Calton Hill observatory set to become gallery and cafe

An artist's impression of the Calton Hill plans. Picture: comp

An artist's impression of the Calton Hill plans. Picture: comp

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PLANS to transform a derelict 18th-century observatory on Calton Hill into a modern art gallery, office and cafe are set to get the go-ahead.

Planning officials have recommended that approval be given to the £3.5 million project, which would also see the demolition of three domes dating from the late 19th century.

Historic buildings that have lain empty for more than five years are to be refurbished as the new home for the Collective Gallery, with a pavilion built in the north-west corner of the walled compound.

Celebrated city architect Malcolm Fraser has been signed up to redevelop the William Playfair-designed observatory, visible across much of Edinburgh, which dates back to the construction of the New Town.

And an additional space is to be excavated beneath the historic Playfair Building, with the walled courtyard re-landscaped to include a spiral walkway taking visitors around the historic site.

Following completion, the development will sit next to the old Royal High School – site of a proposed £75m luxury hotel.

In a report which will be considered by councillors next week, planning officials said the observatory transformation would provide an “exciting new landmark on the skyline”.

But the blueprints have been attacked by bosses at heritage watchdog the Cockburn Association, who said they would lead to an unacceptable level of commercialisation.

Stressing she had no issue with the Collective Gallery as occupier, Marion Williams, association director, said: “This will be on one of Edinburgh’s seven hills.

“I think the problem we had was with the cafe, which would be in a very prominent corner of the site. If this is going to become a 24-7, 365-days-a-year operation, if there is traffic flowing to this location all the time, it’s lit up, and you have other events taking place because of the new venue, that’s when it becomes commercialisation of a sacred site.

“We have to remember it’s a graveyard, it’s the observatory, it’s a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) – what’s not for sale in Edinburgh?”

She added: “All of this changes the nature of Calton Hill, which is there to be enjoyed as a very protected and special space. If it becomes something else then the final decision by councillors has to be taken bearing that very major change in mind.”

However, leaders of New Town and Broughton community council have voiced support for the plans.

Chairman Ian Mowat said: “If you’re going to have a gallery then you’re going to have a cafe, and I think we thought that what they had provided was quite respectful and complementary.”

In an official summation, city planning officials described the proposals as ambitious but said they would enhance Calton Hill. Their report states: “The new cafe-salon, projecting over the north east corner of the compound, will be visible in views in the city centre and will have a substantial area of glazing facing westwards.

“It will be illuminated during dark evenings.

“The proposed development, although bold in concept, will enhance the City Observatory compound, providing an exciting new landmark building on the skyline.

“The proposed alterations to the interior to the City Observatory will have no adverse impact on the character of special interest of the Observatory. The works will be an enhancement to the City Observatory.”

johnpaul.holden@edinburghnews.com