David Orr, co-founder and chairman of Urbanist Group on why the vision of the architect takes precedence
What kind of schemes are you currently working on and where have you come from?
We’re working with the City of Edinburgh to realise the shared ambition to see Thomas Hamilton’s Royal High School returned to sustainable use and regain rightful prominence as an exceptional building in the city. Outside of the UK the Urbanist Group has also been working within a world heritage setting in Amsterdam - a similarly important project but at an earlier stage.
I co-founded a start-up in 1995 out of a small office in Edinburgh’s St Andrew Square. This led to the creation of a new hotel brand, Mint Hotels which created 1,700 jobs across seven cities including two hotels in central London and one in central Amsterdam. As owner, operator and developer I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to work with some of Britain’s best architects.
You have had the Calton Hill site [with Gareth Hoskins Architects] for some years – why have you decided to press the go button now?
The vision for this hotel was Bruce Hare’s of Duddingston House Properties (DHP); it was brilliant and we formed a partnership 18 months ago to secure the most forward-looking of the global luxury hotel brands.
Given the long-term lack of consistent or sustainable use for the building, there clearly had been no easy answers [previously]. So despite the banking crisis that engulfed Scotland’s banks we put together a viable but challenging case, limiting the scale desired to ensure we could enhance and improve the setting through appropriate design solutions.
Given the importance of the RHS and its prominent site are you prepared for a heated and very public debate about the proposals?
There have been many attempts to bring the building into use. Sadly these have not produced a viable proposal from any sector - even in times of much more generous public funding.
After many years of disappointment the City of Edinburgh Council held an OJEU-compliant process in 2009/2010 that had 50 proposals and the vision of our joint venture partners, DHP, were appointed. Through 2013 we negotiated and secured funding and in early 2014 the agreement was ratified.
The opportunity for debate has never been absent
The opportunity for debate has never been absent. But the availability of a sustainable solution of wider benefit has been. I’m sure a number of people will not see our solution as perfect. However our public consultation process has shown overwhelming support and we remain focussed on restoring Hamilton’s brilliant building and bringing it into public use for the first time since it opened as a boys’ school in 1829.
We see this project as a spur to revitalise and improve the experience of the wider area, reducing anti-social behaviour, encouraging arts events and organisations and supporting local engagement. We’ve done this with all our previous projects.
What other precedents have you looked at for this scheme?
When I called up Harvey Nichols in 1997 and said: “You have to come to Edinburgh”, most people thought it over ambitious. Yet LaSalle and CDA delivered a great project that continues to encourage inward investment to Edinburgh. Our plans for the old Royal High School have the potential to do for Edinburgh hotels what Harvey Nichols’ department store did for retail in the city.
In terms of engagement and accessibility, we built next to Centraal Station in Amsterdam, a hotel with the largest panoramic roof garden in the city, generating enjoyment for many thousands of people.
In Edinburgh, by restoring public space throughout the Hamilton building, we’ll bring life and activity into spaces and offer some wonderful panoramas of the city to visitors and locals alike.
What do you want from an architect?
We’ve never worked with a ‘hotel’ architect. Instead we work with the best architects. We always look for a collaboration, but one where the vision of the architect takes precedence ultimately and we work together to deliver a building that works from all perspectives.
Are you currently looking for new talent and how do you find your architects?
Having been lucky enough to work with Rab Bennetts, Graeme Morrison and now Gareth Hoskins, it is always an inspiration to work with exceptional talent. I’m hoping in the next few years to continue to be equally fortunate.
As a developer what would you most like the government to do for you?
Continue to encourage visitation to Scotland and the British Isles and support through policy ongoing investment in the tourism and leisure sector. We’re effectively attracting and generating inward income, alongside visitor spend and wider economic benefits alongside creating and sustaining careers for local people.
Which of your projects is your favourite and why?
Amsterdam and Tower of London stand out because we were able to demonstrate just how accessible and localised hotels can be whilst also being buildings of great quality in important world relevant settings.
Which scheme by somebody else inspires you?
The British Museum is inspirational. A thriving institution which has, first with Foster + Partners then Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, embraced the need to modernise while being very clear-headed about how to retain and enhance or remove and improve.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
The older I get the more I understand why a phrase I associated with a difficult few years in early life makes increasing sense: Spartam nactus es Hanc Exorna [roughly You Were Born With Talents: Develop them].
Urbanist Group: ‘We work with the best architects’