Not designed by a local hero: Meanwhile, on the city's edge, Gavin Stamp sees an ill-conceived business park taking shape

Gavin Stamp
Tuesday 10 May 1994 23:02

Richard Meier, the internationally acclaimed, award-winning architectural superstar from New York, is a busy man. Engaged with creating more examples of his shiny white, pure modernist architecture in Barcelona, Munich, Switzerland and the Hague - to speak only of Europe - he could spare only a few hours last week to speak to the annual convention of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS), held in Edinburgh.

So we hacks had to meet him at the 'marketing suite' of Edinburgh Park, the proposed business park on the western edge of the city of which Meier is the much vaunted 'master planner'. This turned out to be a wooden hut in a sea of daffodils, on open land, with roundabouts and shopping centres on one side and the Edinburgh bypass on the other.

I had earlier asked, not at all in innocence, how I might reach Edinburgh Park from the city centre by public transport. The answer eventually came from a secretary: she had made inquiries and found that the number 21 bus went to the nearby shopping centre. Of course, this is unfair: Meier's central axis focuses on the site of a proposed new railway station on the Edinburgh to Glasgow main line, while a new Metro is also planned to pass through the development and connect it with the airport.

But, at present, both links are merely pious hopes. The number 21 bus perfectly symbolises what is wrong not just with Edinburgh Park but with business parks everywhere: that they are small pieces of America, designed for car drivers only, which not only are divorced from real urban centres but actually may have a deleterious effect on them.

Edinburgh Park, however, may turn out better than most as it was planned by a serious architect. Meier was brought in by George Kerevan, the Edinburgh politician responsible for dragging the city out of decades of inertia and mediocrity, and the man behind its current vigorous bid to be chosen as the Arts Council's City of Architecture and Design in 1999.

In introducing Meier's lecture at the convention, Kerevan defended the concept of Edinburgh Park by arguing that the city was already spreading haphazardly towards the airport (but what are local authorities and planners for if not to control such development?) and so 'we decided to build a hard defensive edge to the city'.

And, if you accept the logic of the development, Meier's hard-edged master plan was a good one. It was as much concerned with landscape as with architecture and envisaged a central spine of grass, flowers, trees and water, crossed by paths and bridges, between two non-symmetrical lines of buildings.

'Order is established by the landscape,' Meier claims. 'It is really a landscape plan.' And, as far as it can be judged at present, the landscape will be beautiful, even though the client - a consortium consisting of the Miller Group and Edinburgh Development & Investment Ltd - is not executing all of Meier's proposals.

Pity about the architecture, though. The first building to go up, for Scottish Equitable, is not by Meier and ignores the master plan guidelines he established. Meier consoles himself with the hope that 'the landscape will be powerful enough that whatever happens within will be OK. . . . As an architect, it is not for me to dictate a style.'

However, the real absurdity of Edinburgh Park is that, as yet, neither Richard Meier nor his local associates, the firm of Campbell and Arnott, has been given a building to design. No wonder Meier confesses that 'in some ways I feel we've failed here' and that it is rumoured that he has been on the point of resigning more than once. What, after all, is the point of hiring a superstar if his principal talents are not exploited and he is not even allowed to carry out his master plan in full?

But even if Meier were to design a building, would it have any relation to the traditions and character of Edinburgh, one of the most beautiful and special cities in Europe? Obviously not. Meier has designed and built Identikit buildings in Paris, for Canal+ TV station, and in Atlanta and Frankfurt.

The question also has to be asked whether his plan for Edinburgh Park has any significant relationship with Edinburgh. In the usual manner of architects, Meier claims that he was inspired by Edinburgh's New Town, that wonder of urbanity built of Craigleith stone and laid out by James Craig on a grid-plan in the late eighteenth century. Apart from the application of rigorous geo-

metry, the connections are spurious.

In fact, Edinburgh Park has nothing to do with Edinburgh and everything to do with the suburbanising, decentralising tendencies, exacerbated by Britain's continuing thralldom to the motor car.

Meier is, in fact a product of what Charles McKean, secretary and treasurer of the RIAS, describes as 'trophy-hunting'. Both Edinburgh and Glasgow seem obsessed by the need to bring in big names to do important buildings - Meier and Terry Farrell in Edinburgh and Sir Norman Foster to design the proposed National Gallery of Scottish Art in Glasgow.

The plain fact is that everything worth looking at in both Scottish cities was the work of local talent. Richard Meier hardly needs Edinburgh; and I am afraid I do not think Edinburgh really needs Richard Meier.

Gavin Stamp is a lecturer at the Mackintosh School of Architecture, Glasgow.

(Photograph omitted)

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