David Orr: Royal High revamp true to Enlightenment

An artist's impression of the transformed debating chamber in the old Royal High. Picture: contributed
An artist's impression of the transformed debating chamber in the old Royal High. Picture: contributed
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Thomas Hamilton is amongst the elite architects in Scotland’s Greek revival tradition and his Royal High School is one of the Capital’s most distinguished buildings. It is understandable how the city has wrestled with the building’s great beauty and the challenges of modernisation but we do need to make sure the Capital, at the top of the world in so many respects in 1829 when the school opened, can countenance beneficial development.

The Royal High was itself a new build in 1829, with the city creating the site by dynamiting the side of Calton Hill.

We have been working with Duddingston House Properties and the City of Edinburgh Council to realise a shared ambition to restore this magnificent building as an exemplar restoration and bring it into public use for the first time in its 186-year life.

Over the decades, since the Royal High School relocated to Barnton in 1968, there have been many attempts to do this, but none of the proposals have been viable, even in times of much more generous public funding.

The opportunity for debate has never been absent, but the availability of a sustainable solution of wider benefit has been. Some people will not see our funded proposal of a globally significant hotel for our capital city as perfect, but our recent public consultation process has shown overwhelming support for our proposals.

The old Royal High School was created during the Enlightenment as an exceptional place of learning and ambition. Only at the end of their academic career were the boys allowed to pass through the portico door as a rite of passage. Hamilton’s assembly of the vista deliberately placed the prominence of his Burns Monument in the foreground, elevated above the royal residence and, interestingly now, also above the parliament.

We passionately believe that, in keeping with Hamilton’s philosophy, the hotel, even though it is top of the market, must be accessible and inclusive. We will curate an arts and culture programme throughout the lounges, library, bars, all-day dining brasserie, winter gardens and outside terraces. The appointed hotel operator will also engage with Edinburgh’s vibrant arts and creative sector.
Throughout my career in the hotel industry I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of Britain’s best architects including the Capital’s Rab Bennetts, who designed both the Mint Amsterdam and Mint Tower of London hotels.

Both hotels were immediately beside, or in, designated world heritage sites and received Civic Trust and Riba [Royal Institute of British Architects] awards for the quality of the buildings and creation of accessible public space. The Tower of London hotel includes two rooftop gardens and a pedestrianised street next door.

Our proposals for the old Royal High School include an informal café/meeting place at the western gable end of the hotel as part of our vision to expand and improve on public space that we hope will encourage wider improvements to Calton Hill and its environs. The western approach would introduce Calton Hill back to the city, opening up a wider view as part of the re-framing to the south and Salisbury Crags.

Hamilton was a reformer and moderniser who embraced change and improvement all his professional life. I’d like to think that he would approve of our proposals to sensitively restore his masterpiece for the Capital and the world to enjoy.

David Orr, co-founder of the Urbanist Group, is developing proposals for the old Royal High School in partnership with Duddingston House Properties