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Planners back Richard Murphy’s alternative Calton Hill plans

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Richard Murphy Architects’ rival vision for Edinburgh’s landmark Royal High School has been approved by planners – but an existing contract with the city council prevents any immediate construction

The proposals are being billed as a ‘viable alternative’ to Hoskins Architects’ controversial £75 million hotel redevelopment plans for the disused 1829 masterpiece overlooking the Scottish capital, which planners narrowly rejected last December. 

Murphy’s scheme, which won unanimous approval, was drawn up with conservation specialist Simpson & Brown and proposes transforming the Category A-listed Thomas Hamilton-designed building into a new home for St Mary’s Music School.

A report by planners (see pdf below) described Murphy’s proposals as ‘sensitively designed’ and a ‘measured reuse’. Council officials said: ‘We welcome not only the proposed restoration and repairs to the listed building(s) on the site, but also the design of the new school accommodation blocks that, by their scale and positioning, firmly retain the primacy of the Hamilton building on the site.’

The report added that the plans ‘would make a potentially valuable contribution to the city’s cultural infrastructure’. 

Murphy’s rival scheme would create a new 300-seat concert hall in the former Royal High School debating chamber, with a new foyer beneath and a publicly accessible garden. It is backed by the Royal High School Preservation Trust.

The trust’s chairman, William Gray Muir, said: ‘The former Royal High School is pivotal to Edinburgh’s World Heritage Status and our plans are designed to celebrate, conserve and enhance the site for the people of Edinburgh. By making it home to St Mary’s Music School we also hope to reinforce musical education at the heart of the city’s cultural heritage.

‘This is a wonderful opportunity to transform a building at risk into a dynamic asset for students, residents, visitors to the city, educational and cultural organisations and the creative sector as a whole.’

However, Duddingston House Properties and the Urbanist Group, the backers of Hoskins’ proposals, have lodged an appeal against the rejection, which is expected to be heard in November.

Duddingston House Properties won a council-led competition to transform the Neoclassical building in 2010 but the established contract, which the AJ understands will remain in place until 2022, is subject to planning permission being granted. 

The contract means that, while Richard Murphy’s plans have been approved, construction will not start on the music hall until the existing agreement with Duddingston has been negotiated, or terminated. 

Despite this, Muir told the AJ he had seen ‘contradictory’ accounts of what the contract entails, from both Duddingston and the council. 

He said: ‘The hotel developer is refusing to release the contract, so we really have no idea what is in that contract. We simply don’t know what the truth is, and if Duddingston House were prepared to release the contract it would make it a lot clearer.’

Muir added that the council had extended planning consent for the music school to seven years from the usual three, meaning that it would still be valid until mid-2023.

He said: ‘We are prepared to sit this out for the long run. We hope that Duddingston House would not hold this crucial piece of our heritage to ransom and would accept there is now a scheme that has been unanimously approved by the planning committee, which is very popular with the people of Edinburgh … we would urge them to allow us to start taking that forward.’

The Royal High School

The Royal High School has not been in public use since 1968. Built on Calton Hill in 1829, it is one of Edinburgh’s most imposing landmarks. A number of proposals for the school have fallen by the wayside, including plans to move the Scottish Assembly into the building in the 1970s and a more recent scheme for a £20 million National Photography Centre.

Old Royal High School

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Congratulations to Richard Murphy Architects and Simpson & Brown, and thank goodness for common sense and enlightenment.

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  • It is a rarity these days for an architect to invest time and skill at risk, with the motive of saving a masterpiece of heritage and improving cultural facilities. A double credit to Richard Murphy. Let us hope his proposal finds a financial backer.

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