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Wrecking balls have left a brutal legacy

AFTER long deliberation I have come to the glum conclusion that we - the Scots - are aesthetically challenged.

This manifests itself in myriad ways, from the clothes we choose to wear to the buildings in which we live and earn a crust. Style, which is hard to describe but is obvious when you see it, has largely passed us by. We care not how we look or with what we surround ourselves. Ugliness is everywhere. We prefer functionality to beauty, what's new to what's not, the ersatz to the indigenous, the cheap to the cheerful. In the name of progress, that much-abused word, we allow unspeakable acts of vandalism to be perpetrated. What's more, they're usually done with the connivance of those from whom we expect better, namely politicians of every hue, council officials, educational establishments and private companies, and government bodies and charitable trusts whose apparent raison d'être is the protection of our past.

Thus at any given time there is a number of threatened buildings which require their 'friends' to rush to their aid and save them from obliteration. Recent examples include Perth City Hall, a handsome Beaux-Arts building, and Grant Lodge, a fine town house in Elgin, built in 1750, which was damaged by fire in 2003, since when Moray Council has failed woefully to protect it from the elements. Bereft of ideas and lacking in imagination, councillors would prefer to take a wrecking ball to such buildings rather than find ways in which they may enhance the lives of future generations. Ultimately, some are lost and some are saved but, whatever the outcome, one is left with the hollow feeling that were it not for a few stubborn and enlightened souls, the worst could easily happen.

You might think that we can afford to be so profligate, that we have an embarrassment of architectural wonders. Alas, this is far from the case. This is apparent as I travel round the country in this referendum year, my eyes drawn ineluctably to concrete plooks that ought immediately to be reduced to dust. In the post-war period Scotland was pockmarked by buildings whose defining feature was harling which may look okay slapped on a castle but which on a housing estate has a deadening effect. One wonders what the planners and architects were thinking of.

The irony is that things could have been a lot worse. In his excellent book, Curious Scotland, George Rosie relates in chilling detail just how close Edinburgh came to being dealt a similar blow to that which Glasgow received when the M8 was routed through the heart of the city. Edinburgh's equivalent was a proposed ring road, the plan for which was "brutal but simple." It involved a six-lane highway which would loop around the centre of the city and a disfiguring network of tunnels and stilts.

Had it gone ahead, remarks Rosie, it would have transformed the centre and inner suburbs of Edinburgh. "Some of the world's finest Georgian architecture would have been demolished or forced to live in the shadow of a concrete motorway. Tunnels would have cut through some of the city's hills with potentially disastrous effects on the buildings above. Hundreds - maybe thousands - of trees would have been felled to make way for the new highway, its feeder roads and attendant car parks. It was 1960s planning at its most brutal."

What it was not, however, was pie in the sky. The scheme's proposers had powerful allies within the capital's Tory administration, including the then Lord Provost. What scuppered it was a leak to a newspaper followed by the kind of campaign which showed that when awakened the Edinburgh bourgeoisie make formidable guerrilla warriors. Among those who opposed it were the playwright Robert Kemp, whose son Arnold later edited the Herald, and the novelist Compton Mackenzie. Eventually, a public inquiry was held, and the harebrained plan was kicked into touch.

Thereafter the Tories lost power in Edinburgh and have never since regained it. But Edinburgh's escape was not repeated in Glasgow where the council was free to do as it pleased. And, of course, it did. Could it happen now? I suspect - I hope - not. But we must be ever vigilant of our heritage, while insisting that whatever goes up or comes down adds to the visual appeal of the land.

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