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Demolition of post-modern RMJM gem angers local architects

Architects have reacted angrily to the demolition of RMJM’s 1985 Balfour Stewart House office block in Edinburgh to make way for a 72-home housing scheme by Archial Architects

The death-knell for the 25-year-old, post-modernist ‘flawed masterpiece’ came last October when Archial bagged planning permission for the contentious £35 million scheme for developer Rumney Manor in the city’s West Murrayfield conservation area.

Architectural historian Miles Glendinning from Edinburgh College of Art said: ‘It just seems such a waste to demolish a high-quality, site-contextual urban intervention – the sort of thing we’re all supposed to be seeking nowadays in contemporary architecture – for just another chunk of speculative housing.’

Adrian Welch, a local architect and director of www.edinburgharchitecture.co.uk, agreed: ‘Balfour Stewart House had tough northern facades with softer stepped elevations to the south, working with the slope of the site. It was both bold and subtle.

’Well-respected architects and developers have worked on schemes to re-use the building, demonstrating that it did not need to be demolished.’

The building was described in the AJ 24 years ago as low-maintenance with ‘generous space standards’ and ‘high quality materials’, and backed by a client, United Distillers, that had an eye on the ‘global perspective of non-renewable resources’ (AJ 22.01.86 - see attached PDF).

David Jamieson, of local practice Zone Architects, said: ‘This was not one of RMJM’s better buildings and its best feature was its distinctive skyline. [However] we can only hope that the continued depression of the housing market saves us from the dreary Archial housing scheme that is due to replace it.

He added: ‘It is the whimper at the end of the recent boom in development which has resulted in some terrible housing schemes in Edinburgh.’

Archial’s project (pictured below) will comprise 16 duplex apartments and 56 flats and is the practice’s second attempt for the plot.

Justifying the proposed scheme and the office’s demolition Cameron Walker, director at Archial Architects, replied: ‘[Our] design solution for the site demonstrates an understanding of the location and its relationship with the adjacent and wider area.

‘The site layout balances the level of development against the need to retain mature trees and the high stone wall. The visual appeal of the proposed development responds to the conservation area and adds to the character of the area.

‘Mature trees act as a focus for open space within the development and the area of designed landscape in the south of the site will be retained, reflecting the former use of the site as a flagship office building.’

Previous story (2 October 2009)

Archial wins green light to raze RMJM’s post-modern gem

RMJM’s 1985 Balfour Stewart House office block in Edinburgh is to be flattened to make way for a 72-home housing scheme by Archial Architects

Earlier this week Edinburgh City Council approved the practice’s contentious £35 million scheme for Rumney Manor Developments (pictured above) finally spelling the end for the ‘obsolete’ Post-Modernist structure in the city’s West Murrayfield Conservation area.

UK giants Archial had previously tried to replace the block with a larger residential development in February 2008 - but that had been thrown out.

However the city council was more sympathetic to the practice’s second attempt.

Cameron Walker, director at Archial, said: ‘The design solution for the site demonstrates an understanding of the location and its relationship with the adjacent and wider area.

‘The layout of the site, meanwhile, balances the level of development against the need to retain mature trees, the high stone wall, an understanding of the site’s topography and conservation area characteristics and accessibility to public transport. The site’s appearance responds to the conservation area and adds to the characteristic of houses responding to their individual setting.’

The development, which will house 16 duplex apartments and 56 flats, still needs to win conservation area approval from Scottish Ministers.

Previous story (8 June 2009)

RMJM’s post-modern gem facing bulldozers once more

RMJM’s ‘flawed masterpiece’, the practice’s 1985 Balfour Stewart House in Edinburgh, is again under threat of demolition

Last February (2008) the early Post-Modernist office block in the West Murrayfield Conservation area was saved from the bulldozers when plans to replace the empty building with 119 homes were thrown out by the city council.

However the architect behind the original scheme Archial (formerly SMC Hugh Martin) has submitted new proposals for the site which had been used by both United Distillers and Scottish & Newcastle. The revised plans for Rumney Manor – the investment arm of Trevor Hemmings, the billionaire who owns, among other things, the rights to Postman Pat– now features just 80 flats (see bottom right).

The move was described as ‘predictable’ and ‘one dimensional response’ by Adrian Boot, a director of RMJM in Edinburgh, who agrees with Historic Scotland’s assessment of the office as a herald of new architectural ideals of the burgeoning post-modern period of the early 1980’s.’

He said: The fact remains that Ellersly House is part of our Scottish architectural heritage.

‘There are countless examples in Europe of the merging of architectural heritage with a new purpose - take the Tate Modern in London - or the sublime Suva building in Basel - both by Herzog and de Meuron.’

He added: ‘It would no doubt be pointed out that this approach doesn’t stack up financially, but then one should ask the question - should our architectural heritage have to financially stack up to exist?” 

But Cameron Walker, a director at Archial’s Edinburgh office, has hit back claiming parts of the block are ‘fatally flawed’. He said: ‘[It is] a very poor office building - a headquarters for a bygone era.   

‘The upper two floors are opulent while the light-starved “dungeons” below provide the majority of accommodation. 

The open plan office, if indeed you can call it that, contains well in excess of 200 free standing columns, set in groups of 4, only 2 metres apart; it is impossible to avoid free standing columns in cellular accommodation.  The building suffers from unnecessary structure at both ceiling and slab level, making the services extremely difficult.  It is also off the scale in terms of energy wastage and would never meet the environmental aspirations of the modern corporate occupier.’

Walker maintained that, contrary to Boot’s claims, there was ‘no future’ for the building. He said: ‘Despite more than £10 million having been spent in recent years, the building has not proven attractive to any occupiers.’

Readers' comments (4)

  • pull it down

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  • Revenge RMJM!

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  • http://badbritisharchitecture.blogspot.com/2009/10/murrayfield-housing-edinburgh-by.html

    This is quite an accurate description of what is taking the place of RMJM’s 1985 Balfour Stewart House.

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  • I feel disgusted that this has been allowed to happen. Everyone involved in its demise, architects and consultants who contributed to its demolition, either by writing reports or standing by quietly, should be ashamed. The building had faults but they were more than compensated for by its delights and craftsmanship. To be replaced by what can only be described as a mediocre housing project is awful. It is a sad day for architecture in Scotland and for Edinburgh in particular.

    Alan Dunlop

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