Edinburgh’s Saltire Court, with its sweeping colonnade echoing the curve of Castle Terrace, is undoubtedly architect Ian Arnott’s best-known work.
Occupying the site of the city’s notorious “hole in the ground”, the chasm left after the demolition of Poole’s Synod Hall in the 1960s, it took the local administration 25 years to decide what to do with the eyesore. Countless Edinburgh Art College students tackled it as an annual project over the years yet no satisfactory solution was forthcoming.
However, when a competition to determine the plot’s fate was eventually held by Edinburgh District Council, public opinion was decisive: out of 22 submissions, Ian Arnott’s proposal attracted almost half the public vote. An astonishing 49 per cent favoured his vision, a design said to be influenced by the neighbouring Usher Hall and Sir James Gowans’ ornate tenements.
Work began in 1988 and the building, an office block featuring a striking five-storey entrance hall with views of Edinburgh Castle, has become a city landmark, incorporating the Traverse Theatre. Described as a very fine example of sensitive late 20th century architecture, in harmony with its surroundings, it has been hailed as one of the best buildings in Edinburgh since the 1870s.
John Arnott, known as Ian, was born in Galashiels – interestingly, Saltire Court’s towers feature sandstone from the Scottish Borders – and was educated at Galashiels Academy where he was Dux. He went on to study architecture at Edinburgh College of Art, where he was awarded an Andrew Grant Scholarship, and subsequently gained a diploma in town planning.
National Service intervened in 1955 and he spent the next two years as a flying officer in the RAF, stationed mostly in Jersey. He also married his wife Stella in 1955, with whom he had a daughter Gillian.
During his early career he was involved in the Hutchesontown-Gorbals redevelopment and Haddington Town Centre renewal then, in 1962, he founded Campbell & Arnott with William Campbell.
One of their early projects was Arnott’s own home, The Rink in Gifford, an open-plan design named after the farm in Galashiels where he was born and built in 1963 in the grounds of the village’s Old Manse. Sympathetic to the nearby church, it blended well into its surroundings and won a Civic Trust Award.
It was just one of many awards to recognise his work, including The Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture’s Gold Medal for Architecture, numerous Civic Trust Awards and others from the Royal Institute of British Architects, Edinburgh Architectural Association and Saltire Society.
In Gifford, where he lived for 60 years, and where for a time the family included a pet duck named Delilah, he was involved in the local community, serving as chairman of The Gifford Society and Haddington and District Amenity Society to which he brought a wealth of experience and wisdom. Beyond that he was chairman of The Saltire Society and a member of the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem.
His architectural interest also spread further afield – to Italy where he was fascinated by the legacy of a proliferation of little-known theatres in the Le Marche region which he had come across while in the area to listen to the music of Mozart. He discovered that in the 18th century this relatively small area, between the Appenines and the Adriatic, had boasted 113 theatres, many of them architectural gems still in working order today, and wondered how such a theatrical tradition had evolved there.
The Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture gave him a Sir William Gillies Award to investigate. The result was his book The Hidden Theatres of the Marche, published in 2013, in which he examined the origins of the region’s theatre boom and analysed the historic, social and architectural significance of its heritage, from the Renaissance to the 19th century.
His personal favourite was the relatively modest Teatro Comunale in Treia, near Macerata, which took 20 years to build, another 20 years to decorate and, later, a further 20 years to renovate – a testament to civic persistence, possession and pride, he said.
A man of some panache himself – his cars included a Lotus Elan and Porsche and he had been known to sport a long, rather dashing,1970s-style belted leather jacket – he had a modern, outward-looking personality that was reflected in his innovative work.
Family friend and contemporary of his daughter, Mary Carmichael, remembers him as charming, talkative and inquisitive. On a holiday to Italy, where he proved an eloquent guide to the galleries, sculptures and mosaics of some of the great cities, he was also was anxious to know what the girls thought of his latest acquisition – a copy of Joni Mitchell’s Blue album.
Both intellectual and fun, with a fine sense of humour, he led a busy and varied life, listing his recreations as music, painting, reading and, perhaps surprisingly, resting.
Arnott was predeceased by his wife Stella in 2018 and his daughter Gillian in 2020.
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