Preview: Edinburgh’s Elephant in the Room

Setting the Castle’s scaffolding in stone.

Over the past sixty-seven years, the emblematic silhouette of the city has sported the skeletal ribcage of the Tattoo stadium scaffolding in various states of deconstruction for an accumulated time of twenty-three years. Between the years of 1970 and 2010 the entire cycle of assembly and deconstruction took five months, meaning that for nearly half the year, the castle of the postcards was somehow obscured. It is no great stretch to imagine that this ritual would still be observed even if it took eleven months, for the castle is presented in the city’s narrative as both simultaneously a pristine historical monument, and ablaze with fireworks and the pomp of the Tattoo.

The curious situation of the conspicuously inconspicuous stadium finds its root in the second dichotomy of the castle: the transition from an object used to repel outsiders, into the city’s greatest attraction. The battlements have for the most part been used to repel, by firing a canon at those wishing to get inside. Today the castle attracts 1.7 million visitors annually, who shoot salvos of photographs from the castle walls. The development of cities from their isolationist origins to their globalised present is explored by the theorist, Boris Groys’, writing in The City in the Age of Touristic Reproduction that:

The city walls once delineated the place where a city was built, clearly designating its utopian character…. a genuine city is not only utopian, it is also anti-tourist: it dissociates itself from space and moves through time.

In modern times, however, this utopian impulse, the quest for an ideal city, has grown progressively weaker and gradually been supplanted by the fascination of tourism. Today, when we cease to be satisfied with the life that is offered to us in our own cities, we no longer strive to change, revolutionize or rebuild this city; instead, we simply move to a new city – for a short period or forever – in search of what we miss in our home city.

Groys describes a world where Utopia is not a progressive goal of a city, but perpetually elsewhere, made up of fragments of different cities, pieced together in the patchwork of the tourists Instagram account, a Venetian canal, a Portugese beach, and Himalayan mountain scene, Edinburgh’s castle. Despite the appreciation of history, a romantic tourist’s mentality is conservative and ultimately ahistorical in its attitude to the built environment. It is this conservative gaze of the transient tourist that has been adopted by conservationists and councils in historic centres today,  

The touristic gaze romanticises, monumentalises and eternalises everything that comes within its range. In turn, the city adapts to this materialised utopia, to the medusan gaze of the romantic tourist…. A city’s monuments, after all, have not always been standing there simply waiting for tourists to see them.

The medusan gaze described by Groys is found in the medievalising additions to Edinburgh castle during the 19th century. Fixing the castle in a fictitious past, we continue to indulge romantic fantasy for the benefit of the tourist, accelerating the process of monumentalising. Today’s additions are found in the form of the temporary skeletal structure that tiptoes around the Scots Baronial confection of the gatehouse, the brutally utilitarian defensive walls, and even the tarmac of the esplanade, further pushing the castle into the past.

To anyone who collectively had a hand in the castles construction over the past millennia, the notion of the castle as a complete and ideal monument would be alien, for the form that defines Edinburgh’s skyline is that of an accretion of buildings built as necessity demanded. Each addition serves to adapt the rocky outcrop to its changing role in the heart of the city. Its continual repurposing as fortification, Royal residence, barracks, prison and Victorian romantic symbol are all embroidered into the castles fabric, and are indeed its sum total.

So what is the plan concerning the esplanade stadium? To visit the castle is to visit a cross section of Edinburgh’s social and political history manifest in stone. The castle’s role today is the venue of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, where this collection of history is celebrated as the backdrop to the festivities. The construction of  a permanent open-air amphitheatre could provide Edinburgh with the venue that inscribes the current, lived history into the colourful fabric of the castle in a manner that adds both in terms of utility and aesthetics.

It is not to say that the construction of a monumental entertainment facility dedicated to the celebration of military fanfare would reinstate a utopic attitude to architecture, however the esplanade could provide a case study for how in the era of globalisation, we could perhaps respond to the medusan gaze of the tourist positively as a tool for construction rather than stagnation: by turning the scaffold into stone.

[Text and illustration by Cecile Ngoc Suong Perdu. All rights reserved.]


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