Edinburgh is filled with beautiful buildings, some unquestionably so: Edinburgh Castle, the Usher Hall, Holyrood Palace. Some are more controversial, bound to divide opinion: the Parliament Building, or the modern glass-fronted flats at the Quartermile on the edge of The Meadows, new housing mixed in through the old Royal Infirmary. However, there are two edifices that I walk past frequently, and, for me, they don’t fall into either camp; they neither delight nor offend, but they are command attention, they are daunting and imposing. One is the National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge, and the other is the headquarters of the Scottish Government (also known as St Andrew’s House) on Regent Road. I find both of them a bit bullying to walk past because they seem to glower over me without any finesse or manners. I’m not surprised when I learn they both date (roughly) from the same period. Work on the library building started in 1938, but was interrupted by the Second World War, and so it wasn’t completed until 1956. Construction on the Government building, however, started a little earlier in 1935 and it was completed in 1939, just before all attention and manpower was diverted to the war effort.
Both of them are monolithic, symmetrical bunkers, and, I think, brutishly masculine. I suppose the library seems a little less surly than St Andrew’s House. It seems to me that the sooty residue covering the Government building suits its seriousness of purpose. If it could speak it would tell me, “I’ve more important things to be doing than thinking about how I look!” Maybe it would be less threatening to my eye were it to be given a good scrub up! The building stands on the site of the former Calton Jail so maybe, if you’re given to believe these things, it holds onto a little of that prison aura and that’s why I feel uneasy as I walk past. Unlike the National Library, I have never been into Government buildings, but the workers there must have some of the finest views in the city – overlooking Waverley station, gazing down upon the Canongate and across to Holyrood Park.
One of the few things that draw me to both buildings are the sculpted figures on the façades. Gaze high up onto each of those glowering institutions and you’ll see a row of figures carved in stone staring down and chiding you to go and do something worthwhile. At least that’s what I take from their insistent gazes. On the library building, there are seven full-length allegorical figures, sculpted by Hew Lorimer, depicting: history, law, medicine, music, poetry, science and theology. On the Government building there are six half-length sculptures at top of square pillars on front and here they depict: architecture, craft, health, agriculture, fisheries and education. I wonder if the civil servants who are inside the building scurrying away on their briefs even know these figures are up there, cloaked in soot? I wonder if those using the library look up to the muses as they enter and find inspiration to keep reading and learning and exploring and experimenting. There is a lot to live up to in this city and our daily progress is observed by silent watchers.