpably different to the Edinburgh I arrived into every morning at Waverley Station. It seemed to me to have more in common with my native Glasgow than with the rarified squares beyond the top of Leith Walk. Certainly, the cultural overcast of misguided faux-working class romanticism I was beginning to feel the need to escape from under threatened to stereotype this place just as much as it might Govan or Maryhill. Contrary to prevailing middle-class prejudices and despite being dressed preposterously, I never encountered the slightest bit of bother on my Leith forays, this only reinforcing in me an intuitive suspicion of received wisdom about the safety or otherwise of places with a supposed reputation.
The part of Leith where Alison and Hutchison’s housing is clustered is rich and varied, it’s distinctly non-orthogonal street pattern and mix of building types, materials and scale offering an unexpected intimacy. It is into this mix that the architects added their 1960s work; work that, regardless of its actual scale, still manages to feel more like intelligent in-fill than tabula rasa. The towers I looked at every morning in 1990 do not dominate; indeed, I now see that everything sits at a gentle angle to everything else, Victorian tenement to deck access flats, tower blocks to millennial apartment development in a way that achieves density without oppression. The resulting compositions are part design and part chance; these processes played out over the course of more than a century, their perspectives offering great visual and spatial variety. Even the massive torqued slab of Cables Wynd House has its surprises, not least the illusion that it seems much less massive than its vital statistics tell us it is.
I think I absorbed something from these geometries, they somehow fed into my teenage appetite for Expressionism and they showed me something I now realise I hadn’t previously seen. In coming from Glasgow, I knew modern architecture in housing terms to be either the abortive fresh start of the inner city Comprehensive Development Area or the vast, unknowable peripheral scheme (the latter being generally the rule in Edinburgh too). These buildings are a clever and underrated attempt to add cumulatively to the city, with the expectation that further additions will follow. With hindsight they seem less tainted by period rhetoric and ideology, and in equal measure by subsequent backlashes; instead, simply fulfilling their remit and providing both living space and a sense of place.
Sitting between the extremes of the potentially precious products of the ‘artist-architect’ and the crushing homogeneity of rote systembuilt sprawl, they’re visually interesting but not iconic. They’re formally bold yet, with perhaps a few exceptions (the daring but obviously problematic single-storey ‘bridge’ at Tollbooth Wynd for example), liveable. For the sake of both their residents and the wider city, their currently overlooked value needs to be better recognised. They should, as I think their designers intended, be permitted to become a meaningful strata within Scotland’s rich architectural geology.
Illustration: Giles Street and Tolbooth Wynd, Leith Alison and Hutchison
1961-64 Drawing © Toby Paterson