Edinburgh’s Chipperfield Mystery

You’ve won the competition Sir David, so why can’t the public see the winning design?

There is a lot to be said about the worth of Pre-application Planning Consultations but everyone expected better from the renowned practice behind proposals for Edinburgh’s new SCO Concert Hall (the so called “IMPACT Centre”).

Last year, the trust behind the creation of a new 1000 seat concert hall off the city’s St. Andrew Square shortlisted six leading architectural practices to develop detailed designs for the building. Amongst these was David Chipperfield Architects (DCA), who were eventually selected as the lead designer for, what must have been, their highly impressive and unique concept.

The appointment of the practice behind such works as Berlin’s Neues Museum immediately excited the half of Edinburgh’s population who are desperate to move beyond the established cubic sandstone style that grips the city. Therefore hopes were high when a public consultation was announced for November. Would Edinburgh finally get to see this marvel of architectural design? Well, much to the dismay of those who attended, the answer was a resounding “no”. The winning concept was obviously too precious to undergo the scrutiny of the public.

So, where did the design go? Did the practice leave the drawings on the bus or perhaps they slid down the back of the sofa? DCA won in the face of fierce competition from David Adjaye Associates, Richard Murphy Architects, Barozzi Veiga and others, surely they actually had a developed design when they stood before the puzzled consultation attendees and pretended that no such thing existed? We know from the concept published by Richard Murphy afterwards that the shortlisted architects had to present a near complete concept, they even developed fly-throughs and renders.

The Walnut Whip
© Jestico+Whiles

This begs the question as to why DCA didn’t present their winning proposition. Perhaps, following the controversy surrounding Edinburgh’s Royal High School and the supposed hatred of the Jestico+Whiles’ St James ‘Walnut Whip’ hotel, they thought it would be easier to cut out a stage of consultation and just suffer any objections that may come as part of a full planning application. At least, it is an act of ignorance by the practice or worse it is a deliberate act to exclude the city from the design process, a move that is sure to backfire if the Royal High School is anything to go by.

Maybe the design is the opposite though. Instead of being controversial (what the rest of the United Kingdom probably calls ‘cool’ or ‘exciting’) perhaps the design is just safe and boring, so there is little need to consult on it. The building will glide through the planning process applauded by both the heritage lobby and those less historically predisposed. For the sake of the city, I sincerely hope its not the latter, the time has surely passed for architectural conservatism, the mediocre result of which is the inoffensive sandstone blocks spreading throughout Edinburgh like a persistent rash.

Above all these questions however, is simply a sense of disappointment. Disappointment in the architect, in the developer and in the process. There is no escaping the fact that on countless computers and desks in Chipperfield’s London office there are designs that could have been shown to the public. They made a conscious decision to defer comments of objection, or maybe, god forbid, support, till the much more treacherous stage of full planning. Not only is this disappointing because they have circumvented the process but ultimately because it could lead to unnecessary delays. Edinburgh can’t move forward if every application beyond the size of a house extension gets caught up in never-ending debates about the city’s identity. By purposely avoiding showing us their winning design, David Chipperfield Architects has no doubt put the SCO Concert Hall on the same path as every contemporary building in Edinburgh before it. A path that is riddled with problems and with a downwards slide towards failure. It will likely now be an uphill battle for them to obtain planning permission and quite frankly, they deserve it.

Crumble Issue 2: What’s the Plan? Is available to purchase online and in our stockists from the end of January 2018.

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