Hidden Door: Festival unveils transformation of former Scottish Widows headquarters in Edinburgh
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It was a unique office environment on the edge of one of Edinburgh’s best-known parks for almost half a century.
Now the former Scottish Widows headquarters has undergone a dramatic transformation for a five-day festival inspired by natural landscapes, the climate emergency and the building’s garden setting.
Edinburgh’s annual Hidden Door event, which specialises in taking over forgotten and abandoned spaces around the city, has created eight different “environments” around the A-listed building.
Dating back to 1976, the building – which was created on a site opposite the Commonwealth Pool, just outside Holyrood Park – was still being used until 2020.
It has been renamed The Complex for this year's edition of Hidden Door, which has previously deployed the former Royal High School on Calton Hill, a gap site below the Granton Gasholder, the neglected Leith Theatre building and abandoned vaults on Market Street.
Festival goers heading to Hidden Door’s latest incarnation, which will open until Sunday night, will be guided through recreations of mountains, wastelands, forests, gardens, sea beds and even the centre of the planet.
Specially-commissioned performances designed for the various “immersive” environments will unfold on each night of the festival, which has described the building as “the perfect blank canvas” for the event.
Visual artists, musicians, dancers, sculptors, actors, poets and DJs are all featuring in the line-up for the festival, which will be taking over three storeys of the building. The venue is made up of a series of glass-covered hexagonal shapes, and is surrounded by extensive landscaped gardens and a “moat”.
Hidden Door, which is put together by a team of volunteers each year, has secured the building for this year’s event ahead of a planned £100 million redevelopment. The scheme will see five of the 12 hexagonal blocks demolished to make way for nearly 200 new flats, while new zero carbon office spaces will be created.
Performances will be getting underway around 5pm on each day of Hidden Door, which is still selling tickets for each day of the festival. However, admission will be free from 1pm to allow people to fully explore the building, see the various visual art installations and enjoy the pop-up bars and food stalls which have been brought into the site for the event.
Festival director Hazel Johnson said: "This year’s Hidden Door is going to be a bit special. As well as our usual visual art offer and our musical stages, we are going to have some fantastic specially-commissioned collaborative projects and immersive performances, which our audiences will be able to explore and get lost in.
"Anyone who has worked in this building before is just not going to recognise it. We have put a lot of thought into how to use its various spaces in different ways.
"We have blacked out the huge office spaces to turn them into immersive wonderlands, we’ve got some creepy, dark places in the basement for audiences to explore, and we will have lots of performances tucked away in the building's nooks and crannies.
"The building is a little bit otherworldly now and I think people who come along will find themselves wandering around in circles, despite all our fantastic signage, but that will be part of the fun.”
Among those collaborating on Hidden Door’s “environments” include choreographer Róisín O'Brien and composer Rowan McIlvride, who will be creating a dance piece for a post-nuclear wasteland, artist Zoe Gibson and dancer Kai Tomioka, who will be exploring the impact of conflict between different creatures in a mountain landscape, and opera singer Stephanie Lamprea, musician Tom Green and visual artist Oana Stanciu, whose “anthropocenic garden” will explore themes of extinction.
Yuxi Jiang will stage her contemporary take on Chinese folk dance inside a forest of trees, artist Alliyah Enyo will be creating a sea bed environment, electronic music producer Exterior will be working on an environment inspired by the geological depths of the earth, and dance artist Tess Letham will lead a group of “wanderers” to help guide audiences around The Complex.
The festival line-up features more than 60 music acts, including rock bands Porridge Radio and Pillow Queens, electronica and techno producer Max Cooper, and post-punk outfit Pozi. Other acts include the New Orleans-based Hot 8 Brass Band, rapper Bemz, hip hop artist Billy Got Waves, jazz collective Corto.alto, alt-pop singer Berta Kennedy, brass band Blue Giant Orkestar and utopian synth duo Free Love.
Poetry and spoken word performers include Bibi June, Rupert Smith, Jay Whittaker, Éadaoín Lynch, Genevieve Carver, Zaki El-Salahi, Andrés N Ordorica, Ross McCleary, Allie Kerper, Patrick James Errington, Oliver Robertson, Janette Ayachi and Elspeth Wilson.
Letham, who has been working on all the collaborations for Hidden Door’s various environments, said: "They will be taking over the majority of the spaces we will be using in the building. The whole concept around the environments is about the natural world and the impact humans have had on the planet in various ways.
"It’s really down to the building that Hidden Door has had the opportunity to really evolve and develop this year by commissioning all these unique projects and collaborations.”
Scott Hunter, an environment artist whose sculptural work will be on display throughout the festival, said: “The great thing about Hidden Door is the challenge of working in unusual spaces – I think that’s what attracts a lot of artists to the festival.
"For me, the art scene in Edinburgh can be a bit polished and conservative – Hidden Door offers a real antidote to that. It's not always visual art that people come to Hidden Door for, but the audiences will almost be forced to walk through the various environments, so it will hopefully open up the art to wider audiences. The music is always great at Hidden Door, so people will still be able to have a party and a good time.”