An international design contest was launched today in a bid to produce a vision for a suitable replacement for the Ross Bandstand, in West Princes Street Gardens.
The historic arena, which dates back to 1877 and was last overhauled in 1935, hosts major events during the Edinburgh International Festival and over Hogmanay.
But last year it was branded “no longer fit for purpose” by Edinburgh City Council, after it agreed to join forces with a property tycoon who has offered to help bankroll a new year-round facility for the city.
Apex Hotels founder Norman Springford has pledged £5 million towards the project, which is expected to cost up to £25 million and open by 2020.
He has set up a new charitable trust to pursue the project, run the design competition and raise the remaining funding for the project, which is expected to help Edinburgh compete with Glasgow for major outdoor concerts in future.
Potential designers are also being asked to bring forward plans for a possible new visitor centre and garden in the gardens, as well as a restoration of the Ross Fountain and three shelters near the city’s famous floral clock.
The brief for the design competition, which seeks proposals for a “new landmark pavilion,” states that it must be capable of hosting a range of large to small-scale events. A winning design concept is expected to be announced ahead of the main Edinburgh Festival season getting underway this August.
Mr Springford, a former owner of the Edinburgh Playhouse, who is chairing the new Ross Development Trust, said a “blank canvas” was being offered to potential designers for a new bandstand, but stressed the importance of producing a suitable design for the setting.
He added: “A new bandstand would have to sit comfortably within the gardens. Its relationship to the castle and the wider environment are very important, but people can come up with anything they think is appropriate.”
The new bandstand is likely to need special permission from Holyrood before it can go ahead due to strict regulations over the creation of any new buildings in the gardens.
However the council, which warned last year that it could take up to three years to get the project underway, believes the planning process can now be fast-tracked after talks with the Scottish Government. Heritage groups have given their backing in principle to the project, which is likely to see the concrete steps in front of the bandstand replaced with grass banking.
Council culture leader Richard Lewis said: “We’re optimistic that securing any permissions we will need for the project will be relatively straightforward. This is a unique opportunity to reimagine one of the most stunning settings in Scotland.”
Edinburgh World Heritage director Adam Wilkinson said: “We’re very supportive of the initiative to improve the bandstand and the gardens. The competition provides the opportunity to undo some elements of the existing arrangements that detract from the remarkable landscape, such as the concrete bowl sitting right in the middle. The location raises the bar very high for new building elements to respect the characteristics of their surroundings while being beautiful in their own right.”
Marion Williams, director of the Cockburn Association, added: “We’re very much involved with the process and are happy with the direction things are going in.”
Al Thomson, director of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay producers Unique Events, said: “For 24 years we’ve transformed the bandstand into a world-class concert venue for the Hogmanay celebrations, presenting some of the world’s most prominent music artists, from Biffy Clyro and Calvin Harris, to Blondie and Paolo Nutini.
“The competition to transform the bandstand into a world-class arena is hugely exciting for the city in revitalising the area for future generations and continuing to attract international artists to perform here.”
Mark Mackie, managing director of Edinburgh-based promoters Regular Music said: “It’s brilliant news to get to this stage. The bandstand has sat for so long as an eyesore in the middle of the world’s most beautiful street.”
The Ross Bandstand is one of the best-known and historic landmarks in West Princes Street Gardens, which were created in the 1820s, following the draining of a loch built in the mid-15th century to strengthen Edinburgh Castle’s defences.
The park was originally for the exclusive use of the proprietors of Princes Street, who raised £7000 for their construction, unless you were prepared to pay as much as four guineas a year for a key.
The first public opening came in 1851 at the request of the Scottish Society for Suppressing Drunkenness, whose members believed the Gardens would tempt people away from the pub at Christmas and New Year.
The Gardens were eventually opened to the public in 1876 and have been in the care of councillors ever since. The following year a bandstand was built as a gift to the city by whisky tycoon William Henry Ross.
The original bandstand was replaced by the current building and terraced area in 1935. The Ross Theatre has had a central role in many of Edinburgh’s flagship festivals and events, including the annual fireworks concert, which has been running for more than 30 years, and the jazz festival’s annual free event, the biggest concert of its type in the UK.
A huge stage is installed in front of the bandstand for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations, which have been headlined by Calvin Harris, Madness, Scissor Sisters, Biffy Clyro and Simple Minds in recent years.
Orbital, Nick Cave, BB King, Tony Bennett, Franz Ferdinand, Bryan Ferry, Steve Earle, Joan Baez and Belle & Sebastian have also staged live concerts in the arena in the summer in modern times.
However the declining condition of the bandstand means it has become increasingly expensive to stage major shows there due to the need to bring in extra facilities. Efforts to find a replacement began in 2004 after the cancellation of the Hogmanay concert due to damage to the temporary stage structure.