David J Black: In the pink – the shocking tragedy of Miranda’s front door
It could have been a rerun of Clochemerle, that droll 1970s Simpson and Galton series about the hotly disputed provision of a public pissoir in an ultra respectable French village. In 2021 Miranda Dickson inherited her three story townhouse in Edinburgh’s Drummond Place from her parents, Ian and Janice, popular pillars of the local community.
Returning from her marketing job in America she carried out a few changes to its Georgian interior, but the Clochemerle moment came when she instructed her decorator to repaint the front door in a searing shade of champagne pink, a colour oddly redolent of the one which the Georgian architect Robert Adam had specified for either end of his friend David Garrick’s elaborate drawing room ceiling in London’s Adelphi.
It wouldn’t have been the choice of most of us, and the effect was predictably provocative in a historical context, but at the same time isn’t variety is the spice of life, and shouldn’t all tastes should be catered for? Unfortunately for Miranda there was – depending on which version you believe – either an anonymous tip-off to the council by a disapproving local, or complaints from two churlish neighbours. Hardly a revolution. The result was that the city planning authorities rolled into action and threatened her with a £20,000 fine if she didn’t comply with their enforcement notice to repaint the offending door in a more acceptable and boring colour, like white. She appealed against this taste diktat, but to no avail. With only days to go, she had it repainted in somewhat virulent and equally provocative peacock green known as ‘aloha’.
This running farce of a city planning authority bullying a citizen into changing her door colour soon, as they say, grew legs. The headline emblazoned across The New York Times as A Pink Door Is Deemed to Bright For Edinburgh somehow suggested that freedom-loving Americans regarded this interference with one lady’s expression of taste as creepily on a par with the Iranian female dress code. My goodness, are we really that bad?
No, of course not, and it can certainly be argued that this feisty lady had overstepped the mark. Yet place Miranda’s Garrick pink door in the context of the council’s protection of listed buildings in the World Heritage Site, and in some ways it’s worse. Much, much worse, not to say hypocritical. Consider, for example, the infamous ‘Golden Turd’ hotel which disfigures the axis of James Craig’s 1767 New Town. This, duly cited by Ms Dickson, was dumped at the east end of George Street as part of the ‘St James Quarter’ development of US pension giant TIAA. The spiral incubus was sequestered in a dull North American style shopping mall which sucked most of the retail trade out of Princes Street in a classic act of urbicide.
There was also a housing component clad in inappropriate Bavarian limestone after our councillors were gormless enough to believe the developer’s cock and bull story that there was insufficient sandstone in Britain, a fallacy quickly dispelled by ringing around a few UK suppliers.
Then there was the scandal of the obligatory ‘affordable housing’ quota in the fashionable ‘New Eidyn’ development. The horror of having less than wealthy jocks getting a foothold in the place upset the investor for the best fiduciary reasons. This would obviously have compromised the chances of the global super-rich snapping them up at such places as the Singapore Property Show on Raffles Boulevard.
In the event, some cheaper land was acquired outside the city centre where the locals were to be dispersed under a deal vaguely reminiscent of Dr Verwoerd’s separate development policy in South Africa. In the end fallout from the pandemic made it necessary for TIAA’s luxury apartments to be offered on the domestic market at prices of around £1.3 million, though a more modest £390,000 bijou one room studio could be acquired for as little as £350,000.
Further joy came for TIAA in the form of a public subsidy of some $100 million under a ruse known as the Regeneration Accelerator Model, or ‘RAM’, which would of course have been more accurately designated a Degeneration Accelerator Model or ‘DAM’. This device for ‘unlocking’ cash from the unwary taxpayer is based on Chicago’s notorious ‘TIF’ program, a similar gentrification dodge which somehow did precious little for the local black communities or underprivileged whites in a city known for its associations with Al Capone, the notorious mayoral Daley dynasty, and State Governor Rod Blagojevich, whose 14 year jail sentence for corruption was almost halved by Donald Trump in a touching act of mercy. So here, in one fell swoop, was Edinburgh taking a leaf out the old South African apartheid playbook, and further inspiration from a city which still rates as one of America’s most knavishly crooked.
The outrage generated by the St James development is by no means the only black mark on the civic charge sheet. In our municipal wonderland a cultured visitor might wonder at one particularly brash intervention. The tacky ‘glass banana’ extension the council tacked on to the Usher Hall is a much more calamitous intrusion on the historic streetscape than Miranda’s Garrick Pink Door could ever be. There’s another aesthetic crime in Abercromby Place, a few yards south of her home, where a developer was permitted to add a glass box on top an 1820 unspoilt New Town terrace. There are many more – just how long have you got, dear reader? The depressing thing is that almost all of this crass vandalism has taken place since the Scottish Capital become a World Heritage Site.
At times the perpetrators were prepared to breach binding law. There were several listed historic buildings on the south side of St Andrew Square which were felled enmasse without the legally requisite Environmental Impact Assessment. Europe’s enforcement office, unfortunately, did nothing about it, though it identified the demolitions as a breach of EU regulations. The same thing happened with the land filched from the Carnegie Library on George 1V Bridge, where a huge Virgin Hotel shoehorned into the space now blocks a view of the castle and casts a shadow over the French renaissance style library with the ironic motto ‘Let There be Light’ carved over its entrance.
In the last analysis this is not so much a disagreement over taste, as a question of individual rights and personal liberties. Nor is it a simple matter of criticising the planning authorities at every turn. It was the planners, among others, who consistently, and successfully, opposed the infamous scheme of Chinese-American international hotel group Rosewood to add ‘Mickey Mouse Ears’ accommodation blocks to either side of one of the world’s most important Neo-Greek buildings – the Royal High School, on Calton Hill. On the other hand, our planners have recommended more than a few duds. The Usher Hall’s glass-banana-bolt-on is but one of a long list.
Mother of two, Miranda Dickson, a private citizen, made no structural alteration to the facade of her home. She merely repainted her front door, only to find herself intimidated and vilified for her unquestionably garish choice of colour by a municipal authority which has, itself, been vandalising our city for years. She lodged, and lost, an appeal against the decision, and trekked around the New Town taking pictures of some of the more exotic street door colours.
She knows what she must do. Lay out and publish Edinburgh’s version of the legendary 1970 Doors of Dublin poster, which made the American photographer Bob Fearon famous and was a hit around the world. The star of Miranda Dickson’s poster must of course be a photograph of her own celebrated front door taken when it was still in the pink. Love it or hate it, it certainly gave the neighbours something to talk about.