Royal High School – meeting of 24/02

The Old Royal High School, Edinburgh

Public Discussion organised by the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland 23rd February 2015

Presentation by Professor David Walker OBE, former Chief Inspector of Historic Buildings at Historic Scotland. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Scottish architecture and his research and papers formed the basis of the Dictionary of Scottish architects. He is one of the authors, with Colin McWilliam and John Gifford, of ‘The Buildings of Scotland : Edinburgh’, 1984.


Thomas Hamilton’s Royal High School was built, not without difficulty, in 1825-29 as a more centrally located replacement for the school of 1777 which still stands in Infirmary Street. Its monumental Neo-Greek design, elevated high above Regent Road, arises from two factors: firstly the ambitious 1822 decision to make Calton Hill the acropolis of Modern Athens by reproducing the Parthenon on its hilltop as the National Monument to the Napoleonic Wars; and secondly the Town Council’s offer of the lower southern slope of the hill as the only suitable location for the school within its gift. While the central portico, the flanking stoa-like colonnades and the subsidiary inward-facing temple blocks may seem primarily scenographic as much-augmented Edinburgh counterparts to the Athens propylaeum and the adjacent temple of Nike Apteros, the general arrangement and massing of the building was the outcome of a sophisticated but practical solution to the curved contours of the hillside and of Regent Road. To obtain sufficient level ground to provide the accommodation and outdoor area required Hamilton had to cut a shelf in the rock half-way up the site: on this he placed the single-storey parts of the building comprising the central assembly hall and the flanking library and rector’s classroom, both of which had windows only on the north so that the walls behind the colonnades could be blind as in Greek antiquity; and at the classroom blocks at the ends he gained a full basement floor where the hillside curves back east and west. These had to have windows, those at the upper level with pure Greek Vitruvian architrave frames. The massive substructure under the portico and colonnades is more than just retaining wall, the advanced podium of the portico screening the basement ‘necessaries’ as Hamilton tactfully described them, i.e. the lavatories and furnace chamber. Thus did Hamilton assemble a profoundly imaginative composition which respected antique precedent more than most and which has had no close parallel in Britain either before or since. The sheer scale of its monumental underbuilding and boundary walls and gates was unprecedented. Magnificent though they may be, the portico of William Wilkins’ University College London and Grange Park in Hampshire, of George Basevi’s Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and even Harvey Lonsdale Elmes’s St George’s Hall in Liverpool are all relatively low-rise. Even at an international level parallels are hard to find: designs for Greek buildings on massive elevated platforms do indeed exist but apart from Klenze’s Walhalla at Regensburg most remained on paper, as Schinkel put it of his own Orianda project, ‘nothing more than a beautiful dream.’
Here in Edinburgh Hamilton realised the dream of an architecture which would challenge comparison with Greek antiquity even though he knew it only at second-hand from Stuart and Revett and the watercolours of Hugh William Williams, solidly built in perfectly cut Craigleith sandstone and the dominant element in a whole group of outstanding Neo-Greek buildings in and around the hall: Archibald Elliot’s Waterloo Place and Regent Bridge approach; Playfair’s Observatory, Stewart Monument and the great sequence of monumental terrace blocks which encircle the eastern side of the hill; and Hamilton’s own Burns Monument close by his school, the whole forming a vast ensemble of urban landscape and classical architecture which has no parallel in Britain beyond London’s Regent’s Park. The issue facing us now is whether we are prepared to see not just the Royal High School but this whole townscape irrevocably ruined.
It is said that the preferred developer, his architect and the City of Edinburgh Council have all discounted Historic Scotland’s advice that the east and west elevations of the main building should not be encroached upon as lacking realism. It should have been as obvious to them as it is to us that the school cannot be seen as just the Regent Road façade. Separated from it the northern, western and eastern elevations and the rooms within them would still constitute a building which warranted an A-listing anywhere else: and in the wider context of not just the Calton Hill but the whole eastern area of the World Heritage Site it is not just a question of what would be seen looking up from Regent Road but what visitors to the hill will see looking down; what will be seen from the Canongate area of the Old Town and Holyrood Park; and what will be seen on the western approach from Waterloo Place, radically changing the setting of St Andrew’s House as well as the school and the hill.
Those within the City Council who have allowed the current scheme to reach this level of over-development seem either to have no sense of the cultural importance of what they possess or are completely indifferent to it. The Royal High School has been internationally known as a masterpiece of the Neoclassical genre at least since 1862 when James Ferguson illustrated it in his History of Modern Architecture, the first internationally based study of what then constituted modern. In terms of international importance it ranks higher than nearly all of Historic Scotland’s properties in care: built as a boys’ school, it may have only one really fine internal space rather than the great suites of magnificent interiors at the Signet Libraries, the Old College, the Royal College of Physicians and their English, Continental and American counterparts, but it is still probably the most highly valued building within the World Heritage Site. Sir Albert Richardson in his Monumental Architecture in Great Britain (1914) wrote that ‘Hamilton ordered his masses like a giant.’ In his Architecture in Britain 1530-1830 (1958) Sir John Summerson acknowledged that it is ‘a composition more picturesque and imaginative than anything of its kind south of the Border.’ Since that time other distinguished historians have taken much the same view, notably the American Henry Russell Hitchcock in Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (1958), the Frenchman Claude Mignot in Architecture of the Nineteenth Century (1983) and J. Mordaunt Crook in The Greek Revival (1972), still the only comprehensive review of British Neo-Greek in which he included more illustrations of the Royal High School than of anything else.
This is not an Edinburgh storm in a teacup. It is an international scandal. That the architect is award-winning might be relevant in relation to a building of much lesser importance but not here. It is a question of how much international embarrassment the City of Edinburgh Council – and in turn Scotland as a nation – is prepared to countenance to secure a commercial fix to the long-running indecision on the future of this building when a proper cultural use should have been found for it.



