Finding a new use for the Old Royal High School building on Calton Hill has been a major public controversy since the school vacated it in 1968. Widely seen by architectural historians as the finest Greek revival building in the city, it has been mothballed for most of the period since. Architectural historians have expressed dismay over the building's neglect.
Public controversy over the building was brought to a head with attempts to turn it into a hotel. This fed into wider concerns about public buildings being 'privatised' – as exemplified by Donaldson's Hospital. The hotel project was finally and unanimously rejected by councillors in 2017, having been vehemently opposed by heritage groups such as the Cockburn Association. Cockburn himself eulogised Calton Hill as a 'sacred mount' which ought to be 'solemnly adorned by good architecture'.
A suitable new use for this fine old building has now been found. The building will be used by St Mary's Music School and the National Music Academy, with major musical events also taking place there. The architect leading the project of bringing the building back into use is Richard Murphy. In an engaging and enlightening talk to the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland on 9 January, he talked about the 'transformation' of Thomas Hamilton's Royal High School for use by the music school and the creation of public performance spaces.
Murphy was honoured to be working on this project, in conjunction with the The Royal High School Preservation Trust. He felt something of 'a culmination of a career', building on previous projects. However, he emphasised that the project was 'quiet' in architectural terms in that the building would still be mainly Thomas Hamilton's: 'It's Hamilton's gig not Murphy's'. Murphy is part of a lead team of 10 who are working intensively on the project. It is an exciting time for the project as the first steps are about to be made. Some preliminary demolition will start very soon, with building work beginning in earnest after the summer.
Floating above the city
Murphy began his talk by setting the historical context. For him, it is Calton Hill which is a far more interesting centrepiece for the city than Castle Hill. As Iain Gordon Brown has outlined in his new book Auld Greekie
, the topography of Calton Hill, with its resemblance to the Acropolis, was one important inspiration for the idea of Edinburgh as the 'Athens of the North'. Within Calton Hill the Royal High School building had an 'ambiguous position', not fully on the hill itself, but still sitting above Edinburgh. It was, as Murphy put it, 'a world of learning floating above the city', which sought to emphasise the prestige of the school and its pupils, many of whom went on to play leading roles in the British Empire.
Calton Hill is often compared to the Acropolis in Athens. However, the Royal High School building was modelled on the doric Temple of Hephaestus, which lies a short distance away from the Acropolis, in Theseion. Murphy wished to emphasise that the building had changed over time; this was not the first set of alterations. This he illustrated with a series of photographs of the main debating chamber since the First World War. What came across was the grandeur of the occasions and the chamber.
The chamber has gone through a series of substantial remodellings over the decades. The most significant changes occurred when proposed as the debating chamber of a future Scottish Parliament in the 1970s. The building took on an additional name of New Parliament House at this point. This remodelling substantially reduced the number of seats within the chamber.
For Murphy, this would have made a better debating chamber than Enric Miralles' rather strange, low-density chamber. The one at the Royal High School would, argued Murphy, have been better suited for the cut and thrust of political argument. Murphy is not alone in regretting that the building did not become the re-convened Scottish Parliament. He hopes to retain the busy, intense feel of the chamber. The plans for the main performance spaces will see them become highly adaptable, with seating and staging easy to rearrange. They will be adaptable for solo performances right up to full orchestra concerts.
An ill-struck balance
Murphy then examined the hotel saga of the last decade and the designs drawn up by the late Gareth Hoskins. Murphy was sympathetic to some of the designs believing that they included some very interesting proposals. The way they framed views of Arthur's Seat was impressive. Ultimately though, he said the proposals were an ill-struck balance which destroyed the essence of Hamilton's original.
In terms of his own proposals for the site, there were two elements. First was about restoring and adapting the original building, making it more accessible and usable. The second element of the project was a series of new buildings to the east of Hamilton's. These have been designed for use solely by the school, as teaching spaces, a library and accommodation. Murphy's talk covered both.
