Lothian regional council HQ

Lothian regional council HQ
12 February 2007

The Old Town is something of a centrepiece for the Scottish capital’s tourist industry. Its medieval streets with their characteristic tenements, some dating from 17th century, are considered among the most elegant in Britain.

With the Georgian New Town, it is part of a world heritage site, listed by Unesco since 1995. This does not mean, however, that Edinburgh’s Old Town is protected from change; in fact, a number of new developments have been proposed for the historic city centre. Many of these have been put in the hands of Allan Murray, a locally based architect who is little known elsewhere in the UK but has designed buildings in New York and Boston.

Some of Murray’s plans for Edinburgh have faced considerable criticism. For example, his Caltongate masterplan, linking the Old and New Towns, has caused controversy as listed buildings would need to be demolished before the scheme could be built.

Perhaps more surprisingly, his design for a hotel on the Royal Mile to replace a 1960s office block, frequently described as an eyesore, has also been widely criticised by Edinburgh’s heritage lobby.

The building on the corner of George IV Bridge and Lawnmarket was originally offices for the Midlothian county council, itself a redevelopment of the vernacular building previously on the site. Designed by Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners, it was built on a steel frame with distinctive rows of windows and concrete walls, responding differently to its three elevations.

After local government reorganisation in 1975, the building became the headquarters of the Lothian regional council, until another shakeup in 1996 passed it to the newly formed Edinburgh city council. More recently, it provided temporary offices for MSPs, but after the completion of the Scottish parliament in Holyrood, the building lay unused and boarded up.

Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS) bought the site for a reported £7m with the intention of redeveloping it; the council leader, Donald Anderson, is said to have insisted that the building’s demolition and replacement be a condition of its sale. Ruling out reuse of the structure, the bank, together with the Kilmartin property group, submitted plans in June 2005 for the replacement building designed by Murray, which they have named The Bridge.

The development will bring a branch of the Bank of Scotland to the Royal Mile and restaurants and shops to George IV Bridge, all underneath a five-star hotel with 136 bedrooms. Described by HBOS as “sympathetic yet contemporary”,1 the £34m project will replace the concrete of the existing structure with facades of stone, glass and timber. Vennels will be reintroduced through to a courtyard and a new arcade will lead on to Victoria Terrace.

Heritage and architecture groups were consulted on the planning application for HBOS’s scheme. Many of these were sorry that the Robert Matthew building needed to be got rid of. The Scottish Civic Trust even considered including it on their “buildings at risk” register.2

Historic Scotland would have preferred a development that reused the office block; it is, the group argued, Grade A-listed and by an eminent architect of its era.3

The Edinburgh Old Town Association suggested that refurbishing the existing building would also be a more environmentally friendly option, praising its design and describing its proposed replacement as just as “charmless” as a “container ship”.4

Others had strong objections to Allan Murray’s design which, they claimed, is not good enough for such a prominent position on the Royal Mile.

According to Architecture+Design Scotland, Murray’s design lacks “the coherence and rigour of its predecessor” and, more specifically, its elevation to George IV Bridge is “over-complex”.5 This view was shared by Lawrence Marshall, a city councillor, who said the facade “looks too much like a building out of Legoland”.6

Speaking at the time to the Evening News, Yvonne Holton, a planning assistant with the Cockburn Association, said: “A building of extremely high quality is demanded. In this respect the design falls short in a number of ways.”3 The association called for a competition to be held to find a better design.

Jane Jackson of the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust told the paper: “As a key part of the World Heritage Site we expect something that is outstanding, rather than acceptable because it is seen as an improvement on what’s there.”3

The design was altered after the consultation and the council approved the plans in December 2005 without seeking further advice. Many of the development’s opponents are, though, reported to be unconvinced by the modified design.

In an interview in Scotland on Sunday, Allan Murray responded to his critics saying: “I am either applauded or pilloried, but one thing we can’t do is run away from these important projects.”7

The Bridge is due to be finished sometime in 2008. (Last edited: 20 May 2008)

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