Will St James ‘ribbon hotel’ plan collapse?

Artist's impressions convey a sense of the scale of the proposed hotel

Artist's impressions convey a sense of the scale of the proposed hotel

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The “ribbon” hotel is nothing if not eye-catching – a swirling, copper-coloured cupcake rising above Edinburgh’s historic New Town and unravelling into the sky.

The building at the heart of the £850 million regeneration of the St James Centre has divided public opinion and seen architects pitched against conservationists.

Tomorrow, the fate of the proposed five-star hotel – seen as one corner of a “golden triangle” along with the Balmoral and Caledonian – will be decided by city councillors.

A Mr Whippy ice cream is one of the more polite comparisons which critics have drawn with its dramatic design.

But while the wider debate has been over whether the Capital should embrace or reject such a statement building on the edge of its World Heritage Site, the decision tomorrow will be guided by much narrower concerns.

The issue which will come under particular scrutiny isn’t the hotel’s strikingly modern look, but rather a 20-metre increase in the height as well as the width of the top of the building.

The wider top to the building has allowed for a public gallery from which anyone visiting the hotel will be able to enjoy some of the most spectacular views of the Capital.

But critics say the new design will spoil views from Calton Hill and amount to 
“privatising” the city’s skyline.

If councillors reject the latest proposals, developer TH Real Estate will be forced to either appeal against the decision or go back to the drawing board entirely. Both options could mean costly delays.

But if the plans are given the go-ahead, council chiefs will have gone against the advice of their own planning officials for the second time in ushering through one of the largest city centre developments for a 
generation.

The bold design is seen as key by the developers to luring a new luxury hotel operator to the city, with a number of internationally-renowned operators understood to have expressed an interest after seeing the designs. Without a five-star operator, the hopes of attracting high-end stores like those around the corner on Multrees Walk would be dashed.

But not everyone is a fan of its bold design. Planning officials have urged councillors to reject the scheme, arguing it would block important views.

The 12-storey hotel’s distinctive spiral rises almost 20 metres further into the sky than was first outlined and the building’s upper levels are wider to make room for new restaurant space and the viewing platforms.

Concerns were also raised that the material coating the hotel’s exterior – bronze coloured stainless steel – could be “too shiny and reflective”.

But while city planning officials are advising against the plans, Marketing Edinburgh and the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, which are both funded by the city council, have said the Capital is crying out for more of this kind of high-class accommodation. Tomorrow, a range of critics will line up to speak out once again, with objectors including the Cockburn Association, Edinburgh World Heritage, the New Town and Broughton Community Council, and the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland.

Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, said the changes to the hotel’s design were the key problem.

He said: “The main issue here is not that there’s a feature on the skyline. The issue is that the developers came forward about a year ago with this rather elegant feature coming up through the skyline.

“What they have now done is, between levels nine and 11, they have added a huge number of restaurant covers. This has been done to presumably attract some mega restaurants and make money for the development.

“What that does to the architecture is it turns it from being a relatively slender feature to a very broad bulk on the skyline. And what that does from our point of view is have a negative impact on the World Heritage Site.

“It’s particularly noticeable from Calton Hill. In effect, it’s privatising the skyline, and I think people in Edinburgh value their skyline more than they value a restaurant.”

Mike Cantlay, chairman of VisitScotland, however, argues the showpiece venue would attract high-spending visitors from across the globe and could encourage further investment, while John Donnelly, chief executive of Marketing Edinburgh, says the city is “in desperate need of more large, five-star hotels”.

He said: “This is crucial not just for the city, but for Scotland’s overall ability and bid success to host key international events such as the Ryder Cup and the Tour of Britain.

“What’s more, the ribbon hotel will add to the destination ambition of this part of the city, with the 
proposals promising an opportunity for visitors to enjoy 360-degree views of the city.

“The viewing platform of the London Shard has attracted almost two million visitors since it opened in February 2013. Could this be a way of generating a new revenue income stream to invest back into Edinburgh’s city centre?”

AGAINST

It does not meet the aesthetic quality REQUIRED

By Marion Williams, director of the Cockburn Association

Whilst supportive of the new square we have mixed views about the introduction of a rotunda building into the square; there is historical precedent for such structures working well as urban design set-pieces but there is an equal argument that the whole scheme would benefit from an open space creating a true square of very high quality and, unlike any other square in the city, paved, of intimate scale and surrounded by retail frontages.

