Perth City Hall reinvention should spark serious thinking about bringing empty landmarks back into use – Brian Ferguson

Of all the occasional thrills and spills involved in journalism, the chance to see inside somewhere normally closed to the public is still one of those I find the most intriguing.

Perth's new-look City Hall is expected to open to the public in 2024.
Perth's new-look City Hall is expected to open to the public in 2024.

This can sometimes involve a brand new building, such as Dundee’s V&A museum or Glasgow’s Hydro arena, either during the construction phase, or just before they are ready to open their doors.

But more often than not, my job has taken me into existing places that have been neglected, forgotten about or frankly seen better days.

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This can often be heartbreaking, such as my last visits to the Mackintosh Building at Glasgow School of Art after the first of those two devastating blazes.

The interior of the City Hall in Perth has been stripped out to make way for new displays and galleries.

It can, however, be inspiring, as was the case earlier this year, when I was shown around the former Royal High School on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill and heard about plans to reopen it to the public for the city’s Hidden Door festival, ahead of its long-awaited redevelopment into a national music centre.

It sometimes takes a major refurbishment or restoration for me to set foot inside a place I have somehow long neglected, such as the Burrell Collection in Glasgow.

While the gallery has been very much renewed and refreshed, it is a different story in Perth, where one of its most important cultural assets is being totally reinvented.

I rounded off a day in the Fair City last week with my first post-Covid event at the terrific Perth Concert Hall.

But its opening in 2005 did cast a huge doubt on the future of Perth’s City Hall, the nearby venue which had previously hosted pop and rock events, but was closed down the same year.

It would almost certainly have faced demolition to make way for a new civic square had it not for the objections of Historic Scotland. Perth City Council is probably pretty thankful now.

Work is well underway inside the building on the creation of one of Scotland's next big cultural projects. Culture leaders in the city are envisaging a heritage attraction taking shape in the building, where the Stone of Destiny will have pride of place after its reopening as a new national museum for Scotland.

Historic artefacts spanning centuries but all drawn from Perthshire will be brought together under the one roof for the first time under ambitions to effectively retell the story of Scotland.

Although the city will have to wait another two years for the project to be revealed, it will undoubtedly have a huge part to play in the post-Covid recovery of the city centre.

But as with the Royal High School in Edinburgh, the Perth project should also be provoking some serious thinking about realising the potential of other historic assets in our towns and cities.

The other day I had my head buried in Creative Scotland’s new climate emergency plan – a worthy, jargon-filled document lacking a detailed vision of what the cultural landscape of the future should look like.

While its very last recommendation was for a review of the “cultural estate” to be carried out at some point in the next two decades, I’d suggest urgent analysis of empty buildings is required the length and breadth of the country in order to find imaginative new uses for them.

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