Edinburgh’s new concert hall a victory for pragmatism – John McLellan

Edinburgh’s new concert hall will be made from concrete despite previous concerns over the wrong type of limestone in the New Town, writes John McLellan.

An artist's impression of the new concert hall to be build in Edinburgh's New Town
An artist's impression of the new concert hall to be build in Edinburgh's New Town

Award-winning architect Sir David Chipperfield was the epitome of urbane composure on Wednesday as he explained why his design for a concert hall behind St Andrew Square in Edinburgh was a fitting adornment to Edinburgh’s World Heritage site, and earlier the conservation lobby had nothing but praise for his vision.

With only the occasional twitch of exasperation at having to explain himself to some sceptical councillors, Sir David calmly explained his concept, particularly why concrete was an appropriate material for a historic district built primarily in stone and protected, until Wednesday at least, by very clear policies.

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Concrete, he pointed out, was a “stone-like” material and would be of such a high quality that it was entirely appropriate for a site of this importance and the planning councillors who approved the application agreed. It may not be the same sort of concrete as the now demolished New St Andrew’s House, but the anger of the St James Centre developers who had to jump through hoops to win approval for the use of limestone imported from Germany to meet the requirement for stone is understandable.

By contrast it is hard to understand the volte face by the World Heritage Trust and the Cockburn Association, and indeed the council’s own officers, from four years ago when the opposition to limestone was vehement to this week’s enthusiasm for Sir David’s crushed stone and cement creation.

In 2015, the Cockburn Association director at the time, Marion Williams, castigated limestone as “alien” and Edinburgh World Heritage trustee Jim McDonald warned limestone would “detract from the outstanding universal value” of the New Town which conflicted “in both appearance and provenance from the established character”.

And earlier this year, the Cockburn Association opposed the redesign of the Waverley Market, which raised the roof height by a couple of feet, on the basis it would destroy the view of the Old Town from Princes Street, yet this week gave the thumbs up to a mighty concrete drum which will rise behind the A-listed Dundas House.

So too have the concert hall’s problems with access been all but disregarded, which will result in trucks driving through what were supposed to be primarily pedestrianised streets and the potential for articulated vehicles to block the tram line on St Andrew Square. There is little room for manoeuvre on a site this small and the height was needed because the only way to accommodate enough people to make it economically viable was to build up.

The inability to reach agreement with the St James Centre developers has produced compromises which would ordinarily have resulted in refusal and what Wednesday’s decision boiled down to was that while the materials, size and access issues were acknowledged they were outweighed by the cultural benefits the concert hall will bring.

On balance, that was probably the right decision, but pragmatism has rarely been the hallmark of the conservation lobby, or indeed much of the council’s planning processes in recent years. For example, the St James Centre’s argument that only a German limestone quarry was able to supply the vast amount of stone needed and sandstone from a number of quarries would produce a patchwork, was rejected in the official reports. It was only because a majority of councillors sided with the developers that it was approved.

Can Edinburgh look forward to more pragmatism in the future? With a plan for Scotland’s first Hyatt Regency Hotel in a marina development at Granton hitting the buffers on technicalities at the same meeting, don’t bet on it.

The return of Ruth

Along with thousands of others, the European election polling cards arrived yesterday, the general view in our house being “are we really going to have to vote in this?” Our franchise will be executed as always, but while I don’t have any polling evidence to support the claim I suspect we are not alone in lacking enthusiasm for this one.

I’ve lost count of the number of people who have asked me why the Government can’t just get on with Brexit, as if I have any more insight than even the 650 MPs whose job it is to get on with it, but the political attrition on the public is I’m sure evidenced in the Survation poll for the Scotland in Union campaign this week which showed from an online sample of over 1,000 Scottish voters that 34 per cent do not want another Scottish independence referendum.

Going into this weekend’s SNP conference in Edinburgh, in declaring this week her intention to stage a referendum by 2021 if Britain leaves the EU, perhaps First Minister Nicola Sturgeon felt under irresistible pressure to throw the red meat of independence to the troops. Maybe so, but with that and the poll findings that 61 per cent would vote to stay in the UK, she has certainly given the Scottish Conservative conference in Aberdeen next weekend all the momentum it needed. And Ruth Davidson is back.

In memmory of Lyra McKee

The murder of journalist Lyra McKee by a Republican thug in Londonderry last week was at the forefront of thoughts at the Scottish Press Awards on Thursday night at Glasgow’s Doubletree Hotel. She was an “outstanding young woman” who pursued “hard yards in pursuit of the truth”, according to the Scottish Newspaper Society editors’ chairman Magnus Llewellin in his opening address.

Daily Record political editor David Clegg, a Northern Irishman himself, spoke movingly of the woman he’d got to know in the recent years and dedicated the Journalist of the Year award he lifted, for his exclusive on the allegations facing former-First Minister Alex Salmond, to her.

Over 400 people who attended the event were also entertained by veteran journalist, broadcaster and politician Dorothy-Grace Elder who was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award, decrying social media as a “parasite” on professional journalism and attacking “secret squirrel” communications officers and spin doctors. “Pass the boak bucket!” she said.

But perhaps realising that there were more than a few spin doctors in the audience (the event was sponsored by Clydesdale Bank, VisitScotland, Amazon, SGN, The Law Society of Scotland, The People’s Postcode Lottery, Johnnie Walker, Openreach, and Scottish Water) she quickly added “I’m talking about public expense. Private companies can do what they want”. Phew... glad you cleared that up, Dorothy-Grace.