LIKE so many dreams that turn to nightmares, it seemed a good idea at the time. Three years ago this spring, the Edinburgh Business School offshoot of Heriot-Watt University appeared to have pulled off a coup.If the bureaucracy in Scotland is anything to go by it seems the Scottish Enlightenment is well and truly over! :-(
It won a bid to buy the house, just off Edinburgh's Royal Mile, where Adam Smith spent his last years. Panmure House in the Canongate, close by the churchyard where the philosopher is buried, had fallen on bad times. Edinburgh City Council was glad to be shot of it – and the contingent costs of saving it from its dilapidated state.
Panmure House and its heritage is one of Scotland's treasures, and its neglect a national scandal. This was not just a home to one of Scotland's greatest thinkers and philosophers. It was the epicentre of the Scottish Enlightenment. Smith's dinner guests at Panmure House on Sunday evenings included Adam Ferguson, widely regarded as a pioneer of sociology; William Robertson, Principal of Edinburgh University and Moderator of the Church of Scotland; Joseph Black, a chemist who discovered Latent Heat; Edmund Burke, philosopher and politician; John Hume, playwright and brother of Smith's famous friend, the moral philosopher and historian, David; John Adams, architect and designer of splendid Georgian buildings in Edinburgh, and John Playfair, Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh.
Here was an opportunity for an ambitious restoration befitting the greatest contributor to the Scottish Enlightenment, one that would bring the building back to life as a research and meeting centre.
Heriot-Watt, which paid £800,000, quickly saw that here was a building that could be used, not just displayed, that would be a centre for debate and discussion, not just a storage archive. And that absolutely suited the council's stipulation that the building be used for educational purposes.
The intervention was widely hailed in Scotland. And news travelled fast round the academic world. The American Economics Association expressed keen interest. Before long, Heriot-Watt had attracted offers of help towards refurbishment totalling a potential £3 million. Here at last, not only would the author of The Wealth of Nations be properly honoured, but the university would also have a research centre and seminar facility in the heart of the capital that would attract visitors from across the world.
Today, almost three years later, not a brick has been laid or even a path cleared. Panmure House remains padlocked and abandoned. The best-laid plans have come to nothing. And Heriot-Watt is now staring into a financial black hole. Panmure House is on the brink of turning into a doomed and disastrously expensive foray into heritage bureaucracy. The fate of the project – delayed by obstacles, clashes and delays – now hangs precariously on the outcome of a public inquiry on 3 March.
How has it come to this? It is an irony that Adam Smith himself would have appreciated, that a gesture to rescue and revive a building abandoned and forgotten for years has suddenly attracted health and safety, heritage and aesthetic interventions bringing delay and despair. Heriot-Watt, says Sir Alan Peacock, economics guru and co-author with Gavin Kennedy, Emeritus Professor at the Edinburgh Business School of a paper on the cultural importance of Panmure House, "has been put through all the hoops".
Barely had the university begun considering outline plans for refurbishment and renewal than building inspectors insisted on appropriate facilities for disabled access. Heriot-Watt's architects EK:JN duly obliged. By March 2009 they presented plans for a new octagonal stair tower and a turret, offering disabled access, modelled on Ford House in Midlothian.
Enter Historic Scotland. It made a site visit and immediately wrote to the city council expressing "strong concerns" over the plans. EK:JN then submitted further proposals in July of that year for the extension of the building. This featured a glass atrium extension to enable it to be used as a meeting place with lecture facilities, in compliance with the council's stipulation. This, as Keith Lumsden, director of the Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt explained, fulfilled both functional requirements and opening up the original stonework to view.
Historic Scotland again objected. Steven Robb, senior inspector of historic buildings, wrote that the atrium and stair would affect the character and special interest of the building "to an unacceptable degree". The plan, he said, would alter the entrance elevation, adding that an external stair was not essential to its reuse. These concerns were repeated in a further letter by Historic Scotland to the council in August of that year. But these objections, Lumsden argued, would make it impossible to develop the house as a seminar centre and meeting place with all the facilities that would be required.
