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Concrete Designs to Thrive  >  1 Patrick Geddes

Walk by Design - 1 Patrick Geddes

MEET - Part 1 of CONCRETE Designs to Thrive 2021

Emma Olver of Scottish Historic Buildings Trust and John Ennis of Journeys in Design discuss Patrick Geddes, social sustainability and regenerative design on this walk and talk around Edinburgh's Royal Mile. 


Culture Hubs & City Squares

8 June 2021 
Camera Obscura and Riddles Court, Royal Mile, Edinburgh 

With: Emma Olver, Patrick Geddes Centre


In the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town, the pair discuss the work and legacy of the Scottish internationalist Sir Patrick Geddes, town planner and polymath. We walk from his Outlook Tower, at the top of Castle Hill, passing the tenement where he and his family made their home, through into Riddles Court and the Patrick Geddes Centre. We reflect on the contemporary power of the Geddes legacy.

This encounter introduces Concrete Designs to Thrive, exploring the contemporary design of places and spaces for living well.

The design legacy of Sir Patrick Geddes runs throughout this programme.

The encounter also introduces the theme of MEET with its exploration of Culture Hubs and City Squares.

Here you can watch the full video, or you can read text adapted from the transcript of the conversation below.

John Ennis: Hello and welcome to the first of our stops on our new Walk by Design, from Journeys in Design. My name is John Ennis, curator and producer, introducing our new program - Concrete Designs to Thrive.


We're in the middle of Edinburgh's old town, one of the oldest bits of the nation's capital. Today we launch Concrete Designs to Thrive as a series of stops on a walk and this is our first stop. It's part of Architecture Fringe 21, a great initiative and I'd certainly encourage you to dip into the Architecture Fringe program.


We've taken some essential 'acts of life' as our themes to give focus for our work: Play, Nest, Heal, Vote, Pray and Meet.


These themes will help us as we go across Scotland's seven cities over the next three years. Tonight I'll introduce the program with a walk. We'll talk about a number of design legacies through the programme, including Bauhaus for example but tonight we're talking about the legacy of Patrick Geddes.


I'm delighted to introduce Emma Olver, from the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust.  Now i think it's fair to say Emma and I are both fans of Patrick Geddes. I will let Emma introduce herself just now and then perhaps she could tell us a little bit about Patrick Geddes.


Emma: I'm Emma, I work for the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust. We run the Riddles Court building,  at the Lawnmarket, off Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Riddles Court is also the Patrick Geddes Centre for learning. 


Patrick Geddes - Planner, polymath and internationalist


Patrick Geddes was a Scot. He was born in Aberdeenshire and then moved down to Edinburgh and studied at the university here. So he studied in Edinburgh, he studied in London, he studied over in France and also paid a trip to Mexico before returning to Edinburgh. He is what one might call a polymath, for want of a better word, because he's very difficult to sum up. 


John: There are a number of cities that might claim an association with Patrick Geddes. We're going to follow his trail around Scotland. Dundee, Glasgow and Perth where he was educated, all have a claim on him. Tonight though, we're at this very special place in Edinburgh. 


We'll also look at Patrick Geddes, the internationalist. Journeys in Design believe that we all stand taller in the world when we can reach out to countries and cultures other than our own just as he might have done. So we'll have a little look over in Montpellier, in Tel Aviv, and in India - these wonderful places where he had an input and influence as well.

First let's have a little walk down the High Street. We've had a look at the Lookout Tower building and we'll talk about that in a bit, but let's go further down. Edinburgh, I think, could justifiably claim to be the home city. And this particular area of the Royal Mile, is perhaps the most "Geddesian" of all the areas that we might come to.


Emma: Just across the road we have James's Court which was one of his first residences, one of his first married homes.


John: I love this story. Patrick Geddes was living across in the more well-to-do New Town, the newly built area of central Edinburgh. Essentially, by the late 19th century the Old Town had become something of a slum. He brought his wife Anna and his young child Nora out of that more well-to-do area and they moved into James court which was almost a slum.


