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Double whammy for Balfour Stewart House

September 25 2008

Double whammy for Balfour Stewart House
Further to refusal of an earlier proposal to redevelop Balfour Stewart House in Edinburgh’s West Murrayfield conservation area comes a second application for demolition from Rumney Manor Ltd and SMC Hugh Martin Architects. 

Historic Scotland are however minded to list the former United Distillers Headquarters, designed by Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshal & Partners (RMJM), saying: “It is an important office building design heralding new architectural ideals of the burgeoning Post-Modern period of the early 1980’s in Scotland, flowing on from the great drive in university and college building of the 1960s and 1970s. When this building was designed, smooth stone cladding was being reintroduced as an important stylistic element in design, and gridded towers recalled the architectural language of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It is thus linked to a national revival in the same spirit as Alvar Alto’s later architecture. “

Defenders of the building point to the opulent specification of materials used, including large panes of blond York stone, bronze finished aluminium window frames, lavish Perlato Sicilia marble entrance paving and English oak details.  Upper floor spaces are pleasant with impressive views of south and west Edinburgh.

But the merits or otherwise of the building have split the architectural community.   Significant short comings related to limited natural light, poor sustainability, low floor to ceiling heights and obstructive structural columns have provided ample ammunition for sustained criticism and have rendered the present configuration un-lettable according to agents.

Maxwell Hutchinson of The Hutchinson Studio Architects launched a critique of the building, stating: “Balfour Stewart House is an initially seductive cosmetic work of architecture which, sadly, is critically flawed in execution.”   Hutchinson lambasts: “Turning into Ellersly Road the building already disappoints.  The clumsy corner entrance is inexplicably crammed into the north-east corner of the site.”

Criticism of the buildings internal plan is equally damning, Hutchinson scathes: “The entrance hall on the truncated corner is gloomy and claustrophobic with no obvious hint of the building’s internal special logic as, quite simply, there is none.”  The Mackintosh inspired stair towers elicit further opprobrium from Maxwell: “The whole concoction purports to be an ingenious structural system, all but invisible externally, which, following careful examination reveals it to be no more than an unnecessary cluttered stage set of clumsy details.”

The stairwells come in for further criticism internally with RIAS secretary Neil Baxter decrying that these are: “elaborately delineated by a metal scaffolding construction with cross-bracing and timber slat walkways and ladders.  The effect is overkill, a little too much architectural indulgence.”

The adoption of a 1.8m “tartan grid” plan to dictate the buildings internal spaces is regarded as “an interesting architectural discipline” by Baxter and furthermore allows for: “comfortable proportions in the buildings circulation and sizable office spaces within the upper level rooms.  However Neil couches this by saying: “…it is much less satisfactory in the large-plate office floors where, what should be open vistas, are punctuated by a forest of concrete columns.”

The lack of internal light is attacked by Baxter who riles: “…while entrenching the building into the hillside has achieved the desired effect of limiting its visibility within the locale, it also compromises much of the internal space rendering the large office floors dark and unattractive as working environments.”

The ultimate indictment perhaps is, as the planning document states: “The building does not appear in the book ‘Scotland’s 100 best new buildings’ published by Carnyx Group in 2000.”

Note:  Illustrated proposal represents the initial, refused, application.

Double whammy for Balfour Stewart House

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