‘A great city has been defaced’: why has a poo emoji arrived on Edinburgh’s skyline?

You can’t polish a turd, but you can clad it in bronze-coloured steel. Edinburgh’s new W Hotel is proof. Poking its faecal peak above the historic skyline, puncturing the globally cherished panorama of elegant stone steeples and spires, this shimmering pile is evidence that, despite all the Unesco World Heritage site protections, conservation group campaigns and lengthy planning negotiations, shit still happens.

Trumpeting the arrival of the £1bn St James Quarter retail-hotel-housing behemoth to the Georgian New Town, the bronzed coil now butts on to the horizon from practically every prospect of the Scottish capital. From some angles, it appears to squat on other buildings’ shoulders, like an unfortunate deposit dropped from on high. From others, it looms up in the background, standing as a menacing dung heap at the end of axial vistas (perhaps appropriately in the case of the Melville monument, providing a soiled backdrop to a man who delayed the abolition of slavery). Just when you thought you’d evaded the gilded mess, its pert tip rears up above the rooftops with a mocking flick.

The building’s architects, London firm Jestico + Whiles, had other references in mind. Their planning application included images of an haute couture blindfold by Valentino, its silken ribbons billowing above a model’s head. There were also pictures of big rolls of paper in the printing presses that used to populate this part of town, to tick the “local context” box. The form of the Edinburgh-born Walnut Whip chocolate snack has been mentioned, too, along with a spiral of orange peel, and even an iced cupcake – anything to distract the scatological mind.

, ‘A great city has been defaced’: why has a poo emoji arrived on Edinburgh’s skyline?, The Nzuchi Times Guardian
A brutal assault on the street … The W Hotel in St James Quarter at ground level. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright

“It’s a happy building,” says its architect, James Dilley. “It’s about celebrating Edinburgh’s position as the pre-eminent festival capital. There are some parts of the city that are more serious and introverted, but this is the opposite. It’s communicative, it’s expressive and it’s supposed to make people happy.”

The hotel has certainly aroused mirth. When the likeness to the poop emoji became apparent, a campaign was launched to complete the picture: “Pit Googly Eyes Oan The Jobby” demands an almost 1,000-strong petition. Meanwhile, the Golden Turd Hotel Twitter account amasses photos of the structure posted by its followers, rejoicing in its having topped a poll last year for the worst building in the world. As accidental marketing strategies go, it might be a stroke of genius, given the millennial target audience of the “design-led” hotel chain. There will certainly be nothing like celebrating Hogmanay at the summit of the massive jobby, with 360-degree views of the city and the North Sea beyond. Although beware of peeping toms loitering beneath the glass dance floor on the roof, “based on the concept of what’s up the Scotsman’s kilt”, says Martin Perry, development director at at Nuveen Real Estate.

The hotel is still under construction and is due to open next year, but the surrounding St James shopping mall opened last week, allowing visitors a closer look at the great coiled midden. From afar, it may be a crime against the skyline – but up close, it’s a brutal assault on the street.

Facing the dilemma of how to terminate the spiralling “ribbon” at ground level, the architects settled on the curious solution of making it appear to erupt from the street. A rupture in the granite paving is surrounded by little sculpted waves, as if the ground had been ripped open by the force of subterranean bowel movements. Just a few days after opening, it had already been roped off, the clumsily fitted steel cladding panels patched up with gaffer tape (the developer insists they will be replaced). A sturdy turd this is not.

, ‘A great city has been defaced’: why has a poo emoji arrived on Edinburgh’s skyline?, The Nzuchi Times Guardian
‘Golden turd’ … the hotel was voted worst building in the world. Photograph: Ian Georgeson/Alamy

The hotel is just the gilded tip of a 158,000sq metre (1.7m sq ft) iceberg of shops, restaurants, a cinema and luxury flats that rise above a 1,600-space underground car park, forming an entirely new chunk of the city centre. It replaces a maligned 1970s megastructure that had always been seen as a blot on the New Town. The former St James Centre contained a shopping arcade and car park beneath the office blocks of New St Andrew’s House, left vacant since the 1990s when the Scottish government moved out owing to asbestos contamination. Perry says they looked at options for reusing the buildings, but their panellised structure made it impossible – and the council was eager to see the wrecking ball swing.

It has been a long time coming. In 2006 the site was bought by Henderson Global Investors, which was in turn acquired by TIAA, an American pension fund that manages $1.3tn (£943bn) in global assets, that reportedly include interests in handgun manufacturing, and others that contribute to Brazil’s deforestation. Rebranded as Nuveen Real Estate in 2019, the developer had form in controversial regeneration schemes: Henderson planned to destroy Smithfield Market in the City of London, until their plans were quashed by the secretary of state in 2014. Blocked in London, they channelled their energies further north, where, with the mighty backing of TIAA, they were welcomed with open arms.

