Architecture: Modernism finds a human face

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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."