Edinburgh arts quarter faces Argyle House headache

Argyle House, with Edinburgh Castle in the background. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Argyle House, with Edinburgh Castle in the background. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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PLANS for a multi-million pound new arts quarter overlooking Edinburgh Castle are facing major stumbling blocks over calls to save a “Brutalist” era building facing demolition to make way for the project.

Property experts have revealed that Edinburgh City Council faces major red-tape headaches in pursuing such a scheme on the site of Argyle House because of a long-term lease on the building, which is currently lying empty.

The unlisted building in the West Port area, long regarded by critics as one of the worst eyesores in the city centre, would have to be demolished under a new cultural blueprint for Edinburgh, which was revealed at the weekend.

A new home for both the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Filmhouse cinema have been suggested for the new culture quarter, one of four proposed by the city council to help kickstart economic development across the city.

Riccardo Marini, the city council’s design leader, who has led efforts to draw up the new blueprint, told The Scotsman that Argyle House “totally destroys” the area and had to go if the plans for the new culture quarter were to be realised.

The Cockburn Association, the city’s main heritage watchdog, had previously described Argyle House as one of the worst of the capital’s “charmless” 1960s office developments.

But officials at the city’s main heritage body have signalled a rethink by saying it is one of the best examples of the “Brutalist” era, which ran from the 1950s to the 1970s, and was a building to be cherished rather than demolished.

It is expected to oppose any plans to demolish the building and lead efforts to have its architectural heritage protected with a listing by Historic Scotland.

The council has suggested that the city should be learning lessons from the Speirs Locks area of Glasgow, where a former industrial bond has just become its latest arts centre, the Whisky Bond.

The Cockburn’s assistant director, Euan Leitch, said there had already been efforts to have the building listed in the past.

He added: “Perhaps Argyle House could be Edinburgh’s Whisky Bond?

“West Port has fast become architecturally anodyne, Edinburgh’s baseline.”

The Cockburn has won backing from one of the city’s leading architects, Malcolm Fraser, who said it should be celebrated for its “solidity and austerity”.

Mr Leitch added: “Previous generations thought that the Georgian Barracks on Edinburgh Castle were a monstrosity and that Victorian architecture was vulgar - we don’t need to repeat their mistakes.

“Argyle House is imminently suitable for re-use rather than replaced by some bland nonenity of a building.”

Mr Fraser, who helped convert John Knox House on the Canongate into the Scottish Storytelling Centre, said an important principle was at stake over Argyle House over the retention of “good solid buildings” in Edinburgh.

He added: “We should not be demolishing them to make way for modern less-solid buildings, we should be looking to re-use them. Argyle House opens up this area and lets light into it at the moment.”

However Mr Marini said: “This could be a really interesting area, linking Castle Terrace with the Grassmarket and the West Port, but Argyle House just kills the whole place. It is just a very egotistical building.”

The West Port area is one of four in the city centre the council has proposed earmarking for new culture clusters, with the others at Potterrow, Fountainbridge and Picardy Place.

They have been revealed following a summit of senior figures across the arts sector in the capital called to help generate ideas for new cultural buildings.