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Medieval housing associations

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Over the years Richard Murphy has developed a rich and eloquent complexity of detailing in a series of alterations and extensions to private houses. His concepts, of shifting planes and layers, of ‘de-materialising’ walls to merge inside with outside space, have now been applied to a different building type, public housing, with the additional challenges of limited budget and a severely restricted site.

The new housing, a five-storey block of nine flats and a small shop for the Old Town Housing Association, slots neatly into the Cannongate, a historic and evocative part of Holyrood, just next to the Royal Mile in Edinburgh’s Old Town. It acts as a ‘gateway’ to the development of the redundant Holyrood brewing plant, given to a trust in 1993 by the Scottish & Newcastle brewery.

The block is modest; design was constrained by the size of the plot, by tall tenements which flank the east side and a close (a Scottish alley), which runs diagonally across the western side, to two single-bed flats per floor. But its dominant position on the Canongate site makes it a flagship for further development.

Murphy describes the design as a throwback to the original Old Town; apart from John Knox House and a few other landmark buildings, most of the Canongate was built in this century. Some of the original elements typical of a medieval street in the Old Town have been re-translated and incorporated into the design. A colonnade projects over the pavement at ground level, a modern interpretation, in glass blocks and steel columns, of medieval construction. The flats are reached by a common staircase which begins outside, a traditional feature of Scottish tenements. On upper floors the windows are arranged as horizontal galleries. Many traditional Old Town buildings had cantilevered or ‘jettied’ upper floors of timber, with a roof-top profile of ‘roofed’ rooms, like independent elements on the roofline. Murphy has used these elements to give light and magnificent views to the two upper-floor flats - a row of large windows on the north- west corner of the building project just beyond the plane of the walls, defining the layers of the facade. They look out over the Canongate with additional viewing slots at the east to give glimpses down the street, while at the rear the south-facing living room looks out to Salisbury Crags. The rhythm of jettied window bays continues on the Canongate facade, with a smaller central bay as a glazed extension to the kitchen worktop and a deeper bay to the bedroom. The bays and roof, of steel and timber framework, are clad with horizontal strips of western red cedar boarding, their lightweight galvanised construction contrasting with the solidity of the rendered blockwork of the lower floors of the building.

Individual flats have been organised so that they have separate kitchens with sliding panels to living/dining areas which allow spaces to be combined if required. On the north side the living room, kitchen and bedroom to the top flat have ceilings which follow the pitch of the roof, lit with a series of patent-glazed rooflights.

A grant from the Old Town Renewal Trust has been used to commission a work by the artist John Creed. The metalwork inscription, following the tradition of carved lintels over the doorways of the Old Town, is set in the web of the main beam over the colonnade.



Old Town Housing Association


Richard Murphy Architects

Richard Murphy, Will Tunnell, Ian Strakis


Pottie Wilson


Wren & Bell


Robert Rollo & Sons


blockwork Thermalite, windows Rationel Domus Crittall Homelight and Corporate 2000 precast concrete floor planks Bison, precast sills Stirling Precast Doors Carrs, steel frame and balustrades McDonald & Ross, intumescent paint Nullifire

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