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Holyrood – A success story

14 Jun 2005

“In the foul disease-ridden atmosphere, on the muddy paving and down those dark, dank, horrid lanes or closes which lead to revolting slums, slithering down stepless ramps towards the ravines on either side of the Canongate, one is gripped by the terrible poverty of Scotland.”

The congested squalor so vividly documented in this quotation by Jules Verne was home to a lively assortment of Edinburgh citizens. Every Old Town close accommodated an eclectic cross-section of society; In 1752 Bull’s Close was home to three room sitters, two writers, a vintner, an advocate, an apothecary, three merchants, a weaver, a glazier, a teacher, a tailor, two ale sellers, a wright and a gentleman‚ Lady Falconer of Mountaine, Gibson of Cliftonhall, Lord Milton (the Lord Justice-Clerk) and Commissioner Undy.

The fortunes of the Canongate have fluctuated over the centuries but now, some 250 years later, we can again find a similarly vibrant mix within the Holyrood North Site.
Development Services Partnership (DSP), with John C Hope as masterplanner, have shepherded some 21 projects to completion and brought people from all walks of life back into the Old Town. This special feature acknowledges the achievement of the many committed companies and talented individuals involved in this major urban renewal project shaped by Lethaby’s assertion that: “Towns and Civilisation are two words for nearly one thing; the City is the manifestation of spirit and its population is the larger body it builds for its soul.”

Edinburgh’s Holyrood North Site demonstrates the social, economic and architectural benefits of bold, creative masterplanning. Forward-thinking cities, such as Berlin and Boston, have already implemented significant urban renewal programmes within sensitive historic environments. However, the transformation of this once neglected and marginalised area into a vibrant urban quarter is perhaps Scotland’s most notable regeneration project of the late 20th century.This was confirmed recently when the Holyrood North Site was recognised as Overall Winner in the Scottish Awards for Quality in Planning. Presenting the award was Dr Beckstein (Bavarian Minister for Planning) and Malcolm Chisholm (MSP and Communities Minister), who reminded us that: “Good planning, design and construction really can change people’s lives. The regeneration project at the Canongate displays quality in management, sustainable development and regeneration.”

The City of Edinburgh Council collected the award itself but the credit really belongs to John C Hope and Frank Spratt (DSP), whose commitment to quality is evident in the executive summary‚ which formed part of their original competition-winning submission. “Our ambitions for the Holyrood Brewery North Site fall into three categories. We want, first and foremost, to contribute buildings of lasting interest and quality to Edinburgh. We want the forms of these buildings to be appropriate to the site. And we want to attract a diversity of end-users to the site, involving smaller, local businesses and individuals in a way that is rarely possible on projects of this size and importance.
“Social and economic factors have given us the Old Town as we know it today, and are therefore at the heart of our proposal to extend it: for the buildings to work, they have to work for their end-users on many levels, financial, social and architecturally. We have produced a scheme that satisfies immediate and long-term needs in equal measure. Invading the delicate structure of the Old Town requires an awareness of how it has been shaped by its historic population densities and patterns. Our proposal balances this sensitivity to the site with impeccable planning and management skills, placing good design in a context of innovative and responsible management,” said the summary.
The original sponsors of the Holyrood North Site competition asked for “one of the most attractive and exciting environments for living, relaxing, working and visiting that can be found anywhere in the world.” This laudable ambition has been realised in part. There are one or two mediocre buildings that slipped through before Donald Dewar selected Holyrood as the preferred site for the new Parliament however. One can only speculate on how different things might have been had the location of the Parliament been known at the time of the original masterplan. Cities change or they perish; the success of the Holyrood North Site development lies in a subtle appreciation of its historic context, combined with a genuine commitment to contemporary design.

