2016 marks the centenary of the birth of architect and town planner Robert James Naismith (1916-2004). A small collection of his books and pamphlets were donated to the Library after his death and form an interesting collection of works relating to Sir Patrick Geddes (1854-1932) and to town planning. Geddes, the celebrated social evolutionist and city planner who did so much to preserve the historic feel of Edinburgh’s Old Town, was the father-in-law of Naismith’s mentor Sir Frank Mears (1880-1953) who brought Naismith into his practice in the early 1940s.
Mears was the probable owner of what is perhaps the finest item in the collection: a 1931 volume of 71 photographs produced by the Corporation of Greenock to document a clearance area compulsory purchase order. Mears was appointed as a planning consultant to Greenock Corporation in 1940 and his work on the Burgh became the subject of a documentary film.
Another Mears item in the collection is his copy of his unrealised 1950s Proposals for the Future Development of the University of Edinburgh. This includes a perspective drawing showing that, amongst other major changes to the city centre, the original houses on the east and west sides of George Square would have been completely demolished to make way for new buildings.
Naismith’s career was dominated by work in town planning. His biography records that “In 1945 he was appointed to the post of Burgh Architect of Penicuik and subsequently Burgh Architect of Dalkeith, posts which he retained for 30 years. He also acted as Planning Consultant and Architect to the Burghs of Perth, Tranent, Inverness, Inverkeithing, Lanark, Hawick, Johnstone, Stirling and Selkirk as well as to the Cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Realisation of such works through urban renewal, expansion and building projects continued beyond Local Government reorganisation. In 1954-56 he acted as assessor in the architectural competition for the redevelopment of central Perth. Along with other private and commercial work he undertook housing, civic buildings, churches, cultural and leisure centres, commercial and industrial complexes and won many awards.”
A wartime volume celebrating 60 years of the model Bournville village in Birmingham emphasised the importance of green spaces, the preservation of mature trees and modern housing, fit for working families.
And this 1938 American volume on planning for housing includes a plan of Radburn, New Jersey, a town developed to accommodate cars whilst creating a people-friendly network of footpaths and green spaces with road access behind. The preservation of trees, inclusion of green spaces and the influence of Radburn on Naismith can be seen in his design of the Cornbank estate in Penicuik, one of the country’s largest Radburn-style developments.
Naismith cannot be said to have been the architect of any great buildings but in this centenary of his birth, and in the Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design, it is appropriate to acknowledge a man whose influence can be felt in the design of towns and cities across Scotland.