Earlier this year I was asked to be part of a debate panel for a Turncoats debate as part of the Architecture Fringe. The format of a Turncoats debate is so interesting: debaters open with a deliberately flamboyant short talk, take to the stage to attack each other with tongue firmly in cheek then switch sides half way through. Turncoats. What happens at Turncoats stays at Turncoats. No phones allowed and no sharing from the room so these are my thoughts and reflections with comments of others left unattributed.
The theme of our debate was Sorry About Tomorrow and I was to argue that the historic built environment is unnecessary in a digital age. Ridiculous, right?
Here are notes I made to guide me during my opening:
So Edinburgh is a World Heritage Site. But whose heritage? And who cares? At a time when people can gather, learn and share online why do we need to preserve and worship historic structures? What is the value and relevance of the historic built environment to the people living in areas of multiple deprivation Leith, the asylum seekers in Wester Hailes, the 18 year old black woman in Stockbridge or the wheelchair user sat staring up at the Scott Monument?
If you are able bodied and you can navigate the landscape, welcome.
If you have the money or connections to gain admission, welcome.
If you can get past the gatekeepers mutually masturbating over sentimentality, welcome.
Virtual reality, 3D presentations, geo-triggered tours, web based information and online communities are far more accessible and egalitarian places through which to explore Edinburgh. (Obligatory quote to make me appear clever and well read): An idea is greater than a cathedral. We should let ideas flourish about how Edinburgh’s built environment can be accessed by everyone, especially future generations, in a way they will prefer.
I’m pretty sure I managed to throw in ‘bougie’, ‘pale and male’ and ‘built on the backs of slaves’ a few times too.
Turncoats debates are meant to be over the top and a little ridiculous but I have to admit the event brought on a lot of confused feelings I still haven’t figured out. I geek out on history with the best of them but what sticks in my craw about the historic built environment in Edinburgh is what feels like exclusivity around it. I made notes while my ‘opponents’ spoke. I have scribbles about stewardship, experiencing place through the eyes of another, the idea that heritage is not static and that it gains value with each generation. If I am thinking about how historic places can be made more accessible though technology, these ideas of my opponents are still relevant. There aren’t really any good reasons those working in and around built heritage can’t start thinking about being experimental with digital things. Thankfully some architects, heritage practitioners and historians who were there with me on the night agreed and we’ll be meeting soon to talk about how we can all work better together.
Apart from thinking about the intersection of technology and historic places, I was also thinking about the immense amount of time and energy that goes into the preservation of historic buildings and securing accolades for being oh so historically significant. At a time when Leith is being raped and pillaged again, secure affordable housing is a bitch to find and Edinburgh appears to be obsessed with building only for visitors, it doesn’t feel right that all these issues around people in places don’t balance out. Maybe I’m comparing apples to oranges. While I don’t think we should be creating social housing from the dungeons of Edinburgh Castle, I do think some of the city’s priorities out of balance.