My father likes to tell a story about when he worked for a firm on Edinburgh’s George Street. He claims that every time an architectural-themed tour would pass under his window, he would lean out and bellow corrections at the poor sod mid-flow on the concept of Georgian facades. It would drive him to distraction that none of the information those tour guides provided was accurate.
This piece of familial narrative has so far gone unconfirmed, however it speaks to the ease with which we perpetuate our cities’ architectural myths without really realizing it. I myself have vague, half-formed memories of facts fed to me on school trips and then altered by the passage of time and my own forgetfulness; the Scott Monument was built in competition with some other building behind it…maybe. New Town houses were built with differing kinds of brick to show where the servants lived…I think. And so on. I’m embarrassed now to even think of how much I don’t know about my own city and by extension my own country. Daniel MacCannell’s compact, eye pleasing work How to read Scottish Buildings is the primer we all need.
What strikes you first about MacCannell’s work is the usability of it, both in design and scale. It’s small, if not exactly pocket-sized then definitely hand bag/backpack-sized. When dealing with didactic non-fiction, ease of consumability is huge. It doesn’t have a plot line to carry you through; a spark of interest brought you here and now, so both content and presentation has to hold you. Moreover, MacCannell opens with the bold statement that “this is not a book about buildings that are famous,” he makes no apology for the fact that this is a guiding tribute to the beautifully anonymous, the “old Scottish buildings for which there are no plaques, no websites, no costumed guides or colourful pamphlets”. And yet in a contemporary culture so saturated with celebrity, the fact that MacCannell chooses to celebrate forgotten craftsmen over big names, and quiet urban corners over cathedrals, is both refreshing and noble. This book isn’t a bucket list of collectable, instagrammable sights, it’s a carefully curated visual language, an eye opener and a conversation starter.
MacCannell has done an excellent job of breaking the enormous subject of Scottish architecture down not only by era, but by architectural element, working his way from the roof to the door. Clear, numerous photographs illustrate our sweeping tour through the middle ages and up into the 1920s. Information is never overwhelming and is threaded throughout with the lovely theme of “hidden in plain sight”; suddenly that chippie you have frequented for years is clearly a 1720 retail space, its short stature, windows and roof lines declaring itself in a language you can now recognize. Roof pitches, window placements, choices of building material, all are illuminated in MacCannell’s straightforward, readable prose.
And if that wasn’t clarity enough, a set of highly informative tables at the back of the book allow quick access to different time periods and their correlating architectural features. Prepare to have your eyes opened.