Joanna Baker: Edinburgh’s first new concert hall for a century will make a real statement on the world stage

It is something of an understatement to say Joanna Baker is at the helm of a flagship Scottish cultural project that has been a long time coming.

The main auditorium of the new Dunard Centre in Edinburgh's New Town.
The main auditorium of the new Dunard Centre in Edinburgh's New Town.

It’s not just that it has taken five years to get Edinburgh’s new concert hall onto the starting blocks since the project was announced.

When it finally opens its doors – in 2026 if all goes according to plan – it will be the first purpose-built venue of its kind in the city for more than a century.

Not since brewing tycoon Andrew Usher gifted £100,000 to Edinburgh for a new concert hall in 1896 has the city been on the cusp of delivering a new venue.

Joanna Baker is executive director of Impact Scotland, the charitable trust behind plans for Edinburgh's new Dunard Centre concert hall.

Most Popular

    It took Edinburgh 18 long years to realise his vision by opening the Usher Hall – which he never lived to see after the project was dogged by delays over finding a suitable site.

    History repeated itself towards the end of the 20th century as the city struggled to find a home for a medium-sized venue to fill an increasingly obvious gap in the city’s cultural infrastructure.

    It’s not just the fact Edinburgh has lacked the kind of medium-sized venues which can be found elsewhere in Scotland.

    For many involved in Edinburgh’s festivals and events, the city has long been crying out for a flexible venue capable of being used for all styles of music, with 21st century technical facilities.

    The Dunard Centre will be Edinburgh's first purpose-built concert hall in more than a century.

    Those ambitions finally began to take shape in 2016 when a preferred site was announced – on the site of redundant office blocks tucked away behind the historic headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland on St Andrew Square.

    Baker, executive director of Impact Scotland, the charitable trust pursuing plans for the new venue, has been a pivotal figure in Edinburgh’s culture scene in modern times, after a 27-year tenure at the International Festival, the last 13 as managing director.

    She explains: “There has been an ambition to find a site and develop a mid-scale concert hall with around 1000 seats in Edinburgh for the best part of 25 years.

    “It has been partly driven by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, but there have been a lot of studies which have identified that a venue of that size is missing from the cultural infrastructure in the city.

    A view into the main auditorium of the new Dunard Centre in Edinburgh.

    “This project isn’t about replacing anything else. It’s very much about adding to what the city has. I passionately believe there is a need for something which has the level of facilities the Dunard Centre will have, with a world-class acoustic, which maintain's the city’s reputation.

    “The Usher Hall is part of the reason why the International Festival got so well established. It’s a world-class concert hall and world-class orchestras and conductors wanted to play here. That’s what made the festival such a success.”

    The Dunard Centre will be named after the philanthropic fund created by American businesswoman Carol Hogel Girgor, who has pledged £35 million for the £75 million project, with the Scottish and UK governments pledging £10 million each and the city council promising £5 million.

    The 1000-capacity venue will be designed so it can be easily adapted to host concerts by orchestra, choirs, bands and solo artists performing anything from classic works to pop, rock, electronic, folk, world and jazz music.

    The southern entrance to the new Dunard Centre in Edinburgh's New Town.

    Architect David Chipperfield, who is leading the design of the venue, is working with Tokyo-based Nagata Acoustics to ensure Edinburgh gets a venue with sound quality “to rival the very best in the world.”

    Baker says: “We’re blessed with the most extraordinary venues in Edinburgh.

    “On the one hand, we’ve got venues that other cities might kill for because the festivals have kept them open, but they’re basically all from the 19th century.

    "If you look at cities which are trying to emulate Edinburgh, very few of them are anywhere close to us, but they are building new cultural infrastructure. You can’t just sit on your laurels.

    “This is going to be a piece of really beautiful, iconic 21st century architecture devoted to culture. That’s a real statement for Edinburgh on the world stage.”

    Music lovers in Edinburgh are well used to travelling outside the city for concerts, a situation which Baker insists will be tackled by the new venue, despite the lack of an indoor arena on the scale of those in Glasgow and Aberdeen.

    Joanna Baker, executive director of Impact Scotland and its joint chairs, Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan and Scottish Chamber Orchestra chief executive Gavin Reid. Picture: Ian Georgeson

    She adds: "We’ll absolutely have an opportunity to see things in Edinburgh that you wouldn’t otherwise see – across all genres of music.

    “There are artists who are not stadium bands who need a more intimate experience. They’re looking for the framework that a venue like this will provide, in terms of its size, facilities, intimacy and flexibility.”

    Concerns have been raised that the Dunard Centre will impact on the viability of other venues, not least the Queen’s Hall and Leith Theatre, with the latter unable to reopen permanently due to its condition.

    Baker responds: “I remember the same conversation when the Festival Theatre was developed and how it would kill the King’s Theatre stone dead. Those two venues are still going great guns.

    “The Dunard Centre won’t be replacing the Queen’s Hall or Leith Theatre, which are amazing venues. They’re really different venues which will do very different things.

    “I know that the more activity you have in Edinburgh the more you will build audiences.

    “I absolutely do not believe it will impact on the viability of other venues. What it will do is offer opportunities.

    "It will allow the International Festival to put on work there just isn’t a suitable space for just now.

    "If the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is no longer rehearsing in the Queen’s Hall it’s an opportunity to do different stuff. There is work that wouldn’t come here in a million years that would be fantastic in Leith Theatre.

    "One of the key things we are all realising in Edinburgh is that if you work closely together you’re more than the sum of your parts."

    A message from the Editor:

    Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

    If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.

    An image showing how the new Dunard Centre will fit into Register Lane.
    The Dunard Centre's cafe-bar is planned to have an outdoor terrace.