Emma: Indeed they did. Patrick Geddes was one of those people who believed in teaching by design, and doing as he wanted others to do. He was aiming to regenerate the Old Town. He wanted to bring students and the university back into the centre, and have them living in the old town. And he also wanted to bring middle classes back into the old town. 


Many of the very old 16th and 17th century buildings had become really run down and were slums in effect but in order to revive them he moved in and then set about changing the Old Town from within.

He was married in 1886 and he moved here with his wife and his young child in 1887. I'm sure it was quite a change but Anna luckily was quite a redoubtful woman. She very much believed in his principles as well, and supported him in those. She ran sewing classes for local women, from their home in St James's Court. Meanwhile Patrick Geddes set about white washing the walls to improve the environment, planting flower boxes, demolishing some of the buildings and also creating gardens. 


John: The Geddes's were really ahead of their time in so many ways, and that's why we're here. We're going to look at the design legacy of Patrick Geddes as we go further on our Walk by Design, and also throughout our Concrete Designs experience in Scotland's seven cities - and reaching beyond to European cities and elsewhere.

Place, Work, Folk - the Geddesian Triad


Think Global, Act Local is a phrase which absolutely suits Patrick Geddes. Social sustainability was one of his driving principles. In fact, he was fond of a triad of words - place, work, folk - the Geddesian triad. I love his use of the word, folk. He wanted to come and find out through hard work in this area what it meant to the folk who lived here. 

Emma: Yes. Place, work, folk. He believed in regeneration through acts, and through education, but also through a real understanding of place. He believed that any kind of education and learning had to come through a real understanding of the place. 


This is why he wanted to move here and work with the people who were already here, to regenerate their own environment.


John: I always get a bit of a tingle when i come into Riddles Court. It really is atmospheric isn't it, and it's been beautifully restored. Before we talk about the work of the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, perhaps we can just think a little bit more about one of the two of the things you said: Regenerative design. 


This is a contemporary notion where we not only design so that we're neutral with our resources, but we also give something back - we enhance through the design process.


We're always at risk of presentism, where you take something from the past and you give it meaning and you try and slot it into things. Patrick Geddes, however does really seem to be a man whose ideas are absolutely those of today. 

You talked about regenerative design. Do you want to talk about how he regenerated some of the buildings

Conservative Surgery and 'Greening Up' the Old Town


Emma: Two of the main things he did were as follows. Firstly, conservative surgery. This meant tearing down some of the old buildings in order that the ones that were left, the more historically important buildings, provided better and liveable in conditions for the people that were there. Riddles Court is a really great example of this. 


When Patrick Geddes bought Riddles Court in 1890 there was a building completely covering this space where i'm standing and also completely covering that wider courtyard. You only had a very narrow passage through the middle. These were low-rise, probably about half the height of the buildings around us today. They were old buildings and some could say they were historically important in their own right. 


Patrick Geddes saw that in order to make the rest of the buildings around them more hygienic; in order to let in light and air and things like piping, you needed to get rid of the most dilapidated buildings. So that's what he did. He created this lovely open space.


John:  That was a major deal because the whole of the place was pretty slummy. The argument could have been to demolish the whole lot. In fact, that was the argument 50 years later and a lot of areas in Edinburgh were bulldozed because they were thought unmanageable.


But Patrick Geddes had that conservative surgery approach, which is a wonderful term to remember as we go forward with Concrete Designs to Thrive.


The second thing that we talked about was the 'greening up' of the Old Town. This is close to my heart and as we now find more than ever, a walk in nature and contact with trees and any natural growth is good for the soul and well-being. It's now well researched and evidenced. Something additional happens when new areas of green are brought in into the city. Patrick Geddes was responsible for a lot of that


Emma: Patrick Geddes strongly believed in the importance of having green space around. He recognised that although Edinburgh is surrounded by lovely green countryside, and there were some urban parks at the time - people living in the centre of the crowded Old Town couldn't really access those spaces. So he set up a commission to look at empty spaces available in the Old Town that could be turned into gardens.