Presentation by Susan Denyer, Secretary ICOMOS-UK and World Heritage Adviser, ICOMOS1

I would like to consider how the Old Royal High School relates to the wider urban landscape of Edinburgh, and particularly to the World Heritage site, and then to offer a few thoughts on how decisions on its future might be made.

A few pictures from the UNESCO web site sum up the extraordinary gravitas and presence of the city of Edinburgh that has been acknowledged, by its World Heritage status, as being of international importance. World Heritage Sites are inscribed because they are deemed to have Outstanding Universal Value (OUV). This means that they are part of the ‘world heritage of mankind as a whole’ and deserve ‘protection & transmission to future generations’.

OUV is a value and relates in turn to very specific attributes that convey that value. This does not mean that everything about the city must be preserved but rather those aspects or attributes that convey its OUV.

OUV is identified by the World Heritage Committee at the time of inscription. For the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh, its OUV is about the extraordinary juxtaposition and contrast between the clearly articulated planning of the Old and the New Towns in architectural terms, the clarity of its urban structures that are seen to be unrivalled in Europe, the way the New Town is the most extensive example of neo-classical rationalist town planning anywhere in the world, and the high quality of the architecture that exerted a major influence on the development of urban architecture and town planning throughout Europe. And overlaying these physical attributes are associations with the Enlightenment: the way the urban landscape reflects ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment, a period in the 18th century when Edinburgh was the cultural leader of Europe and when its buildings were imbued with the spirit of intellectualism.

It was not just UNESCO that acknowledged and extolled these attributes – they were well articulated by those who wrote the nomination dossier and promoted its inscription on the World Heritage List. ‘Edinburgh is one of the greatest of European capital cities’ it stated and ‘Visually, intellectually and culturally her contributions to the wider culture of the world have been enormous. It is the purpose of this submission to outline what these contributions have been’ – as a place.

As well as those over-arching landscape aspects that conveys OUV, there are also three important specific characteristics that again emerge very clearly from the nomination dossier. First there are the tenement structures in both the Old and New Towns, (although tenement living is found all over Europe the scale and quality of those in Edinburgh are outstanding), secondly the range and quality of public buildings by a succession of accomplished architects, and thirdly the crucial importance of open spaces that link the built forms in the urban landscape. Both of these last two link to the Enlightenment – visual response to the spirit of learning – and both of these are relevant to this evening’s discussion and I will touch on them in a bit more detail.

First the public buildings: the nomination noted that ‘Some of the finest public and commercial monuments of the New-classical revival in Europe survive in the city’. The images show a few examples with which you will all be familiar: the Register House, the Royal Scottish Academy, the National Gallery and of course the Old Royal High School which is the reason we are here.

These distinguished buildings (not just the four shown but also the many others listed in the Nomination dossier) are in visual and architectural terms hugely important components of the overall urban landscape; they also display strong messages. As public buildings, individually and collectively, they reflect uses that provided or still provide public benefit, and they are evoke the spirit of intellectualism that pervaded the city. These building are significant for more than their built form: they are also significant for what they stand for.

So too are the open spaces that contribute to the urban landscape of the city: these are also a key factor in the way the city portrays ideas of the Enlightenment as a prosperous, affluent and above all a confident city.

The most dominant is the “great arena” of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley Valley that links the Old and New towns.

Equally important is Calton Hill which the nomination refers to as ‘Every bit as symbolic a location to Edinburgh as the Castle…’, and ‘Carefully laid out for picturesque effect… in Classical rather than military garb.’

