Even though I have been to Edinburgh many times I still feel like I don’t know the city that well so I enjoy the opportunity to explore a familiar city whilst it still feels unfamiliar. It is funny reading the brochure and going “Gogar… is that near such and such” or “new town, yes, I know where that is, but where is Great King Street?”. My A to Z was an invaluable accompaniment for the day, and our happy band of four started the adventure with a paper Doors Open booklet picked up at the tourist office off Princes Street. It was ideal photography weather, a crisp blue East Coast morning setting us up for a days wanderings.
First stop.. bus stop as we had purchased an additional item on top of the train tickets (on family recommendation, thanks for that tip!). Getting a “plus bus” ticket meant we had all day travel on all the buses as well as our train journey and it was a very reasonable additional price which actually represents a saving on the normal buy on the bus price. You can also use it on more than one company so it’s ideal for resting tired feet on an all day exploration. The novelty of holding out a train ticket to get on the bus is quite amusing too.
From North Bridge we headed towards Newington, to the splendid Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) which is located in Bernard Street, off South Clerk Street. I have used some of the online RCAHMS sites before, but never been to their actual offices, so I was excited to see what lay inside. As we walked through the doors we were greeted by a very friendly team, as well as a huge 1940’s aerial photograph of Glasgow (Park area). We were offered us the chance to book on some talks and explore the search rooms, the first talk was on recording work so we donned our green booking stickers and headed upstairs. The theme of the Doors Open Day was industrial Scotland so there were various displays reflecting this. One of the first images I saw was a rather terrifying depiction of the Forth Road bridge under construction (use your imagination to consider how someone might access their working area for the day, even if you had a head for heights getting to the highest platforms of the largest suspension bridge in Europe would have been quite some feat in the early 1960’s). There were also videos showing the Clyde cranes, 3D images, and aerial photographs laid side by side so you could see the changes over the years… and books, lots of lovely books. At this point we all quickly realised that we could quite happily stay in here all day (which, absorbing as it may well have been, would not quite have sat with our aim of “doors open-ing” all day long!).
The inside story on a days photographing traditional structures expertly unfolded before our eyes as we saw stunning A2 prints of various examples of RCAHMS work from all round the country at the behind the scenes talk on recording buildings. I was particularly keen on two images, showing what you can do if you have the knowledge (and proper kit). Stone crosses and Pictish engravings can be seen all over Scotland but anyone who has ever tried to take their photograph knows that getting the right angle to see engravings and markings can be quite tricky. Image one was a snapshot showing the size of the cross and the colour of the stone, a nice enough image but nothing particularly notable about it. Image two was the same structure, this time with the judicious application of a number of flash bulb kits. What a difference. Every little detail and carving was shown and the level of work which had gone into creating that piece (along with the effects of gradual erosion over time) was beautifully showcased. C’est magnifique!
The detailed process of recording structures such as breweries and watermills was also showcased. The on site measurements allowed a beautiful and accurate hand drawn image of plan, sections and elevations to be formed, with the surveyors piecing together a unique record of a structure. Laying this together with additional data taken from laser scanning, and perhaps combining this with photographs and previous archival sources (especially with the help of knowledgeable locals, adding in some vital insight and oral history) gives a precious record for future generations, preserved in archives and accessible in person or on line (I am sounding like an advert now, do go, its absorbing!).
Our next venue was The Queens Hall, located just across the road. This is a former 19th Century church designed by Robert Brown, now incorporating the main concert venue, bar and artist facilities. It was quite amusing to be greeted by the ten commandments written on a huge panel displayed in the hallway as we went upstairs, not perhaps what one expects whilst going to view a performance (which may well not quite sit with those instructions) but a beautiful nod to the buildings history. This history is also reflected in the fittings and fixtures of the hall, the pew style seating in elegant colouring offering a pleasant space to sit and enjoy the unfolding festivities. Later we got to experience the stage from the artists point of view, as the lights shone down we saw more people sitting at the balcony and the Steinway piano rose from the floor. We admired its shine through the lift door, and wondered just how many famous people had tinkered with its ivories (my piano playing skills are somewhat lacking but I can imagine that the acoustics of the auditorium make for a beautiful atmospheric experience, both from a performer and concert goers point of view).