He identified about 75 along the length of the Royal Mile and throughout the old town. At least 10 of those spaces were converted into gardens and remain so today; Johnston Terrace Nature Reserve, Granny's Green, and on West Port close to Edinburgh College of Art is the now very appropriately named Geddes Gardens.


John: It's wonderful that they they still exist and they're still appreciated. We'll we'll get a chance to have a look at through some of those on our walk and also to look at a garden that has been redesigned much as Geddes might have envisaged - a new back garden plot.


Emma you've been very patient and helpful to me in sharing your enthusiasm and your knowledge. You're part of a bigger organisation called the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust. Can you tell us a little bit about the work of SHBT.


About Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, Riddles Court and the Outlook Tower

Emma: The Scottish Historic Buildings Trust is over 35 years old. We are a buildings preservation trust. Our aim is to take historic buildings that are dilapidated or at risk of neglect and demolition, and to revive them. We bring them back to life and fill them with people. This doesn't always mean keeping them for the same purpose that they were built for. We return some of the buildings to their original purpose. For instance the Hippodrome Cinema in Bo'ness, which is the oldest cinema in Scotland. Others we change their use into offices or events venues. 


John: I have a bit of a relationship with the SHBT. It was a joy to exhibit in the Merchant's House in Law's Close in Kirkcaldy. I've also been down in Custom Lane and Custom House in Leith - two wonderful properties.


Now, can we compare the Outlook Tower that Patrick Geddes repurposed, and this building in Riddles Court that the SHBT have re-purposed.


Emma: The Outlook Tower, next to Edinburgh Castle was purchased by Patrick Geddes in 1892. He purchased it as a base for his civic and regional surveys. He was very keen in surveying Edinburgh and was taking lots of photographs. Working with the Edinburgh Photographic Society, they produced a huge number of photographs of the Old Town at that time. These are still really useful today. He wanted to display these along with maps, town plans and sketches in order to teach people about Edinburgh and the wider locality. 


Outlook Tower was a meeting place - a real cultural hub. It became more than a library. It really encompasses Geddes's ideas, one of which was to bring people together and to have interdisciplinary discussions. He brought in artists, scientists, philosophers and he would hold regular summer schools at the outlook tower and Ramsay Garden behind it - which was another building that he restored and changed. He would bring people together to have discussions in order to further all of the disciplines together.


Riddles court was taken on by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust and it went through quite a long restoration process. A total of six million pounds was fundraised and put into the building, which was completed in 2017. It's now used as the SHBT headquarters, our offices, and also as an events venue and as the Patrick Geddes Centre for Learning. We encourage people to come here to learn about the work of Patrick Geddes and his wider circle.


SHBT also put some of his educational philosophies into practice. So we work with local schools, bringing them into the building and also taking them to some of those garden spaces that we mentioned.


John: Wonderful, so a really a meeting place of true Geddesian impact!


Thank you so much for for chatting, Emma. I know that we'll be back and we hope to to work with you in the future. You mentioned that wonderful archive at the Outlook Tower, so we've talked about Patrick Geddes' design legacy. We've referred to other design legacies for our Concrete Designs to Thrive programme. I'm pleased to say that a lot of the Geddes design archive survives, and it's now with the University of Edinburgh. 

I'm thrilled to say that tomorrow we're going to be chatting about design archives with Fran Baseby at the wonderful George Square Basil Spence designed library


So today we've been thinking about MEET, on Concrete Designs to Thrive. Thanks so much for joining us and i hope you enjoyed this evening. Please send in questions through any of our social media channels or via the website.

Next video: Learn - Basil Spence >

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