Edinburgh’s conundrum: can you be a heritage city but not a museum?

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Edinburgh's conundrum: can you be a heritage city but not a museum?
Edinburgh's conundrum: can you be a heritage city but not a museum?
The hotel at the £850m Edinburgh St James development has been dubbed the ‘ribbon hotel’ – though some locals call it ‘the turd’ / Photo: Jestico + Whiles

A string of new developments are threatening Edinburgh’s Unesco status. Is that a reason not to build?

In the Scottish Cafe beneath William Henry Playfair’s ambitiously Grecian 1859 Scottish National Gallery building, the architect Gareth Hoskins sips tea and looks out over Princes Street Gardens. “It’s one of Edinburgh’s finest views,” he says. “And all you have is this little strip of pavement outside to enjoy it from in the summer.”

His Glasgow-based firm will shortly put an accessible plaza here – a refreshingly non-controversial project in a city that has been shaken by a series of proposed new developments.

A mile away is Thomas Hamilton’s 19th century Royal High School. Another impressively colonnaded homage to Athens, it stands proud on the side of Calton Hill in an airy, quiet spot that is very visible from the Old Town. In three week’s time, just before Christmas, the city’s planners will decide whether or not to approve its conversion into a luxury Rosewood hotel. Hoskins’s firm has proposed new-build contemporary extensions to either side – dubbed “Mickey Mouse ears” by the less-enthused.

Meanwhile, the so-called “ribbon hotel” – also not so lovingly known as “the turd” – will replace the unloved St James Shopping Centre. This, as well as the plan to redevelop a dozen prime central spots known as the “Edinburgh 12”, has locals worried about destroying a unique, centuries-old architectural heritage. There have been ever-louder murmurings that Edinburgh could be stripped of its Unesco World Heritage status, as happened to Dresden in 2009 after a four-lane bridge was built over the Elbe. […]

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