The wheels are finally rolling on plans to regenerate Penicuik, at least in part, but as our editor writes, it may yet be too early to hope for lasting change for the town.
Cautious optimism. That was the overwhelming feeling in Penicuik’s Town Hall last week, where consultants and designers of various fields showed a hesitant and somewhat bewildered public their plans to resuscitate Penicuik’s Town Centre. Amongst the exhibition boards, adorned with ambitious plans to enact a “community vision”, a steady flow of community members wandered, looking for salvation and longing for a solution to Penicuik’s ever downward spiral. There was hope but it was tempered by realism and disbelief. “Surely nothing will ever happen” one person told me.
Their fears are understandable. Little has changed for the better in Penicuik for decades; it is stuck in a perpetual state of nothingness, neither wholly awful nor fantastically brilliant. It has its moments. We know how to put on a decent maytime festival and our Christmas celebrations aren’t that bad either. These however, are remnants of the past, perhaps the last traces of the Penicuik that used to be. That is what Tuesday’s exhibition was all about, remnants (in this case historical buildings and public space). How will £3M be used to safeguard these remnants of old Penicuik?
That is my problem. Old Penicuik (the village of Penicuik as it was put in event documentation). All this hope to return to the past when we should be longing for the future. Penicuik is not a village anymore. It is town of around 18000 people that is expected to expand significantly in the next decade. One day in the very near future, we will be indistinguishable from Edinburgh; there will certainly be no village of Penicuik. We should be striving for a new Penicuik, where our history is acknowledged but our new found purpose as a place to commute to and from is the priority.
To do this, we need joined-up thinking. There cannot be a situation where we have a sparkling, newly restored historical core juxtaposed against the blackened disaster that is the ‘modern’ town centre, accompanied by a cacophony of new housing development islands. How would that result in a situation any better than the one that exists today? Yes, everything old may look nice but nothing will function any differently. It is merely plastering over the cracks.
Penicuik’s town centre needs to be a hybrid of old a new. Where there is history, it should be preserved, but where there is none, we shouldn’t hesitate to replace it with a contemporary forward looking design better orientated to Penicuik’s future as an intriguing and welcoming commuter town. Take the former BNC Autoparts building at 2-4 Bridge Street for example (pictured). It is a dilapidated blot on the historical townscape that might as well scream “this town lost all hope two decades ago” to any passerbys. In recent years its owners have submitted a couple of applications to convert the wreckage into a hot food takeaway/ice cream parlour but none have materialised. Penicuik, as a community, have rightly become angered by the inactivity and now the buildings are considered to be the priority project of the Conservation Area Regeneration Scheme. All of a sudden there can be hope. Now, there is a choice for this hope. Do we put our hope into a recreation of what is there? A lacklustre, uninteresting, misuse of space? Or do we hope for something new? A building or buildings that offer architectural intrigue, perhaps even a landmark that speaks of Penicuik’s aspirations?
You know where my hope lies. Good architecture accompanied by a function or purpose that is fit for the future, is best outcome we can hope for. If we can get it right for the former BNC Autoparts, the gateway to our town, then it will serve as a good foundation to undo the mistakes of our mid-twentieth century ancestors. The town centre can become both a homage to our past and a beacon for the future.
I have hope that this can be achieved. However, what is on offer today isn’t sufficient to warrant blind faith. Admittedly it is a very good start and the commissioned consultants and architects are doing the best on the brief they have been given. The outcome though would be so much better if everyone just worked together. If the shopping centre’s owners got on board and the community really contributed, only 23 responses had been received from the public at last week’s exhibition, then a proud new Penicuik could be born. There just has to be realisation that we can’t go back to what we used to be. Penicuik is not ‘Utopia’ as the sign says on 2-4 Bridge Street, and it never will be, but it is our home and we have every right to be proud of it. With a little investment, good design and an understanding of our purpose, we will be proud of it again.