There is a good case both economically in terms of quality of environment attracting high rents and on aesthetic grounds for there not being any rotunda building at all.

As a feature breaking through the skyline and compromising the silhouette of the Melville Monument in St Andrew Square when viewed from George Street and on numerous other vistas, any feature would have to be of the highest aesthetic quality and make an undoubted positive contribution to the skyline.

The proposal here does not in any way meet the aesthetic quality required to justify such a breach of the Edinburgh skyline.

The impact would be even greater than originally envisaged during the master planning process. There is also considerable doubt that the feature, referred to as “Mr Whippy” in politer terms, would make a positive contribution to the skyline. We would welcome a more refined finish to the structure for consideration.

What we have as a proposal for Edinburgh is fine to jazz up an airport building in the prairies – see its twin the Air Traffic Control Tower, Calgary Airport – but it isn’t a worthy addition to the main street axis in the original Georgian New Town, nor does it have the gravitas visitors to the city expect. The Edinburgh Skyline Report states that monuments should be slender, unoccupied and designed for their silhouette. Putting a hotel into the skyline, as was explored at the Haymarket Inquiry, does not meet any of these criteria.

The design has no reference to anything that exists in Edinburgh, even the newly designed context in which it is proposed to be placed at the St James Mall. It could equally be placed in Bilbao, Milwaukee or Kyoto. Visitors to Edinburgh come here to see things that are unique to the city, a type of town planning and urban design that doesn’t exist in their home towns. If Edinburgh councillors think we need this “iconic” structure to liven up some of the principal vistas in the city they should be aware that “icons” are now so commonplace around the world that the term is becoming one of derision, not praise.

FOR

It is flashy, but so what?

By Richard J Williams, Professor of Contemporary Visual Cultures, Edinburgh University

God help us. Here we are again.

On the one side, developers, anxious to build. On the other, the heritage lobby, anxious to stop them building, seemingly at all costs. And in the middle, an architectural scheme that in practically any other city would scarcely raise an eyebrow, but which here, in our parochial and inward-looking capital, produces an existential crisis.

The scheme in question is the so-called “ribbon” hotel by the firm Jestico + Whiles in the new St James development. It responds to the city’s dire need for modern hotel accommodation, and it occupies a site in which commercial activity already predominates. Styled in in a fashionably deconstructivist mode, it resembles a slowly unwrapping mummy. Like the Shard, or the Gherkin, it wants to be an icon.

At this stage, it’s an outline scheme that’s up for discussion, so forget the details. What’s promised will go through many iterations before it’s finished, if it gets there at all. But as an outline, it looks bold and entertaining, promising some surprising street views of the same kind as Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum.

It is flashy and some might say vulgar, but so what? Cities, even our capital, need such things, at least until the revolution comes, or we all go back to the land (Edinburgh, in any case was built on vulgarity. What could be more pretentious than replicating ancient Greece? It was Las Vegas before its time). Jestico + Whiles are no household names, but they have a substantial record of high-end commercial and educational buildings which show attention to detail and a thorough understanding understanding of interiors. They seem to make buildings that actually work.

So what if we approve the scheme and we don’t like what we get? Well here’s a heretical thought: we can always build it again. That is, after all, what great cities always do because they are processes, not museums.

There’s an infantile fantasy, overdeveloped in Edinburgh, that buildings are forever. It is a fantasy that inhibits engagement with the world as it actually is. Most people grow out of it by puberty, by which time they have worked out that change is inevitable.

So, don’t agonise. Approve the “ribbon” and work constructively with the developers to ensure its realisation is as good as it can be. Edinburgh is a city. It can take it . . .

Lessons from history

THE “ribbon” hotel isn’t the first of its kind to cause a fuss in the Capital.

They might be widely admired today, but the Balmoral Hotel and the Caledonian were both controversial in their time.

At a meeting of city conservation group the Cockburn Association in 1901, the Balmoral – then known as the North British Railway Hotel (pictured) – was accused of dominating its surroundings.

A report noted that “any appreciation of its architectural features is neutralised by the sense of disproportion which its height and breadth conveys”.

And at the other end of Princes Street, the Caledonian was labelled an “eyesore which obtrudes itself on the eye of the observer to the detriment of its surroundings, and as such it will stand a witness to all time of the apathy of the generation which tolerated its erection with scarcely a single protest”.