How did the process of planning a new future for Edinburgh’s former Royal High School turn into a train-wreck? Colin Marrs reports
In 2010, Edinburgh City Council announced that it had selected a development team including Gareth Hoskins Architects to convert the historic former Royal High School on Calton Hill into a hotel.
The decision, which the then council leader Jenny Dawe described as ‘a hugely exciting development for one of Edinburgh’s, and Scotland’s, best-loved landmarks’, seemed to mark the end of a 42-year struggle to find a permanent use for Thomas Hamilton’s A-listed 1820s Neoclassical gem.
Yet seven and a half years later in August 2017, the council’s planning committee unanimously rejected a second planning application submitted for the site by the council’s chosen partners – Duddingston House Properties and Urbanist Hotels. During the decision meeting, planning convenor Lewis Ritchie said: ‘Speaking quite plainly, I think that this building and this design is one of the most abhorrent and the most ugly buildings that I have ever seen.’
So how did these much-heralded plans of 2010 turn into such a train wreck? It is a tale of rivalry and rancour that lays bare the debate about how best Edinburgh’s historic, architectural landscape should evolve in line with the development challenges of the modern world.
Why is the Calton Hill site so contentious?
Superlatives abound in relation to the former Royal High School and its setting. In the 18th century Benjamin Franklin’s business partner, David ‘Davey’ Hall, is said to have described the view from Calton Hill as the finest anywhere in the world.
The Royal High School Preservation Trust, set up just two years ago effectively to combat the Hoskins plans, is barely less effusive, saying: ‘Unquestionably the High School is one of the greatest buildings of the Scottish Enlightenment. It therefore ranks as one of the great buildings of Europe.’
Hamilton’s Category A-listed school – which has stood largely empty since 1968 – is one of a number of buildings, along with the dramatic castle, Sir Walter Scott Monument and Palace of Holyrood, which led to the city’s Old and New Towns being handed World Heritage Site status in 1995. Awarding body UNESCO describes the contrast between the two as providing ‘a clarity of urban structure unrivalled in Europe’.
In addition, the site has possessed great political symbolism since the building was prepared for use as a home for a Scottish Assembly in the run-up to the (unsuccessful) 1979 Scottish Devolution Referendum. During the successful second referendum of 1997, it was assumed a new parliament would be based at the building. However, a 1998 article in the Herald claimed that First Minister Donald Dewar opted for Holyrood because the view from Calton Hill had become a ‘nationalist shibboleth’.
Anyone who has tried to do anything with the site since, therefore, has understandably found themselves coming under intense scrutiny.
Gareth hoskins sketch
What did Duddingston House and Hoskins want to do with the building?
After the developers signed the council’s contract, it was not until 2015 that Hoskins unveiled its first proposals for the site.
The indicative plans, which went out to public pre-application consultation, proposed two new Neoclassical rectangular stone and glass wings at each side of the existing building. These colonnaded additions – described as ‘referential’ in relation to the school’s form – were necessary to make the building stack up economically, as space was limited in the original structure, which would be largely left intact under the proposal.
However, the plans didn’t go down well with the city’s conservationist lobby. One campaigner, David Black, lodged a 36-page dossier with UNESCO, attacking Hoskins for a number of his Edinburgh schemes, including the National Museum of Scotland, which won a number of awards. Black’s invective was savage. He wrote: ‘It is as a Godzilla of the urban realm that Hoskins seems to be making his mark in Edinburgh. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to think of a more unfortunate mismatch between an architect and a restoration project.’
UNESCO adviser Susan Denyer was similarly dismissive of Hoskins’ initial proposals. She said: ‘This is what might be called a rather single-focused plan which is being put forward, which delivers economic benefit – but not the wider benefits that are needed.’
How did the plans change – and why, despite the revisions, have they continued to cause such consternation?
Despite laughing off Black’s criticisms, Hoskins returned to the drawing board. In September 2015, a significantly reworked design was submitted to the City of Edinburgh Council for planning.
The scheme still included two wings, but their design was now ‘organic’, with materials intended to help the structures blend into the hill behind. Hoskins described the new wings as a series of ‘landscaped terraces’ with ‘undulating copper façades inspired by the layered, volcanic landscape’.
Gareth hoskins second design sept 2015 (2)
Early responses seemed positive. Former RIAS president Gordon Murray praised the designs. Meanwhile a report by design watchdog Architecture and Design Scotland welcomed the ‘preparedness of the project team and client to listen and respond to a host of views and to engage in dialogue in a very meaningful way’ and said that ‘the architecture [was] clearly a sophisticated response to the site’s sensitive context’.
However, the heritage lobby was scathing, with Historical Environment Scotland commenting: ‘The harm to the setting and character of the building would be considerable, it being impossible to view and appreciate Hamilton’s masterpiece, either by itself or in context, without the oversized extensions taking precedence.’
