Athens of the north

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"Auld Reekie" and "Athens of the North": describe how the architects of Edinburgh from the mid eighteenth century to the mid nineteenth attempted to link (physically and visually) the Old Town and the New Town.

The nicknames "Auld Reekie" and "Athens of the North" are symbols of two very different times during Edinburgh's Past and of two equally contrasting areas in its cityscape. Before the 18th century, Edinburgh consisted of the area now known as the old town. This comprised a densely populated settlement straddling the tail of the ancient volcanic plug that is castle rock. Conditions in this area were crowded and often foul. This was the result of hundreds of years of irrational decisions and complete lack of town planning and sanitation. "Auld" translates directly as "Old" and "Reekie" refers to the smoky environment caused by the high concentration of chimneys, but also hints at the stench. In this way, I feel that the nickname "Auld Reekie" connotes everything that the old town represented during this time. In the same way I feel that "Athens of the North" represents the hope and aspirations of the Scottish enlightenment manifested in the New Town. In my essay I shall illustrate how and why Edinburgh developed from "Auld Reekie" to the "Athens of the North" and discuss how the architects during this period attempted to connect both visually and physically the Old and New Town.

The "Scottish Enlightenment" refers to a highly influential period of Scottish History during the 18th century. It was a time when Scotland excelled as a nation specifically in the field of academia and science. This included philosophy, economics, engineering, architecture, medicine, geology, archaeology, law, agriculture, chemistry, and sociology. Perhaps the greatest indication of the immensity of the success at the time was the literacy levels. By 1750, Scots were among the most literate citizens of Europe, with an estimated 75% level of literacy. Although the exact reason for this massive intellectual progression is not entirely clear, it is very much linked with a close-knit group of Scottish academics and unionists. This included Francis Hutcheson, Alexander Campbell, David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Reid, Robert Burns, Adam Ferguson, Robert Adam, John Playfair, Joseph Black and James Hutton. Many of them were based in Edinburgh at the University and met and discussed their ideas regularly in a social context. It is this collaboration, unlike their European contemporaries that is said to be the key their success. As a symbol of this achievement Edinburgh was initially referred to as the "Athens of the North" in reference to the academic success rather than architectural characteristics of Athens.

During the first half of the 18th century, it is clear that Edinburgh had become no match to its equivalents south of the border. To many of its citizens, particularly to its aristocrats and business people it had become an embarrassment to Scotland, especially in view of the enlightenment. As Robert Chambers describes it, it had become:

"a narrow, filthy, provincial town"

or in John Taylor's words

"makes this country so much despis'd by the English"

There were many problems with the town but perhaps the most pressing issue was that of sewage disposal. Due a lack sanitation, the inhabitants of the old town had became accustomed to the medieval solution of discarding there waste out of the windows and into the gutters and side streets. Up until this point, it had been a relatively satisfactory solution as tenement blocks were restricted in height and the wet climate of Scotland simply washed away the sewage down the steep gradients. As the buildings became higher due to a higher population density, the issue became apartment as waste began hitting the walls of adjacent buildings and most infamously worse, landing on pedestrians. This was not a problem in examples of English cities at the time so it is not difficult to see why some Scots would have been ashamed of their nation's capital. Despite this, according to Charles McKean, it is a common misconception that the inhabitants of Edinburgh during this time were desperate for the development of a new town. In his passage Twinning cities: modernisation versus improvement in the town of Edinburgh he argues that the decision to build the new town came from a more complex political agenda rather than a common feeling of dissatisfaction towards the old town. It seems that there were two distinct opinions, one was to improve the old town, and the other was to build a new one. McKean stresses that our knowledge of the condition of the old town comes from text written by those who were for the construction of the new town and there for could be inaccurate.

Despite this, the fundamental point is that Edinburgh was in need for change.

Part of Edinburgh's demise can be attributed to neglect by the government in England dating back to the formation of the union in 1603. It seems that as the power shifted from Edinburgh to London, so did much of the wealth and as a result the economy of Edinburgh suffered greatly during this time. By the early 18th century the situation was so bad that the council appealed to the King George to save Edinburgh from its decline. After receiving no response the council attempted to take action towards the breakup of the Union, however they were unsuccessful as they lacked financial support. Despite this, Edinburgh ultimately gained from the Union. During Georgian times many plans went ahead to improve the old town. These included the cleaning up of the old town and the renovation of many of its buildings. Due to Edinburgh's unique topography, development of the old town was very restricted, especially to the north. As a result, new developments initially went ahead in the areas south of the old town. This consisted primarily of the neo-classical development of Bearfords Park comprising what is now George square and the Design of the New College by Robert Adam. The final motivation for the development of the new town to the north came when Edinburgh was pressured into preventing its elite from fleeing to London. As Charles McKean puts it

"Since Edinburgh needed to retain 'people of rank and of a certain fortune', it required an aristocratic suburb exclusively for them"

The First and most obvious physical link between the Old Town and New Town came with the construction of the north bridge between 1769 and 1772. This was constructed after the decision had been made to build the new town to the north. Building a bridge over the Nor Loch valley had been on the cards for over a century but it was not until the council received government funding for the development of the new town that plans went ahead. The bridge spanned the valley of the Nor Loch and for the first time, allowed access to the old town from the north. As well as facilitating the construction of the new town by providing a critical link, it also created a more direct route to the port of Leith which improved trading in the old town. The original bridge was constructed from stone and included three primary arches. Just after its completion the bridge collapsed due to structural deficiencies killing 5 people. The problem was caused by years of soil build up from old town excavations which created large mounds of "travelled earth" along the embankment of the old town crag. The engineers had underestimated the depth of this loose soil which ultimately led to the disaster. By 1772 it was reconstructed with more substantial foundations. In alignment with the north bridge is the south bridge. This was completed later in 1788 and spanned the equally problematic depression of the Cowgate to the south. Built from stone and consisting of twenty-two arches, the bridge was constructed primarily in order to link the high street with the university but also to allow for access to the expanding developments to the south.