The brutalist bulk of the previous structure gave the developer ammunition to argue that anything it proposed was an improvement – which, at ground level, it mostly is. Designed by Edinburgh architect Alan Murray, with the large commercial architecture firm BDP, the masterplan makes sense of the complex topography, stitching into the surrounding streets at three different levels. It connects the two historic parallel high streets of George Street and Princes Street at their eastern ends with a crescent-shaped multi-storey “galleria” shopping arcade, and creates an additional east-west connection across the site, open 24 hours. However, dramatic flooding during storms over the weekend suggests it might not be built to withstand the Scottish elements.

Keen to create a truly “mixed-use” development, the team embarked on a global safari to see other examples of privatised retail-led fiefdoms, including Roppongi Hills in Tokyo and Canal City in Fukuoka. Both are the work of Jon Jerde, the US godfather of the themed mall, who paved the way for this suburban building type to be reimposed back on to the very city centres it was trying to emulate, creating a weird feedback loop of fake street-like streets and patrolled piazzas. It has since become the ubiquitous model of 21st-century urbanism, as city centres across the world are relentlessly mallified.

, ‘A great city has been defaced’: why has a poo emoji arrived on Edinburgh’s skyline?, The Nzuchi Times Guardian
Killing the high street? The new mall has seen long queues of shoppers. Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

In Edinburgh, the development takes the form of 152 apartments, a five-screen Everyman cinema and an aparthotel perched on top of the mall, with forthcoming roof terraces and ground level piazzas set to be “activated” by festival events. It is hoped that the gargantuan car park will have alternative uses, too. It features a DJ booth and movable soundproof partitions that can be wheeled out to enclose a nightclub for the hotel, while the floors have been designed to be easily converted in future, into a supermarket for example.

The architecture itself eschews the Jerde fireworks, instead creating a generic vanilla backdrop for the shop fit-outs, while the outer walls have been wrapped in a thin skin of limestone in an attempt to blend them into the neighbouring streets. The only problem is that the surrounding Unesco-listed townscape is built of buff sandstone.

, ‘A great city has been defaced’: why has a poo emoji arrived on Edinburgh’s skyline?, The Nzuchi Times Guardian

“If we had used sandstone,” says Perry, “we would have exhausted all of the available sandstone in UK quarries for the next three years.” Cheaper Jura limestone was chosen instead, which conservationists fear could take on a blotchy patina in a few years’ time, as has happened with a building on Castle Street nearby. The architects insist this won’t happen.

Beyond the aesthetics, there are questions about the impact of this vast retail vortex on the rest of the city. The mall’s opening few days have been phenomenally busy, with endless queues for new arrivals, such as the Lego store and the fashion chain & Other Stories. By contrast, Edinburgh’s famed shopping promenade of Princes Street is now a sad sight, dotted with the empty shells of Covid-slain department stores and vacant shopfronts with signs directing passersby to new locations in the St James Quarter. Have the interests of an American teachers’ pension fund not only defiled Edinburgh’s skyline, but hammered the final nail into the coffin of its high streets?

, ‘A great city has been defaced’: why has a poo emoji arrived on Edinburgh’s skyline?, The Nzuchi Times Guardian
Generic … the outer walls have been wrapped in a skin of limestone and reconstituted stone, but the surrounding Unesco-listed townscape is built of sandstone. Photograph: Oliver Wainwright

There is also questionable wisdom in welcoming a 250-room hotel and 75-room aparthotel to a city that already has a glut of such accommodation, with more than 6,300 more hotel rooms in the pipeline, according to a 2019 council report. And the project’s contribution to the city’s housing need? While the “curated living experience” of New Eidyn, on the top level of the development, ranges from £320,000 studios to £2.26m penthouses, you’ll have to head a mile north to find the 41 affordable homes, delivered off-site in the cheaper Canonmills area.

Beyond all this, the development has benefited from £61.4m of public money in the form of Growth Accelerator model funding from the Scottish government, via the city council, for public realm and road junction upgrades. Like the controversial US system of tax increment financing, the idea is that the initial public outlay will be repaid by increased revenues from business rates. Advocates argue the model stimulates investment in rundown areas, while critics say it is an opaque developer giveaway without much public benefit. In Edinburgh, it seems odd that a huge retail and leisure development in the city centre, projected to receive 25 million visitors a year, should be deemed to require such lavish public subsidy – particularly when it’s spent on encouraging more people to drive into town.

The chortling turd will have the last laugh. Having made its way on to the skyline, against the advice of council planning officers and heritage groups (voted through by seven to five at committee, along party lines), it has become the self-appointed arbiter of the city. When the council granted permission in 2019 for the Dunard Centre, a drum-shaped concert hall by Sir David Chipperfield on a site to the west of the hotel, Nuveen successfully raised a legal challenge and forced the project back to the drawing board to downsize. Its justification? The building would have a damaging impact on the Unesco World Heritage-listed skyline. The developer also vetoed a promising proposal for new film studios on the outskirts of the city, on the grounds that it might include a retail element in future.

“It seems that an American pension fund is Edinburgh’s new planning authority,” says author and critic David Black, who has campaigned against inappropriate development in the capital for years. “Democratic process has been supplanted by fiduciary duty to shareholders, seeking the maximisation of profits to the exclusion of everything else. A great city has been defaced, for what?”

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