An architecture centre for Edinburgh?

COPENHAGEN, Amsterdam, Milan, Paris, Hamburg (pictured), Bologna, London and many other European cities all have some form of architecture centre, where the public, designers, developers and elected representatives can engage with what’s happening in their city.

Surely, Edinburgh should have something like this too?

Despite the economic uncertainty resulting from the Coronavirus pandemic, and the realisation that ‘austerity’ is far from over, Edinburgh is an expanding city and there are plans for development not only in the precious historic centre but also in the west, towards the airport, to the north-east in Granton and at various locations close to the ring road, the Edinburgh by-pass.

Moreover, as the pursuit of zero-carbon targets by the city council and the Scottish Government will rapidly have a profound effect on the built environment, the need for a forum for debate, display, education and consultation is both urgent and compelling.

A publicly-accessible architecture centre holds out the prospect of greater transparency, clearer development proposals and higher levels of engagement. Recent difficulties with the former Royal High School and the ‘Quaich Project’ in Princes Street Gardens only serve to highlight the problem.

Is a shared vision of the future too much to hope for?

Good design – be it architecture, engineering, landscape or place-making – would be showcased alongside Edinburgh’s historic evolution as a world-class city so that the two are not seen as separate or in opposition to each other. 

But this would not only be about development but could also address conservation of the existing fabric, not least to demonstrate how older buildings can be upgraded to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions.

Transport too must form part of the debate, with behavioural change and renewable energy requiring more explanation than almost any other topic. Inevitably, there would be links to Scotland as a whole, as the issues are national, not just local.

Whilst the architecture centres in other parts of Europe have shown what is possible, the solution here should reflect Edinburgh’s needs and character. 

Unlike London, for example, this is too small a place for the private sector to provide all the backing, nor should it be an extension of local or national government.

Collaboration will be the key to creating a sense of common purpose, certainly with contributions from the council and the general public, but also from heritage bodies, the universities, the development community, architects and other consultants, and many others involved in the well-being of the built environment.    

It was a chance discussion at a conference that led to my proposal for an architecture centre in Edinburgh and it was subsequently presented at a consultation meeting with 25 interested parties during the summer of 2019.

A working group, drawn from those who attended, has since developed the concept and funded a feasibility study that confirmed there was considerable support across a very broad range of sectors.

Once the Coronavirus crisis has passed, work will resume on financial viability and premises, both of which are likely to suggest a pop-up facility in an existing building as a realistic starting point. 

It’s still early days, but there is an undoubted sense of optimism and momentum.  

An architecture centre in Edinburgh has been long overdue, but it is needed now more than ever before.

Rab Bennetts co-founded the architectural practice, Bennetts Associates, with his wife, Denise, in 1987. Having grown up and studied architecture in Edinburgh, they opened an Edinburgh studio in 1994 and have since designed buildings throughout Scotland. Current work includes conversion of the former Royal Infirmary in Lauriston Place into the Edinburgh Futures Institute. Rab was awarded OBE for services to architecture in 2003.

Photo of Hamburg architecture centre, courtesy of Rap Bennetts