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5th June 2020
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the conservation movement in postwar Britain was the campaign, and subsequent programme of work, to save Edinburgh’s New Town. The decisive element of the campaign was a conference, held 50 years ago, on 6th June 1970, at the Assembly Rooms.
Today, the thought that the New Town, the site of 1,675 listed buildings, a legally-established conservation area, and integral part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, might be lost, seems absurd. But by the late 1960’s, many properties, and even some streets had, according to the architect Sir Robert Matthew ‘gone almost past the point of repair’. Original chimneys had generally been lost. Much of the finely-carved architectural detail of the New Town was eroded and flaking away, or poorly repaired. Cornices, columns, balasters, architraves, string courses… all were in a very poor state. In Cumberland Street, an entire block of Georgian tenements was earmarked for demolition as slum housing. Andrew Kerr, who spoke at the conference, recalls moving into his house in Ann Street: ‘some of the houses were almost derelict…our own house had no power circuit at all – amazing! – and no water above the ground floor, wet rot, woodworm, rising damp, the whole works’
Since the mid-1960’s pressure had been building to do something about the parlous state of the site. The Scottish Civic Trust (SCT) had been formed in 1967, with the support of the Bank of Scotland and other industrial and charitable sources, to co-ordinate efforts to save Scotland’s built heritage. One of the trustees of the SCT was the modernist architect, Robert Matthew, who took up the cause of saving the New Town as a personal crusade. He described the neglected area as ‘a national asset of world significance’ and ‘the greatest task of urban conservation… in Great Britain’. It was Sir Robert, who in 1967, at the inaugural ceremony of the SCT, remarked that ‘we must do something about the New Town of Edinburgh.’ 1967 was also the year of a popular bicentennial exhibition on the New Town during the Edinburgh Festival entitled ‘Two Hundred Summers in the City’, designed by architect John Paterson, which caught the public’s imagination and raised awareness of the site.
Then, during 1968 and 1969 a survey was undertaken of the whole of the New Town by the Edinburgh Architectural Association, under the supervision of John Reid, which was donated to the campaign entirely free of charge. This huge undertaking provided campaigners with very specific information concerning the external conservation work required, as well as an estimated cost, which was calculated to be £15 million (£230 million adjusted for inflation).
20-22 Fettes Row in 1970, and today
By the time the conference took place, consensus was starting to form around a potential solution: a partnership would be required, between national and local government, as well as the owners and residents. And, an expert committee would be needed, to supervise the work and dispense grants.
The day before the conference began, dignitaries from across Europe were invited to a series of dinner parties in the homes of New Town residents so they could hear for themselves the perspectives and ideas of the inhabitants. Then, on the 6th June, the conference began. Participants included a wide range of architects, politicians, planners, and figures from the European conservation movement, as well as a large number of residents. During the day, it was acknowleged that the intervention required in Edinburgh was unprecedented. Patrick Nuttgens, architect and academic commented: ‘the scale of the proposed operation in Edinburgh makes the work of York, or Bath, or Chichester, or Chester, relatively small and trivial’.
The conservation of the 17th century Marais district in Paris, while still less than half the size of the New Town, was closer to the challenge Edinburgh faced. Francois Sorlin, the chief inspector of the French Historic Monuments Commission, thought Edinburgh could learn from their strategic approach, which focused on serving the local community, and avoiding tourism-led commercialisation (ideas highly relevant to the Old Town of Edinburgh today).
Other notable contributors to the conference included Count Sforza, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe, for whom Edinburgh was associated with culture and beauty, but who expressed his shock ‘that Europe might lose this great asset’. Sir John Betjemen commented that while the architecture of Bath is attractive, ‘it is a grand façade… but the quality of Edinburgh architecture is thorough – through and through; beautiful ironwork, beautiful moulding, detail wherever you look’. A.J. Youngson, economist and author of ‘The Making of Classical Edinburgh’ argued that the New Town must be saved because ‘it is one of the great products… of one of the great ages of civilization, namely the Enlightenment’.
The conference was a success and led to the establishment of a joint local/central government support organisation, the Edinburgh New Town Conservation Committee (ENTCC), headed by Irish Architect Desmond Hodges. It was focused not on elite show-piece streets, but on the ‘tattered fringe’ as epitomized by the first major project: the conservation of 23-24 Fettes Row. In 1995, the New Town was inscribed, together with the Old Town, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the site’s inscription, UNESCO recognised the efforts to conserve the New Town, which was also subsequently awarded the prestigious Europa Nostra prize for conservation. In 1999, the Edinburgh New Town Conservation Committee, was merged with the Old Town Development Trust, to form Edinburgh World Heritage.
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