St James Centre

St James Centre
12 February 2007

The St James Centre was completed in 1973 as part of a scheme replacing a Georgian square in Edinburgh’s New Town. St James Square was originally laid out by James Craig in the late 18th century. But by 1965, its buildings had so deteriorated that the Scotland Office and Edinburgh city corporation gave the go-ahead for the area to be cleared and redeveloped, leaving only St Mary’s Cathedral.

Designed for a competition in 1964 by Ian Burke & Martin, it comprised an indoor shopping centre, an office block (New St Andrew’s House), a hotel (King James) and a multistorey car park. The plan was not universally welcomed and faced a campaign against it, led by the Cockburn Association; this continued for the nine years it took for the concrete megastructure to be built.

The precinct has, however, been popular with shoppers and remains so, even with competition from more recent retail developments, such as the nearby outpost of Harvey Nichols. The hotel has become a Thistle but the asbestos-ridden office block, renamed St James House, lies empty.

Not dissimilar to many others in city centres across Britain, the complex is widely seen as dated. Since its construction in the 1970s, the only notable change to the structure has been the replacement of the link across Leith Street with a glass cylindrical bridge by Broadway Malyan, connecting the shopping centre with the new Calton Square development.1

In 2002, the St James Centre polled 34% of the vote in a survey carried out by the Scotsman to identify the worst architectural eyesore in Scotland.2 A similar poll the following year, conducted UK-wide by Country Life magazine, put the shopping centre within their readers’ top 10 most disliked buildings.3

The president of RIBA, George Ferguson, nominated the complex in 2004 for his proposed X list of buildings needing to be demolished or redeveloped. The same year, Tom Ponton, a city councillor and member of Edinburgh’s planning committee, was similarly disparaging. Speaking to the Evening News, he said: “Planning officials and elected members of the day have to take a lot of blame for it. It’s criminal that they were allowed to build it.”

The paper also quoted David McDonald of the Cockburn Association, which remains opposed to the complex.

It’s an intrusion on the city skyline from so many angles and is probably the worst building in Edinburgh in terms of its setting. Considering its location in the historic setting of the New Town, it really is a poisoned area that needs to be surgically removed from the city.4

The site was bought at the end of 2005 by the Northern Irish investor, Donegall Place Investments, who despite a request from the council, announced they had no intention of redeveloping it. Donegall sold the site, however, after just five months to Henderson Global Investors (HGI), the London-based owners of Glasgow’s Buchanan Galleries and Birmingham’s Bullring.

HGI have since commissioned a new masterplan for the St James Centre by Building Design Partnership ? known for Liverpool’s Paradise Project ? and Edinburgh’s Allan Murray Architects. If planning permission is granted for the £850m scheme, demoilition of the 1970s shopping centre could begin in 2010. (Last edited: 20 May 2008)

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