Food for thought in Royal High plans

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The new designs for the proposed hotel, within and around Thomas Hamilton’s former Royal High School, provide a lot to deliberate on and exhibit their own high degree of deliberation.

Any new vision for this magnificent building not only needs to ensure its stabilisation and restoration, but needs to be durable and capable of being sustained as a solid, long-term investment.

So many publicly funded projects have achieved the former but could not sustain the latter. Regeneration of this quality is a long game.

In Edinburgh the landscape and geology of the city is ever present. The Salisbury Crags, Calton Hill, the ancient volcano and lochan, the contrast with Fife, and the river, as its northern backdrop.

The importance of the current proposals for the hotel within and around Thomas Hamilton’s Royal High School is the recognition that the new buildings become part of that landscape transforming the geology of Calton Hill, itself remodelled to accommodate the Royal High School as part of Hamilton’s overall vision.

This major shift allows the High School the space and importance it deserves. It reinforces its unique architecture, an architecture which in the context of Enlightenment Edinburgh is not modest – but never bombastic – using devices of scale and perspective to amplify its stature and impact as a metaphor for the city as a European intellectual and cultural centre.

The scale of these “geological” extensions rises towards their ends, most pronounced as the building ends across from the equally magnificent St Andrew’s House, its birth also impeded by 20 years of controversy at the time of the proposed replacement of the Old Calton Prison.

The absurdity was no better encapsulated than in Tom Curr’s cartoon of 19 
October, 1930 in the Edinburgh Evening News.

However, here the new hotel building is totally in scale with the Thomas Tait building. This height not only acts as a northern gate post to Regent Terrace, it also marks the entrance to Calton Hill and the hotel itself.

Looking at the almost natural amphitheatre created by Calton Hill and these new buildings Hamilton’s buildings sit as the manifestation of the city in miniature.

However, it is important that Hamilton’s original is recognised for what it is – a remnant of a glorious past unloved and forgotten by many but a major part of the fabric of Edinburgh.

Part of this revitalisation and regeneration is to recognise both the historic and the contemporary and avoid conflating them.

In embracing Thomas Hamilton’s original Royal High School the contemporary architecture proposed here has a hard task remaining low key and a lot to live up to in quality but the ingredients are right and a fitting start has been made.

(Prof) Gordon Murray