The Athens of the North

In the nomination dossier for Edinburgh to join the list of UNESCO world heritage sites, the Old Royal High School was described as ‘The noblest monument of the Scottish Revival: and perhaps the single building which most justified Edinburgh’s epithet Athens of the North’.

Here is one image of what it will look like if plans to convert it to a ‘six star hotel’ housing up to 300 guests go ahead.

The future of the Old Royal High School?

The future of the Old Royal High School?

There is a huge story underway about development in Edinburgh, and it’s not just about protecting the Old Royal High School, or other historic spaces and buildings: arguably, it’s about a way of life.

There was real anger at a meeting in late February organised by the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland on the future of the Old Royal High School , when at least 300 people turned out. It saw comparisons to 40 years ago, when the removal of two sides of George Square for concrete tower blocks caused a huge backlash that is said by some to saved the New Town from wholesale development by modernist urban planners.

“This is not an Edinburgh storm in a teacup. It is an international scandal,” declared Professor David Walker OBE, former chief inspector of historic buildings at Historic Scotland.

There were appearances by by leading conservation figures in Britain making the case the Old Royal High School is one of the great European examples of neo-classical architecture ranked alongside those in Milan or Berlin.

The issue however maybe much wider. Here’s a second image of a current development in Edinburgh, an artist’s impression of the Standard Life building, now under construction in St Andrew’s Square.

Standard Life building, St Andrew's Square

Standard Life building, St Andrew’s Square

Last year, Frank Ross, Edinburgh City Council’s economy convener, said that 34 development sites in the city are under consideration, as noted in The Times, in its February 28th report on “Athens of the north under siege from ‘architectural philistines’, It is hard to escape the impression that the forces that have arguably seen the transformation of London, are here in earnest.

The Guardian recently carried the report of David Black arguing the city should be stripped of its UNESCO World Heritage status. Meanwhile this site shows the “Edinburgh 12”, which apparently are the leading sites that have been pushed for redevelopment by the city council since 2013, including the Old Royal High School and Haymarket.

This tiny website won’t do anything to sway the debate, but it’s an arts and heritage issue I care deeply about as an Edinburgh resident so I’ll try to post some of the relevant resources.

The plans for the Old Royal High School are shown from above, on the developer’s website, and give a pretty clear idea of their scale.

At the AHSS meeting neither the developer or the architect, or anyone from Edinburgh City Council, either the local representative or on the committees that will take the key decisions, responded to an invitation to join the speakers, and the local MP said he was busy with his surgery.

However David Orr, of the Urbanist Group, which worked on the city’s Harvey Nichols department store, and with Duddingston House Properties agreed a 125-year lease with the council in 2010, stood up to speak at the end of the meeting, though there was no opportunity for him to take questions.

He began: “I’m from Glenncairn Crescent, I’m 52 years old, I love this city very much indeed. And I believe passionately also that we need to address a shameful, hidden in full view, disgrace on Calton Hill for over 47 years. ”

“We are here to do something that we think is responsible. We are here to do something that we think is of benefit to the outstanding universal value of Edinburgh, not a detractor to it, so we think that it is personally reasonable for us to make that case and indeed to be completely questionable. ”

The Times observed that today the key decisions on Edinburgh’s built heritage, once the province of the great names of architecture, “are made by companies whose names will mean little or nothing to most of Edinburgh’s citizens, and whose executives rarely if ever appear in public.”

One of the buildings in the Edinburgh 12 is India Buildings, on Victoria Street. The owner has been kind enough to allow the Warburton Gallery to operate there, pending its conversion to a 267-bedroom upscale hotel, again with a big box on the back of it, and a “stunning entrance lobby” on the buildings facing Victoria Street, one the most charming in the city, which has until now escaped the attentions of chain stores.

The proposals for the India Buildings note that Edinburgh has one of the highest RevPARs, or revenue per available room, in Europe. It says: “British Hospitality Trends and Development 2012 have predicted a 23% increase in the value of Edinburgh hotels between 2012 and 2016, the 2nd highest in the UK after Birmingham. It is expected that this will be driven by the increasing value of 4- and 5-star hotels in the city.”

Perhaps this says something about the priorities of the current wave of building. An architect friend suggests that to maintain the structure of the city, a far better solution would mixed use for different businesses, which keeps a vibrancy and variety alive.

In the audience was a Sottish tourist guide, Jane Roy. She spoke briefly of the statistics she had read in Edinburgh Tourism Action Group’s latest Business Report, which suggested that nearly 80 percent of visitors came to Edinburgh for its architectural heritage.

People don’t come , she said, for our climate, or our cuisine. It’s architecture we have to offer. “They come to Edinburgh to see our wonderful buildings. Now we are welcoming these visitors by building an enormous number of hotels all over the city centre, most of which are pretty poor architecture. Do we want them to have a city which is full of mundane hotels and then we apologize to the visitors who come here, who come to admire our architecture, ‘we are terribly sorry but the hotel you are in is actually on top of what you came to see’.”

I’m lucky enough to live in central Edinburgh, and I work as a freelance writer, which means I spend more time walking Edinburgh’s streets than most people. I particularly love the views from Arthur’s Seat, looking down on the Old Town, and especially the view towards Calton Hill, the Old Royal High School, and the monuments above it.

It is striking that Edinburgh remains one of the few cities whose skyline is still defined not by high rises but by steeples, monuments, and castles. The low-rise footprint of the city that you see from Arthur’s Seat is being changed – dramatically, around Edinburgh University, for example – but it is still remarkably similar to the maps and pictures by 18th and 19th Century cartographers and artists who made their way up here.

As a journalist I’ll work to keep a balanced view on current developments in the city, though for anyone who loves Scotland’s capital and it’s history that’s a little hard. I ‘live tweeted’ the meeting, for the first time in my life, and as auld media playing with new media you can struggle to keep the balance.

From afar there seems a growing sense that Londoners have lost control of planning in parts of their city, to developments that are heavily marketed to the wealthiest buyers, often from overseas, while prices drive ordinary Londoners far out of central districts. Edinburgh has kept the flavour of a living, breathing local community; but we don’t have lots of different neighbourhoods to carve up.

There’s an old joke, with a large grain of truth, that stuffy Edinburghers leave the city during the August festivals to make the rental money off their homes and flats. But perhaps that’s a better solution than building an extra 12,000 hotel spaces in the city, as is planned.

The key factor if the building is to be saved will be finding any realistic alternative uses or conversions, or a hotel plan that is more acceptable. Suggestions have included a school, a museum – of Edinburgh’s architectural history, for example – or a space preserved for use in a variety of events.