A Journey to the Centre of Enquiry

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible
― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Continuing my archaeology of the present, I headed out of Geddes Quadrangle toward Small’s Wynd where, closely encroached by other structures stood a forbidding turreted stone fortress, over whose portcullis were inscribed the words “School of Medicine”. “Like a French château modified by Chicago” is how Charles McKean and David Walker described it.

The closeness of other buildings made it difficult to view this structure without looking upwards. In The City in History, Lewis Mumford, who was a long-time correspondent of Patrick Geddes and who developed and expanded many of Geddes’ ideas, in particular the notion that a city should confer upon its inhabitants a vision to live, made this comment on medieval cityscapes: “The short approaches to the great buildings, the blocked vistas, increase the effect of verticality: one looks not to right or left over a wide panorama, but skyward”. This verticality, Mumford saw as reflective of the alienated, skyward-looking religions that underpinned the emergence of urban civilization:

the local familiar gods, close to the hearth fire, were overpowered and partly replaced, certainly outranked, by the distant sky gods … the local chieftain turned into the towering king … the village neighbours would now be kept at a distance no longer familiars and equals, they were reduced to subjects, whose lives were supervised and … accountable to the king”

How was the appearance and aspect of this building intended to affect the teaching and practise of Edwardian medicine? What vision to live by did it hand down to those who looked at it only from the outside? What expectations did it encourage? Peering in the windows, I saw intimations of some of the rituals performed there today:

I continued further into the precinct, checking signage for guidance. As I crossed what had once been the site of Airlie Lodge, I was rewarded with a pointer to today’s “Enquiry Centre”.

Following the sign took me past the place where once had stood the Belmont canvas factory and down the hill to the south, Belmont House. The Belmont name lives on in the admirably modernist Belmont Hall. For McKean and Walker, the original 1960s Belmont Hall development represented

the last flicker of the belief that some introduction to graceful living was a function of University education

Incongruously, the Belmont Hall tower block is practically the only building still standing that can be seen in photographs of the area from the 1970s by David Lindsay and Joseph McKenzie. In those images, rather than a vestige of graceful ideals, it appears as the brooding harbinger of destruction of what Joseph McKenzie called the “living community”. Was the tower reaching for Mumford’s sky-gods? And if so, was it beseeching them to preserve old ideals of graceful living, or to rain down destruction on the old order so that a new world of enlightened grace could be built in its place? In truth, McKenzie’s “living community” had been founded on 19th century ideals of progress and was always therefore going to finally become dispensable. Among the subsequent surrounding developments, I saw reminders that inevitably one day these too would be made derelict in preference for who knows what set of new values.

A short distance further on I found a row of antique cottages whose faint glow of bucolic homeliness seemed to protect them from the edifice of megatechnics that filled the sky beyond.

Surely, this edifice must represent the Centre of Enquiry.

to be continued…

This post is Part Two of a Series:  |<<   <   > 

One thought on “A Journey to the Centre of Enquiry

  1. Pingback: Beating the Bounds |    ...nature is not a book

Add a Comment:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.