The much-maligned Bridge Street development has long been a target for criticism. While the building in its current form may be out of step with the Inverness of the twenty first century, it is wrong to claim that it is beyond redemption and must be destroyed.
It is easy for councillors to criticize the decisions of the past, and in so doing persuade the public of their “common sense” approach to planning and urban design. It conveniently draws attention away from the lack of vision and effective management of the extensive development taking place around the periphery of the town right now.
Before the ‘Unco Guid and Rigidly Righteous’ of Inverness cast their final judgment, we should take some time to reflect. Civilised society permits those that are condemned a final statement, an opportunity to account for their lives before it is finally taken from them.
It is a difficult building to love, it is not fair of face, it does not fade into the background. The Bridge Street development challenges the viewers eye and their intellect. Few people are prepared to give the architecture much more than a cursory glance, their natural inclination is to shy away from confrontation.
It is offensive. Yes, it is! It is offensive because it was progressive. It fought for change, it attacked the conventions and social hierarchies of the traditional cities and offered an entirely different model based on principles of social consensus and inclusion. It tells a story of our values and our vision for the future in the aftermath of the second world war. It is as important to our understanding of ourselves and our city, as the arrival of the trains and the development of Union Street and Queensgate by the Victorians.
In spite of the magnificent architecture of the town centre, the Victorians failed to address the wider social problems created by the Industrial revolution. By the end of the second world war, we were left with a legacy of poor sanitation, inadequate transport infrastructure, poor and overcrowded housing. To build a modern city, based on centre left, social democratic values, required a new approach. The welfare state would provide help and support to those who needed it. New council housing developments sprung up to provide a decent standard of accommodation at an affordable price. The city centre would be planned to allow the free flow of traffic and people. The modern city would sweep away the muddled customs and traditions of the past and replace them with a new city built on logic, science and reason.
In the case of Bridge Street, the town council had already made the key strategic decisions, long before any of the buildings had been designed.
In the 1950’s, the Ness bridge was the main road artery linking the North and West Highlands to the South and East of Scotland. The A9 ran right through the centre of Inverness creating a bottleneck. The principle aim of new development plan was to widen the main road along its full length where it ran through the town, from Millburn through the Eastgate, along the High Street, down through Bridge Street across the bridge and onwards through Kenneth Street and Telford Street. It was understood and accepted that there would be a great deal of demolition required, with many historic buildings coming down at Bridge Street, along the High Street and at Eastgate.
The council had published its development plan in 1959 and after lengthy consultation and a public enquiry it was adopted in 1962. Nobody had any idea that, in just ten years, work would commence on the reconstruction and upgrading of the A9, leading to the completion of the Kessock Bridge in 1982 and a new road bridge at Wells Street, all of which would have made the whole affair unnecessary.
The placing of the contracts for the development was mired in controversy and in the public eye, the building became associated with the destruction of historic city fabric and corruption. Accusations that the building and its architects could never shake off, even though in this instance, the councillors were the real culprits.
With the prospect of a busy road running through the city centre and a major road junction at the bridge, the opportunity to lift pedestrians up above the road network and provide civic spaces such as courtyards was a noble gesture. In place of a traditional street with a wall of buildings that excludes everyone that is not a customer, the complex architecture would invite the public in, to move around, through and over its structure.
Along the route of the pedestrian walkway the three blocks of accommodation were designed to run in a North- South direction, parallel to the river. Turning these blocks perpendicular to the direction of Bridge Street defied the conventional street pattern but responded to the movement of the sun. It ensured that the sunlight was able to reach through between the blocks to the public walkway, courtyards and Bridge Street below. Had they followed the conventional pattern, the building would have cast Bridge Street and the pedestrian walkways into permanent shadow, cold and dark.
Pedestrian bridges would link up the developments on the North and South side of Bridge Street and there would be the opportunity for a grand public concourse looking out over the river. (above Zizi’s)
Deep below the structure, loading bays would be provided allowing delivery lorries to service the complex of shops and offices without blocking up the surrounding streets. Compared to a traditional city, with its two-dimensional public realm fixed permanently to the flat earth, the multi-level city was futuristic, three dimensional and dynamic.
