An up-to-date look at Edinburgh’s ageing modernist buildings

Maybe you’ve had more time lately to explore Edinburgh and notice places you might not even knew existed. Or for months you’ve been longing to see a favourite part of the city again. Either way, you will know there is a lot more to it than Old Town and New Town. Keep Edinburgh Thriving has got out and about and taken a good look at the Scottish capital’s modernist architecture.

Modernist buildings were erected for various reasons but for thousands of people, they represent more than an architectural experiment – these are places where they have lived and worked.

Today the structures are not so modern any more; many were put up in the 1950s and 1960s.

For traditionalists, perhaps they will always remain an affront. Others find elegance and ambition in their bold shapes, their scale and use of concrete, steel and glass. At its most simplistic, it’s a case of Brutalism versus beauty.

Cables Wynd House, more commonly known as the Banana Flats

In 2017 the Banana Flats and Linksview House in Leith were awarded category A-listed status, meaning they are of national and international importance.

Elizabeth McCrone, head of designations at Historic Environment Scotland, says: “I think it's an accolade, part of the history of Leith, and if you look at the buildings around it, you've got The Vaults building, dating back to the 17th century, the Leith hospital buildings from the 19th century, you've got the Gurdwara now, which is the former Church of Scotland place of worship built in the 1840s."

"All these buildings tell the story of Leith and the Banana Flats are just part of that continuum, telling the story of how people lived and worked”

Argyle House, seen from base of Johnston Terrace. The former social security office block has been empty for years

This example of Scottish Brutalism has survived several threats of demolition. Originally built in 1968, it dominates the entrance to Grassmarket from West Port. However, the environmental cost of demolition and reconstruction is often forgotten, with academics calling for better maintenance of structures to prevent further carbon increases.

Gordon Aikman Lecture Theatre, George Square

First opened in 1970, this category-B listed building has housed performing arts and lectures for Edinburgh University students. Construction was controversial, to say the least, as it replaced a terrace of Georgian houses on the square.

woman-looking-over-Castle-Terrace-car park
Castle Terrace car park

The engineer, Frank Dinnis, had visited Copenhagen to check out the latest designs and was inspired by what he saw, bringing similar modernist innovation to Scotland. Like it or not, the car park provides spaces in a busy part of town for locals and tourists alike.

Edinburgh Castle viewed from the car park, which received B listed status in 2019

“Listing is not there to prevent change, it's there to recognise the really special buildings, stretching across centuries. There are modern new builds as well, mixed in with the old, and that's what a city should be: old bits, new bits, different types of housing to suit different people” – Elizabeth McCrone

Canongate Housing Development (Brown's Close)

Canongate Housing Development, a postwar design by the renowned architect Sir Basil Spence, was completed in 1969 and is now a category-B listed structure.

John Glenday, editor of Urban Realm, says:

“Cities aren’t stuck in stone, they are museums that are constantly evolving, and they have to adapt to accommodate the demands of the people that live there, whether that's housing, offices or providing car parks. We can't wish away some of the needs of modern life”

Linksview House was conceived as a natural successor to the tenements it replaced

Located around the corner from the Banana Flats, Linksview House and it's 98 apartments have stood tall in Leith since 1967. This was one of Edinburgh's post-war mass urban housing schemes, its aim being to establish the same civic spirit of traditional tenemented streets.

Edinburgh University Main Library

Another design by Sir Basil Spence, this was completed in 1967. The library's exterior was designed to look like a bookcase.

“The problem with beauty is there's no scientific yardstick for judging it: one person’s beauty is another person’s ugly” – John Glenday

Potterow Port underpass

An area that has seen much change over the last 100 years is around Bristo Square. Once dotted with tenements, it is now often frequented by students. The name refers to one of the original gateway entrances into the old city walls, called Potterow Port.

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