John McLellan: School of hard knocks

The old Royal High School. Picture: Jon Savage
The old Royal High School. Picture: Jon Savage
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I’ve never been a fan of the old Royal High School building, shut off from the street as it is by the monolithic black walls, its columns and portico a grimy pastiche of the real thing in Athens or Rome.

It has always struck me as something deliberately designed to scare the pants off the schoolboys sent there (if that’s not an unfortunate expression these days) before they’d even attended their first lessons.

Edinburgh School of Art’s architectural history expert Dr Margaret Stewart seems to agree with me, describing it at a meeting about the plans to turn it into a hotel last Monday as a “testament to a harsh education thrashed into generations of boys”.

As someone who experienced the tail end of that kind of education myself at the Glasgow equivalent, I can say that never a truer word was spoken.

But, like it or not, the building, the hill behind it, the folly of the National Monument, Nelson’s Tower and the Burns Monument are an essential 
part of the city landscape and benefit from being spared the bustle of Princes Street and the rest of the New Town.

When news of the plan to turn it into a hotel first broke, my view was then, and is now, that a hotel could be an appropriate and long-lasting use for what has been a problem ever since the last pupil headed off to Barnton in the late 60s.

Much of the meeting last Monday centred on whether or not such a building should be turned over to a private enterprise which, of course, suits those who see every development as an opportunity for an old-fashioned left v right political showdown.

By extension, the argument seems to be that only the state should own old buildings, those on important sites or those which used to be schools. Those kind of views usually come from those who forget, ignore or are happy that public ownership means taxpayers footing the bill whether they like it or not; the kind of people who believe your tax money is the government’s to reclaim, not yours in the first place.

The real arguments should be over the sustainability of any proposal for such a key building and if any changes are acceptable in the broader context of the site.

So is a hotel an appropriate and sustainable use of a building which has been rotting for decades and ultimately wasn’t big enough for its original purpose?

In principle, I don’t see why not. Just because it was once proposed for a parliament that never was is absolutely no reason to have it preserved for ever as a shrine, like Edinburgh’s ideological equivalent to Lenin’s Tomb.

I have even heard it argued that, while a six-star hotel is unacceptable, it would be fine if it was turned into a backpackers hostel. The price per person per night rate aside, surely the basic principle is exactly the same. And, in any case, would it be OK if the hotel was state run? I have no doubt some people would say yes.

So the real debate should come down to the appropriateness of the proposal, and that’s where it is now becoming more interesting.

Sustaining a luxury hotel means having enough rooms to justify all the other services necessary to maintain the status, and the hotels business is notoriously precarious.

Talking to some senior bankers this week, they pointed out hotel operators had been particularly badly hit in the credit crunch and that scores went out of business because they borrowed heavily to either obtain or improve their properties.

So for the Royal High to be a viable, beyond-the-top-of-the-range hotel means rooms, some 150 of them, and, from new designs on show yesterday, the scale of the problem on such a tight site has become glaringly obvious.

Author David Black has taken the plaudits for describing the proposals as like drawing Mickey Mouse ears on the Mona Lisa, but I suspect even he might be taken aback by the latest drawings. Although what is proposed would sit on footprints of the existing unremarkable school buildings either side of the main Thomas Hamilton original, what is planned is of a far greater scale and dominates everything around it.

Worse, they are of the same slatted look seemingly going up everywhere and looks more like a modern version of the old Calton Jail has just moved along the hill. The new buildings are simply too big.

So what’s to be done with it? A rethink by developer Duddingston House Properties certainly, but if the scale is reduced, the hotel plan might not work.

A return to a not-for-profit approach, as envisaged with the national photographic centre project, seems unlikely, with the council needing to obtain maximum value for a building for which it has no use.

It was interesting that one of those arguing for a less commercially driven use was conservation architect James Simpson, who was involved in the original plans for developing the Craighouse campus.

So while the growing opposition to the Royal High plan might include the usual suspects like the Cockburn Association, this coalition looks far broader than the pressure groups which opposed Craighouse or Caltongate and has more in common with the successful battle against the first Haymarket plan for a multi-storey hotel.

Wisely, the council has announced moves to make the building weather-proof, because this could be a very long fight.

*The original version of this article said the hotel would have 300 bedrooms, rather than beds. Apologies for the error.

Can Napier play matchmaker?

After my report of the yawning chasm between the city council and Scottish Rugby over Meadowbank comes a sign that the two will talk when they have to.

On the agenda for next week’s sport committee is a recommendation for the council to help the SRU and Napier University make the most of the Sighthill playing fields. Between them, the SRU and Napier are set to spend £2.5m on the site and now the council is set to authorise a £50,000 upgrade of the changing rooms. I’m not sure what £50,000 gets you, judging by some of the stadium prices being bandied around – one gold tap perhaps – but at least the relationship is not entirely broken. Whether much would be happening just now if it wasn’t for the university’s involvement is another thing.

Sources close to another rugby development say the chances of Edinburgh Rugby making the new Raeburn Place their home after redevelopment is completed are high.

There may be something of an omerta surrounding it, but with seats for 2,500 people and pitch-side space for hundreds more, it would be ideal for the average crowds at Edinburgh Rugby league matches.

Traffic will be the concern, especially in the light of the knuckle-rapping the council received over the late production of a traffic impact study, but the effect around Myreside and Meggetland on Edinburgh game nights has been relatively light, so only the die-hard opponents are likely to remain implacably unhappy.

In any case, the ground would be likely to stage a maximum of 12 matches, which hardly represents a community ground to a halt, even if attendances grew.

But it still begs the question of how to grow crowds to the same level as Glasgow enjoys. Another one for the ever-expanding city drawing board.

n Yes, I broke my vow by buying a ticket for last Saturday’s debacle against Italy. Another game lost by a professional who couldn’t hit a 100-metre-long target, another afternoon spent with a half-cut woman who knew nothing about rugby bellowing in my ear and another £75 worse off. And I got drenched walking home. Why do I bother?

St James architects have left us in a whirl – time for them to get back to the drawing board

The Satsuma, the Ribbon or the Bog Roll, call it what you will, but the proposed hotel at the heart of the St James Quarter smacks more of a gimmick designed to draw shoppers to the mall than cutting-edge architecture to inspire and last a lifetime.

On the website of architects Jestico + Whiles, there are some reasonable projects, but none of the hotel schemes are so obviously confrontational, even one for a development in the wasteland of London’s Docklands around the City Airport. So why have they thought it appropriate to treat Edinburgh’s elegant New Town as if it was an art-school undergraduate’s bid for the Turner Prize?

Like the mad bamboo poles bolted on to the Scottish Parliament, my hunch is that we who live here would soon tire of the novelty and be left to wonder what on earth the architect was thinking about.

It should be back to the drawing board for developer Henderson Global. Removing one monstrous carbuncle from the cityscape is no reason to erect another in its place.