William Chambers statue to be moved for plaza makeover

The statue of William Henry Playfair which is nearing completion. Picture: comp
The statue of William Henry Playfair which is nearing completion. Picture: comp
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A NEW performance space and a permanent tribute to one of Scotland’s most celebrated architects are to be created outside Scotland’s most popular visitor attraction to mark its 150th anniversary this summer.

An existing statue of the publisher William Chambers outside the National Museum of Scotland will be relocated this weekend in the first phase of the project to transform the area outside the building.

The monument to the 19th century Lord Provost will share pride of place outside the Victorian museum building with a new memorial to William Henry Playfair, the architect credited with earning Edinburgh its reputation as “the Athens of the North.”

Sandy Stoddart, one of the nation’s leading sculptors, has created the statue of Playfair, designer of the National Gallery of Scotland and Royal Scottish Academy buildings, who will be honoured more than 150 years after his death.

John Rhind’s statue of Chambers, which was erected in 1891, will be fully restored before being unveiled in its new home. The street will be closed from 12am on Sunday till 6am on Monday to allow it to be safely removed.

Museum chiefs, who are also due to unveil 10 new galleries in June as part of the official 150th anniversary celebrations, have long harboured ambitions to overhaul Chambers Street with a public plaza.

Director Gordon Rintoul previously complained that one of Britain’s finest Victorian buildings was “hemmed in by parking and the street is a cut-through for drivers.”

The £700,000 piazza has been designed by the leading architect Gareth Hoskins, who has also led efforts to transform the museum over the last decade, including creating two underground entrances in former storage spaces.

The project has been jointly funded by National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh City Council, which is responsible for the Chambers statue, and Edinburgh University, along with a number of private donations.

Nearly 40 car park spaces are being removed from Chambers Street to make way for a new pedestrianised area, which will be made available for festivals and events. However two lanes of traffic will be retained on the thoroughfare.

Dr Rintoul said: “All major cities have a quality public realm and the plans to redefine the use of the public space in Chambers Street will provide just that – an appropriate setting in keeping with the prominence of the buildings and a much enhanced public space for people to meet and enjoy events. This space will create a new focus for cultural activity in association with the museum and our many partners.”

Stoddart, appointed as the Queen’s official sculptor in Scotland in 2008, has been working on the Playfair statue for more than three years.

He said: “Far from being a ‘public art’ project, this work seems to commemorate a man who forged the appearance of a capital city according to its high reputation.

“Playfair really made Edinburgh, the Athens of the North, look like Athens, augmenting the fertile and picturesque natural setting of that famous city with architectural masterstrokes and subtle adornments.”

Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, principal of the university and chair of the Fringe Society Board, said: “William Henry Playfair, a distinguished alumnus of the university and great Enlightenment figure, created some of Edinburgh’s landmark buildings.

“Few architects have made such a far-reaching impact on an urban landscape, yet his work deserves to be more widely known.

“This new statue, close to one of his greatest endeavours – the re-design and completion of Old College – will provide a fitting tribute to his work.”

Lesley Hinds, the council’s transport leader, said: “We are pleased to working with National Museums Scotland and the university to help facilitate this project, which will vastly improve the area for visitors to the museum, as well as all those passing by.

“As we have found in other parts of the city, increasing and improving pedestrian space can have a really positive impact on its surroundings.

“I look forward to seeing the effects the widened and enhanced footway will have on the street’s striking architecture as well as encouraging events and performances to the space throughout the year.”