Heading back into town we decided to go to explore the New Town. Princes Street greeted us with a gold postbox- I had forgotten that I wanted to see one, until I got stupidly excited to see it! I think this is a great touch by Royal Mail, I hope Sir Chris Hoy enjoys this, I wonder if he has seen it yet?
Feeling like a behind the scenes peek at one of those famous gorgeous townhouses, we headed for “Institut Francais d’Ecosse”, located in Randolph Crescent in the West End. The helpful leaflet provided told me this Georgian beauty was acquired by the French Government in 1945, and had previously been a maternity hospital. The cornice work has been restored, and there is a good view up the stairs to the atrium skylight which brought light flooding down the ironwork lined stairs inviting us to explore further. An unexpected treat was the chance to flick through the pages of an 18th century book. We donned the archival gloves and saw stunning engravings, these 1739 maps (known as the Turgot map ) showed a beautiful perspective on the city, with elegant lines depicting large boulevards, tree lined avenues and private courtyards in precise detail. One day, I will go to Paris!
In the bookcases to the side of the table there were Jules Verne first editions. Beautiful covers, I can’t quite believe we got to see these too as I remember learning about Jules Verne when I was taking French at school. Heading downstairs we found a très jolie little café, offering a Doors Open Day special meal (we had already eaten, but made a mental note to come back again sometime soon, for the atmosphere was wonderful and the garden views back to Dean village were stunning).
On the way back out we paused to explore the library. I headed for the childrens books (about my level of French!) and found a rather amusing tale of an ant who wanted to be different, and some great Leo Leonni treasures. I had discovered Leo Leonni when doing a project about 1950’s illustration, I liked his bold lines and collages but fell in love with his 1960’s mouse tales. The books in the Institut were “when/ quand” and “where/ou”, you may be wondering why I like his work, you can see more online here
The Danish Cultural Institute is located a few terraces along from our last venue, here we were greeted with another beautiful townhouse (again, more elegant ironwork, I was starting to experience a little “close envy” at this point as my stairways are far less elegant than this!). The short journey upstairs allowed us to view the current exhibition by Kurt Hoppe entitled “Hidden Spaces, Forgotten Places”, a photographic stroll round some Danish treasures. This was highly in keeping with the Doors Open theme (and I get the feeling from absorbing the atmosphere in his photographs that he might have enjoyed our tour around Edinburgh’s treasures today). There were striking images with a hint of wabi sabi showing abandoned buildings with peeling paint, sitting adjacent to thoughtful studies of library facilities (where the composition drew you further into the centre of the image, ready to explore the spines of dusty books and wonder what was between those focused pages). An arrangement of theatre images on one wall were well laid out to see the similarities in “roomscapes”, concert spaces taken from the performers point of view offering a visual artists eye on a performance artists position.
The fireplace in the exhibition room was rather unusual, mythical beasts sat in the centre casting their eye over the walls.
A stroll down from Doune Terrace led us to Stockbridge, a beautiful part of the city where the water of Leith walk passes through and you can gaze down to the Antony Gormley “six times” works. Last time I saw this, shortly after the trail was revealed. I was sure it was upright, perhaps I am wrong, or the water energy has led the statue to take a peek at the river bed?
Noting the time, we perused the brochure to see if there were any late opening venues. To our delight there were two just off Leith Walk, the Steel House at Hart Street and the Edinburgh Print Makers at Union Street. These two venues were a nice unification of my artistic and architectural interests, so train ticket in hand we nipped on the bus over towards the East. The Edinburgh Printmakers is a fascinating facility offering space for artists to work together and share excellent artwork (over 350 artists currently use the space). The shop offered a hint at some of the diverse lithography and screenprinting products produced by those using the space, and upstairs the gallery space revealed video and printed works for us to observe. I laughed out loud at one work “Idealy (sic) the entrance would be here” as it was right next to a door anyway, just a bit further along. Construction printing humour.
Our next building was the award winning Steel House, a townhouse of an entirely different nature, it was fascinating to see around someones private home and see how Zone architects had fitted a new house into such a sensitive setting.
All in all, a great Doors Open Day, there was such a diverse programme of events organised by the Cockburn Association this year. I look forward to hearing what other people got up to as well!