The ruins of the future

St James Centre plaza

Rain-soaked plazas, underpasses, flyovers, shining steel and glass facades, bleakly functional multi-storey car parks, looming ferroconcrete towers.

They're not images typically with Edinburgh city centre architecture, justly renowned of course for the neoclassical precision of its New Town and the labyrinthine gothic murk of the Old Town, facing each other across Princes Street gardens.

I admire all of that. But during my daily head-clearing walks through the city centre I've become intrigued by the many buildings that don't fit the stereotype: the post-war modernist architecture shunted into the city's heart, often crammed side-by-side with the venerable edifices of the Old and New Towns. And not so much the gleaming constructions of the past few years, but rather the modernism that has become 'old': the buildings of the 1950s, 60s and 70s that represent the future dreams of previous generations.

Jurys Inn, Jeffrey Street

Some of it now seems comically inappropriate. As I walk out of my flat, for example, I'm immediately confronted with the monstrous bulk of the Jurys Inn Hotel on Jeffrey Street, incongruously sandwiched between the fantasy Victorian gothic of an Episcopal church and its rectory. In another life it might have served as the regional offices of the Inland Revenue in a minor English town, or the administrative headquarters of a tractor collective in some municipality of the former Soviet Union. But here it is, rudely forced into the Old Town skyline.

A bit further on, across the North Bridge, there's another curiosity. The St James Centre, at the intersection of Princes Street and Leith Street incorporates a shopping mall, a hotel, and a brooding complex of tower blocks formerly occupied by civil servants, now empty, covered in netting, slowly rotting, glowering over shoppers darting between the Centre mall and St Andrews Square.

St James Centre tower

This is uncompromising 1960s brutalist architecture, right in the heart of the city, just round the corner from the elegant promenade of Princes Street, and lurking under the shadow of the Enlightenment follies of Calton Hill. It's fair to say the Centre is rather unloved, regularly topping polls for the ugliest set of buildings in Edinburgh, and probably won't be around for much longer, with plans afoot to for a new St James Quarter which presumably will be in the style of the shimmering glass buildings - the Omni Centre et al - that have appeared slightly further down Leith Street over the past decade.

Scottish Widows, Dalkeith Road

But back over North Bridge and up Dalkeith Road there's another 60s/70s oddity that's going to be around for a while yet. The Scottish Widows complex at the junction of Dalkeith Road and East Preston Street presents an arresting vista of austere hexagonal buildings that - for those of a certain age - brings to mind the stark moonbases of 1970s sci-fi: think Space 1999 or Blakes 7. It's best viewed from a vantage point atop the nearby Salisbury Crags, as explained on the website dedicated to its architect, Sir Basil Spence:

The building was planned to be in harmony and scale with the site. For example, the hexagonal shape used reflects the geological structure of the surrounding basalt rock. The [Basil Spence] practice also paid particular attention to the aerial view of the building because Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags overlook it. The relationship with the surrounding area is continued throughout the office. The plants within the workspaces link the interior with the gardens and park beyond, and the staff restaurant opens onto terraces with views towards Arthur’s Seat.

Dark waters, Scottish Widows

But I can't help but feel that it looks rather tired now, soiled, like a wedding cake left out in the rain. The brown tinted glass gives the complex a rather sinister aspect, and one can't help but wonder what dark secrets the dank water feature lapping around the entrance to the building might hold.

There's much more vintage modernism in the heart of the city, showcased in this gallery on the BBC website: In Pictures: Post-war listed buildings in Edinburgh. Innovative structures, every one, but I don't think the years have been terribly kind. Modernist architecture, of any era, tends to date rather quickly.

But I don't mean that as a criticism. Authentic modernist design takes risks, tries something new, then moves on. It isn't so much a style as a state of mind. It's always reinventing itself, always refashioning its vision of the future. The buildings I've discussed have seen better days, but they enshrine the utopian visions of those who designed them. It certainly seems to me beside the point to fret over whether they should be listed or not. It would be truer to the progressive spirit to simply knock them down and replace them with something fresh and new.

I have a particular soft spot for the St James complex, partly borne of nostalgia. It reminds me of the wind-blasted concrete and glass monoliths of much of city centre Aberdeen, which I marvelled at as a child. They seemed shabby versions of the temples of some sci-fi metropolis, much more interesting than the forbidding Victorian granite terraces with which they were uncomfortably juxtaposed.

Edinburgh University towers, new and old

I also admire the idealism that inspired this architecture. Brutalism flourished in the 1950s and early 60s, developed as a radical new style designed to mark a clear break with the old world that had produced two catastrophic wars and the economic depression of the 1930s. The new social democratic world of the National Health Service, public housing and rational city centres would be build using a rough-hewn, unsentimental, futuristic architectural grammar: logical grids, reinforced unvarnished concrete, steel and glass, interlinking skywalks.

As Owen Hatherley puts it in Militant Modernism, a fascinating apologetic for post-war architecture:

[C]oncrete walkways and windswept precincts have always seemed to me to have a sharp poignancy. What might be at work here is the common contemporary phenomenon of nostalgia for the future, a longing for the fragments of the half-hearted post-war attempt at building a new society, an attempt that lay in ruins by the time I was born.

Brutalism challenged the sentimental assumption that the British architectural tradition is essentially pastoral, a gentle litany of cottages, farmsteads and Tudor timber. As Hatherley notes:

It took its lead from the industrial and urban landscapes of the first country in the world to industrialise, fetishising hardness, dynamism, scale and rough edges.

That style, I think, has had its day. We can surely do better than ferroconcrete. But I hope we don't lose the radical spirit that inspired these strange, otherworldly structures, with their hopes of progress.

21st century modernism, Leith Street