A Polite Response: Allan Murray Architects conforms to the demands of Edinburgh’s planners with the multi-faceted Hotel Missoni, says Penny Lewis. Photography by Keith Hunter
Edinburgh, the UNESCO World Heritage Site that doubles as the capital city of Scotland, is hamstrung by its cultural heritage and under constant scrutiny from the world’s self-appointed cultural guardians. Part of Edinburgh’s glory is that the buildings of the Old Town appear to rise up from the rock, growing and shifting.
You can literally read the history of urban development and architectural style in its streets. Much of the city’s Victorian and 20th-century development appears to overlay its predecessors, rather than replace them. And the architects and masons of each successive layer have often claimed that their intervention is the most authentic expression of the essential character of the city. Some of the best new buildings produced in the past 20 years take the city’s slowly accumulated layers as a source of inspiration.
However, even Patrick Geddes, the father of ‘conservative surgery’, might be shocked to see how the conservation of Edinburgh’s fabric now trumps local democracy, and has given rise to a highly conservative architectural culture. Historic cities can provide the context for great new buildings, but for Edinburgh’s architects, conservation appears to have been an overbearing restraint for some time. If architects operate, as critic Robert Maxwell has suggested, within a dynamic framework that constantly incorporates both the past and the future, Edinburgh appears to have abandoned the dialectic.
The new Hotel Missoni, designed by Allan Murray Architects with Milanese brand and interior designer Matteo Thun and Partners, must be understood in this context. It is notoriously difficult to gain planning permission in Edinburgh, but practice director Allan Murray has a track record of this. He has a real skill for thinking about the city in three dimensions, combined with a grasp of what makes development viable. Over the last decade, Murray has picked up commissions for the St James’ Centre, Cowgate and Fountainbridge. However, he has also suffered at the hands of the city’s protracted planning process. His longstanding Caltongate masterplan went cold after developer Mountgrange entered administration.This blow followed several years of public consultation, an inquiry and criticism from UNESCO.
The 129-room Hotel Missoni sits on one of the Old Town’s most important sites – the corner of the Royal Mile between St Giles’ Cathedral and Edinburgh Castle. This is the point at which the Royal Mile narrows and extends upwards, climbing towards the castle’s esplanade. It’s an area of intense architectural character, heavily populated by tourists and purveyors of ‘tartan tat’. There is a two-storey fall across the site, giving rise to access points and public routes at a variety of levels.
The site was previously occupied by the Midlothian County Council office by RMJM. Back in the early 1960s, RMJM co-founder Robert Matthew criticised a Beaux Arts proposal for the plot and argued that the site deserved a building that was ‘truly representative of the 20th century’. He later won the commission, and the office was completed in 1970. But in 2007, everything above ground was demolished to make way for Hotel Missoni. While Allan Murray Architects put forward a fairly convincing case for why Matthew’s office was difficult to convert into a hotel, it’s also true that Edinburgh’s enthusiasm for its architectural heritage rarely extends to concrete structures built in the post-war period. Many have welcomed the fact that this new, polite, sandstone building has replaced Matthew’s more assertive ‘modernist monstrosity’.
Hotel Missoni provides frontages to three Edinburgh streets: the Lawnmarket, George IV Bridge and Victoria Street. The Lawnmarket is medieval, with some Victorian and Edwardian interventions. George IV Bridge is a broad street housing a mix of 19th and 20th-century institutional buildings, dominated at its far end by the 1999 Museum of Scotland extension by Benson + Forsyth. Victoria Street is a Victorian improvement street cut with a romantic sweep through the grain of the medieval town, linking the High Street and the Grassmarket. Murray’s approach to the site’s incredible context is essentially an eclectic one, responding to each elevation in turn. Each facade is designed to respond to its neighbours.
The Lawnmarket elevation takes its lead from the extruded character of its neighbours, and references the medieval tradition of timber cantilevers stepping out over the street. The George IV Bridge elevation is broken into three classical pavilions, and has a starkness and proportion of solid wall that echoes the inter-war National Library nearby, while the Victoria Street elevation reinstates the curve of the terrace, reinforcing the canyon-like quality of the street.
Hotel Missoni’s general massing is pragmatic. Rather than mimicking the existing roofscape – a collection of pitched roofs and steep gables – Murray takes wall heads and chimney stacks as his reference point, extending gables up beyond the line of the eaves to create flat roof terraces. It’s hard to criticise the logic of the external form – everything can be justified as being derived from historic forms or construction techniques.
The building conforms to contemporary planning and design conventions. It sits comfortably in relation to the character of the place, and the mass is broken down to reflect the organic development of the surrounding buildings. It has mixed uses at ground level, and the scheme reinstates some original public vennels into and through the site, and creates places for people to stop and rest. The only thing that makes it, as Matthew might say, of the 21st century, is that it looks like a framed building with stone cladding.
When Murray talks about the design process, it is clear that the approach adopted by Matthew in the 1960s (to create a singular contemporary building) was not an option. In passing, Murray suggests that Matthew fundamentally misread the character of the place, producing a monolithic block with deep horizontal bands of glazing – a move that undermined the essentially vertical character of the Royal Mile. However, looking at Hans Snoek’s black and white photographs of the office in Miles Glendinning’s Modern Architect: The Life and Times of Robert Matthew (RIBA Publishing, 2008), it’s hard to share Murray’s conviction. Much could be learned from the assertiveness of Matthew’s approach.
Similarly, there is a generosity in Matthew’s ground-floor plan which is lacking in the new building. At ground level, much of the hotel plot is given over to two restaurant franchises and a Bank of Scotland. No amount of zigzag fabric or quirky ceramics can make up for a lack of space and a serious public stair. The route from front door to room is not sufficiently different from the budget hotel experience to justify the description ‘luxury’.
Hotel Missoni’s weaknesses are compounded by the fact that the client (a joint venture between hotel developer Rezidor and fashion house Missoni) seems to have limited enthusiasm for the architectural issues thrown up by the commissioning of a hotel. Matteo Thun and Partners is given a much higher profile in the hotel’s marketing than the architect; all the bling and iconography is on the inside, while the external shell is conformist.
This is not an argument for the retention of the Matthew building, but for a more creative balance between context and programme. Matthew’s original building was unquestionably an office, but at Hotel Missoni the function of the building and its programme takes second place to the exterior envelope. The contemporary needs of the users and the consideration of what makes a spectacular hotel have not been given the same weight as the need to satisfy the planners and the conservation bodies.
Start on site: September 2006 for demolition and May 2007 for main works
Contract duration: 10 months for demolition and 24 months for main works
Gross internal floor area: 11,720m2
Form of contract: traditional contract for demolition and two-stage design and build for main works
Total cost: £29,780,000
Cost per m2: £2,540
Client: Mound Property Company
Architect: Allan Murray Architects
Structural engineer: SKM Anthony Hunt
M&E consultant: RPS Gregory
Quantity surveyor: Arcadis AYH
Planning supervisor: Kirk and Marsh
Main contractor: Sir Robert McAlpine
Annual CO2 emissions: Not supplied