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Collective Architecture reinvents Edinburgh observatory as ‘prism of contemporary culture’

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The practice has restored and redeveloped part of the Calton Hill World Heritage Site for contemporary art organisation, Collective, adding a new sunken gallery and cantilevered restaurant

Glasgow-based practice Collective Architecture has completed its Calton Hill City Observatory project for the joint client of Edinburgh Council and the contemporary art organisation Collective.

A new cantilevered restaurant, The Lookout, has been added to the north-east corner of the site while a new gallery, The Hillside, has been excavated into the basalt mound to the north of the observatory, in which a programme, curated by Collective, will focus mainly on the work of emerging artists. 

The completed project also includes the refurbishment of the Category A-listed City Observatory as a display space for both art and scientific instruments as well as that of the older Transit House as a workshop, event and display space. The famous Playfair monument and boundary walls have also been renovated and restored, and a new entrance kiosk added at the East Gate. 

high res collective calton hill 0038

high res collective calton hill 0038

The connections between each building have been planned around an extensive landscaping scheme, developed with Harrison Stevens Landscape Architects, enabling the site to become fully accessible for the first time in its 240-year history.

Originally designed by William Playfair in 1818, the City Observatory played a central role in the development of the ideas of the Enlightenment. Aiming to draw parallels between the forward-looking nature of the science of astronomy with that of contemporary art, the idea of the scheme is to reinvent the observatory site as ‘a prism of contemporary culture’.

This project sees the completion of Phase 2 of works which in the first phase saw the relocation of Collective to the City Dome on Calton Hill in 2013 in anticipation of Phase 2. 

collective hillside city dome city observatory. photo by tom nolan october 2018 4

collective hillside city dome city observatory. photo by tom nolan october 2018 4

Architect’s view

The realisation of this project took great vision by the client group, Collective, to find a sustainable new use for the abandoned City Observatory complex on Calton Hill. Historically, the site’s use has always been forward-looking, pushing the boundaries of scientific understanding. This created a synergy with us to rethink what a ‘City Observatory’ could mean today.

Calton Hill is a fundamental part of Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site. It is highly visible from all around the city centre and the last building to be constructed here was the City Dome some 120 years ago. Carefully piecing the existing buildings back together from their dilapidated state has also been incredibly satisfying to be a part of – ensuring their survival for future generations to explore and understand.

Emma Fairhurst, project architect, Collective Architecture

Ca ch site plan

Ca ch site plan

Project data

Start date on site October 2016
Completion date October 2018
Gross internal floor area 490m²
Construction cost £4 million
Architect Collective Architecture
Clients City of Edinburgh Council and Collective Gallery
Main contractor ESH Construction
Structural engineer Elliot & Company Consulting Engineers
M&E consultant Cundall
Quantity surveyor Faithful + Gould
Landscape architect Harrison Stevens
Project manager Faithful + Gould
Acoustic consultants RMP
CAD software used MicroStation 

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