Patrick Geddes and the theme of vision
by Pierre Chabard

Infinite riches in a little room.
- Christopher Marlowe

Thee Tower and Patrick Geddes : it is almost impossible to distinguish them.
- Lewis Mumford

The concept of the Outlook Tower - at once observatory, museum and civic laboratory - was the outcome of an encounter between Patrick Geddes and a curious tower dominating the Edinburgh Old Town and, beyond, the whole city and its geographical setting. The very first moments of that encounter are described by James Mavor, Professor of Political economy at Toronto, in the account he gives in his memoirs of a walk with his friend Geddes in 1892, through the maze of streets on Castle Hill and terminating with a visit to the tower. It was then known as Short's Observatory. The roof-terrace had served as a popular attraction for local people and tourists since 1856 - moreover, it is used for that very purpose today. The owner, Maria Short , had moved her "Popular Observatory" there, complete with the Camera Obscura, in 1854 from Edinburgh's Calton Hill, where she had run a similar establishment, also with a Camera Obscura, until 1834.

Camera Obscura of this type were already a fairly common form of public attraction in the 1820s and were to become highly fashionable in Victorian Britain. An inclined, moveable mirror reflected light vertically, through a system of lenses, into a darkened room where a circular table at the centre served as a horizontal screen around which the public could gather to contemplate the projected image of the surrounding landscape. This was the fascinating spectacle Patrick Geddes and James Mavor viewed which such enthusiasm. So taken was Geddes with the Camera Obscura and the panoramic views to be had from the roof-terrace that he immediately offered to buy the tower. His offer was accepted. In his account of the purchase, Mavor remarks that the acquistion of the tower did not seem to have been motivated by any specific project, nor to have formed part of any pre-formulated plan. Yet the Outlook Tower was to assume special importance, both in terms of a synthesis of Geddes's numerous activities and undertakings, and as one of the most sophisticated products of his thinking.

Initially, the Tower took its place in the ambitious, wide-ranging socio-cultural scheme Geddes had been working on since the mid-1880s for the regeneration of the Edinburgh Old Town - at that time, one of the most over-populated slums in Europe. Geddes's commitment to the city of Edinburgh has been brilliantly analysed by Volker M. Welter . According to him, "In Geddes's vision, any redemption from the plight of the industrial city is achievable only if the historic city, the Old Town of Edinburgh in this case, becomes recognised as the place to achieve any improvement of the city" . At first, Geddes envisaged such improvements terms of social reform typical of the Victorian era. Yet during the 1890s, he became increasingly committed to a kind of cultural rehabilitation for the district, through a co-ordinated programme of buildings and works for the university. His desire to transform the slum into an Edinburgh "Latin Quarter" is particularly evident in his University Hall scheme. It was based on the model of the mediaeval university Quad or "Cloister", complete with studies, refectories, lodgings and other facilities, all run by the students themselves in a spirit of brotherly freedom. When the Reclus brothers visited the first completed parts of this scheme in 1896, they remarked that : "encouraged by their success, Geddes and his circle want to do better still; they dream of creating a Thélème Abbey [an imaginary community dreamed up by François Rabelais in the mid-1530s]. Enormous buildings serving until now only for banal exhibitions are to be transformed into an Institute of History and Geography, with conference rooms on upper floors and, in the highest parts, workshops and museums commanding views across an immense expanse of city and countryside to the wonderful Forth Bridge" . Doubtless the "enormous buildings" were an exaggerated description by the Reclus brothers of the Tower which, at that time, was gradually being absorbed into Geddes's scheme. Although the notion of creating a complete university campus modelled on Rabelais's imaginary Thélème Abbey was never wholly implemented , this should be seen as the first conceptual context for the Outlook Tower.

Outlook Tower, with Ramsay GardenIt is interesting to note from the Reclus brothers' description that, even though the principal function of the Tower was optical and panoramic in 1896, it was not yet called the Outook Tower. This appellation would not seem to have appeared until the very end of the 1890s, very probably in conjunction with the Summer Meeting organised by Geddes in 1899. The event was described by two participants , Charles Zueblin of Chicago and Firmin Roz of Paris, both of whom made specific reference to the Outlook Tower : "Patrick Geddes has summed up his efforts and symbolised his work in a singular invention that is at once a museum, an observatory and a university : the Outlook Tower" . Yet as early as 1896, the scheme was beset with difficulties of various kinds. Some were financial - Geddes's colleagues had to set up the Town and Gown Association to manage his financial affairs on his behalf. Others were conceptual - Geddes's ideas for the Tower were as evolutive and elusive as they were chimeric and immoderate. Geddes constantly skirted round these difficulties and kept seeking more favourable conditions elsewhere, to bring his scheme to fruition. From 1895, he was involved with Elisée Reclus's "Grand Globe" - an ambitious project akin to a cross between a "Georama" and the Outlook Tower, for the 1900 Paris Exhibition. When the Reclus "Globe" project was abandoned in 1900, Geddes forwarded proposals for a temporary Outlook Tower to be located on the Panoramic gallery at the "Trocadéro Palace" in Paris. In 1902, Geddes threw himself into an ambitious project for a National Institute of Geography in Edinburgh. Designed by the French architect Paul Louis Albert Galeron, the building was to have centred on a high tower : the Tower of the Regional Survey. Finally, in 19