The underlying aims of social transformation were all encompassing. The vision went beyond the layout of the spaces, embracing every aspect of the building. The method of construction would be an attempt to transform the building industry and the working conditions of the labourers that would build the cities of the future. The repetition of grey, precast wall elements were proudly expressed as symbols of this transformation. The traditional practices of messy building sites, with workmen carrying loose materials up dangerous ladders and mixing messy cement in all kinds of weather was considered neither dignified nor acceptable in a modern age. Workmen would have clean organised sites, with proper welfare facilities. The new construction would be assembled quickly from factory made components, craned in and bolted together. The offered improved quality control and precision. The uncompromising appearance is a direct result of its complete commitment to its social ideals.
Compare this ugly brute to the popular and much adored façade of the old Caledonian bank, opposite the town house. Classical architecture has many familiar elements. We respond to them intuitively, but for classical architects they have a specific meaning and purpose. The temple front, created by the columns and pediment would have been reserved for temples, education or the highest offices of government. Attached to a commercial bank, the temple front represented nothing less than submission and devotion to the power of money and the accumulation of private wealth. To a true classical architect such as Alexander Laing who built the town steeple, the design would have been an insult. The Victorians who built the bank were less concerned with the philosophical integrity of their architecture.
The bridge street development was built as the foundation for a new city and a new world that would never materialise. The pedestrian bridge to the North Side of bridge street was never built and as a result, the pedestrian walkway led to nowhere. It became a dead-end. With no reason for the public to use the high level route, the courtyards were unused and gradually filled up with unsympathetic glass enclosures. The railings of the walkway now only attract the clutter of ragged untidy plastic banners. Its continued decline only brings it more attention from those that are not prepared to recognise its virtues and cannot wait to hasten its demise.
While it looks sullen and grisly, it still represents an important chapter in the long history of Inverness. If we rush to bury the Bridge Street Development, we should bear in mind that we are also burying the vision we once held of a society based on noble, generous and inclusive values.
The question must not be, how soon will it be before we rid ourselves of this “notorious eyesore”?
The question must surely be, what will we put in its place and what will it say about us ? Will the architecture embody a vision for the future of Inverness, of noble, civic values and public spaces that we can all be proud of ? If we are going to tear a chapter out of the history of Inverness, there is a responsibility on us to replace it with something better.
The financial pressures on development in today’s construction market will impose a significant burden on the design of any new building. Without significant public investment, we should expect a building that encloses the maximum amount of flexible, floor space at the lowest cost, wrapped in bland, commercial packaging.
With so many other projects begging for public finance, for example, the Castle itself, are we ready to commit to significant public investment that this project will need ? Are we prepared to give the architects the creative freedom necessary to come up with something truly special, that will stand the test of time ?
While we consider these questions, we should also challenge some of the popular assumptions that are frequently taken for granted.
While the building in its current form may be out of step with the Inverness of the twenty first century, it is wrong to claim that it is beyond redemption and must be destroyed. It can be altered. It can be transformed. We can add layers and take bits away. It can be allowed to evolve into something that reflects a more contemporary vision for the city. It can become something completely new and different, totally unrecognisable. When given a very meagre budget and limited brief, local architects have already come forward with interesting ideas for the transformation of the museum and art gallery. Imagine what they could do with a decent, realistic budget and the whole building to work with.
If we retain the building, we would be spared the vast expense and environmental damage that comes, first from the demolition of useful floor space, and again when we come to rebuild something in its place.
Even if we retain only fragments of the building, we still retain the memory of the values it once stood for. We recognise that time has moved on, that things have changed but underneath the building will still be there and continue to speak of our evolving character and identity. We will be adding to the rich history of Inverness, rather than tearing up the chapters that we don’t like. Looking back across 1000 years the architecture of Inverness shows us that fashions change. If each generation had erased the efforts of the one that came before, our environment would be far less interesting and enjoyable.
Whatever the future may hold for this site, two things are certain;
The most important and visible site in the capital of the Highlands needs a thoughtful and considered solution, not a quick fix.
The demolition of the Bridge Street development will not save Inverness. The real problems lie farther to the East.
MAAC studio are accredited conservation architects and principal designers working with traditional buildings throughout Scotland.