Conference centre to bring business to heart of Edinburgh

Edinburgh’s new 5

conference centre finally opened its doors this week, marking the first phase of plans to create a 2 new business district in the West End. Eddie Gibb 7 looks at the plans while 1 (below) Jonathan Wood ; and Sam Cassels assess ; the architectural impact of the building.


Unless you're a Kwik-Fit fitter who attended the first corporate knees-up at Edinburgh's new £38 million conference centre. it's unlikely you will have had a chance to look round the building which was fundedlargely with local tax-payers' money and will continue to mop up public subsidy. However. the long-term benefit to the city's local economy will be huge. according to its council backers. In a bizarrely precise calculation. they state that for every pound of subsidy. £12.67 will be spent in the city as conference delegates exercise their expense accounts.

The Edinburgh International 1 Conference Centre (ElCC). first proposed 25 years ago as a way of increasing business tourism. will have a l

more immediate impact on the city centre as the first element in a ‘masterplan' for the site bounded by the Western Approach Road. Morrison Street and Lothian Road. The area has been designated as Edinburgh‘s new financial district which is intended to meet demand for modern office space that the information age requires. Computers and the need for cable networks snaking through offices have made Edinburgh's Georgian terraces obsolete. it seems. Surveys of the city‘s office provision during the 80s warned that major companies would leave the city altogether if they were prevented from expanding out of their existing

Edinburgh’s new conference centre: ‘not a power ghetto’

headquarters in New Town offices.

. Though this has lead to an ever—

growing number of ‘To Let' signs around Charlotte Square and along

George Street. city planners were told

there was no alternative but to build modem offices.

‘Buildings like Saltire Court [which houses the new Traverse] have taken companies out of Charlotte Street so there has been a shift in the centre of gravity for Edinburgh's business life.‘ says lan Spence. urban design manager at Edinburgh District Council. ‘but we still want to retain businesses in the New Town and we're looking at that


Given the opportunity to plan the new business district as a whole ElCC architect Farrell & Co was also commissioned to ‘masterplan‘ the area the city planners were insistent that the development should encourage activity in the area outside office hours. with the creation of several public spaces. It is also hoped that the increased number of people visiting the area will help provide a shot in the arm for the run—down pans of Lothian Road and Morrison Street.

‘This is not intended as a power ghetto.‘ says lead architect Duncan Whatmore of Farrell. ‘Overall. the masterplan attempts to stitch the site back together with the rest of the West End. The office element doesn't exist in isolation shops and bars will be critical to the success of the site. We don't see it being like the City of London which closes at the weekend.‘

The spaces around the buildings. such as Conference Square outside the

1 ElCC. will be linked by walkways and

cycle routes. The council is currently looking at ways of implementing the proposal fora central Edinburgh rapid transport system known as CERT which would link the West End site with the Gyle business park and airport. Initially this is likely to be a traffic-free route fora special bus service. with the possibility of upgrading to trams in the future.

‘This is not just about life in the buildings. but between them.‘ says Spence.

At last, a piece of modern architecture in Edinburgh that is neither small scale, Georgian pastiche, or breathtakingly banal. The HBO is a big, bold building: a central drum held in the vice-like grip of four service cores. This is a very sculptural piece of architecture - much more Paolozzi in realisation than Farrell’s actual Paolozzi project, the Dean Centre conversion. It is not insulting to describe the Elcc as a fine piece of industrial architecture.

However, the very qualities which

give it a strong individual presence also divorce it from its surroundings. Certainly this is no bad thing given the present state of its setting a no man’s land of glass stump offices and less than grand hotels but a building is not a piece of sculpture: it has a real impact on people’s lives. The contrast between the powerful entrance on Morrison Street and the fortress-like edge of the rest of the building highlights the key problem with the HBO the lack of a convincing logic which links it to the rest of the city.

The ElCC is intended as part of a masterplan designed to knit together

the fabric of the city and create a sense of place in the area, thereby increasing real estate values. At the heart of this masterplan is a new semi-public square and a link between Shandwick Place and Morrison Street. This new square will eventually provide some retail units to create activity - though mainly of the banking variety and the architect states that the pedestrian route lies along an existing ‘desire line’ (you might call it a short cut). However, whether the new square will be a worthwhile urban space a real public focus - or another windswept enclave for suits which becomes deserted

after the nine-to-five, remains to be seen.

The redevelopment of the Exchange area is the biggest city centre development and design opportunity Edinburgh has seen for many years. Thankfully, the Elcc is a building which sets a high benchmark for the rest of the development, but for Edinburgh the success of the overall development will ultimately depend on how it is used, not how it looks.

Jonathan Wood and Sam Cassels are with BAH Consultants, an Edinburgh- based management and design consultancy.

Charity records

Unless you're looking for that Top of the Pops compilation from 1974 you know. the one with the girl in a macrame bikini on the cover charity shop records tend to be of little interest. But two Oxfam stores in Glasgow are doing a special music promotion in October. intended to highlight the quality of some of the LP donations the charity shops receive. Volunteers are currently sorting through over 2000 records in the Oxfam warehouse. plus a few hundred 783. ‘We've got heavy rock. classical music. and probably some grunge as well, i should imagine.‘ says distn’ct retail manager Louis McPhilemy. ‘People hand in records and we have an obligation to get as much as possible for them.’ The music

promotion starts on Saturday 7 October at Oxfam's Byres Road and Renfield Street shops.

Green into service

Glasgow‘s Environment Centre has set up a new information service called the Eco-Line. a telephone service anyone can call for environmental information. If you need to know where your nearest bottle bank is or want an explanation of the finer points of bio-diversity. the Eco-Line awaits your call. According to spokesman Neil McDonald. the phone line has been set up to help promote awareness of green issues and help a puzzled public which is baffled by environmental jargon. The Eco-Line draws on the centre‘s database of information which includes press clippings. campaigning literature by environmental groups and research documents. The line is staffed

9am—5pm every weekday on 014] 553 I31 1.

Hardwood campaigner

Acclaimed sculptor Tim Stead has carved a ‘mahogany memorial‘ as part of a Friends of the Earth campaign against the use of tropical rainforest hardwoods in Britain. The sculpture is in the form of a round table with a hole burned in the centre. which represents the destruction of natural forests. with four carved chairs standing for Scotland‘s own native hardwoods. ‘l’m extremely concerned about the exploitation of the tropical rainforests.‘ says Stead. The sculptor is a co~founder of Borders Community Woodland which was set up to promote the use of native timber. Stead's mahogany memorial is at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Edinburgh until the end of October.

Lesbian archive

The National Lesbian Archive. claimed to be the most significant collection of lesbian literature and documents in the UK. has found a permanent home at the Glasgow Women‘s Library from this week. Library volunteers now have the job of cataloguing and expanding the archive. which includes everything from Radclyffe Hall first editions to newsletters from UK long-disbanded lesbian groups to 80s button badges with slogans like ‘Fat is a Feminist lssue‘ and ‘l‘d Rather Be at Greenham'. Call the Women's Library on 0141 552 8345 for details.

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The List 22 Sept-5 Oct I995 5