The plans were narrowly turned down at a council meeting in December 2015, the proposals being rejected by just one vote.
Less than a month later, the project was hit by the unexpected death of Gareth Hoskins, aged just 48, from a heart attack. The tragedy occasioned a pause for reflection.
Later in 2016 the practice returned with proposals that reduced the number of rooms by 20 to 127 and scaled back the size of the wings.
Urbanist Hotels chairman David Orr says: ‘Our revised scheme pulled back any material interventions into the building. We were not destroying heritage fabric. We took a studiously light touch.’
But conservationists remained unmoved. Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, the charity which champions the World Heritage Site, says: ‘[The developers] have taken down [this proposal] from giant to very large. At no point in the current application process have they talked us, in spite of offers.’
With membership of the committee significantly changed after May’s local elections – the Conservatives overtook Labour as the second-largest party at city level behind the SNP – last month’s development control subcommittee rejected the revised plans unanimously.
What are the rival proposals for the music school and who is behind them?
Richard murphy rival proposal elevated exterior from east min
In April 2015, as a reaction to the first planning application, conservationists had created a new organisation to fight for the preservation of the school. It quickly secured a multi-million pound donation from the city’s philanthropic Dunard Fund to draw up alternative plans for the site. The plans would see the relocation of the city’s St Mary’s Music School to the site.
St Mary’s headmaster Kenneth Taylor says: ‘We had been looking at expanding in 2015 when this plan came to light. A high-profile location would make the school more visible in Britain and internationally. The building would allow us to have performance spaces in a new venue, which we don’t have at the moment.’ Without preferred bidder status or council backing, the plans, designed by Richard Murphy Architects, were granted planning permission in August 2016.
The approval infuriated Orr. He claims Murphy’s proposals would cause greater permanent harm to the structure of the original building than his scheme, were it to go ahead.
The Duddingston House team even commissioned Arup to show that the rival music school plans would cause ‘irreversible damage to the landmark’.
Orr continues: ‘It seems that a group of people have come up with a proposal they think is better, and have put something together rather than by entering a competition, as we did.’
What happens next?
Despite the council’s refusal of the applications, the hotel developer is still in a contract – the details of which have not been revealed – with the council until 2022. It is understood the contract is still valid if a planning application for the site is live.
The developer has announced it will appeal against the recent refusal and also told the AJ it was looking to simultaneously pursue the appeal against the council’s first refusal.
Orr says: ‘In line with our contractual agreement with City of Edinburgh Council, we remain wholly committed to delivering an outstanding scheme for the old Royal High School, reviving a building that has been allowed to slip into a state of disrepair and neglect for nearly 50 years.
‘We fully recognise the importance of Hamilton’s Old Royal High School Building on a national level, and our revised proposals guarantee the future of Hamilton’s masterpiece, both architecturally and financially.’
The heritage lobby may have wished Duddingston House would quietly disappear, but from Orr’s bullish comments to the AJ, that seems unlikely.
Meanwhile, the music school gatecrashers and local conservationists wait on the sidelines and Hamilton’s masterpiece slowly rots. It remains to be seen whether Edinburgh’s heritage lobby can force a more conservative approach in the next iteration of Duddingston’s designs.
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1825 Thomas Hamilton publishes a sketch of the proposed building on council land at Calton Hill as an etching. Foundation stone laid in July.
1829 The school officially opens, and is described in The Scotsman as ‘one of the most classical and perfect edifices to be seen in Europe’.
1968 The school site is closed after pupils transfer to larger new premises in Barnton.
1971 Planning permission is granted for an abortive scheme to use the building as an arts and cultural centre.
1977 Alterations are carried out to prepare the building for a potential Scottish Assembly.
1997 Calton Hill loses out to Holyrood as the site of the new Scottish Parliament.
2001 Plans to turn the former school into a National Photography Centre are unveiled. The plans fail to raise the £21 million cost of conversion and are abandoned eight years later.
2009 Edinburgh City Council launches the competition to find a new use for the building.
2010 Duddingston House Properties and Urbanist Hotels, with Hoskins Architects, wins a council contest, selected ahead of the likes of Richard Murphy and LDN Architects. Practice founder Gareth Hoskins admits his victorious scheme is ‘the more controversial in planning terms’.
2015 Hoskins finally reveals his first designs for the ‘super-sensitive’ site in February. The concept features large, almost Neoclassical wings. Conservation group Edinburgh World Heritage brands the proposals ‘over-development’ . In response the Royal High School Preservation Trust comes up with rival plans, drawn up by Richard Murphy, and offers to buy the site for £1.5 million.
2015 Hoskins fundamentally redesigns the proposals. However, these more ‘organic’ plans are narrowly refused in December.
2016 In January, Gareth Hoskins dies aged 48 following a heart attack
2016 Appeal submitted in March. Murphy’s rival plans are approved five months later.
2017 Hoskins submits new, scaled-back designs. These plans are also refused – this time unanimously.