First new concert hall in Edinburgh for more than a century finally set to get green light

Edinburgh is finally set to get its first purpose-built concert venue for more than 100 years after the long-awaited project was backed by planning officials in the city.

Thursday, 18th November 2021, 1:35 pm
It is hoped the new Dunard Centre will open to the public in 2025.

Councillors are being urged to give the green light next week to scaled-backed plans for the £75 million project, which will create a 1000-capacity venue in the heart of the city's New Town, five years after it was first announced.

The biggest new cultural venture in Edinburgh since the Usher Hall in 1914, the Dunard Centre will be suitable for classical, pop, rock, jazz, world music and electronica concerts, as well as spoken word events.

The council said the project, which is hoped to get underway next year and be open by 2026, would strengthen Edinburgh’s worldwide status as a “Festival City.”

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The Dunard Centre will still have a 1000-capacity main auditorium despite having to be scaled back.

The venue - a new year-round home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra which is expected to host Edinburgh International Festival shows each summer - is being designed to compete with the sound quality and audience experience in the world’s best concert halls.

However the planned height of the building had to be significantly reduced and a second performance space dropped after a protracted campaign by the developers of the neighbouring St James Quarter over the venue’s potential impact on their scheme, particularly a luxury hotel which has yet to be finished.

The new venue is being built to the rear of Dundas House, the historic headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland on St Andrew Square.

The site of the venue, designed by the leading British architect Sir David Chipperfield and Tokyo-based consultants Nagata Acoustics, is being effectively donated by the bank for the project, which the council has previously pledged £5 million towards.

The southern entrance to the new Dunard Centre.

A report for councillors said the new venue, which the UK and Scottish governments are funding to the tune of £10 million each, would “preserve and enhance” the character and appearance of the east end of the New Town and would not have a “detrimental impact” on any adjacent listed buildings.

The Dunard Centre is expected to be open to the public every day, similar to the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow, with the project including a cafe-bar with both indoor and outdoor seating.

Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan, who is also co-chair of the charitable trust created by philanthropist Carol Grigor to pursue the project, said the venue would be "a statement that Edinburgh is not content to relive past glories but is looking to a bright, innovative, and inclusive future."

Council officials say the venue, which will be built between St Andrew Square and the new St James Quarter, will "set a new and exciting standard for the next 100 years" and create a "vital stimulus" for live music, musicians and audiences in the city.

The view of the north end of the Dunard Centre from St Andrew Square.

An official report for the planning committee reveals that six alternative sites were considered for the project but none were “suitable, available or deliverable.”

It states: “The site is adjacent to bars, restaurants and other cultural venues, which are essential for the new venue to function successfully.

“The site also benefits from excellent active travel and public transport links, with Waverley train station 400m walking distance, Edinburgh bus station 170m away and the tram stop 100m away. It’s also close to public parking.

“The significant social, cultural and economic benefits of siting the development in this proposed location are a considerable material consideration. The wider community and cultural benefit are compelling and exceptional reasons for approving the proposals.”

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Plans for the venue, first announced in November 2016, were thrown into turmoil in August 2019 when it emerged that the project faced being held up by a legal wrangle and that its cost had soared by more than £30 million over initial estimates.

The city council was forced to broker peace talks between charitable trust Impact Scotland and St James Quarter developers Nuveen after an action was raised at the Court of Session over the way the project had previously been handled by the authority.

Nuveen insisted the concert hall’s “height, scale and mass” be reduced to ensure the new venue “integrates into the city's landscape”

New plans emerged in September, including reducing the height of the building by around seven metres.

Mr Linehan said: “The temptation in a ‘Festival City’ such as Edinburgh is to think only about the next music commission or the next new play so it’s particularly important to make time to consider the long-term wellbeing of the cultural life of the city.

"Scotland takes its music seriously. It punches above its weight globally in music more than any other art form. The Dunard Centre, a bespoke venue located in the heart of the city is a gift for the musicians and the music organisations of tomorrow.”

Gavin Reid, chief executive of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, said: “Creativity and cultural engagement are central to re-imagining and re-invigorating the life, economy and well-being of our communities.

“In a city and a country famed around the world for its music-making, this ambitious project is a beacon of hope and renewal which seeks to engage people across all genres, all ages and all communities.

“We look forward to presenting the case for Edinburgh’s first purpose-built music venue in over 100 years to the planning committee.”This is an opportunity for the city to raise its game in terms of cultural infrastructure and provide a world-class venue for the people of Edinburgh and its many visitors.”

Roddy Smith, chief executive of city centre business group Essential Edinburgh, said: “This world-class venue will add further to the regeneration of the east end of the city centre and give another fantastic destination around the hub of St Andrew Square.

"With bus, tram and rail links within meters as well as the quality retail and leisure provision at hand, the location of the new centre is ideal. It’s another huge investment and vote of confidence in the future of the city centre.”