Architecture: Modernism finds a human face

A competition launched to design a housing complex in the heart of Edinburgh's

Old Town has produced a minor masterpiece.

"MORE ALDEBURGH than Edinburgh," was Janet Street Porter's verdict on Richard Murphy's mannerly Modernist scheme for housing in Edinburgh's Old Town, winner of the Burrell competition she judged. His pitched-roof scheme for 24 houses which will be built on an awkward site, currently a car park on Tron Square, is just a quarter-of-a-mile from the new Scottish parliament.

None of the 12 younger practices invited to enter the Burrell competition were able to submit ideas for the parliament in the "open" competition, since it excluded all but the big international players with mega-buck buildings on their CVs.

An exhibition, at Edinburgh's Matthew Gallery, of the submissions for housing to be built by the Burrell company pinpoints how Modernism is getting along in Scotland. Nicely, thank you, with a revival of early Modernist social conscience and more urban planning than stylistic flourishes. "Human beings get lost in the architectural debate, and unless you're designing a power station, you have to get buildings built for people. We always start with the social side," says Murphy.

Which is why this minor pounds 1.2m housing competition in the centre interested Murphy. Nationally prominent because he wins awards,including the Stirling Prize, his best known building is the Maggie Keswick Centre at the Edinburgh's Western General Hospital. Charles Jencks, who commissioned it from him, has asked his chum Frank Gehry to build his first British project with another Maggie Keswick cancer community centre at Dundee.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Murphy is the way he moves vernacular out of a stylistic debate and into an historical and contextual one. "I'm 43, and studied at Newcastle and Edinburgh, and my generation survived the post-modern rubbish to see through it all as fake history."

Rather than bolt-on heritage, Murphy explores the topography and history of housing in Edinburgh on site at Tron Square.

For centuries, Edinburgh has been a model for mixed housing, with every social mix stacked in the same tenement from the basement to the top, where views across the city were the best. Murphy responded with four whizzy, James Bond-style flats in dramatic two-storey spaces with spectacular views and 20 spacious, well-lit, uncomplicated apartments below. The competition brief asked for 30 units on site, but he concluded that overloading would lead to a bulky building, so he adventurously submitted his ideas to the property developer, the Burrell Group, which ran the competition with just 24 units.

He observed the lines of a "close", the long thin alleyways which run perpendicular to the city's High Street, to divide his housing into two rectangular blocks left free-standing rather than linked with glass atriums or walkways like some of the other submissions. This produced two public spaces, a private garden and public space for a terrace and cafe.

Less stylistic in its intent, his scheme involves a sympathetic understanding of history overlaid with a confidence in the future.

Piers Gough, that seasoned architect of good housing which people like to live in, was also a judge of the Burrell competition. His summing up is a checklist for wannabe housing designers: think urban space, don't have too many bright ideas on a small site; keep it simple and think through all the details and don't kowtow. He is unequivocal: "Even if you loathe Post Modernism, you've got to admit that it brought back other ways of dealing with a floating site rather than an old Modernist building on a strong horizontal plinth."

Although all the competition's entries were of a high standard, it was the simplicity of Murphy's ideas which won. "It's not a wild ideas competition," says Gough. "We are looking to build here and sensibility really attracted the judges. Murphy's scheme wasn't pretentious, nor did he throw the kitchen sink at it. I think his work is more complex than at first observed, with lots of layers. He starts with a simple, direct idea and builds up its interest."

Architecturally, Alan Murray's submission was the most exciting. He contrasted two halves of the building, so that the scheme was very attractive from the nearby High Street. But the lack of any external space counted against him in a close-run finish.

Murray is convinced that this Tron Square submission was one of the best things his practice has done, "in the spirit of good Modernist housing". The fact that his pounds 50m office, retail and cinema complex at Greenside, bang in the middle of a World Heritage Site at Edinburgh's Calton Hill, has just been given planning permission did not make him too grand to enter the Burrell competition.

"The size of a project doesn't influence me," he says. "There is an architectural challenge there, right in the heart of the city, with a committed developer. Besides, it's the most dynamic city and I wanted the dynamics of the city to eventually find its way into every nook and cranny."

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable