Royal High School – Alistair Rowan – 23/02/15

Alistair Rowan lives in Dublin (where the city tram system is a great success, was delivered on time and within budget). He has spent 25 years of his life in Edinburgh, first as a student in the School of Architecture in the College of Art; later as a lecturer in Fine Art in Edinburgh University and finally, from 1990 to 200 as Principal of the Art College. He holds a Cambridge PhD and undertook post- doctoral research on Italian eighteenth-century architecture in the University of Padua. Alistair has held four professorships at University College Dublin, Slade Professor of Fine Art in Oxford, at Heriot Watt University and at University College Cork. He is a life-long member of the AHSS and was its President for 12 years.

The following is his presentation at the public discussion organised by the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland 23rd February 2015

Alistair Rowan: Edinburgh Royal High School in its European context

1. In the autumn of 1972 the fourteenth exhibition of the Council of Europe was held in London at the Royal Academy and in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Its subject was the Age of Neoclassicism. Sir John Pope Hennessy was chairman of the planning committee and, with a catalogue extending to 1037 pages and weighing more than three pounds, the show set Neoclassicism, – the first truly international aesthetic movement – firmly on the European cultural stage. For the section on Neoclassical town planning, which was largely my responsibility, ten cities were selected as prime exemplars: it should come as no surprise to know that Edinburgh – celebrated as the Athens of the North – was one of these cities or that Thomas Hamiltonʼs Royal High School was highlighted as the major monument of Scottish Neoclassicism. Its significance is quite simply international.

2. Two facts stand behind the creation of the Royal High School. First there is a political fact – the declining power of the Ottoman Empire throughout in the eighteenth century – and second there is the intellectual fact that the mindset of the Enlightenment, encouraged rational and evidence-based inquiry, in the place of myth or an authoritarian tradition. The dwindling Turkish presence in the Mediterranean meant that places, which had not previously been open to Europeans, could now be visited while the preoccupation of the Age of Reason to establish secure foundations for the fabric of society led to an analytical record of whatever was found.

Since the origins of European civilization lie in Greece, architects wanted to understand the reality of Greek architecture rather than rely on the fanciful descriptions of historians or the construct of Renaissance theorists. What was Greek architecture really like?

The first man to answer that question was J.D.Le Roy who, in 1758 published Les ruines des plus beaux monuments de la Grece. This is Le Royʼs view of the Thesion in Athens one of 59 folio plates of an architecture that was, for Europeans, startlingly new. Four years later the Scotsman James Stuart and the Englishman Nicholas Revett published the first of their three volumes on The Antiquities of Athens.
So by 1762 a whole new vocabulary of architectural detail was available to European architects. Hamilton was to quote the tall proportions of the Doric portico of the Thesion for his Edinburgh school.

3. In parallel with the new vocabulary we should recognise the new way of thinking about architectural composition that characterised the Age of Reason. Now nothing was to be done simply because that was the way it always had been done. The enlightenment became obsessed with an architecture of first principles and of the rational disposition of the different elements of a design,


nowhere better illustrated than in the designs by C.N. Ledoux for a new town to house the workers of the royal saltworks at Chaux begun in 1775. Here the radiating central plan is taken from Vitruvius and monumental forms are used expressively.

4 This is the superintendentʼs house, flanked by the evaporating chambers and seen through the ends of two of the workers housing blocks.

5. This is the massive and primitive Doric portico. We should note it is without a pediment and that it opens on to a windowless and sculpturally expressive wall. On either side stone pipes trickling with crystallized salt denote the purpose of the building.

6. Though only the first phase of the salt works was completed Ledouxʼs designs published in 1804 well illustrate his vision of Public Architecture contained within and acting as an integral part of an informal landscape setting. This view shows the proposed Market for the town –

7. A second source that was to be highly influential in defining contemporary attitudes to the creation and improvement of cities is Pierre Patteʼs plan of Paris, published in 1765. Here you see a multiplicity of squares, circuses, rond point and oblong places, each imposed on the texture of the city of Paris. The plan was never intended as a utopian proposal to redesign the entire French capital but came about as a record of the many different proposals put forward by French architects for a public space in honour of the late king, Louis XV, who had died in 1748. Better than any other scheme, Patteʼs plan of Paris illustrates how people though about urban layouts and long vistas within a city and how order might be conjured out of the chaos of per-existing plans.

8. The Place du Panthéon planned by J.G.Soufflot offers a clear example of the process. The new king, Louis XVI, had decided to rebuild the ruinous medieval church of St. Genieve, which, under Soufflot, became one of the grandest Neoclassical monuments of Paris. Notice how, as at Chaux and at the Royal High School, the massive portico is left without any windows greatly enhancing its monumentality. Soufflotʼs colonnaded dome is familiar to everyone in Edinburgh from Robert Reidʼs use of the same form which floats above the rooftops of Charlotte Square. You can also see in the engraving something of the guddle and mess of the old city within which the church was to be built.

9. This is the curving piazza contrived to provide a setting for the church exactly s in so many of the schemes in Patteʼs plan. Nor is Edinburgh without examples of this sort of improvement planning. Think of the courtyard of the city chambers, a miniature public square opening off the High Street, or Hunter Square, intended by Robert Adam to form a regular public space around the Tron church or, later,


the superb urban space of Parliament Square created by Robert Reid behind St. Giles, in 1815. These sorts of elegant urban enclosures are typical of the late Georgian period and typical of the European mindset of that time.

10. Long vistas form an inseparable part of city panning in the Neo-classical age. The Great axial route in Paris is the Rue Royale, laid out by A. J. Gabriel and running through the Place Louis XV, renamed Concorde during the Revolution, to link the church of the Madeleine, which you see here now much more archaeologically Greek than Soufflotʼs Pantheon

11. The vista passes across the place with its Egyptian obelisk and fountains to focus on

12. the massive facade of the Palais Bourbon, 12 Corinthian columns in a row forming a portico in which the windows are almost irrelevant.

13. It was Robert and James Adam who first articulated in British architecture the need to reduce the number of windows in monumental architecture: the smallness of a window, proportionate to the human form was, in their opinion, something which, particularly in domestic architecture, tended to diminish the grandeur of the composition. For this reason windows were, wherever possible, to be eliminated from their grandest schemes. This is the north front of Kedleston hall in Derbyshire, building from 1761, where there is not one window within the portico, rather a solemn row of statues within niches, surmounted by circular panels of carved reliefs.

14. Hamilton follows this advice scrupulously in the portico of his great school building. There is not one window in the central block and none in the flanking colonnaded wings for his intention is to create an heroic composition, a temple to the values Scotsmen saw in education and to the belief that the security of the nation lay in the proper nurture of its sons.

15. And see how the building sits within the city; backed by the rugged and ragged slopes of the Calton Hill with radiating and symmetrical paths rising from the Canongate to link the new school to the tow n. The freedom and easy integration of the Royal High School within its setting seems to me to be exactly comparable with what Ledoux proposed for the suburbs of Chaux.

16. Nor can we think that the Neoclassicism and Greek Revival architecture of Edinburgh is, in any way parochial. The architecture of the Adam brothers, of Starke, Hamilton, Burn and Playfair makes the place a site of international importance and it must to be understood in these terms. Here is Napoleonʼs Colonne de la Grand Armée that dominates the Place Vendome in Paris but its


form might just as well be the Melville monument that marks the centre of St. Andrewʼs square in Edinburgh.

17. This long street with a handsome Ionic building, fronting tree-filled gardens and falling to a distant view of hills, could almost be in Queen Street, Edinburgh, but the reach of Neoclassicism is wide and in fact this is a military hospital in Helsinki.

18. In 1805 Napoleon commissioned Luigi Canonica to add this great forum to the amenities of Milan which became the capital of his Cisalpine Republic. Here we may identify the Melville column again (twice), the flat-headed portico of Chaux and the interpenetration of nature, expressed by the trees that line the top of the seating.

19. The stadium survives today. It has entrance archways framed by the same fluted Doric columns that Hamilton used in Edinburgh and there are still trees lining the tops of the seating.

20. It is in Germany that we encounter the type of Neoclassicism closest to Edinburghʼs architecture. Berlin marks the start of the new taste. This is the masterly Brandenburg Gate of 1788 by Carl Gotfried Langhans leading from the tree-lined street of the Unter den linden into the open spaces of the Tiergarten.

21. After the final defeat of Napoleon, when the Hohenzollern returned to the city, it was Karl Frederich Schinkel the most scrupulous German classicist, who became the director of Public works in Prussia. This is a view of Schinkelʼs Potsdam gate of 1816, long since demolished, where the pair of four-columned Doric lodges closely recall the temple fronted rooms that terminate the lower level of Hamiltonʼs school. Indeed the idiom is identical

22. Under the Wittlesbach family, which emerged as Kings of Bavaria in 1806, Munich became the Greek Revival capital of Europe. The preferred architect of King Ludwig I was Leo von Klenze whose last monument in the city is the vast Doric Hall of Fame – the Rumeshalle – which the king erected, towards the end of his reign, to the memory of those of his subjects who had made a lasting contribution to the state.

23. The motivation for this remarkable building is almost identical to the intentions of the Scotsmen who, in 1822, planned and began the replica of the Parthenon to be built on the Calton Hill. The Rumeshalle employs an identical Greek Doric order and indeed the rhythmic succession of columns lining the corridor of the room might equally remind us of W.H. Playfairʼs RSA building on the Mound.


24. Much earlier, in 1816, Klenzeʼs had planned the Konigsplatz, on the western edge of the city, as a didactic architectural space in which the three Greek orders of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian could be seen together and compared. This is the Propylaen gateway surely, if ever there were such a thing, an Edinburgh building in Europe.

25. This is the Konigsplatz as it appeared in 1971. I had to get there by 7 oʼclock to photograph the buildings before they were swamped by a sea of cars. Quite a few had already arrived but we can still see how important the intermingling of the natural setting with forest trees is to the Neoclassical scheme. On the left you have the Neue Staatsgalerie of 1838

26. Its portico offers another example of the suppression of all windows to bring monumentality to the scheme. Once again, just like Hamiltonʼs school.

27. Opposite is Kelnzeʼs most charming work and the first part of the square to be completed – the Glyptotheck – or sculpture museum built to house Greek Statues from the Aegean which had been acquired for the king in 1812. You will notice how in Munich the city council has restored Klenzeʼs layout of lawns between the buildings and has removed not only the parked cars but also the sea of stone paving installed by the third Reich. In this superb Neoclassical complex Nature has resumed its rightful place.

28. What are we to do with the Royal High School? Nestling against the scrubby slopes of the Calton Hill, it forms an integral part of the World Heritage Site and is an iconic monument of the Age of Neoclassicism. I hope I may have helped you to appreciate the importance of the building in its European context and, perhaps, to understand something of the aspiration and vision that brought it into being.