You don’t need to be in Edinburgh more than an a couple of hours before realising that it exists on different levels. I’m not referring to its social stratification; it’s high-brow arts and exclusive residential areas that exist side-by-side with streets of poorer dwellings. That is another story. For the moment I’m concerned with the complexity of its topography.
A microcosm of the whole world – stepping on the different marble steps is like walking through the world
I’m sure we’ve all seen people glaring at their Google map or pointing repeatedly on their visitors’ guide while shouting, ‘We’re here. The map says so. I just can’t see it!’ Indeed, they are nearly always right, or at least almost. Their problem is in not having mastered the vertical axis of the capital. Where they want to be is often directly above them or immediately below them. They are just on the wrong plane and the challenge of arriving at their destination might involve a circuitous route around Greyfriars Bobby or simply a trip down a flight of steps. With regard to the former it is not uncommon to see people arrive at Paradise in Augustine’s on the George IV Bridge with a few minutes to spare before a show opens, only to realise that they need to be in the Vaults. They are directly above where they need to be and can be forgiven thinking that there must surely be a set of steps that will deliver them to the theatre below. How wrong they are! Start walking. Fast! And no, you don’t have time to pose for a photo, take a selfie or stroke the dog en route as you wind your way around Candlemaker Row to Merchant St. Passing under the same bride you were standing by a little earlier.
The same problem does not apply should you find yourself by the Scotsman Hotel on North Bridge wondering why Market Street does not intersect with it. Of course, it does. Just not on your level. However, in this case the kind burghers of Edinburgh have anticipated your plight and provided a set of steps that will transport you to the underworld. They are also helpfully named after that enormous Edwardian edifice you are staring at. The hotel derives its name from the newspaper that occupied the premises for nearly a century from 1901. On the lower level of the building what is now the City Art Centre was formerly the newspaper’s printworks that had direct underground access to Waverley Station for the delivery if newsprint and the distribution of papers.
It’s is the Fruitmarket Gallery, however, located across the road from the foot of the steps, that is central to their modern history. Not surprisingly the Gallery’s site used to be a fruit and vegetable market, for which the premises were built in 1938. The Gallery took over the building in 1974. It underwent a major renovation by Richard Murphy Architects in 1994, the results of which created the current design and layout of the building.
The original steps were purely functional and over the years became worn, misused and eventually avoided, not least to bypass the acrid stench of urine. In 2010 The Fruitmarket Gallery, in conjunction with Edinburgh World Heritage and City of Edinburgh Council, proposed that Martin Creed be commissioned to design a new set of steps in conjunction with his solo exhibition Down Over Up being held there in the summer of 2010. The exhibition revolved around ‘the idea of stacking and progression in size, height and tone’. It was very popular and the steps, on which Creed was working throughout this time, were completed the following year. In his catalogue of achievements they are known simply as Work No.1059, consistent with the naming style for all his creations. They are a major work of art, design architecture and engineering and a tribute to the craft of stonemasons. They stand as a monument to that exhibition, while serving as a functional passageway.
Each of the 104 steps is clad in a different type of marble hewn from quarries in Asia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa and South and Central America. Descending, the treads have the effect of flicking through a carpet sampler, displaying the many patterns the material can form. Going up, the risers fully expose the kaleidoscope of multiple colours marble adopts. In the words of Creed they act ‘as a microcosm of the whole world – stepping on the different marble steps is like walking through the world’.
Visit the Fruitmarket Gallery this year and you can enjoy their contribution to the Edinburgh International Festival, Woman with a Red Hat, a solo show by Tacita Dean that explores her ‘approaches to theatre, performance and narrative’. In addition to the main thrust of the exhibition based on the film Event for a Stage, related strands deal with ‘the figure of the actor, the role and workings of the script, and the construction of sound and narrative in film’. Take the steps!
With the additional help of generous donors Edinburgh now enjoys a vibrant staircase that gracefully links the Old Town to the New and that also fulfills the Gallery’s mission ‘to improve the fabric as well as the culture of Edinburgh,. They are also a useful shortcut for overcoming the multi-level city and might very well help you arrive on time for your show.
A guide to the steps and further information about The Fruitmarket Gallery can be found at https://www.fruitmarket.co.uk