Lauriston Place had been home to the Royal Infirmary since 1879, before moving in 2003. Right up until its close cutting edge medicine was developed within the ageing walls, including the first liver transplant in Scotland. The donor and recipient lay in different wards, with doctors running – mid-op – through the corridor adjoining them. The presiding surgeon, Prof. O James Garden, had to deal with makeshift arrangements elsewhere: his secretary had her office in the clock workings of the infirmary’s tower. A makeshift pulley was said to have been constructed to haul piles of papers up the spiral staircase to her. Edinburgh residents, when asked, keenly remember the infirmary’s A+E, and the ambulances parked next to its entrance on Middle Meadow Walk. There are still generations of ‘Simpson’s’ babies, born in the infirmary’s maternity unit, and most born and bred in Edinburgh can remember visiting older relatives in the Victorian wards.
Now fallen into a state of disrepair, the building is currently being repurposed as the ‘Edinburgh Futures Institute’ (EFI), under a £120m regeneration drive by the University of Edinburgh. The avowed aim is to create a place that incubates interdisciplinary study. It is hoped that by bringing together different disciplines in spatial proximity, there can be fertile cross pollination of ideas. The building will house an Academy of Government, a Centre for Future Infrastructure, and an Institute for International Cultural Relations, among other things.
The redevelopment follows a long line of recent projects: most prominently, the newly finished refurbishment of Old College, and the Bayes Centre. The redevelopment of the infirmary has poignant emotional significance for many. Prof. Lesley McAra, the recently appointed director of the EFI, in fact had her life saved in critical care ward 9, following a pulmonary embolism. The Professor, who is understandably very fond of the building, stresses the importance of reclaiming it for the community at large, not just the University proper. ‘The EFI has got to be facing the community. This building is being rescued, and remade for the city.’ As such, the development is partly a means to enliven the surrounding area, acting as an urban stitch between different communities and generations. The original Foster + Partners masterplan of the Quartermile, which did not include a University element, has subsequently become quite monocultural. A couple of restaurants do little to prevent the collection of high-value flats and offices feeling a little sterile. Denise and Rab Bennetts, the architectural duo behind the University’s recent developments, have emphasised the transformative impact that student circulation in the area could have. ‘The idea that three thousand students can arrive on the doorstep, and they’ll be going left, right, north, south, east, west is a fantastic addition to that space. It’ll bring the demographic age down, and make it more lively.’
Rab, in particular, sees parallels with their involvement in the Kings Cross redevelopment. ‘The life of the place came by accident through a property speculation [development of Central St Martin’s School of Art], if you like, and it was never part of the plan. But, it has massively benefited from that, because right from the beginning, you’ve got a tremendous social mix on that site.’ The 5000 students going from Kings Cross Station to Central Saint Martins are a lifeblood that run through the area. Denise and Rab are very conscious that the gaps between buildings — the routes and the streets – are often more important than the buildings themselves. When meeting the two in their Edinburgh office, they showed me a plan, by Corbusier, from 1922. Corbusier’s erstwhile idea was to create taller buildings, which sit in large plots of green, civic space: a new rational architecture, for a new era of technological innovation, which could provide a clean and ordered living space for the masses. Despite these idealistic intentions, the buildings can become isolated artefacts, sitting in space, only seen from cars passing through. ‘Modern architecture has been indoctrinated by the idea that the building is a work of art sitting on its own, and everybody looks’, says Rab. ‘That’s not necessarily the case, historically.’ They produced a plan of the medieval city Parma, pointing to the fine buildings, courtyards, Cathedral and campaniles, mixed in with the rest. ‘If you take the overall town, most of the buildings are unremarkable, and you would just say they were the backdrop to the city. But any one of them could just as easily be a modern building or an old building.’ The haves and have-nots are mixed together and circulate amongst one another. The civic buildings are all team-players stitching together the urban fabric.
Similar debates between ‘modernists’ and ‘anti-modernists’ have permeated the city planning of Edinburgh for some time. In the aftermath of World War II, the University’s masterplan involved the demolition of Georgian buildings in the Southside to make room for a collection of Modernist buildings. Car park filled gap sites, one of which where the Bayes Centre now stands, became emblems of the friction between post-war planning and efforts to conserve Edinburgh’s heritage. The car parks were resented as ugly ‘dead-zones’, which cut off the University from the city, and led to some ill-will from Edinburgh residents. The psychological effect of these building works has cast a long shadow. In a recent community survey, 66% of people responded that they’d never been inside a University building, even though 90% thought the University was a good thing for the city. There’s the instinctive feeling that, if not Festival time, people are unwelcome in George square, or Potterow.
Consequently, the EFI has been designed to have a public engagement events, and a 500 seat events space. It comes in parallel with the University designing pedestrian routes throughout its sites. The path through Old Quad from South Bridge to West College street is public access. A street running through the site of the Bayes centre, that existed prior to the 1960s, has been reintroduced, allowing passers-by to see the robotics labs from ground level, and even venture into the public café.
Denise Bennetts, whose cousin recently photographed inhabitants of the Muirhouse estate, suggests that there are ‘pockets of Edinburgh, where people actually haven’t even been as far south as the University. They might have been on holiday overseas, but actually their own kind of remit within their own city is quite narrow.’ Reaching out to them, and getting them to come in is difficult, but may be helped by clever city planning. The University masterplan, done after the war, pursued a North-South development. A natural circulation route formed, connecting the Scottish National Gallery, New College, George IV bridge, Bedlam theatre, the National museum, Old College, Bristo square, and George Square. More recently, the University plans to develop West to East. The contour ultimately connects Fountainbridge to Holyrood via the Edinburgh College of Art and EFI. It is hoped that this umbilical cord will draw people from all parts of the city towards the University.
Planning approval for the EFI has been contingent on the Institute supporting research into social-good. The City Region deal delivered £60m of investment, on the proviso that data-driven innovation could be harnessed to improve public services in the region. Prof. McAra herself, as a criminologist, runs longitudinal studies on youth offending. In its 21st year, the study overlays census data, recorded violent crime, and so on. It is hoped that big-data can produce policy to tackle the link between poor neighbourhoods and crime. All other research at the EFI has to be similarly multi-disciplinarily. The collaborations are challenge focused, and aim to inductively work out the appropriate methodology to solve problems. The Institute’s format takes inspiration from research into so-called ‘space syntax’, which shows that breakthroughs are often brought about by people coming into contact with many disciplines, and different approaches. The building will be designed to promote contact between its occupants. The Florence Nightingale wards, designed to prevent contagion with wide open spaces and light and airy design, will be restored and reconfigured to encourage the rapid spread of ideas between disciplines. In that way, the EFI is a microcosm of Edinburgh redevelopment as a whole: to induce more serendipitous meetings between people of all ilks. On the front door of the EFI, an old Latin motto is carved into the stone: patet omnibus, open to all. Perhaps the University will one day make this old ambition a reality.
Bennetts Associates designs for Edinburgh Futures Institute: