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Gothic novelty

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aj refurbishment

photographs by antonia reeve

The Hub, the Edinburgh Festival's new headquarters, box office and focus of activity, was for several years a building nobody knew what to do with. Standing at the head of the Royal Mile in Castle Hill, it is a prominent landmark, the spire out-topping the Castle's highest pinnacle. Known traditionally as 'the Highland Tollbooth', it was built in 1844 to designs by Scottish architect James Gillespie Graham and the great English Gothicist Augustus Pugin; it served as Pugin's dress rehearsal for his work with Barry on the Houses of Parliament.

But in 1995, the building, listed Grade A, had stood empty for 20 years and was on Scottish Heritage's list of buildings at risk. Then Edinburgh architect Ben Tindallpersuaded the festival that he could provide them with the 'hub of activities' they needed. His plans were greeted with considerable scepticism, not least in the Edinburgh architectural community; but the festival, to its credit, backed him, and he has delivered - to time and on budget.

What is more, Benjamin TindallArch-itects has put into that forbidding, church-like structure a series of stunning interiors which give it new life and set new standards for the integration of art and craft with architecture. Throughout it has striven to follow Pugin's precept: 'All ornament should consist of enrichment of the essential construction of the building.'

'The biggest challenge,' says Tindall, 'was trying to make a building which everybody thinks of as a church into something festive'. But 'the Tollbooth', though it looks like one from outside, was not designed as a church, but as a headquarters for the Church of Scotland, with offices, a very parliament-like assembly hall for its governing body, and ground- floor spaces for bookshop, meeting rooms and other activities.

To bring people in to what might have been perceived as a grim, forbidding building was the purpose of one of around a dozen major commissions to artists. Called 'the Red Carpet', it is a pathway of brightly coloured concrete tiles by Carole Vincent which leads up to the Hub's great front door. This door is, in itself, inviting: in a bold red with gilded hinges. From the porch under the tower the work of a second artist, Keiko Mukaide, leads us on through the ground floor: set into the floor are twin tracks of multi-layered glass illuminated from beneath and serving as a kind of 'flare-path' to guide the visitor along the central corridor, which also has a cheerful but (to my mind somewhat gimmicky) light sculpture sequence in yellow neon by David Ward.

In fact, the corridor and the spaces on either side, though broken by structural arches, form one single flexible space, unified by bright yellow paint on walls and vaulted ceilings. To the right, as you enter, are a book and record shop and the box office, which sells tickets not just for the festival and Fringe but for many other Edinburgh events. On the left is the festival Cafe-Bar, with jolly blue Italian chairs registering strongly against the yellow background. The cafe's lower walls are clad in terrazzo panels by artist Jacqui Poncelet.

Mukaide's flare-path brings us, via a 'neck' between servery and wcs, to the spacious and very Victorian main staircase. This space has become a work of art in itself, doubling as a sculpture gallery in which 236 plaster figures of musicians, dancers and other festival participants adorn walls of a sombre theatrical red, lit by a multitude of tiny spotlights and with the names of festivalsponsors picked out in gold. The whole is the work of Jill Watson, who normally sculpts in marble but used plaster in order to meet a deadline which required her to complete a figure every 36 hours over 365 days.

To one side of the staircase head is the Dunard Library, part of a 1899 extension, which serves as a multi-purpose green-room and has, appropriately, been painted in a cool relaxing green. It features a reinstated gallery whose handrail is a wooden snake with lifelike head and tail by Charles Taylor; Christian Shaw has designed windows with brightly coloured glass which bring relief to grey Edinburgh skies; and, behind a huge curtain, a large moveable bar which can be moved about the building according to need.

The staircase also leads to the main hall, which still contains the throne where the Queen's representative, the Lord High Commissioner, sat in state during sessions of the church's governing body. But this great galleried space has been transformed by colour in a way which, Tindall argues, Pugin would have approved. Huge curtains and stretched fabric in bright blue, red, yellow and green by Squigee Textile Design cover the walls above and below restored side galleries; the ribs and bosses of Pugin's Gothic ceiling are picked out in colour against its azure main panels; and four constellation-like chandeliers by Mike Stoane Lighting glitter below. A new west window by Steven Newell represents the Muses, bringing good cheer into the hall, but also acts as part of its air-conditioning duct system. The hall can accommodate 450 for concerts, 250 for banquets, and is usedfor a wide range of functions in and out of festival time.

Describing these main public spaces may make the conversion of the building seem easy. It was not. The Hub also needed offices, and modern services which are not easily inserted into a Grade A building. bta's strategy was to push the services westwards towards the far end of the building, where a modern extension would least obtrude; and to find room for offices in the previously unused roof-space.

The offices proved less of a problem than might have been expected. The roof space was large and lofty, but criss-crossed by structural timbers. These proved to sound and more than adequate; the joints were strengthened by steel reinforcements; and - in spite of a very detailed, demanding brief - the festival's 25 core staff were fitted in, in the prescribed combination of open-plan and cellular offices. 'We made it fit despite the constraints of a 9ft structural grid, without modification,' recalls Tindall. 'And when it fitted, we thought, Can this be true? Yes, it is. Hallelujah!'

Two structures - one existing, one new - were crucial to making it all work. The old is the original 1844 tower, which provides vertical circulation, overflow space for peak festival time such as press room, and an extract route for air circulation through the tower's louvres. The new (adding around 5% to total volume) is tucked in at the western, uphill end, above and alongside the Dunard Library. It includes plant room, service tower, a lift serving six floors, third staircase, and a vip meeting room called the Glass Room. This, like the terraces above andin front of it, and windows from the office floor, give quite splendid views over Edinburgh.

How has it all worked? For the most part, very well - pulling in considerably larger numbers than Glasgow's much publicised Lighthouse and hosting a whole range of events, public and private. One big reservation must be the way in which the ground floor is currently used. Its open-plan potential is at present underused, with the result than it reads like three long,thinnish slices of building rather than one broad space. This could be altered, thanks to the ingenious, moveable booking office pods designed by bta associate Bern Balfe with consultants vk&c.

The £4 million project gained from Scottish Heritage having spent money to keep the building stable and weather tight, and from work done by Heritage Projects, which then decided not to proceed with its proposed new use. Even so, to complete the Hub - in time for the festival - to budget and, from start of design to opening, in two-and-a-half years, is some achievement. And the interiors - both public and private, from great hall to loos - are stunning.

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