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The History of Georgian Architecture : Buildings of Edinburgh New Town
The History of Georgian Architecture :
Buildings of Edinburgh New Town
A UNESCO Heritage site accorded its status for outstanding historical and architectural significance.
The so-called New Town of Edinburgh is over 250 years old but all descriptions are relative.
The name derived from a direct comparison with the medieval streets and wynds of the Old Town of the city which is centred around the Royal Mile.
The international accolades notwithstanding the New Town is a curious urban phenomenon. It could even be called an open-air museum to the Georgian style, except that the exhibits are perhaps over subscribed. Varied it certainly is not, save from some notable exceptions and subsequent additions.
The brainchild of this new civic era in Edinburgh was the precocious talent of a 26 year old named James Craig. His design for the new residential suburb was classic and grand but laid out on the base of a simple axial grid pattern.
The old Lord Provost George Drummond never lived to see this dream fulfilled for he was the inspiration for the New Town. As far back in the 1720's he had the vision for a splendid new area of Edinburgh north of the Old Town. His death in 1766 came on the eve of the excavations of the first foundations only 3 years later.
Inspiration came from the 'Grand Tour' of Europe conducted by architects and artists alike. Thus the New Town would be a neo-classical tribute to the symbols of ancient Rome and Greece. The values of virtue, wisdom and harmony would imbue the nascent streets of Edinburgh. This affinity gave the city its soubriquet of the 'Athens of the North' so prevalent is the influence of the classics.
The New Town would also serve as a tribute to the great and the good as well as revelling in the patriotic glory of the recent 1707 Union of Scotland with England.
The names of the 18th century streets specifically laud the contemporary monarch King George III and the House of Hanover.
Therefore there is still to this day 'George Street', 'Frederick Street', 'Hanover Street' and of course 'Princes Street' the last of which is named after the sons of George III.
You will also find 'Queen Street' and 'Charlotte Square' which both refer to Queen Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strehlitz who was the wife of the king. In between the main streets are 'Rose Street' and 'Thistle Street' which pay homage to the Union through the national emblems of England and Scotland respectively.
In one of his most expansive and alliterative phrases the poet Robert Burns described the New Town as a place of 'Heavenly Hanoverianism'. However this may have been served with lavish helpings of sarcasm as he was undoubtedly no admirer of the Royal Court.
A new religion written in stone
The New Town departed from the exuberant flourish of the Baroque with a religious zeal. The free-spirited wiles of curvature and ornate extravagance gave way to discipline and rectitude. Thus the graceful flow of bold and sweeping designs were stemmed by the sturdy and uncompromising ranks of the Georgian elevation. There would be little opportunity for the element of surprise.
The grey stone of the local Craigleith Quarry spawned buildings which were the physical embodiment of the Scottish Reformation. Their construction may have lagged some 200 years behind John Knox but the symbolic transformation from Catholicism to Protestantism is never more evident and lasting than in its architecture. Free of ostentation and idolatry.
Religious iconography is rarely worshipped by the disciples at the altar of Andrea Palladio.
The Baroque style was now considered 'Counter-Reformational' and to be banished from the walls of the House of Hanover.
Of course the supreme ironies are to be found on the peripheries of the area and which owe their inspiration to religious expression.
Here you will find Gothic steeples which rise to the heavens in a hymn of praise and impose themselves on the Georgian vistas. Sir George Gilbert Scott's superlative creation of St Mary's Episcopalian Cathedral in the 1890's at Manor Place being the prime example.
Otherwise the repetitive, conformist and perhaps sometimes austere streets of Edinburgh New Town reject the individual and the eccentric. The template is enforced in the constant lines of mansion after mansion stretching along the straightened thoroughfares.
Once a local resident as a child and a young man, the writer Robert Louis Stevenson shared the lyricism of the visitor Robert Burns. But his descriptions of the streets of the New Town as "draughty parallelograms" reflected a prosaic insight that was undoubtedly far more influenced by his delicate health than his creative impulse.
Equating a mathematical formula
The late 18th century was also the time of the Scottish Enlightenment where reason and rationality were expounded by the greatest writers and thinkers in the country. The 'common-sense' school of philosophers would surely have approved of the practical, confident assertions of the city's new development. Visual hyperbole is eschewed in favour of plain statement.
Science was also gaining a stronger foothold within the academic literati behind the university walls. The physical, the observable and the provable transferred their deductive power from the laboratory onto the streets. Little room for unknown variables or ethereal contrivances in the buildings. This was a controlled experiment in civic design and social cohesion where concrete reality held sway over the meanderings of the spiritual muse.
