Appleton Tower

Appleton Tower
12 February 2007

Named after the 20th-century physicist and former university principal, Appleton Tower on Crichton Street was erected in 1966 as part of the University of Edinburgh’s remodelling of George Square. Supplanting the original Georgian buildings, the scheme also incorporated Robert Matthew’s David Hume Tower and a library by Sir Basil Spence, Glover and Ferguson.

The 10-storey, mosaic-tiled edifice, designed by Alan Reiach, Eric Hall & Partners, is now an interim home for the school of informatics. After the Old Town fire destroyed an important 40-year-old artificial-intelligence library in 2002, three floors inside the tower were hurriedly refurbished to rehouse the department. The building’s exterior has, however, maintained its somewhat shabby appearance, for which it has become quite unpopular.

Asked by Country Life magazine to nominate an eyesore he would like to redesign, the artist Hugh Buchanan chose Appleton Tower. “Its roof-top aerials, crumbling mosaic and tatty aluminium bulk bear down oppressively on the fragile Georgian remnants of the square below.” The watercolour painter suggested: “Just lop off the top and remodel it as an 18th-century tenement or a New York Chippendale Cabinet.”1

Edinburgh’s students led a campaign in early 2005 to have Appleton Tower featured on Channel 4’s Demolition, hoping to have the building razed. The university’s independent newspaper, Student, ran an article urging people to vote for the tower.

The Evening News reported on the campaign interviewing Student’s editor, Andy Milne, who declared the tower an abomination. Steve Cockburn, the president of Edinburgh University Students’ Association, told the paper: “Every person you speak to agrees Appleton Tower is an eyesore.”2

The tower did not make it into Demolition’s top 12, but it was also not included in Historic Scotland’s Grade A listing of George Square later in 2005. Heritage group the Cockburn Association were pleased about the decision, having criticised the structure for many years. According to the association’s director, Moira Tasker, “it is among the worst buildings in the UK”. 3

Regardless of its unpopularity, the university has no plans to demolish Appleton Tower, even after the school of informatics moves into their new purpose-built complex at Potterow. Money was invested throughout 2006 to refurbish the entire block’s interior and there are plans to reclad the crumbling outer concrete. (Last edited: 20 May 2008)

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