Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
UNESCO is sending inspectors to examine plans for the “Ribbon Hotel” and its stool-like swirl.
Edinburgh is so obviously Great Britain’s most beautiful major city that it’s not really worth holding a contest. Spread over a terrain of rocky volcanic bulges, cliffs and ravine-like dips, the Scottish capital’s old grey, yellow, and red sandstone buildings have a sober elegance that makes them look like some natural extension of the landscape. Now this beauty is in serious jeopardy—or, at least some claim it is.
The new menace comes in the form of an approved building that, despite being marketed as an architectural icon in the making, apparently poses such a visual threat to the city that UNESCO is sending inspectors to reappraise Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site listing. The problem with the new building? It looks like a turd.
That’s what some locals seem to think. The building’s developers prefer to describe it as the “Ribbon Hotel.” An elongated globe that’s the centerpiece of an £850 million ($1.27 billion) project to redevelop a 1960s shopping mall, the structure comes with an eye-catching feature: a twine-like bandage that twists upwards around the building to end in what looks like the peak of a soft-serve ice cream.
That peak, though. Once you’ve heard the local nickname, it’s impossible to imagine the building as anything but a fecal curl rendered in glass and steel.
Tidied into a back street, that might just be funny. But the ribbon hotel site isn’t hidden in some alley—it’s almost at the end of Edinburgh’s main drag, Princes Street, on a high ridge just below the city’s best lookout point at Calton Hill. It would stand 20 meters (66 feet) higher than what was there beforehand, and the shopping mall that preceded it was already considered intrusive, built on a demolished 18th century square that was one of Edinburgh’s rare historical casualties.
Developers insist the plan is essential to lure new luxury hotel operators to the city, while there will be a public viewing gallery on top. That didn’t stop Edinburgh’s List magazine naming it as one of Scotland’s worst recent flops last week. More seriously, UNESCO has caught wind of Edinburgh’s upcoming excrescence and is sending inspectors to look at the plan; if it’s deemed to threaten Edinburgh’s famous views, then the city’s heritage listing might be in jeopardy.
That could be a false alarm, of course. The problem with a World Heritage Site listing is that the threat of its removal is sometimes dangled over cities the moment someone moves to repaint their porch. The town of Bath—probably the U.K.’s most beautiful medium-sized city—seems to be eternally fielding threats to its listing (here’s one from 2009 and another from last week) but still somehow manages to feature as a bonnet-filled backdrop to almost every Jane Austen adaptation.
UNESCO can also be a little over-exacting. In 2009 it removed the heritage listing for the Elbe Valley at Dresden because of a new road bridge built there. They did this in spite of the fact that the bridge was rather attractive, and that it was built in a semi-urban landscape among whose many attractions were … industrial era bridges. But while UNESCO can be pointedly oblivious to urban realities, it clearly has its purpose in celebrating world heritage and defending it from needless attacks. Such as when someone wants to alter the U.K.’s most beautiful urban view with a giant masonry stool.