Scotland’s architecture

In our four days in Scotland, one of the most important methods of communication I encountered was architecture. Though I am no expert on architecture, I will do my best to explain what the architecture of Scotland communicated to me. The city of Edinburgh, where we spent most of our time, is filled with Gothic architecture, which signifies the age of the city and province, and gives you a feeling of history as you walk through it.

In the city I grew up next to, Chicago, the oldest buildings date back 200 years. Edinburgh Castle, which is still used for some state events, has buildings that date back nearly 1,000 years. One of the things this trip has helped me realize is just how new the United States of America is, and the architecture is one of the main signifiers of that. Even Boston, Philadelphia, and New York—America’s oldest big cities, none of which I’ve been to—are just about 400 years old. This pales in comparison to a city like Edinburgh or London.

Edinburgh is unique among the old cities of the UK and Ireland because it has less modern architecture than any of the others I’ve seen. As a result, Edinburgh often feels like a relic from the past. I felt very much steeped in the past while I was there. Here are some photos from my Edinburgh blog post:

When we visited some other castles, they felt sort of out of place, situated among a modern town. I did not feel that this was a bad thing–I think the castles added a new element to the downtown of their cities, adding an understanding of the town’s history to the town itself. Edinburgh Castle is a beautiful and mostly intact building, but it did not feel out of place at all in the city of Edinburgh. It fit right in amongst the other buildings in town. This had the effect of actually making the castle less important. Edinburgh didn’t need a castle to remind you that it had ancient roots. Those ancient roots were on display all over the place.

Perhaps the best example of this was found on the main streets of Scotland. All around you, you could see architecture with older styles. You rarely saw any skyscrapers in downtown Scotland; instead, there were these older-style buildings.

In contrast, in the United States, nearly every city I’ve been to (Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Grand Rapids, Lansing, and drove through Minneapolis and Indianapolis) features mostly sleek, modern glass buildings in its downtown area. Usually, it is smaller resort towns that do not have as many people that feature less modern architecture. The largest exception I can think of is Madison, Wisconsin. This city has some equivalent of skyscrapers, but its downtown State Street is filled with less modern, concrete buildings. However, these concrete buildings are still a far cry from Edinburgh’s classic architecture.

One of the most modern buildings in Edinburgh is actually the train station. It is situated below ground in the center of the city. This is a sign that, like in England, trains are considered vitally important to modern Scottish culture. They are the easiest and most convenient way to get around almost anywhere on the island of Great Britain, and there is even an international train allowing travel from England to France (I can’t think of any such train from the US to Canada or Mexico, though I may just not know about it). This stands in stark contrast to the United States, where some states even reject funding for transit updates. The train from Edinburgh to London took about 4.5 hours, compared to just over 7 hours it would take to drive that distance. It would seem so natural to have a train, say, from Chicago to Toronto, which is about 30 minutes longer to drive. If it was a speedy train, it might even encourage Chicagoans to actually visit Canada (very few do), and Canadians to visit Chicago. But alas, no such option exists.

The city of Glasgow, while it did have some Gothic architecture, had a more modern feeling to it. They were even in the process of updating the train station to have a modern glass design. This is consistent with Glasgow’s status as the industrial center of Scotland, while Edinburgh is the province’s main tourist attraction.

In Glasgow, we visited the BBC’s Scotland branch. It was located in a modern glass office building along the riverbank. The building’s five-story interior design had a modern, new-media feel, which I was a bit surprised to learn dated back to 2007. While it was still a recent design, this design was so modern, it looked like it could have been from 2017. Here’s a photo from my last blog post on the subject:


We also visited the Museum of Transport while in Glasgow. This museum was actually designed by Zaha Hadid, the late architect who designed the Broad Art Museum in East Lansing. I really like the design of both museums. This museum had a sort of M-shaped exterior, with a modern-looking steel design that reminded me of the Broad Museum. The interior design of the museum was also really intricate. Here’s another photo from my last blog post:


I talked to two classmates about it, and they both told me that they were not so fond of the Broad Art Museum. They thought its modern design clashed with the theme of downtown East Lansing. This view is similar to how I felt about many of the castles we saw on the trip. However, I don’t necessarily think that one building standing out from the rest is a bad thing. However, the Transport Museum does not have this problem. It is practically isolated on a plot of land along the river in Glasgow, a short walk away from the similarly sleek BBC building.

This is an artists’ rendering of Glasgow Transport Museum and Broad Art Museum designer Zaha Hadid. I saw it in London’s National Portrait Gallery. The portrait changes colors at every instant, probably to represent Hadid’s creative spirit.

In all, the architecture of Scotland–especially of Edinburgh–steeped us in the rich history of this country. It helped Scotland stand in contrast to every one of the other countries we visited on our trip, as well as in contrast to the UK.


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