Kirsten Carter McKee: Royal High School plans betray vision

The development fo the Old Royal High School site has been the subject of much debate. Picture: Neil Hanna
The development fo the Old Royal High School site has been the subject of much debate. Picture: Neil Hanna
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TO approve the proposed redevelopment of the Royal High School building on Calton Hill will fundamentally challenge the integrity of Edinburgh’s world heritage status by compromising the site’s outstanding universal values and severing the narrative of William Henry Playfair’s Third New Town.

Playfair’s early 19th-century urban layout of the Third New Town stretched from the back of the Canongate across Calton Hill and down to the (concurrently developing) Leith docks. This was intended to connect the city with the town of Leith, changing Edinburgh into a port town, which would open up improved trade links with the colonies and provide a defensive naval port against attacks from mainland Europe. The development of the Third New Town was therefore Edinburgh’s bid to become the second city of empire, and this imperial ambition is reflected in both the layout of the site (with its monuments to the great and the good of the British state and, particularly, the heroes of the Napoleonic wars), and the incorporation of the most modern concepts in British urban design, that of the urban picturesque.

Redevelopment will challenge the integrity of Edinburgh’s world heritage status

This concept is rooted in an early 19th-century value for the qualities of surprise and contrast in scale and setting to create dramatic urban compositions similar to those found in landscape paintings. It is these qualities that define some of the key values of the world heritage site today, that of the juxtaposition of the “peaks” in the Old and New Towns and the “trough” of the Waverley Valley, and the sense of drama created by this topography in the city landscape.

The placement of Thomas Hamilton’s 1829 Royal High School in Playfair’s Third New Town was a skilful expression of both imperial ambition and the urban picturesque. Hamilton understood that this school would be a crucible for future governors of Britain’s colonies, and the design needed both to reflect this and to complement Playfair’s overall scheme. In particular, Hamilton took heed of the insights of Playfair’s mentor, the architect William Stark, who had emphasised the need for the urban plan of Calton Hill, and any architecture placed upon it, to respond to the challenges and the opportunities presented by the hill’s topography. As the hill sat above the city, any development would be prominent, and should therefore be carefully thought out.

Stark’s ideas were crucial for the south side of Calton Hill, where the Royal High School now sits. The dramatic drop down to the back of the Canongate gives the illusion that the hill is much higher above the city than it is in reality – the summit is actually only around 20 metres (70ft) higher than the east end of Princes Street. Hamilton therefore had to design a piece of architecture that reflected the city’s grand imperial ambitions without dominating the topography of the site or undermining the illusion of scale in the landscape.

The success of his design for the Royal High School lies in allowing the natural topography of Calton Hill and the Waverley Valley to remain the dominant feature of the site, as Hamilton’s building is scaled and placed to enhance, rather than overwhelm, the hill. While the Royal High School is imposing, the building’s impact is greater than its actual footprint, as the sheer drop into the Waverley Valley enhances the illusion of the building’s size. The structure also tucks itself modestly along the contour of the hill, retaining a visual connection between the open landscape of Calton Hill and views to Arthur’s seat. This creates a sense of space and underlines the contrast between human ingenuity and natural beauty.

Sadly, the current proposals for large wings flanking Hamilton’s building seem to have overlooked Stark’s insights on the importance of modest scale on Calton Hill, and on the relationship of the hill and its buildings with the Waverley Valley and beyond. It is this play on scale, landscape and distance that makes Hamilton’s Greek revival high school of international importance, as his design makes this site prominent, rather than dominant in our city. To compromise this will serve only to undermine the authenticity and integrity of Edinburgh’s urban landscape and its status as an historic site of world renown. «

Dr Kirsten Carter McKee is an architectural historian, cultural landscape specialist and a research fellow of Edinburgh University