The Holyrood North Site forms part of the former William Younger/Scottish & Newcastle plc Holyrood Brewery, which closed in 1986. Located within the ancient Canongate Burgh (established in 1128 by King David I) at the foot of the Royal Mile, it is close to both Holyrood Palace and the new Scottish Parliament building. The site covers approx 4.5 acres and is located within Edinburgh’s historic Old Town, now a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site. DSP with John C Hope (JCH) as masterplanner, won the open competition for the site in 1993. The decision to appoint DSP/JCH was neither easy nor obvious; rival schemes offered what appeared a more commercially attractive ‘tabula rasa’ approach which would scape away the site and start afresh. The DSP/JCH vision, however, proposed the recreation of the characteristically eclectic mix of the city’s vibrant Old Town. The primary move established a variety of individual plots with a diverse mix of accommodation use, including residential, hotel, retail and leisure facilities along with 66,000 sq ft of office space. The model allowed for appropriate buildings to be restored, the remnants of the mediaeval close pattern to be reawakened and the creation of new urban forms compatible with the complex demands of contemporary living.

This reinterpretation of an historic blueprint‚ led to the juxtaposition of old buildings (including a 17th century tenement, the former brewhouse and the 1936 clocktower) adjacent to striking contemporary work from some of Scotland’s leading architects, including Richard Murphy Architects, E + F MacLachlan, Campbell + Arnott and Malcolm Fraser Architects. Perhaps the signature building in the overall development is the Tun which encapsulates the dynamic integration of old and new and now houses BBC Scotland, European Parliament and Scottish Enterprise.

The Holyrood North Site collected a Dynamic Place Award, in 2002. Obviously a dramatic transformation of the Holyrood area has occurred since the decision to build the parliament at Holyrood, but the masterplan for the North site was established before Donald Dewar’s historic announcement. Many hope that this happy coincidence will be emblematic of a sustained national renewal rather than a mere chimera.

Mark Cousins surveys the main buildings on the Holyrood North and assesses their impact on the project as a whole.

The Scottish Poetry Library
by Malcolm Fraser Architects
Several artists have been closely involved in the realisation of this project and their contribution hints at the interconnectedness of language, landscape and building: Mary Bourne’s carpet of leaves refers to Patrick Geddes’ “by leaves we live” axiom, Liz Ogilvie’s key words are predominantly of the landscape, while Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Green Waters tapestry poem is a rhythm of fishing boat names, connecting first to our maritime landscape and, through the names, to stellar and romantic associations.

Stone and blue glazed brick elements signal the entrance, embracing and revealing, while the granite lectern gives a focus to the courtyard reading area, floating on a ‘carpet’ of oak leaves carved into the Caithness flagstones. The building has oak infill panels and sliding oak shutters which close up at night. Inside, the space possesses intimacy within openness and is enveloped by a continuous bookcase datum, with study carrels sited adjacent to the glazed arrow-slits of the old stone wall. The architects eulogise about an Elysian grove, a place where enlightenment is achieved through poetry.

The sloping site is exploited to form a basement plant, storage, kitchen and toilets area. The mezzanine contains ancillary uses, such as the members’ reading room, periodicals area and children’s reading area. The light shelf and ceiling reflect sunlight into the interior and three glazed roundels in the roof plane allow the sun to track across the floor, while picking out key words from Scottish poetry etched on to the mezzanine’s glass balustrade.

Architecture can be seen as a poetic utterance, a joyous metaphor comprising light, rhythm, colour and texture. This modest building exploits history, both literally (the historic walls to the north and east) and metaphorically (the rich cultural resource of Scottish poetry) to create an engine for cultural renewal rather than a dry container for historical documents.

The Tun
By Allan Murray Architects
This project has generated considerable interest since it was awarded first prize in an invited competition at the beginning of 1998. The proposal combines the comprehensive reconstruction of the former five-storey East Tun brewery building together with a bold new addition, clad in pre-patinated copper and glass. The Tun is essentially one long building – approximately 88m long by 11m wide – fusing old and new.

The original East Tun echoes the fishbone’ pattern of the Royal Mile and dates from the turn of the century. Although unlisted, its robust facade of red brick with buff quoins is retained as a vestigial reminder of the area’s industrial heritage. The new-build element, however, offers a dramatic contrast and comprises a new seven-storey section (plus basement) fronting Holyrood Road.

The Holyrood Road facade is fully glazed, canted at five degrees and skewed from ground to fourth floor level, reinforcing the prominence of the building and the boldness of its design. Office accommodation occupies the upper floors and the client, Whiteburn Holyrood Ltd, has secured several prestigious tenants, including Scottish & Newcastle, which operates the Tun Bar & Kitchen.

