Festival chief floats Granton expansion vision as he urges Edinburgh not to rest on its laurels
Fergus Linehan suggested Edinburgh could create the equivalent of London’s Olympic Park in the Granton area, where a number of projects linked to culture and the creative industries are already proposed.
The Irishman, who is overseeing his final festival after an eight-year tenure, urged the city not to rest on its laurels over a series of long-planned projects which are due to be delivered in the next five years.
Mr Linehan said the city lacked the equivalent of the OVO Hydro area in Glasgow, and also faced having to catch up with new facilities being planned for the Olympic Park in London, Gateshead’s Quayside area and east Manchester.
Work is about to begin on a new concert hall in the New Town, which would be the first purpose-built facility of its type to be created in Edinburgh for more than a century, and a refurbishment of the King’s Theatre. Efforts are also underway to secure a major overhaul of Leith Theatre, which was brought back into the EIF programme by Mr Linehan following a 30-year hiatus
Mr Linehan said: “You need to be careful to make sure that you don’t build big white elephants.
“The thing about Leith Theatre, the new concert hall and the King’s, which are all shovel-ready projects to an extent, are all really practical and are no-brainers.
"There is still a huge amount of work to do on the Leith Theatre project, but in a sense it is the easiest one. The things that are needed there are really low-hanging fruit.
“I would hope that all of these projects would get done in the next five years, which is really exciting.
“But I do think that the venue experience is becoming really important, whether that it is in the Hydro or in cinemas.
“There is an amazing new arena being built in Gateshead. One of those would be good in Edinburgh. There is probably still a need for a big space in Edinburgh like the Hydro.
“The festival could probably do with a big combined workshop and rehearsal space as we are scattered around the place at the moment.
“A very, very flexible space would be good for all of the festivals."
Mr Linehan said Granton could help fill long-standing infrastructure gaps in the city, including a major arena, a flexible performance space for different art forms, and a building bringing together rehearsal and workshop facilities.
Culture and the creative industries are at the heart of a city-council blueprint for a £1.3 billion “coastal town” in Granton proposed to be created over the next 15 years.
Alongside 3500 new homes, the vision for the area includes a new collection centre and attraction run by the National Galleries of Scotland, the transformation of Granton’s historic gasholder into a three-lined amphitheatre, and the creation of new studio space, shops and offices at a former railway station and empty warehouse complex.
Mr Linehan added: “Granton just makes a lot of sense. It has really easy access to an awful lot of the city in a way that other places don't, it is right beside Leith and Portobello, and it is incredibly beautiful on the waterfront, which people don’t realise. It’s really exciting.
"There are great things to be done with regeneration and opening up a site.
“If you look at the Olympic Park in London, it is just starting to take hold 10 years after the games.”
Mr Linehan has been the co-chair of Impact Scotland, the charity behind plans for the 1000-capacity Dunard Centre concert hall off St Andrew Square, for the last three years.
The project, which will provide a new home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, was held up for years and had to be scaled back over a dispute with the developers of the neighbouring St James Quarter.
Questions have also been raised about how much impact it will have on existing venues like the 900-capacity Queen’s Hall and the Usher Hall, which can accommodate audiences of up to 2200.
Mr Linehan said: "When the Festival Theatre was built everyone said ‘That will be the end of the King’s’.
“But when you build good cultural infrastructure cities just kind of expand into them.
"We have the Queen’s Hall for morning concerts, which is very short period of time, but it is gorgeous and we love it.
“There are a whole load of things which don’t work in the Usher Hall because it is too big. With different types of music or new composition. It will be place to introduce new audiences to music.
“The thing about capital projects is that you don’t get to enjoy them in your own time. We’ve been working away on the new concert hall for years. It has to be a bit selfless.
“I think every generation has to add something to the mix, otherwise you are just sweating your assets.
“When you go back to the late 19th century, there was a period of about 50 years when the Playhouse, the Usher Hall, the King’s and the McEwan Hall were all built within one generation of each other. It sort of puts us to shame.
“You can’t just sit back and go: ‘Well, we’ll just use what’s been there before.’
"But if you don’t keep progressing with venues, and if you don’t keep updating them or make new offers, you will start to slide backwards very quickly."