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Murray: 'The revised Calton Hill plans have all the right ingredients'

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Gordon Murray on why he thinks Hoskins Architects’ reworked but highly contentious proposal for Edinburgh’s Calton Hill has the making of a successful scheme

The new designs for the proposed hotel, within and around Thomas Hamilton’s former Royal High School, provide a lot to deliberate on and exhibit their own high degree of deliberation (see AJ 02.09.15). Any new vision for this magnificent building not only needs to ensure its stabilisation and restoration, but to be durable and capable of being sustained as a solid, long-term investment. 

So many publicly-funded projects have achieved the former but could not sustain the latter. Regeneration of this quality must be a long game.

In 1997 when the consortium I was part of, Glass Murray Architects/Denton Corker Marshall International, were runners up to Enric Miralles (EMBT/RMJM) in the design competition for the new Scottish Parliament we worked to understand the geology of the city of Edinburgh. 

We were so used to walking down the Canongate that we saw the site as an extension of the Old Town geology: John Hope’s wonderful Fishtail. Miralles, however captured the poetry of the landscape. Coleridge, when approaching the capital on the old east coast coach route, saw the city as hewn from the stone on which it stood, literally carved from the crags. Robert Louis Stevenson, when returning from the south-seas by steamer up the Forth of Forth, paints this evocative image of the landscape:

The tropic vanish and meseems that I,
From Halkerside, from topmost Allermuir,
Or steep Caerketton, dreaming gaze again.
Far set in fields and woods, the town I see
Spring gallant from the shallows of her smoke,
Cragged, spired, and turreted, her virgin fort
Beflagged. About, on seaward drooping hills,
New folds of city glitter.

The landscape and geology of the city is ever present. The Salisbury Crags, Calton Hill, the ancient volcano and lochan, the contrast with Fife, and the river, as its northern backdrop. The citizens of Edinburgh all sit comfortably in that landscape. The importance of the current proposals for the hotel within and around Thomas Hamilton’s Royal High School is the recognition that the new buildings become part of the landscape transforming the geology of Calton Hill, itself remodelled to accommodate the Royal High School as part of Hamilton’s overall vision. This major shift allows the High School the space and importance it deserves.

It reinforces its unique architecture. An architecture which in the context of Enlightenment Edinburgh is not modest-but never bombastic-using devices of scale and perspective to amplify its stature and impact as a metaphor for the city as a European intellectual and cultural centre.

The scale of these ‘geological’ extensions rise towards their ends, most pronounced as the building ends across from the equally magnificent St Andrews House. It’s birth also impeded by twenty years of controversy at the time of the proposed replacement of the Old Calton Prison. The absurdity no better encapsulated than in Tom Curr’s cartoon of 19th October 1930 in the Edinburgh Evening News.

However, here the new hotel building is totally in scale with the Thomas Tait building. This height not only acts as a northern gate post to Regent Terrace, it also marks the entrance to Calton Hill and the hotel itself. The proposed machair and facetted copper cladding of the external surfaces reflects the geology of the Crags to the south.

The new hotel building is totally in scale

Looking at the almost natural amphitheatre created by Calton Hill and these new buildings where Hamilton’s buildings sit as the manifestation of the city in miniature – the building in the landscape; reminiscent of a Palladio stage set as in Il Teatro Olimpico Vicenza.  It is also redolent of Gian Carlo di Carlo’s reorganisation of the terraced hillside in Urbino.

However, it is important that Hamilton’s original is recognised for what it is – a remnant of a glorious past unloved and forgotten by many but a major part of the fabric of Edinburgh. Part of this revitalisation and regeneration is to recognise both the historic and the contemporary and avoid conflating them.

The contemporary should be distinguishable as at [David Chipperfield’s] Neues Museum in Berlin or at Castelvecchio in Verona, where Carlo Scarpa clearly differentiates past and present. That approach is surely justifiable here.

In embracing Thomas Hamilton’s original Royal High School the contemporary architecture has a hard task remaining low key and a lot to live up to in quality but the ingredients are right and a fitting start has been made.

Gordon Murray, former RIAS president and partner at Ryder Architecture


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