The main issue with the original building was the 'lack of circularity'. In short, it's very difficult to move from one side to another without going through the debating chamber or one of the other large performance spaces. I recall finding it a perplexing building to navigate when I attended the Hidden Door festival and Pianodrome last summer.
Murphy's solution to this is to create a foyer for the building as the main public entrance, with a hidden walkway enabling access from either side of the building. The new entrance area is reminiscent of the new low level entrance to the National Museum of Scotland, making use of existing space.
There will be direct access to the foyer from a new public garden and cafe which will be created on the west side of the building. This walkway has been designed so that it can't be seen from Regent Road at the front of the building, so won't affect views of the building. Again, he wished to emphasise the harmonious character of the changes.
The move has been hailed as a successful unlocking of the building by others. The new entrance foyer will create a significant new public space in the building, with access through 'a glazed slot' in the portico which will bring natural light in. Access from this foyer to the higher levels will be via new staircases. The design of these have been a major focus of Murphy's. Murphy aims to show how intervening in a historic building can actually help show it off and reveal qualities which have long been concealed. This, in Murphy's view, is what any work on significant old buildings should do. Opening up and revealing the building is the inspiration for the project.
Work on this aspect of the restoration and reconfiguration is due to start within the next six weeks. The building work will require digging down and there is still some uncertainty about exactly where the natural rock lies. At present, he could only speculate. Inherent in any such project on such a complex site was a degree of uncertainty.
Murphy believed that the weird and wonderful uses of the building by the Hidden Door and Pianodrome has given a glimpse of the potential of the building. However, they had also shown how difficult the building was to access and navigate, as well as its deteriorating condition. These two aspects will require substantial effort to ameliorate. Murphy's main hope is that the changes will make it far easier to access. He admitted that the condition of the building's stonework was a concern in some areas. The restoration of the stonework will be handled by Simpson & Brown Architects, the project's partners.
The music school
Though the numbers with regular access to the building are not going to be high (the school is planning to expand its roll from the initial figure of 70 to over 100), Murphy believed that each visit was going to be memorable. The new section will be built on an area to the east of the main building. Clearing the site requires the demolition of some Victorian buildings which were part of the school, including the old swimming pool building. While Murphy admitted that the buildings were not without architectural merit, they could not be compared to Hamilton's original building in historic or architectural value. In truth, such a judgement could be made about 95% of the buildings in Edinburgh. Others will feel that the buildings being demolished could have been reused.
The new sections will include 'pepperpot' practice spaces connecting the corridors leading to the classrooms. Some might consider the design of the pepperpots a bit mundane, almost something from the early 1990s. It will be interesting to see what the reality is like compared to the diagrams and pictures.
The classrooms and accommodation blocks will have fantastic views out towards Arthur's Seat. The school will have a separate entrance at the rear to help ensure security. The campus will have a clear demarcation between the public and private, with the main performance spaces between the two. Murphy emphasised that, in marked contrast to the hotel proposals, the peripheral buildings will become smaller than they are at present. With turfed roofs they will blend into the hill, ensuring that the original building is the only eye-catching aspect of the site. Murphy is confident that the plan will open up the original building while maintaining its visual unity.
A harmonious conclusion?
AJ Youngson outlined in his The Making of Classical Edinburgh
that the original proposals for the High School resulted from 'long and complicated negotiations' and were met with 'a rather fundamental division of opinion'. Throughout its history, the building has been surrounded by controversy. This includes the spurning of its use as the Scottish Parliament and the loud controversy over the hotel proposals. Might Murphy's unlocking bring this to an end?
As I walked past the building on Sunday, the winter sun was gleaming off an upper floor window, giving the impression that a small fire had started. The building looked particularly handsome as sunset approached. On closer inspection, the peeling paint on the exterior doors and the vegetation creeping out of the entrance areas spoke of years of indifference.
The Hidden Door and the Pianodrome last summer gave us a glimpse of the potential of the Old Royal High School. It demonstrated the power of culture to revitalise. It is culture which is giving the building a new purpose. Hopefully, Murphy's plans will herald the full revival of this long neglected architectural gem on Edinburgh's 'hill of light'.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher who writes on culture, education and politics