£3.5m redevelopment plan for old observatory

An artist's impression of the new Collective gallery
An artist's impression of the new Collective gallery
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Plans to transform a derelict 18th-century observatory on Calton Hill into a modern art gallery have been revealed.

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

The current site. Picture: Greg Macvean

The current site. Picture: Greg Macvean

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

A new space will be excavated beneath the historic Playfair Building, and the walled courtyard will be re-landscaped with a spiral walkway taking visitors around the site, which hosted astronomical equipment as long ago as 1788.

Kate Gray, artistic director at Collective, said the £3.5 million redevelopment of Calton Hill would preserve the historic buildings while creating a space for artistic discovery.

She said: “Historically observatories are places to observe the stars and make scientific discoveries but Collective’s vision is to be a new kind of City Observatory, a place to look at art and view the city that art was made to be seen in.

The Calton Hill redevelopment

The Calton Hill redevelopment

“We will bring people together to engage with art, science and Edinburgh’s heritage.

“This unique and iconic place will be fully opened for the first time to the public.” The plans will come under intense scrutiny from heritage groups, with the site being a key part of Edinburgh’s UNESCO World Heritage status.

Calton Hill’s observatory is just a few dozen metres away from another contentious development site, the Old Royal High School, where a campaign is being waged against plans to create a luxury hotel.

City culture convener Richard Lewis backed the plans to reopen an “architectural and cultural gem” to the public.

Cllr Lewis said: “Calton Hill is an iconic part of Edinburgh’s UNESCO World Heritage site.

“The City Observatory, known as the birthplace of astronomy and timekeeping, is an architectural and cultural gem. Under Collective’s redevelopment plans, the Observatory’s original 19th Century William Playfair designs would be reinstated to create a hub of art, science, history and leisure right in the heart of the Athens of the North for residents and visitors to enjoy.”