Work on new Edinburgh concert hall set to start next year under scaled-back vision for £75m project

Work on Edinburgh's first purpose-built music venue for more than a century is set to get underway next year after scaled-back designs for the project were unveiled.

Thursday, 12th August 2021, 4:55 am
Updated Thursday, 12th August 2021, 7:50 am

The height of the proposed £75 million ‘Dunard Centre’ in the city’s New Town has been lowered in the wake of a prolonged campaign by the developers of the neighbouring St James Quarter.

A second performance space has also been dropped from the project, despite the development’s price tag increasing by £30m from an initial estimate when the concert hall was announced five years ago.

However, its backers say the 1,000-capacity concert hall will “be able to rival the best in the world in acoustic quality and audience experience”.

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It is hoped the new Dunard Centre will open to the public in 2025.

The St James developers have given their crucial backing to the new designs, saying their concerns about the project had now been “largely addressed”.

The design of the performance space, which will be equipped to host classical, jazz, pop, rock, folk and electronica concerts, has been revamped to ensure the maximum flexibility depending on the scale of the production or the number of performers involved.

It is now hoped that work on the new venue, which has already secured £10m each from the UK and Scottish governments and £5m from the city council, will be able to get underway next year and be completed by 2025 if the revamped scheme is approved by the city council.

The venue has had to be scaled back following protests over its potential impact on Edinburgh’s skyline and existing listed buildings, such as Dundas House – the historic headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

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

The site of the venue, which is being designed to be suitable for all styles of music by the leading British architect Sir David Chipperfield, is being effectively donated by the bank for the project, which will create a new home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

The previously proposed 1,000 capacity for the venue has been safeguarded in the new vision for the project, which is now being spearheaded by a former managing director of the Edinburgh International Festival, which will stage shows there every August.

Joanna Baker, executive director of Impact Scotland, the charitable trust created to pursue the concert hall vision, said she was “very confident” the new designs would be deliverable following extensive talks with senior figures involved with the St James Quarter.

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

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

Nuveen Real Estate insisted the concert hall’s “height, scale and mass” be reduced to ensure the new venue “integrates into the city's landscape”. It emerged last January the two sides had agreed to “work together” on the project.

The 200-capacity studio theatre was a key element of the original vision as it was due to provide a “rehearsal, recital and recording space to rival the best in Europe”.

However, it has had to be sacrificed to bring the overall height of the building down by around seven metres.

Ms Baker said: “There has been an incredibly rigorous process going through the redesign, looking at everything from the construction of the venue to how it will work backstage and front of house.

The southern entrance to the new Dunard Centre.

"Part of what came out the mediation process we went through was to agree to regular liaison.

“The St James Quarter team have been kept fully up to speed as the project has developed and the discussions we’ve had with them have been very cordial. We’ve been trying to ensure there are no surprises.

"We’ve have good discussions with them about the future as well. This part of Edinburgh has already been transformed and having a new concert hall there as an absolute jewel will finish that transformation.

“The new St James Quarter has already opened up a lot of public spaces, but our project will allow you to walk right through there from St Andrew Square.”

St James development director Martin Perry said: “We have always supported the development of a concert hall on this site and we see it as a welcome addition to the offer in this part of the city.

"Whilst we previously expressed a number of concerns about the scale, materials and practicality of its construction and operation, we have since worked with Impact Scotland in rectifying these issues and feel that they’ve been largely addressed in the design revisions.”

The height of the new concert hall has been lowered to curb its impact on the new hotel at the St James Quarter.

Sir David said: “Tucked behind Dundas House and on axis with George Street, the Dunard Centre occupies a strategic site linking the formal qualities of St. Andrew Square and the New Town with the more intimate atmosphere of lanes around Register House towards the new St James Quarter.

“The identity of the building is determined by its circular form, contributing to the silhouette of the city.

“This flexible world-class facility is designed to adapt to a wide-ranging programme of performances and cultural activities, ensuring it will serve as a meaningful new addition to the life and fabric of Edinburgh.”

Iain Stewart, the UK Government’s Minister for Scotland, said: "The Dunard Centre is an exciting prospect for Edinburgh's cultural landscape.

"These designs show the great potential for a new, dynamic creative space in the heart of the city.”

Council leader Adam McVey said: “The Dunard Centre is an exciting and important new cultural venue for our capital.

"It’s in a prime central and sustainable location, with fantastic public transport connections and will complement the wider transformation of the east end of the city centre alongside the opening of the St James Quarter – ensuring our city centre remains a vibrant and thriving destination.”

Fergus Linehan, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, said: “The Dunard Centre will be a truly transformational venue in the heart of Edinburgh.”