SKYLINES can be like hairdos. One small change, a lick, a curl or a spike, and it can seem that the whole character is changed – the alteration the only thing one’s eye is drawn towards. That’s particularly so, when, like the new W Hotel in the St James’s Quarter, the form is so out of keeping with the rest of the skyline of Edinburgh.

When I first saw it there, as I rounded the top of Leith Walk, it seemed to me like some wiry, shimmering snake, sticking its head up to see what was going on, and finding itself stuck in a city under Covid-siege. Its pose appeared nervous, as if summoned at the wrong moment by its snake charming creators Alan Murray architects.

One of the things about this alteration in the skyline of Edinburgh is that it feels that, after all that build up – the years in which our skyline was marked by tall, poised cranes – as if its time is wrong. An ostentatious hotel when no one is going to hotels? A ‘retailopolis’, as some have called it, when the high street has been in freefall?

The Herald: St James Quarter, Gordon Terris Herald and Times

People have vied to outdo each other for best insult to describe the building. “A vile walnut whip." “The golden turd”. There was even a petition, entitled “Pit Googly Eyes Oan the Jobby”.

Architects have criticised too. One, Rab Bennetts, described it as “whimsy”. “There is something," he considered, "of the fairground about the hotel’s skyline at St James Quarter; a sense that it might be moving on soon. I wonder if it will still be there in 40-odd years’ time?”

Like many I wasn’t sure I much liked this plan to put such an opulent coil of bling at the heart of my city – and all in the name of tourism and consumerism! It seemed to me like some brash folly. Then one day, standing up on Arthur’s Seat, I saw it there, glinting, and it felt as if someone had plopped a coffee-icing swirl on the cake of Edinburgh.

There was something I liked about that whimsy. It was like a doodle in steel that, particularly in these times, seemed like a careless expression of joy – the opposite of the site's previous Brutalism.

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That snake had put its head above the parapet in a pandemic – and, from there, it looked ridiculously hopeful. Much of the St James Quarter, including its Bonnie & Wild foodhall, is due to open on June 24. In these difficult times, it’s at least something new, a birth for us to coo and fret over. I hope it’s still there in 40 years time.

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