New 'hobbit house' concert arena to replace Ross Bandstand

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Edinburgh’s new outdoor concert arena could be up and running by the end of 2019 after the popular “hobbit house” design won the contest to replace the historic Ross Bandstand.

American architects Why beat off competition from more than 100 teams from 22 countries to design the new-look amphitheatre in West Princes Street Gardens.

Work is expected to start next year on Edinburgh's new outdoor concert arena.

Work is expected to start next year on Edinburgh's new outdoor concert arena.

Their vision for a series of green terraces and an “undulating” promenade linking the gardens to the Old Town also topped the Evening News readers poll of shortlisted designs.

The US team will now be working with two Edinburgh-based design studios on the £25 million project, with a fundraising drive also getting underway.

The new Ross Pavilion will replace the current bandstand, which dates back to 1935, but is little used by concert promoters due to its declining condition and the cost of bringing in equipment.

A new indoor visitor centre, which will offer spectacular views of concerts staged in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, will also be created opposite the pavilion, which will boast an extended stage for major shows during the city’s flagship cultural events.

A new "undulating" promenade will be created in West Princes Street Gardens under the winning vision.

A new "undulating" promenade will be created in West Princes Street Gardens under the winning vision.

Organisers of the five-month contest – which has been backed by the city council and the city’s heritage bodies – said the winning vision, which was affectionately dubbed the “hobbit house” during the competition, would create “one of the most exciting performance spaces in the world.”

The new arena will be designed to ensure that events can be staged in the gardens throughout the year, while ensuring the space in front of the new pavilion is open to public access. Live music has been staged on the site since 1853 while the first bandstand was erected in 1877 after being gifted by the drinks tycoon William Henry Ross.

Why Architecture secured the support of actor Alan Cumming and the writers Aaron Hicklin, Peter Ross and Beatrice Colin for its successful bid, which was drawn from 125 entries for the contest, launched in February by a new charitable trust set up by hotel tycoon Norman Springford, who has offered to help bankroll the new arena to the tune of £5m.

He headed up a nine-strong panel of judges, who included city council chief executive Andrew Kerr, Sir Mark Jones, former director of the National Museum of Scotland and author Alexander McCall Smith.

The "hobbit house" design for the Ross Bandstand's replacement was a popular choice with the public.

The "hobbit house" design for the Ross Bandstand's replacement was a popular choice with the public.

Mr Springford, chair of the Ross Development Trust, said: “Why came out on top of the finalists because they respected the setting of the castle and the link between the Old and New Towns. The tranquil garden space that we have will be maintained, but at the time it can still perform on the odd occasions throughout the year when there are major events.

“We’re very confident that our fundraising target can be reached. A number of well-intentioned individuals in Edinburgh are already involved in the trust and we have a great appeal board in place.

“We are not calling for any public funding from the city council. We would obviously like to get grants from the various heritage bodies, but that isn’t essential at this point.

“We don’t have a final design at this point. We’re still at a very early stage in the process, but we’d like to think of the end of 2019 or the beginning of 2020 as a target.”

An outdoor pavilion, indoor visitor centre and promenade linking the gardens with the Old Town are envisaged.

An outdoor pavilion, indoor visitor centre and promenade linking the gardens with the Old Town are envisaged.

Why’s recent projects have included the newest museum in Los Angeles, the Marciano Art Foundation, and Yoko Ono’s Skylanding project for Jackson Park in Chicago.

The company joined forces with two firms, GRAS and Groves-Raines Architects, for its vision.

The firm’s landscape design director Mark Thomann said: “When we first saw the brief for the project we just thought ‘wow.’

“I had been to Edinburgh many years ago and when you first see the castle it’s a bit like a natural wonder. To be able to work on a project of such significance, with that much history and beauty, was very exciting. It’s such an incredible site and we are really excited to work with the people of Edinburgh to bring this amazing project to life.

“We were very conscious of getting local knowledge and perspectives. It was really important to have a team of great people in Edinburgh and Scotland and to partner them with the expertise and ideas that we have.

“It was about bringing it all together. The thing that really drove us was about how to maintain Prineces Street Gardens as a place for people, where you can read a book and just enjoy it. It was also about making it the most exciting venue when you are watching a show. You already have the backdrop – you don’t have to create that.

“We’re not going to be making a lot of changes in the gardens. We’ll be trying to reveal some of their beauty and looking at how to reorganise certain pathways and creating new spaces in the gardens. We want to make it much more of a garden than it is at the moment.”

Gunnar Grove-Raines, director of GRAS, said: “It’s been an incredible privilege to work with Why as part of a really broad talented team on a significant world-class project in our home town. Right from the beginning we knew that whatever was done had to have a subtle strength and to be very respectful of the castle and the gardens.

“We’ve really engaged architecture with landscape to create something that is ultimately a landform. There will be a series of terraces and undulating plains and you will be able to walk on every surface of the new buildings. We’re seeking to create a number of different spaces where different things can happen.”

Donald Wilson, the city council’s culture leader, said there was no question of the local authority being able to find funding for the project, but insisted it was fully supporting of the winning vision. He added: “We’ve seen some of the most influential architects and landscapers join forces to compete to design the new Ross Pavilion. The huge international interest in the competition is testament to Edinburgh’s standing as one of the world’s most beautiful and creative settings for live performance. All of the shortlisted teams put forward fantastic ideas but Why’s concept received the jury’s collective support.

“The chosen design makes the most of the natural surroundings of Princes St Gardens and focuses on connecting people to the city, the stage and the view of Edinburgh Castle. It’s hugely exciting to reach this stage.”