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Flat calm

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New riverfront housing in Leith by Fraser Brown MacKenna with Dignan Read Dewar is a landmark of relaxed quality in an area on the up

Competition-to-completion of Ronaldson's Wharf has taken about eight years, with the inevitable frustrations and costs of a stop-go project. In the meantime, other projects on neighbouring sites have started and finished.

But there is an upside to the delays. Leith was very run-down and has recently been undergoing some regeneration, as yet mainly on the watersides; it is a moving target for developers. The passage of time on this project has allowed developer Miller Cruden to raise the level of investment that appeared viable, leading to a higher-quality result. Perhaps it could have risked more, given that the private residential units were largely sold off-plan.

In 1995, Fraser Brown MacKenna (FBM) won the open competition, which attracted about 120 first-round entrants. Sponsored by a mix of local authority, housing association, development agency and conservation interests, the architectural judges were Henri Ciriani, Piers Gough and Robert Tavernor.

Other shortlisted practices included Benson + Forsyth and Reiach and Hall.

At this stage a collaboration was set up between FBM and Dignan Read Dewar (DRD). Architect Simon Fraser and the three partners of DRD were all at college together and, by chance, DRD's office was across the water from the Ronaldson's Wharf site. (It is a sign of Leith's earlier decline that DRD's office, which it first occupied in 1990, was then an empty building, indeed nobody had crossed the threshold since the 1930s. ) The structure of the competition was first to select the architectural design, then to run a developer competition to build it, won by Miller Cruden. Having won, the developer delayed for about two years, trying to establish what was viable in this shifting market;

existing flats were then selling for around £50,000. Fraser is very aware of how vulnerable the competition scheme was to death by a thousand cost cuts. As to the current outcome, Fraser praises Miller Cruden's overall commitment to the original competition ideas and the quality of what has been built.

At competition stage there was significant local opposition to the potential newcomers and their modern architecture, with local press criticism like 'third-rate eyesore' (is this better or worse than being a first-rate eyesore? ) and 'architectural timebomb'. Later, getting through planning was also to be a testing time. While there has been a cafe and restaurant presence in Leith for some 15 years, much of the area was rundown, with very little new investment. The immediate upriver area from the Wharf site was one where some feared to walk. Downriver is a historic dry dock, which despite being a Scheduled Monument had been filled in and grassed over, and traditional tenement housing.

The project, as built so far, comprises two new blocks of private housing, one facing south-east on the riverfront, the other on the road-side facing south-west, upriver. There are 62 units, ranging from one-bed to fourbed, but predominantly two-bedroom.

There are also commercial properties on the ground floor of the riverfront block, which are all sold and occupied. Social housing (48 units) is currently under construction to the rear of the site. This sense of a site front-andback with differing outlook quality was ameliorated by FBM in its competitionwinning scheme; it arranged the waterfront housing as four separate pavilions, the spaces between them providing water views from deeper in the site. However, opposition during the planning stage and subsequent cost revisions by the developer led to the pavilions becoming one continuous waterfront block.

The Ronaldson's Wharf site had long been derelict, following compulsory purchase by the local authority decades earlier, and was surrounded by hoardings - no gently crumbling warehouses ripe for loft conversion here. But the loft movement, then spreading from London to other major old industrial cities, was a pointer to the developer that Leith's relatively conservative housing market had the potential to be a bit more adventurous. If some of the architect's space layout ideas - such as double-height spaces, more open plans and fewer but larger rooms - didn't get through to fruition (though many internal partitions can readily be removed in future), and ideas to customise layouts to make them more individually attractive were usurped by the units being bought off-plan, these flats and maisonettes are certainly more than boxes with nice views. There would no doubt be more developer confidence if the project was beginning today.

The riverfront aspect is the prime architectural set piece. Ground-floor commercial units are set back under a colonnade behind a gently serpentine-plan facade, the colonnade and riverfront becoming part of a footpath that stretches from Leith through Edinburgh to the Pentland Hills 15 miles away. Above are three levels of flats, then maisonettes which pick up again the serpentine plan of cladding from the ground floor. Extensive glazing and roof terraces to this high vantage point provide a panoramic prospect, which includes the city of Edinburgh.

The treatment of the flats raises some questions. Each has two rooms onto the riverfront. One, set back behind a balcony, faces the river directly. The other is set behind an oblique cedar-planked wall, focused on the best views, northeasterly/upriver, where the opposite waterfront has some of the massing of Amsterdam, with tall houses set tight against a riverside road. Certainly the flats don't lack daylight, nor feel cut off from the outside, as each has a balcony. But there are no views upriver, where, in time, a riverside of quality will hopefully develop.

Before this happens, Ronaldson's Wharf stands out as a horizontal building contrasting with older, more vertical ones. If not now the politest of neighbours, the horizontal is surely the way new development will continue here as larger-than-traditional sites are developed in future.

In layout, flats and maisonettes of the riverfront block are set either side of a stair and lift. For the road-front block the architect has used the slope of the site to provide lowest-level (somewhat like semi-basement) exits from flats and a sliver of outdoor space at both the road and site-courtyard sides, the main entrance to the whole block, from the courtyard. This manipulation of levels keeps the block low enough not to require lifts to be fitted at each stair, despite having five floors overall.

Walking into the flats now - light, airy, modern - enjoying the views, all the hassles seem less important, at least to the projectoutsider. Was the pain really necessary?

Perhaps to some extent it was. Of course, there could be improvements to the development process but there is also a time needed for minds to change, to accept the new.A faster result here would not have been the standard-setter for Leith that Ronaldson's Wharf has become.

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