Collective Architecture

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Female, LGBTQIA+ owned

Glasgow, GB


Collective Opens to the Public for the first time in its 240 Year History.

By CollectiveArch
Jan 15, '19 7:51 AM EST
Collective Architecture on Calton Hill (Photographer - Connor Milton)
Collective Architecture on Calton Hill (Photographer - Connor Milton)

Collective Architecture is delighted to reveal Collective, a freshly restored and redeveloped part or Edinburgh's World Heritage Site for the joint client City of Edinburgh Council and contemporary art organisation, Collective (no relation to Collective Architecture).  

The new contemporary art centre, panoramic viewing terrace and destination restaurant, The Lookout by Gardener’s Cottage, opened to the public for the first time on the 24 November 2018.  

The opening marks a fresh chapter in the history of the Observatory site and for our client, Collective, an organisation active on the Scottish arts scene since 1984. 

The design and restoration project was split into two distinct phases. Following Phase 1 works by Collective Architecture in 2014, facilitated the relocation of Collective to the City Dome on Calton Hill. Phase 2 works saw the extensive refurbishment of the Category A Listed City Observatory, Transit House, Playfair Monument & Boundary Walls. It also includes the addition of a new two storey restaurant, ‘The Lookout’ which cantilevers over the north east corner of the boundary wall, a new gallery ‘The Hillside’ which is excavated into the basalt mound to the north of the Observatory and a new welcome kiosk at the East Gate. The connections between each building are then carefully knitted together by an extensive new landscaping scheme, developed with Harrison Stevens Landscape Architects, which allows the site to become fully accessible and open to all, for the first time in its 240 year history.   

The City Observatory has a rich history, playing a central role in the development of the ideas of the enlightenment. The client group wanted to reinterpret these ideas through the prism of contemporary culture. Astronomy is a forward looking science, and the introduction of contemporary art, a forward looking discipline, to this historic environment is intended to reinterpret what a ‘City Observatory’ could mean today.  

The City Observatory was designed by W.H. Playfair in 1818; we had the fantastic resource of a full, detailed set of original Playfair drawings to work with when developing the proposals. This informed much of the conservation work, including reinstating the original interior plan form of a single central hall with double column arrangement; opening this up now allows light to flood into the space on a perfect east/west orientation as Playfair intended. A particularly striking feature of the City Observatory are the meridian slots, two 180 degree slices into the roof and elevation of the east and west wings of the building which were once covered by timber shutters, to allow the building to be opened up to the sky. These have been reopened, the shutter mechanism overhauled and the slots glazed as part of the works; this intervention feels very contemporary, but in fact is a fundamental original element of the 200 year old building design. The building will be used for display of artwork, scientific instruments and Collective’s retail space. The adjacent Transit House predates the City Observatory, and in many ways is a simplified first version, with a single meridian slot, the same timber shutter system and scaled down detailing. This space will be used by small groups as a workshop and gathering space and for display of scientific instruments.

The restaurant occupies the vacant north west corner of the site; historical analysis found that Robert Adam had urged James Craig to ‘fortify’ each corner of the site when he was developing proposals for Observatory House and although this was not fully realised by Craig, the later additions of the Playfair Monument and City Dome strengthened this principle, leaving the north west corner appearing empty by contrast. The form of the restaurant is designed with a geometric kinship to the Playfair Monument, balanced diagonally opposite. From outside the compound it appears single storey, projecting out in a bold manner over the boundary wall. A series of stone columns support the roof, set in an asymmetric arrangement to create a sense of anchoring the building back into the hill. The pyramid roof form is topped by a glazed oculus, to echo the form of the Old Observatory House roof, and to create a focus up towards the stars, accentuated by a stepping timber ceiling internally. The upper floor enjoys views focused either back towards the City Observatory or out across the city and to Fife.

The integration of a new gallery and office space for Collective was achieved by excavating into the hillside to the north of the City Observatory. This earth sheltered building, which sits a storey lower than the Observatory, becomes integral to the landscape due to roof terrace above, and from here panoramic views from Edinburgh Castle in the west around to the National Monument to the east can be enjoyed. The Hillside gallery is mainly for use by the Satellites programme, run by Collective to support emerging artists in their first exhibitions. The space had to be simple and pared back; the City Dome provides the grand scale and material complexity for more established artists to work with and the Hillside had to provide the antithesis to this. Collective wanted to create a level of intrigue to draw people into the space, as such the windows were kept deliberately small, and the entrance angled to channel people into the gallery space. A simple internal palette of exposed in-situ concrete soffit, polished concrete floor and white walls creates an incredibly calm space. Externally the walls are smooth cullalo sandstone, with tooling to the angled recesses to suggest a carving into this solid form, as the building itself its carved into the basalt of the hill.

Project Architect, Emma Fairhurst lead this project through from inception to completion. Emma initially commenced the project whilst working at Malcolm Fraser Architects (MFA).  The practice (MFA) won the invited limited competition in 2014 and secured planning permission.  The project moved to Collective Architecture in 2015 with Emma Fairhurst continuing as the project architect.  This project required expertise in both architectural conservation and contemporary architecture, to ensure the existing buildings were sensitively restored and the new buildings have an architectural quality and integrity that enables them to sit comfortably and respectfully alongside such significant Edinburgh landmarks. 

Quote from Emma Fairhurst;   'It has been a privilege to work on this unique and challenging project over the last five years. The realisation of this project took great vision by the client group, to find a sustainable new use for the abandoned City Observatory complex on Calton Hill. Historically the site’s use has always being forward looking; pushing the boundaries of scientific understanding. This created a fantastic synergy with Collective, a Contemporary Art organisation who wanted to push boundaries of contemporary culture, architecture and to rethink what a ‘City Observatory’ could mean today.

Calton Hill is a fundamental part of Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site, it is highly visible from all around the City Centre and the last building to be constructed here was the City Dome some 120 years ago. Designing new buildings to sit within this highly sensitive context, demanded a respectful but forward thinking approach, carefully balancing scale, form and materiality to ensure the new buildings are of their time and create a level of intrigue, but without dominating the gentle scale of Playfair’s City Observatory. Carefully piecing the existing buildings back together from their previous dilapidated state has also been incredibly satisfying to be part of; ensuring their survival for future generations to explore and understand.

I have spent much time on Calton Hill in recent years and no matter what the weather or time of day, it is always busy with people taking in the Edinburgh skyline. It is incredibly exciting that the public will now be invited within the walled enclosure of the City Observatory for the first time in its 240 year history, unlocking this jewel of Edinburgh’s past which can now, once again, look towards the future.'