The Building of Old College: Adam, Playfair & the University of Edinburgh

The Building of Old College: Adam, Playfair & the University of Edinburgh

The Building of Old College: Adam, Playfair & the University of Edinburgh

The Building of Old College: Adam, Playfair & the University of Edinburgh

Excerpt

Edinburgh's Old College ranks amongst Scotland's most important public buildings, roduct of a long campaign to provide a fitting home for the University that was at the heart of the city's golden age as one of the great intellectual capitals of Europe. The building is the work of two architects of genius, one already recognised as such in his lifetime, the other perhaps still underestimated. William Playfair, the young man commissioned to carry on the project after 1816, was not yet born when the new building was started with a flourish by Robert Adam in 1789. A glance at the plans shows that the College as completed by Playfair in the 1830s differs in many ways from that intended by Adam, yet most aspects of his design were inspired and constrained by the scattered fragments of Adam's work achieved in the brief years before his death in 1792. In effect Adam set down three corners of a great quadrangle, and this determined the style and scale of the building to which the University, the Town, and ultimately the Government, were committed. Without Adam's ambitious vision it is inconceivable that anything of the present size and quality could ever have been accomplished; without Playfair's patient and persistent skill it is only too likely that the result would have been an unhappy compromise rather than a splendid achievement.

The bicentenary of the laying of the foundation stone provides the stimulus for this examination of the complex story of the building of Old College, and the social, political and financial climate in which it was undertaken. The early chapters of the book explore the background to the picturesque ceremony on 16th November 1789. After examining the nature of the University and its unique relationship with its official Patrons, the Edinburgh Town Council, we shall build up a picture of the inadequate collection of old buildings that had been inherited by the University after its first two hundred years of haphazard development. No building should be considered in isolation from its physical context, and this is particularly true for Old College which was rebuilt step by step on its original site over a period of forty years while the town itself was being remodelled into one of the most dramatic of European capital cities. The tangled course of the construction of the new South Bridge through the College garden after 1785 was an essential background to the rebuilding of the College itself, and brought Robert Adam to the centre of the stage. Thereafter we shall trace the two great phases of building, before and after 1816, the year in which a fascinating architectural competition led to Playfair's appointment to complete the College at the age of only 26. Most assessments of the finished building have been bedevilled by the problems of distinguishing the contributions of the two architects and of understanding the constraints under which each was working; a basic aim of this book is to establish accurately the detailed sequence of events. In fact, of course, a building is never really 'finished', and it is almost as relevant to con-

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