Something felt different on a recent walk on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill and it was not just down to the absence of the Christmas markets and fairground rides in Princes Street Gardens which normally light up the skyline at this time of year.
It was impossible to miss the latest addition to Edinburgh’s landscape, the luxury hotel which will form the centrepiece of the new £1 billion St James development taking shape alongside Calton Hill.
It can be clearly seen from vantage points across the city, which presumably was the aim of developers who have spent well over a decade pursuing a vision for a new “quarter” in this part of the city, which was first developed in the late 18th century.
Its “gold ribbon” design, which has also inspired comparisons with a Walnut Whip, is also unashamedly modern and daring, which may have a lot to do with the fact that it has sharply divided opinion in Edinburgh like no other new building since the Scottish Parliament was completed in 2004.
The day before I had been given a sneak preview of the latest designs for another new building which is already provoking intense debate and is likely to transform the landscape in another part of the city if it secures the green light.
The idea of a new home for the Filmhouse and the Edinburgh International Film Festival first emerged in 2004 when architect Richard Murphy’s vision for the public square opposite the Usher Hall was famously endorsed by Sir Sean Connery, but stalled after failing to secure the backing of the city council.
The Centre for the Moving Image, which runs the two cinematic institutions, spent many of the subsequent years seaching for an alternative location – only to reveal this year that Mr Murphy and his idea were back in the game, this time with a vision for an 11-storey “temple of film” concept for the Festival Square site.
If the prospect of raising the funding for the project looked a tall order in the spring, when it was officially rebooted, it now looks even more daunting.
Its height has been lowered by two floors as the building’s cost has risen by £10m to £60m in nine months when Scottish culture has been turned upside down.
Something tells me that raising the funding may prove the easy part, compared to the planning hurdles it is facing.
Key challenges include taking over a public square – albeit one largely unloved by the Edinburgh public, which only dates back to the mid-1980s.
But the wider context for the proposed “film temple” could prove all-important.
Edinburgh is not short of museums, galleries, theatres and concert halls, but has somehow managed to remain a world-leading cultural destination without creating a major new arts building for a century.
Festival Square is in the middle of Edinburgh’s main cultural quarter, opposite the Usher Hall, and a stone’s throw from the Royal Lyceum and Traverse theatres. It feels like the natural home for the project, even if it may have to be further reduced in height to fit in more with its neighbours.
If a prominent public building for the celebration of films and movie-making cannot be delivered there, what would it say about Edinburgh as a cultural capital of the future?
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