Six months later, in March 2010, Heriot-Watt's plans were formally considered by the city council. Its planning department had recommended refusal. But the planning committee overturned this after a site visit, voting decisively 11 to one in favour.
Barely had the applicants time to celebrate this progress than on 13 August Scottish ministers called in the proposals for examination. Heriot-Watt, sensing that this would prove not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning, demanded a public inquiry. It believes it has a cast-iron case and a compelling proposal that would bring the crumbling Panmure House back to life, providing an academic magnet at the heart of the city.
What lies at the heart of Historic Scotland's objections? Is it being over fussy, or are there valid concerns? Panmure House was built between 1691 and 1693 by Lt Col George Murray, who sold it in 1696 to James Maule, 4th Earl of Panmure. It passed to the Earl of Dalhousie, a relation. Adam Smith rented the building from 1778 until his death in 1790. It was a two-storey building with basement and attic. A rental agreement of 1753 describes it as having a large dining room and drawing room (ground floor), three good bedchambers with closets and conveniences on the same floor and a basement kitchen below.
As a building it has since been through the wars and there is little now that has survived the time of Smith's occupancy. In the 1840s the northern wing was removed. When the area became industrialised, the grounds were occupied by the Panmure Iron Foundry. By the 1950s the building, according to a Historic Scotland summary, "was ruinous, vandalised and only stone stubs of the internal stair remained." In the mid 1950s the architect John Wilson Paterson converted it for use as a home for delinquent boys, the floors at ground and first floor having already disappeared.
In 1970 the building was Category A listed.
Historic Scotland's concerns are not without merit. This is a rare example of a 17th-century town house within the historic Old Town. The original stone structure presents a sturdy frame. But virtually everything that was within at the time of Smith's occupancy has long gone. It was abandoned, then made over in the 1950s, then abandoned again. What's left is less artefact than association. The case for preservation cannot rest on architectural merit: the building has been internally gutted. So how much of this objection is on heritage grounds – and how much on aesthetics?
The surrounding built environment is very mixed and cannot be said to hold to a particular style or vernacular. The building is shielded from the Canongate by a circa-1930 tenement block providing undistinguished, if not grim, "infill" development. There are also some tenements by Sir Basil Spence, an acquired enthusiasm for many. As Panmure House is not visible from the Canongate, its appearance does not bear on the thrilling Hanseatic style of the Royal Mile as one looks up towards St Giles. As for looking down to Holyrood, there is of course the Scottish Parliament: a building that will forever struggle to avoid that most searing thunderball of condemnation in the entire Edinburgh lexicon of put-down: "inappropriate".
There is the gem of a charming little garden nearby in Dunbar Close, laid out in the formal 17th-century style by Seamus Filor in 1976, but barely known or visited. A refurbished Panmure House would bring fresh interest.
Historic Scotland does have an important role to ensure that as much as possible of the original building is preserved. But specifying what should constitute "re-use" is surely not in its bailiwick. And the dismissal of the disabled-access turret smacks of subjective judgement.
The key point here surely is that this is a historic building transferred on the understanding that it would be used for educational purposes. It has to cater for events and meetings and not just be an archival museum. Heriot-Watt paid £800,000 in good faith and has mustered funds to meet that obligation. What it has submitted is no golden arches McDonald's restaurant or a sprawling and distraught Catalan indulgence, but a refurbishment and extension that serves functionality while opening up the building to wonder and inspection. It has stepped up to provide an immense enrichment to the legacy of Adam Smith where a neglected structure now stands. And it would be an inspiring addition to the city's cultural meeting points that would draw international attention. But the fate of the entire project now dangles at the end of a planning inquiry. The Wealth of Nations offers no guidance on the conduct and function of such inquiries. But I suspect the author would have looked on this three-year episode at the heart of Scotland's capital city – and wept.
(HT: Gavin Kennedy)