Edinburgh as a city is a fascinating combination of antiquated buildings and modernist structures. The church I attend on Sunday is an old lecture hall, built with large heavy stones and decorated with a simple vaguely-ecclesiastical facade, that appears to have been plopped into the middle of a more recent strip of attached homes or offices surrounding a square. The 400+ years old Old College of Edinburgh University sits across the street from a Tesco Express, one of three iterations of the chain market located along this corridor. The clash between old and new architecture paints the city and even speaks boldly through its planning, as seen in the distinctly different layout of Edinburgh’s Old and New Town areas.
Old Town is the historic part of the city, where the Royal Mile, Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh Castle, and Holyrood Palace dominate the landscape. Pubs along aged Victoria Street boast their historical locations and history-lovers can walk the streets feeling as if they’re encountering the past while never being further than a two-minute walk from a convenience store or restaurant selling pizza, kebab, burgers, and fish and chips. The most striking feature of Old Town is its meandering streets, the mark of so-called organic urban planning. As described by a tour guide on a Ghost Tour recently taken, the city was originally walled and thus confined to a comparatively small area. Once that space was filled, the population had no choice but to grow upward, creating narrow, curved streets winding between establishments; the now iconic closes, alleyways that facilitated movement and also allowed for the daily 10pm emptying of household waste into the street below; and uneven housing units that either towered over or cowered under others. Tourists, students, and locals alike encounter a glimpse into this convoluted existence when they realize how lost they are trying to return to their flat after a night at the pub. At least we no longer run the risk of tripping on the uneven cobblestones and falling face-first into ankle waste – as one local described it, such is the origin of the phrase being sh**faced.
Apart from being a hygienic nightmare, this sort of planning became the bane of eighteenth and nineteenth century urban planners, who sought the Renaissance-influenced rationality and precision of a well-ordered city. Clean, straight and predictable streets became the manifestation of human rationality and intelligence. Because cities were thought to represent the height of civilized accomplishment, it made sense that the layout and operation of the city should be equally representative of progress. Thus Edinburgh’s Old Town was granted a neighbor, the single-handedly designed New Town. New Town is extremely simple when compared with the Old Town: its streets are straight and wide, the ground level of adjacent buildings rests on the same plane, and both human and vehicular traffic move along at regular paces. The iconic Princes Street boasts a variety of convenience stores and restaurants similar to the older South Bridge/Nicholson Streets, but with larger department stores like H&M mixed in and all without the appearance of having been crammed into the space. When walking, one can tell the precise moment when one has crossed from the Old Town into New Town; apart from being marked by a bridge and large, very Gothic monument to Sir Walter Scott, the urban layout, the feel of the streets, and the flow of the spaces is starkly different to the attuned eye. The 1752 New Town competitively shifted Edinburgh into a consumerist mindset where order meant intelligence and large squares and open spaces were the ideal gathering places.
Of course, the ideals of city planners and capitalist city councils rarely align with the mentality of those living in the places the former wish to “improve” or “rescue.” Apparently when New Town was built, the residents of Old Town were so estranged by the straight streets and open spaces that the city had to pay upper-class people to move into the New Town residences, as proof of the new space’s refinement and sensibility. Today, one gets the sense of Old Town as the historical Edinburgh and New Town as the commercial Edinburgh.
One building in Old Town Edinburgh, or Central as the bus routes and most people refer to it, that embodies the fascinating marriage of old and new architectural/urban design is the National Museum of Scotland. Originally built in the 1860s as an industrial museum, the building has been a designated arts, history, mechanics, and government museum throughout its life. In the late 1990s, it received an addition that now houses Scottish history exhibits, detailing everything from the geographical beginning of the British Isles all the way to modern-day life in Scotland and the United Kingdom. The architectural combination of the original museum and the addition are striking yet subtle. The architects Benson and Forsyth wanted the new addition to be both modern and antique, a feat they accomplished by using modern construction technology to build from large stones a wide, round tower that dominates the facade. The cylindrical tower sits in direct contrast to the stark angularity of the original structure, but is somewhat united by material similarities. Though obviously from different eras, the museum appears as a whole entity.
While the museum’s addition and design were considered controversial by many, whether historical or modern architectural purists, it exemplifies Edinburgh’s approach to urban living. The old and new coexist, one representing a distant but lived past oft romanticized, and the other revealing a nation’s desire to disassociate with its ancient and decrepit stereotypes and present itself as a civilized power. The recent wing of the museum houses the history of the Scottish kingdom just as seamlessly as one walks up the Royal Mile to see the Edinburgh Castle before walking over to Princes Street for an evening of refined consumerism, finished with an evening at the pub in Old Town. Old buildings are repurposed, new structures are built as more sophisticated versions of their predecessors, and, all the while, life in Edinburgh goes on.