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Progress, but at what cost for the Fair City?

THE four cherubim atop Perth City Hall look down upon the shopping crowds with increased perturbation.

For plans are afoot to topple them, to hew the stone from beneath their nappied bottoms and replace their magnificent seat with … space. Or, if you will, a plaza.

Councillors in the little city decided - again - that the 100-year-old neo-classical (or baroque revival or Edwardian hotchpotch) edifice in the middle of the holy shopping district must be demolished.

The decision will be passed to Historic Scotland which, on behalf of Scottish Government ministers, has thrown out a similar resolution previously and, almost certainly, will do so again.

So whence this obsession? Perhaps city status has gone to the heads of Perth's leaders, who want to "think big", as bigger is better, and shops (and restaurants and pubs) are best. How could a solid stone edifice from the past stand against all this flighty progress?

Well, because it has its friends. Starting at the bottom, there's me, even if occasionally I question my knee-jerk reaction to anything that threatens a building with classical columns. Who knows how our aesthetic preferences are forged? Do we like patchwork fields only because they featured in the bucolic books of childhood or because they're objectively pleasing?

I haven't a definitive response to that but let me introduce the building's other friends whose credentials are more impressive.

There is Save Britain's Heritage, though the clue's in the name. SBH president Marcus Binney said it was "entirely premature" to reject plans by Perth City Market Trust, backed by the Prince's Regeneration Trust, to turn the halls into an indoor market. That's Prince as in Charles, which adds a fusty odour to the debate, but is no excuse to turn up one's nose at the trust's plans, which also include a tourist information office, small business units, gallery and roof-top restaurant.

Pie-in-the-sky, say the critics, who have become fed up waiting for flesh to be put on these bones and who see City Hall more as mausoleum than lively hub. Their hands are on the wreckers' ball and, boy, they're dying for that baby to swing.

It's a battle of Being versus Nothingness. They want a space, a continental-style civic square, across which the lieges might waddle blithely from shop to outdoor cafe, chilling out in the peculiarly still afternoon atmosphere of modern architectural drawings.

Their vision is of young, healthy ratepayers in shorts imbibing al fresco slurpuccinos and poking distractedly at their iPads, unaware that above them descends the ordure of a passing doo.

However, this isn't a straightforward battle of good against such evils. The hall, which once hosted Morrissey and Margaret Thatcher, has stood unused since 2005. It does look rather as if it dropped from outer space in an episode of Dr Who, standing silently like a great grey stuffed elephant amid the squawking vibrance of the chain stores and cafes that surround it.

But you can't just demolish a building that boasts Ionic columns and what Historic Scotland calls "scriptural enrichments" in stone. So battle has commenced. Classical against consumer. Conservation chorus versus cacophony of tills. Futuristic vision versus (to its detractors) ageing eyesore. Tweedy fogies versus continental types with interesting spectacles.

Perhaps there's a compromise. The building is fine in itself. The problem is where it's situated. Is it beyond the wit of man to rebuild it elsewhere? Probably. We can't even afford to reopen railways (the Edinburgh South Suburban line springs to mind) that the Victorians and Edwardians built from scratch. It's called progress.

And must progress always be accompanied by destruction? Perth councillors: "Yes!" Well, here's another constructive idea (one advocated previously by the Perth City Centre Campaign and which pushes me to the limit of compromise, particularly with Historic Scotland already bending back its leg to boot total demolition back into touch): at least preserve the facade, which is the building's best feature.

Sure, there might be practical problems but, if surmountable, the cherubim could still look down on the hurly-burly. And the councillors would get their vacuous square.

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