Coupled with the north bridge, this highly undervalued viaduct linked the new town appropriately to the educational heart of the old town.

Although there were many others involved, the design for the new town is credited to the young architect James Craig. Like many of the people involved in the concept for a new town and in true spirit of the enlightenment, Craig was a strong believer in the union. This unionist agenda was reflected very literally in his initial proposal which in plan formed a union jack. This vision was later dropped due to a combination of it not being possible to construct (because of the angles which it created) and a general feeling of public dislike towards its symbolism. Subsequent revisions were made to the plan and in 1767 the plan that we know today was finalised. From above, Craig made various visual links with the old town. The first and most notable of these is the alignment of the new town. The plan comprises three main streets; Queens St, George St and Princess St. These were aligned parallel to the royal mile and in doing so created an obvious juxtaposition between the old and new town. The streets are also about a mile long and incorporate a square at either at either end (Charlotte Sq and St Andrew Sq). This quite literally reflects the composition of the old town where the Castle and Holyrood Palace take their place at either end of the east-west aligned high street that is about a mile long. Further visual connections to the old town were made by Craig in the arrangement of the streets which run perpendicular to these primary streets. These consist of Charlotte St, Castle St, Frederick St, Hanover St and St David's St. These streets were intended to align with the key features in the old town in order to make a visual connection. The best example of this is Castle st, which as its name suggests, is in line with the castle. What we now know as Princess Street was also initially to be named St Giles St in reference to the cathedral in the old town.

Additional physical connections between the towns were made in 1759 with the draining of the Nor Loch and subsequent creation of the mound. The completion of this draining allowed for later pedestrian access between the towns over what is now the Princess St gardens (an area that had been previously inaccessible). The mound, coupled with the north bridge, formed a secondary vehicular access route to the old town. The steep embankment was formed using soil exctevated when draining the Loch together with landfill from the old town. The person responsible for the subsequent architectural success of the mound and also credited as the primary architect to which Edinburgh owes its title; the "Athens of the North" is William Henry Playfair. Playfair was a Scottish architect and is considered to be one of the key figures of the Greek revival in Scotland. His influence on the architecture of new town was massive, particularly in examples of some of the more iconic buildings. A key example of this was his involvement with the Calton hill development beginning in 1818-1820 and his commission for the Royal Institution and Observatory buildings. Later, Playfair also took over the project that was to be the greatest attempted tribute to Athens in northern Europe. This was the proposal in 1924 to build an exact replica of the Parthenon. Despite the fact that the project was never completed as a result of a lack of finance, I feel that it creates one of the most striking visual statements in Edinburgh. In my opinion the national monument on Calton hill reflects the Castle on Castle rock and in doing creates a key visual link between "Auld Reekie" and the "Athens of the North". Both are situated in an elevated position on top of volcanic rocks are both symbolic of the old and new town. In 1822 Playfair received the commission to design the Royal Institution Building on the mound. As the primary building site which sits directly between the old and new town the mound posed a challenge. Playfair's solution to this exposed location was to design it in the form of a Doric temple. On the site directly behind the institution, Playfair was later commissioned to design the national gallery in 1853. This similarly took the form of a Greek Temple only this time in an Ionic style and included far more improvisation. Together, the buildings form an obvious visual link to the old town.

In conclusion I feel that many connections were made between the old and new town. These facilitated the integration of the New and old town at a physical and experiential level. However, despite these visual and physical links, in my opinion there is no real connection between the core essence of the old and new town. To me this is illustrated most clearly in view of the union. As a defensive settlement built to fend off the English, the old town is symbolic of a reluctant (still existent) Scottish outlook where change and development are not on the horizon. Contrastingly, the new town is a symbol of the union and of the forward thinking approach which prevailed during the Scottish Enlightenment .In this way, together with its neoclassical architecture I think the New Town is deserving of its comparison to ancient Greece in its name "Athens of the North". The disjunction between the ideologies of the two towns is reflected in their architectural characteristics where there are virtually no similarities. Although there are many examples of neo-classical architecture in the old town, to me these are simply part of the new town ideology and don't represent an architectural connection. The reason there is no architectural reference to the old town is because at the time, the way to express these new ideals was by using the Greek Classical language. This is the case in all examples of the Greek revival in Europe, but was perhaps most evident in Edinburgh. Today, the architectural language for optimism and change tends to stem from the international style and consequently allows for references to the history and culture of its context. Some of the best examples of this can now be found on the royal mile where the medieval language of the old town has been used. In a modern context, given the opportunity to enhance the architectural connection between the old and new town, I would adopt this approach.


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