The Tun has been conceived and designed as one building, albeit with a number of different but complementary uses. The project received a Mention from the Civic Trust and secured the BCO Award for best commercial workplace in both Scotland and the UK. “The Tun will not only impact positively on the Old Town landscape, but it will also stand as a symbol of the new political landscape here in Scotland,” said Sir David Steel, Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament at its formal opening.

The Clocktower
by Allan Murray Architects
This important regeneration project utilises one of the last surviving fragments of the original Scottish & Newcastle brewery complex. The conversion of this redundant building acts as a suitable foil for the adjacent Tun building, indeed, both projects share the same client and design team. New accommodation includes a unique loft apartment, a restaurant and an expansive urban piazza.

The distinctive south elevation of the Clocktower (Scottish & Newcastle’s original yeast house) employs large stone crenellations in faux mediaeval style that are grafted on to a red brick industrial box. The proposals respect the eccentricities and fundamental symmetry of the original building and help reinforce its role as an urban marker‚ for the entire site.

Pizza Express has now fitted out the ground and first floor, although a large section of the first floor was demolished to create a dramatic double-height space overlooking the new public square. Views into and out of the restaurant are enhanced by the introduction of a new glazed box following the part removal of the existing random rubble stone wall. The scheme incorporates a contemporary transparent clockface and external materials appropriate to the robust nature of the original building, including pre-weathered zinc. The new piazza also employs quality finishes including Caithness slabs and granite cubes throughout and incorporates a new public art element to commemorate the key figures behind the Holyrood North Site project.

Morgan Court
By Ungless + Latimer Architects

In 1994 Ungless + Latimer Architects, then a recently established practice, was invited to prepare proposals for Plot ‘O’ comprising student accommodation with a supermarket on the ground floor. The south facade (facing on to Holyrood Road) is treated as a city wall‚ and provides a definite boundary to the Old Town. The building acts as a bookend to the overall North Site development and signals its western edge. The city wall imagery (split-face blocks with banded sections to suggest rustication effect) echoes the robust qualities of the Canongate area. However, the gable end of the long west block breaches the city wall and projects on to Holyrood Road. Certainly the punchy orange render catches the eye, but the relatively small windows seem somewhat parsimonious given the dramatic views south to Salisbury Crags.

An entrance court above the supermarket leads to two staircases with four floors of flatted student accommodation. The court is seen as the focus of social activity, allowing for chance encounters and engendering a sense of community. The mix includes three-, four- and five-bedroom flats providing some 95 student bedrooms in total. Lightweight access balconies bridge between the east and west blocks and facilitate long views from the courtyard behind. The bridges form a tracery‚ supported by a masonry gantry, echoing the industrial nature of the area. The detailing of these galvanised steel elements has been carefully considered and emphasises the importance placed on the public realm. Sadly, Ungless + Latimer Architects has now folded, but Morgan Court stands as a fitting testament to the architects’ ambition to create an appropriate edge building.

Canongate Housing
By Richard Murphy Architects
The project sits on the site of the former archway building to the Holyrood Brewery on the south side of Canongate. The new building consists of a shop at street level with nine flats above. The original scheme envisaged a communal roof garden and greenhouse but fire regulations forced these elements to be abandoned. The design consequently switched to emphasis an agglomeration of mono-pitched roof forms suggesting a series of roofed rooms‚ like small independent buildings on the Edinburgh skyline.

Its elevation treatment makes explicit references to other buildings in the Old Town which have to a large extent disappeared and been replaced by Victorian (or later) successors; in particular, colonnades at ground level, external staircases, windows frequently arranged as horizontal galleries, and an ad hoc quality to the general appearance. Upper stories were often cantilevered and frequently of timber construction – see Thomas Begbie’s celebrated photograph of the Canongate. References to such indigenous architectural characteristics have been made in the design, but given a contemporary twist.

Site constraints included the protected view from the Royal Mile to the Scottish Poetry Library and the need to preserve privacy. The south-facing, upper level flats have stunning views to Salisbury Crags and the building makes a bold contemporary statement within the heterogeneous development of the Holyrood North Site.

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