Councillors have been advised to turn down Hoskins Architects’ third attempt to convert Edinburgh’s Royal High School into a hotel
In a report to councillors, planners are recommending the refusal of scaled-back proposals for a 127-bedroom hotel, due to their impact on the Grade A-listed Royal High School building and the location’s World Heritage Site setting.
Earlier this year, the council’s development management subcommittee granted permission for a rival scheme by Richard Murphy Architects to provide a new home for the city’s St Mary’s Music School, backed by the Royal High School Preservation Trust.
Murphy’s scheme could conceivably be built if the council’s contract with developer Duddingston House – Hoskins Architects’ client – does not result in a viable scheme.
In its report recommending the rejection of the latest proposals by developer Duddingston House Properties and partner Urbanist hotels, planners said: ‘The former Royal High School is an architectural masterpiece and one of the most significant buildings in Scotland.
‘The proposed wings would have a significant adverse impact on the composition, integrity and special character of the listed building. The quantum of development is excessive and the design does not achieve the world-class architectural response required of this site.
‘The resulting harm caused by the proposed extensions significantly outweighs the economic benefit and benefit of bringing the building back into long-term use.’
A submission by heritage watchdog Historic Environment Scotland to the council said: ‘The site simply cannot absorb the level of development proposed without a significant adverse impact on the setting of the [Royal High School] Hamilton building.’
In 2010, the council itself chose Duddingston House’s proposals as the winner of a competition to select a preferred partner to bring the building back into use.
A fundamental rethink of the design approach in summer 2015 introduced two ‘organic’ wings splaying away from the Neoclassical former school building. This followed the scrapping of a contentious 160-room colonnaded addition that the practice had originally proposed (see AJ 06.02.15).
In December 2015, councillors narrowly rejected this revised proposal.
The alternative music school scheme was drawn up after a campaign by heritage lobbyists worried about the hotel proposals.
Referring to the rival Richard Murphy scheme, David Orr, chairman of Urbanist hotels, said: ‘It seems that a group of people have come up with a proposal they think is better, have put something together and sought permission rather than enter, for example, a competition.
‘This means they have not been through any of the process that was fundamental, by way of the competition, to establishing the basis for a contract to deliver the proposal.’
Alongside its current application, the developer submitted a report by Arup which claimed the Richard Murphy design – which involves the excavation of a new basement level - cannot be carried out without causing structural damage.
But planners defended their granting of permission for the music school scheme: ‘Whilst the basement area is of interest, alterations at this level would not have an adverse impact on the character of the Hamilton Building with the music school proposals protecting the Assembly Hall and making only minimal interventions to the external fabric of the Hamilton building.’
Orr, however, said that his new plans are ironically far less damaging that the heritage-backed Richard Murphy scheme.
He said: ‘Our revised scheme has pulled back any material interventions into the building. We are not destroying heritage fabric and we have a studiously light touch, the opposite of the destructive forces of the RHSPT scheme where demolition is front and centre of their access strategy.
‘That is an inconvenient truth for those whose lofty criticism of our conservation-led scheme does not involve recognising, either the reality of our appreciation of Hamilton his buildings, setting and vision, or indeed the true extent of the RHSPT demolition proposals.’
Glasgow-based architect Professor Alan Dunlop described the council’s approach to the site as ‘a debacle from the start’.
He said: ’I bet you that Duddingston House is desperately sorry it got involved with this project.
’They won the competition and employed what they thought was the right architect – who had been lauded for the National Museum of Scotland project. At the time they were selected, the council leader said it was an extraordinarily exciting project.’
Dunlop criticised the heritage lobby in Edinburgh for blocking high-quality new architecture in the city.
He said: ‘It is very hard to get anything with a flavour of modernism built without the usual suspects coming out with the mantra that it will cost Edinburgh its world heritage status. This seems to be just one of a number of projects that are suffering because of this stance.’
Councillors will vote on the hotel proposals next Thursday.
Richard Murphy Old Royal High School Edinburgh