ESALA students are learning how to listen to the city and respond to what it has to say
‘Ridged high against the evening bloom/The Old Town rises, street on street,’ wrote William Ernest Henley in 1893, describing the view from Princes Street, which marks the edge of Edinburgh’s Neoclassical and Georgian gridiron: the New Town. Separated by a narrow valley, the two towns, New and Old − the latter crowned by Edinburgh Castle − are now divided by the East Coast Main Line. Rattling along this artery, trains carry 20 million passengers a year into and out of Waverley Station. Their song recalls Henley’s ‘bold bugles’ which reverberate ‘from crag and scar’.
The poetic echoes that populate this topography fascinate David Clark, Ross McArthur and Heidi Wakefield, all final-year MArch students at Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (ESALA). Working on a joint project, they see architecture as an ‘instrument calibrated to respond’ to urban conditions that Wakefield describes as ‘tremulous’: the quivers, groans and vibrations of the city. Setting out to interpret Edinburgh’s urbanity, the trio developed eavesdropping techniques to capture sounds, harmonies, rhythms and aftershocks that usually go unnoticed. They wanted not only to diagnose − to pinpoint sources of discord within the urban substructure − but also to listen: to hear the city tell its story.
Although sited in Edinburgh, their project is linked to a series of European urban studies that have looked, under the MArch umbrella, at cities including Cadiz, Florence and Marseille. A proportion of the current student cohort will focus on seismically unstable Lisbon, a city conceptualised by studio-leader Suzanne Ewing according to its ‘unsure ground’. Treating Edinburgh as a comparative test case, Ewing’s thematic category refers not only to the daily knocks absorbed by the city but also to deeper cycles of change. Such cycles leave their mark in urban identities that rely on differences being held in check: the capacity of cities to be both fragile and resilient.
The sound of the city inspired David Clark, Ross McArthur and Heidi Wakefield’s investigation into Edinburgh’s urban fabric
Notwithstanding the emphasis placed, by Ewing and her colleagues, on the city as vehicle for speculation − for ‘blue sky’ research − an attribute of ESALA student output is its anchoring in the physical world. This physicality is borne out in recurrent pedagogical themes: in geological contextual analysis, in the priority of the cross-section as a graphic format, and in the prevalence of model-making. According to head of school John Brennan, model-making provides a pedagogical medium ‘for enquiry and reflection’ and, importantly, a way to ‘share common ground with (other) disciplines’. Set against the 2011 merger of the University with Edinburgh College of Art, Brennan’s interdisciplinary perspective draws attention to the capacity of physical models to navigate the scales and spatial vocabularies of architecture, landscape and fine art, encouraging, in lecturer Lisa Moffitt’s words, ‘productive conflations in between’.
This diversified engagement with the tectonics of architectural creativity is refreshing when there is pressure, from both industry and the self-styled avant garde, to prioritise a reductive, digitised rendition of professional productivity: from ‘parametricism’ to BIM. Models offer students a hands-on way to remain faithful to concrete reality, rather than being cast adrift in an ocean of abstractions with only bits and bytes for company.
For all its quirky aestheticism − as a device for measuring seismic and sonic fluctuations − the project by Clark, McArthur and Wakefield engages with the reality of a living, breathing city; its architecture is neither bland nor overwrought. The students produced a laser-cut model, several ‘field instruments’, a short film, and conceptual designs for a paper press and shift-worker hostel in rooms and walkways cantilevered over Waverley Station. Pedagogical motifs exercised at MArch level reflect values across the school, notwithstanding a range of teaching approaches. Most academic staff, including Chris Lowry who directs the undergraduate programme, think of Edinburgh as an ‘architectural laboratory on our doorstep’.
Two of Lowry’s recent graduates, Frazer Haviz and Olle Blomqvist, designed schemes that exploit the vertical character of the city. Both produced ‘foyer’ buildings for homeless youth: a hybrid typology combining reception and support activities with transitional accommodation. Haviz, whose proposal towers above its neighbours, took particular care over thresholds between public, semi-public and private territories at different levels, implicating the architecture in residents’ efforts to reconstruct their personal boundaries. By contrast, Blomqvist’s scheme is in the Old Town. It too makes a virtue of the deep cross-sectional potential of Edinburgh’s urban form, articulating a dialogue between spatial and acoustic separation of street and block interior to define spaces for recovery, contemplation and renewal.
Olle Blomqvist designed this model of a hostel for homeless young people to be sited in Edinburgh’s Old Town
This article is part of a series examining the state of architectural education across the world. More discussions of academies and schools from other nations can be found in Pedagogy