Why it’s time to accept Dunard Concert Hall plan is a turkey – John McLellan

An artist's impression of the interior of the St Andrew Square concert hall
An artist's impression of the interior of the St Andrew Square concert hall
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The current Dunard Concert Hall plan has been paused amid a legal challenge that could force some tough choices to be made, writes John McLellan.

When the Dunard Concert Hall came before the city council’s planning committee, its team insisted that all alternative sites for a new home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra had been explored and only the St Andrew Square option was suitable.

Where those sites were, or what criteria had been used to rule out other locations, was never fully explained. We can surmise that they included an available plot with a willing landowner, in this case the Royal Bank of Scotland, good public transport links, a city centre location to maximise audiences, and proximity to the SCO’s current Queen’s Hall HQ for the regulars.

We can also presume the problems – a very tight site, difficult ground conditions, limited access for services and strict regulations about alterations and extensions to listed buildings – were not deemed enough to outweigh the positives.

READ MORE: Edinburgh’s £45m concert hall backers exploring alternative sites as project paused

And indeed the competition to design the hall threw up concepts which tried to address the kind of challenges such a sensitive location presented. However, the board chose the dramatic vision of celebrity architect Sir David Chipperfield, with his giant concrete drum rising above the Grade A listed Dundas House, but to the dismay of the new St James Centre developers blotting out the view they had been expecting down George Street from their five-star hotel.

I doubt many readers will have much sympathy with the St James Centre about the loss of a view from a hotel which doesn’t yet exist, but the many architects and designers who wrestle with the problems of building in a World Heritage site were staggered that such a dramatic alteration to Dundas House, built from concrete not stone and which would put trucks up Multrees Walk, was given a ringing endorsement by planners and senior council officers and councillors alike, despite smashing through a host of council policies.

The St James Centre’s multi-million-dollar investment organisation Nuveen was never going to take this lying down, especially after a row with the council over late changes to the Picardy Place junction, and as reported yesterday their application for a judicial review of the planning process has ground the concert hall project to a halt.

Should they be successful – and as noted here previously insiders believe there is a very good chance they will – the wrangle could go on for years with the potential for the council to face compensation claims running into millions. No wonder the council is said to be looking for a way out.

And lo and behold, the concert hall team has confirmed that other options are being explored, presumably including those sites and designs which were previously rejected. The concept developed by Richard Murphy Architects is still on the company website, a scheme which doesn’t present the same problems for Dundas House or St James as the Chipperfield vision, no doubt because Edinburgh-based Murphy is used to dealing with the kind of objections city centre developments usually generate.

Not for the first time this year, the Council has serious questions to ask about the way it handles projects in which it has a stake, and answers are awaited about how the vast Christmas Market labyrinth went ahead without planning permission.

The “pause” in the concert hall programme will add to costs already said to be double the original £45m budget. But there is no more public money because of competing projects in the City Deal of which it is part, so the Dunard charity is expected to cough up. That cough could turn into financial pneumonia because Dunard can’t just write a cheque for the best part of £50m while bankrolling the Royal High Music School plan and many of the International Festival’s high-profile productions.

The council’s mediation with Nuveen must surely mean the Dunard board making tough choices. The toughest, and at Christmas the most appropriate, might be to accept that the Chipperfield vision is a turkey.