Calton Hill brings together open space and the public buildings of the National Monument, the Observatory & Hopetown monument, and the Old Royal High School in one extraordinarily important ensemble. In the nomination dossier the Old Royal High School is described as ‘The noblest monument of the Scottish Revival: and perhaps the single building which most justified Edinburgh’s epithet Athens of the North’. Its design was conceived integrally with the design of the National Monument on the hill above.

Calton Hill reflects a remarkable group of young architects who dominated the scene from the 1820s: William Playfair, James Gillespie Graham and Thomas Hamilton who merged coherent classical concepts of architecture with landscape.

The nomination dossier makes one further important point in relation to the ensembles they worked on such as Calton Hill. It stresses how these ‘reflect not only the architects but the ambition of the Councillors who controlled the city ……’. There was clearly an intention not only to establish the city as the Athens of the north but also as a worthy counterpart to the city of classical antiquity.

One of the key attributes of OUV is the way the city of Edinburgh reflects the spirit of the Enlightenment. Calton Hill as an ensemble is absolutely key to that attribute and within that ensemble the Old Royal High School is an essential component. The Old Royal High School must be seen as part of the ensemble of Calton Hill. It also must be understood as a public building – for it is not just its architecture but also its original use that reflects its links to Enlightenment thinking.

All of this brings into focus the issue of how decisions should be made to ensure development respects these extensive layers of significance that contribute to the OUV of the overall historic urban landscape.

World Heritage status should help not hinder this process. WHSs should be places where the OUV for which they were inscribed on the WH list becomes the starting point for development that reinforces cultural heritage. WHS status needs to be used to drive forward innovative thinking about how the city might develop.

Cities such as Edinburgh can managed mainly on the basis of protecting their key physical structures – individual buildings, groups of buildings and planning features. But such an approach on its own can often miss the complexity of such places and their inherent dynamism.

Over the past five to ten years, a new approach to management of towns and cities has been evolving that aims to encourage cities to see themselves as dynamic, historic urban landscapes rather than a collection of static buildings. This allows them to manage those landscapes to reflect social, cultural economic and other aspects of city life, based on an understanding of what it is that drives the development of the city and respecting its complexity and inner resilience.

And this is precisely the way World Heritage cities should to be perceived and managed through developing a vision for where the city wishes to go, setting out how get there through re-uniting social, cultural, economic, and political ideas, so that once again city planning is a powerful symbol of positive and enlightened ideas and ideals.

In Regensburg (Germany), part of the World Heritage site of the Old town of Regensburg with Stadtamhof, the municipality decided that its governance sys-tem could be improved by exchanging experiences and best practices with other heritage cities. Through a partnership with eight other European cities, Regens-burg developed and instituted a new management system that integrates city de-velopment and heritage.

The Historic Centre of Vienna (Austria), also a World Heritage site, has similarly structured its plan to foster cultural heritage and new architecture that strengthens the identity of the city and fosters its overall well-being. In 2009 Vienna produced a Dynamic Management Plan. Its Introduction acknowledges

that the existing laws and administrative levels in Vienna were sufficient: what was needed was to use them in different ways to foster dynamic approaches through an agreed Vision drawn up on the basis of consultation with a wide range of stakeholders.

The Old and New Towns of Edinburgh has Management plan which is detailed and supported by main partners. When this is next revised, the opportunity might perhaps be taken to make it more aspirational, through the drafting of an agreed, collaborative Vision that could be used to drive forward the city in a way that that integrates development and heritage, and could deliver confidence to decision makers.

To come back to the Old Royal High School: if the school is to be perceived as part of the designed ensemble Calton Hill, as a symbol of Edinburgh’s claim to be as important as Classical Athens, and as part of one of the fundamental attributes of the OUV of the historic urban landscape of Edinburgh, we need to ask if the current plans for the re-development of the School meet the following conditions.

Do they reinforce those layers of meaning and signal the extraordinary confidence of Edinburgh as the Athens of the north? Do they help an understanding of these themes within the wider landscape of the wider city?

Do they strengthen public understanding? Do they deliver social, cultural as well as economic benefit? Do they support OUV? In my view the answer to all of these is NO. And we should also ask whether it is acceptable to change one of the most important public buildings in Edinburgh to private use.

The Caltongate development was famously judged ‘Not horrendous enough to refuse’. Is this the way the Old Royal High should be judged? Surely for this extraordinary city there should be higher aspirations to deliver schemes that reinforce heritage assets and provide wide cultural and aesthetic as well as economic benefits.

There was great confidence in the writing of the World Heritage nomination dossier which seemed to hint at the opportunities that were offered to display Scottish culture through this great city, with its Enlightenment links, and its extraordinary array of Public Buildings, churches and houses, for greater public

benefit. Edinburgh’s outstanding historic urban landscape deserves a dynamic vision based on strong visual, cultural and intellectual engagement and development that supports rather than subtracts from its extraordinary assets, particularly the Old Royal High School.