(Letter dated April 1866, published Apr 19 1866)
Matthew opposes current plans for the building site of the new Albert Institute in Dundee, and proposes alternatives. He ends by stating that, as with the proposed “rainbow bridge” over the Tay Firth, both “monument and bridge could so much more advantageously and cheaply be erected where I have pointed out”.
PROPER SITES FOR PUBLIC BUILDINGS.
The mania of a bridge at present near Dundee is on a par with the absurd scheme of destroying the beautiful square east of the north end of Reform Street, by cumbering it with the Albert Institute. To me it is a painful sight to observe the destruction of this fine square going on, which I thought was to have formed a central esplanade, ventilation, and adornment to the town of Dundee, around which the public buildings would come to be grouped in different styles of architecture, so as to form a collection in elegance, design, and variety, unique in Scotland. This misplacement, amounting to sacrilege, is the more vexing, as not only destroying the square, but not improbably the Institute itself, on account of the unstable foundation, while the lava rock a little farther south, at the top of the wide entry, at present only covered by rubbish, would have afforded a most excellent site of elevation for this monument. The space between it and the square being left open, the short distance back would only give more effect to the view – the more that no hill lay behind it from the line of view, only the blue sky or the clouds. The monument, seen from the square, or from the proposed street from the east end of the High Street, north to the square, would be a temple placed upon an acropolis of basalt.
The men of old showed more judgment and good taste in the site of their temples and monumental erections. The Capitol of Rome, the Parthenon at Athens, both had the advantage of a rock foundation and elevation. Even our Boeotian Carse ancestors, in the time of the Druids, and as far back as the stone era, had their temple on the top of the most commanding summit of the Carse hills, the Hill of Bele or Baal, above and west of the village of Rait.
“Not vainly did the early Persian make
His altar the high places.”
Instead of choosing this excellent site formed by nature, in order to save a little money in the purchase, the men of Dundee, penny wise and pound foolish, have thrown away a large portion of the means provided in an attempt to procure a secure foundation, where only an insecure foundation can be got. Do they expect that with such a foundation the institute will reach one half the age, or be half as much revered as the Old Steeple tower? Are the men of Dundee, now four times more numerous, so very destitute of public spirit, so far behind their ancestors in architectural ability as this? One would naturally think that the Dundonians, who have shown such a pre-eminence in manufacturing and mercantile enterprise, causing Dundee to outstrip her sister town of the East Coast, Aberdeen, so far in going a head, would have displayed more genius in the arrangement of the central space of their city, that when they had obtained a large and fine square in the very position most desirable, they would have had taste and judgment to retain it sacred. Yet such is human nature. If we find one ability in excess, we generally find a minus to balance the plus. I am pretty certain the men of Aberdeen would not have sunk either their money or their grand monument in a morass.
The cause of this wide vacant space in the centre of Dundee was necessity. Being a swamp to a great depth, and only superficially drained, it was held unfit for building upon, and was let out by the town, though in the very face of the public buildings and best and most frequented street of the city, as lumber yards and abominations of all kinds by the public authorities, much to their shame, instead of being rendered a beautiful breathing ground to the very crowded portion of the town and slums closely adjacent, for the children to play, and to form an Almaida for the evening assemblage and walk of the citizens. It was only after an Albert Institute was determined on that it was cleared of the wretched huts, sheds, and impurities as a suitable central place for this monument, and, after it was cleared out, that its peculiar advantage for a great central square to beautify the city by having the public buildings arranged round it, was perceived. Although this was obvious to all, the committee of management and public authorities still persisted in their ill-advised scheme, notwithstanding of the very great cost of piling and burying of materials, and, after all, insecurity of foundation. They were the more blameable here as a most excellent site for the Institute was ready at hand upon the rock at the south side of the square, which rises some 15 or more feet above the square, and which, as the depth of the piling and buried stone will amount to about 30 feet, would altogether give an elevation of upwards of 40 feet to the rock site over the morass site. Height is essential to the grandeur of architecture. But it is thus that our wise men bury the public money, if they were erecting a temple to Pluto or some other of the Infernal Gods. Height for edifice of the description we require is of the utmost importance, and the rock foundation would have admitted of any possible height of the monument, whereas the marsh foundation may, as in the case of the Exchange reading-room, prevent even the intended height being attained, and the monument turn out a dumpy abortion. It has been urged as an exculpating reason for the desecration of the square, that such was the spirit of building at present in Dundee, and so greedy of money the authorities or public feeling, and such the fine central position of the morass, that, unless it was devoted to the Institute, it would have been sold to builders for new streets, where the builders, taking a lesson from the engineer of the proposed Forth bridge, would probably have used platform of wood for the foundation of the houses, similar to the proposed ones for the bridge piers, and have had the houses mere shells that they might half swim on such.
It may be said, “What good purpose can this fault-finding serve? The Institute is now partly erected.” This is no reason why error should not be pointed out. Surely the public spirit in Dundee will not totally exhaust itself in the erection of the Institute. The rapid improvements of the age and of this prosperous city will demand other public buildings. And it is right to point out past error to prevent future. At any rate, the very commanding and central position I have pointed out ought to be secured to the Town to await a future want. It is pity that the former high basalt rock at the west end of Bank Street has nearly all been reduced to street level. It ought to have been preserved for the site of a future monumental building. The rock of Castle Street has been wisely selected for the Episcopal Chapel, but only after it was much reduced in height. Would it not be right to clear away some of the rubbish round this chapel?
However, the present bizarre attempts may go — succeed or fail — the erecting of an intended lasting monument in a morass, or throwing a rainbow bridge over the middle of the Tay Frith, when monument and bridge could so much more advantageously and cheaply be erected where I have pointed out; this much I will say, that neither will throw much honour upon their designers, but not improbably much disgrace.— l am, &c.,
Gourdiehill, April 1866.