This is exemplified in announcements which were published by the authorities in 1777 that invited house-building plans;
"by which buildings may be erected in the most regular, handsome and commodious manner"
Regularity was the keyword as a uniformity of style and size was imposed by the Edinburgh city elders.
As well as the type of materials used and the constraints of design, three floors would be the maximum height allowed for each building. This was in order to avoid the cluster of colour and variation that evolved in the Old Town of the city. The New Town was to be ordered and homogeneous with little room for variance or embellishment.
Architecture and design would be constrained and any departure from the median would be met with financial penalties and presumably loss of future commissions. It would be a brave man who attempted to fight Town Hall.
Hence you will witness the ubiquity of the dormer window if you cast up your eyes from street level.
Almost every original building is adorned with rows of attic room windows perched high on their rooftops.
These attic spaces under the slates provided the loophole for the addition of a 4th floor without contravening the directive.
Consequently through the Council edict the endless façades of the New Town manifest the hard canvas of the draughtsman's board with their slide-rule precision, their certainty and their symmetry. An arithmetical cityscape drawn from the calculated mores of the conventional and the authoritarian with a hint of the vernacular more than the artistic.
The industrial production line
Britain in the late 18th century was fusing the critical mass of its economy and society as the Industrial Revolution took hold of the nation. Populations moved, farms emptied, cities grew and the new factories and 'satanic mills' powered the economic engine.
In Scotland the iron, coal and steel of Glasgow was the heartland of the new-steam driven dynamic. In Edinburgh this was less so but urban development still mirrored the industrial machine. A production line of ashlar-clad dwellings was conceived and created.
They were manufactured from the mould and displayed for a new consumer market of the 'nouveau riche' among the Scottish higher classes including absentee noblemen in England. In judging London alongside Edinburgh in 1850, Charlotte Bronte had enthused that it was "prose compared to poetry" suggesting that the New Town had indeed raised the prestige of the Scottish capital.
This rigidity of style with it's rectilinear symmetry to the fore epitomises the Georgian New Town. The uniformity of the horizontal is therefore rarely disrupted. And how sensational it seemed in 1810 when the shallow arc of the new Abercromby Place was constructed under the disbelieving eyes of the locals. They were certain it would crumble in a heap.
But when a maverick dares to break the serried ranks it seems all the more remarkable for its uniqueness. Robert Adam however was not such an exception. His great reputation afforded him the luxury of the palatial splendour of Charlotte Square. The whole frontage of the north and south blocks were submitted to the faux style of a royal residence despite containing separate houses within. Impressive although nonetheless pretentious in its insinuation.
Exceptions to the slide-rule
However there are more honest transgressors of the rule along the streets of Edinburgh New Town. None more so than the breathtaking Venetian Gothic of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. A tribute to the Doge's Palace in Scottish red sandstone it is an Italian importation of revivalist culture. Each morning since 1890 it has awaited patiently to bask brightly in the glow of the sun rising over the Forth Estuary.
Intricate and elegant it stands as a counterpoint to the absolute dominance of the Georgian mansion.
No rationality need apply even though it remained within the spirit of the confines of the long-expired municipal framework.
It is within these self-imposed restraints that Rowand Anderson exerted his creative freedom. Exuberant statues, arches and motifs adorn its external walls in a vivid recreation of Italian gusto and panache.
Nearby the Royal Society of Physicians building in Queen Street projects its classical heritage with the utmost confidence.
Thomas Hamilton's structure of 1845 is literally larger than life as huge figures grace the building. Hippocrates, Asclepius, the Greek God of medicine and Hygeia his daughter from which we derive the word 'hygiene' in modern parlance. They all guard the entrance reminding us that the healing arts owe themselves to the classical heroes and icons of the ancients.
Further along is the former Manse of the St Andrews Parish from 1852 and designed by John Henderson.
It stands as a Gothic interruption to the Georgian perspective along the length of Queen Street.
Naturally it has a theological demeanour patterned with medieval style windows and small turrets hovering above.
However its original devotional purpose has since long gone and it is now a commercial property. The worship of Mammon supplants the divine.
Modest in size and restrained in texture it still manages to outperform its secular neighbours in its boldness and authority.
The sheer incongruity of this dissenter magnifies its accomplishment and its uniqueness. This relational dynamic lends it an almost cathedral-like status albeit on a smaller scale in comparison with the uniformity of the rank and file in its immediate surroundings.
These are the exceptions that prove the rule as they are few and far between among the original buildings of Edinburgh New Town. When they fall upon the eye they are therefore all the more satisfying for that moment of respite.
Perhaps the Tudor style of the building behind the old St George's Church is taking the exception too far.
In the 1960s the old church was converted into the national archives of West Register House. Behind it in Randolph Place is the atavistic paen of the 1880's to the times of Elizabethan England.
Architect T Duncan Rhind's creation is today a popular restaurant and the colourful half timber and white-washed walls are certainly a startling discovery to the uninitiated.
A novelty indeed and almost hidden away as a guilty secret of frivolity and architectural sedition to the ashlar establishment. We may find ourselves in sympathy with the Edinburgh authorities of the 1770's in their rigorous adherence to the neo-classical model. Some things try to be a little too unusual in asserting the right to oddity and distinctiveness.
The currency of grandeur in the capital powers
Over in the bustling St Andrews Square, or the 'Golden Square' of the banking industry, is the magnificent Bank of Scotland building of 1852 with its Corinthian columns and exquisite statues sculpted by Handyside-Ritchie. Compare this with the admittedly impressive Palladian facade by Sir William Chambers of the earlier Dundas House of 1774. This is now the headquarters of the bank's nearest competitor, the Royal Bank of Scotland.
The opulence of both reflects the wealth and the power of the financial sector in the history of Scotland's capital. The bankers and the merchants gathered the immense funds from which the city grew. Their forays into 'conspicuous consumption', that 18th and 19th century equivalent of the modern status symbol provided a legacy of architectural marvels where "Edinburgh leaves itself open like a secret solved" as described by the Scottish writer Alan Bold.
Of course variety of style and period are in abundance in certain areas of the New Town.
Princes Street is now unrecognisable from the Georgian terraces of the late 18th century and today only four mansion buildings actually remain.
It is now a mixture of genres collected over the past three centuries and huddled together.
From the Victorian majesty of Jenners Department Store to the impersonal breeze-block of the post-war wilderness they stand shoulder to shoulder in an uneasy alliance.
It still remains one of the most significant streets in Scotland but has long since abandoned art and aesthetic cohesion having sold itself to the retail juggernaut.
George Street is less cosmetically damaged and there are many jewels to delight the eye. The imported white-grey Portland stone of the Royal Society of Edinburgh building is a welcome antidote to the omnipresence of Craigleith.
The individual touch of the private household
But all these monuments to artistic licence and free expression came after the main project of the building of the New Town. However within the strictures of the old guard you will still discover the decorative vocabulary of ancient Rome and Greece.
Certainly exhibiting a subtlety of purpose and perhaps more diffident in statement they nevertheless provide an invigoration to the staidness of the main structure.
Many ornate astragals delineate the floors with balustrades lining the balconies and rooftops.
In between the floors there are often pilasters to provide an extra articulation to barren wall space. Cornices and capitals may add punctuation.
At ground level glazed fanlights crown the entrances in welcome and wrought ironwork marks the narrow perimeters of the Georgian property.
They all succeed in being slightly rebellious without disrupting the unity of the norm. They add character and detail. The personal tastes and touches of both architect and owner manage to attach a badge of individuality to the private household.
The grander scheme of things
In the words of Hugh McDiarmid "Edinburgh is a mad god's dream" such is the beauty and variety of its cityscape. The New Town fits well into its surroundings alongside the Medieval, the Renaissance, the Victorian and beyond.
Among the manicured gardens and the rugged volcanic ridges of the post-glacial contours of the land the New Town sits proudly.
What began as an upper-class ghetto for the urban elites of the 18th century has become a cultural theme-park for the lucrative spoils of the 21st century tourist trade.
Eye candy for the masses and a picture postcard opportunity for the digital camera.
Nevertheless for those that wish to stroll the paving slabs, the cobbles and the tarmac of Edinburgh New Town you cannot fail to be impressed. It is an elegant experience, pleasing to the eye and satisfying to the soul. An early morning or late evening promenade will spare you the turmoil of the rush hour. Edinburgh New Town may not inspire the awe of ancient Rome or Greece but it will leave a special trace in the memory.
Read more about Edinburgh at these links
- Things to see in Edinburgh, Scotland : The Georgian Architecture of Charlotte Square
Regarded as perhaps the finest example of a city square of Georgian architecture anywhere in the world this is one of the jewels of Edinburgh New Town. Enjoy a virtual stroll around the square to view and learn about its attractions.
- Things to do in Edinburgh : The Monuments on Calton Hill
The most obvious places to visit in Edinburgh are of course the Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse. But scores of tourists will enjoy a stroll up the Calton Hill to enjoy the historic monuments up there and also to savour the superb views.
- Masterpieces of Modern Architecture : The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh
It began not with a computer-aided programme or even an architectural drawing board. The first design for the Scottish Parliament was scribbled on a piece of paper one day in 1998.