Edinburgh is no stranger to construction. Since 2008, the natives have been waiting expectantly for the much vaunted tram system to come to fruition – a mammoth undertaking that has left the city in an apparently permanent state of flux. But while the shiny new transport system slowly takes shape, another ambitious project waits in the wings: the £850 million regeneration of St James Quarter by local practice Allan Murray Architects and BDP. Pencilled in from 2011, the project includes the demolition of unloved brutalist monolith St James Centre on Leith Street. A gargantuan concrete edifice in the best tradition of 70s architecture, it was never destined for affection in such an historic city and one suspects a collective cheer will herald the wrecking ball’s accession.
Sitting coolly opposite this scene of future destruction is The Cube by Allan Murray Architects (AMA). Constructed on a troublesome brownfield site, which no developer in their right mind would touch with 15-foot scaffold pole, the six-storey building squeezes an improbable 7435 sq m of office space inside its stone and glass envelope with deceptive ease. “We approached the site with an open book,” explains Angus Eitel, project architect for AMA. “And decided the commercial office option stacked up.” However, to prepare for development numerous obstacles needed to be overcome. The site teetered on one of those nigh on vertical hills for which the city is notorious; gas, power, water and telecoms crossing the area all had to be diverted; on top of that the adjacent bridge terminal linking the site to St James Centre was uncomfortably close to the excavation zone. “It was six months after we started on site before there was any sign of building going on,” explains Eitel. Despite the complications of the site, the planning process was relatively straightforward. “All the major work such as daylight analysis on the neighbours and that kind of thing had already been done.” After a few minor design tweaks the practice got the green light in October 2007 with work kicking off in March the following year.
At first glance the Cube appears slightly awkward. For starters, it’s not really a cube, more a slightly warped K-Shape. In fact, the name comes from a brace of cantilevered meeting rooms in the main atrium. Equally deceptive is the view from the building’s rear. The sharp incline of Calton Hill leaves passers-by peering into the second floor completely unaware of just how dense the plot is. The main façade on Leith Street is predominantly glass, but the building retains a sense of solidity through the stonework. This solidity is accentuated by wooden screens, which hang in the windows. Initially, rejected by a sceptical client, who felt they would compromise their “sexy glass building”, a two-pronged attack from both architect and developer changed their mind. Operated by hand, the screens have a dual purpose, namely heading off the sun’s rays and rather cleverly preventing desks from being jammed up against the windows. So often the bane of glazed office architecture. “It’s our way of controlling the architecture regardless of what happens in the inside,” says Eitel. They are undoubtedly an interesting feature, although any obsessive compulsives may have to fight the urge to perfectly align each one.
Wander around the back and the glazing gives way to a handsome sandstone façade punctuated by large rectangular windows, which wrap around the building’s corners. Despite this the Cube does not lack coherence. The Leith street elevation acknowledges the cylindrical glazed tower of the Calton Square Office (also by AMA) while the top floor references a nearby tenement building’s attic floors. Below, existing cobbled footpaths through the site have been retained, a democratic tradition peculiar to Edinburgh. “There has always been this historic link, which we have tried to maintain,” explains Eitel. “It’s a very Edinburgh thing to do.” As the building rises, it recesses to create rooftop patios on the fifth and sixth floors. Featuring landscaped area, it’s a pleasing contrast to the stone and glass. From here Calton Hill’s ancient bastions can be appreciated, but Eitel confesses that this was largely serendipitous: “We are not going to pretend that we knew everything. Some of the views we just weren’t expecting. The were just due to the nature of the topography."
A five-storey glass atrium houses the main reception, a space animated by two cube-shaped meeting rooms projecting across the void above. The open-planned interior minimises interference from structural columns and is designed to allow as much natural light in as possible. Natural stone floors contrast with a mixture of painted plaster and warmer softwood joinery finishings designed to enhance the natural and artificial lighting. This straightforward approach carries over into the sustainability realm. To comply with Scotland’s new green regulations (toughened in May 2007) the practice concentrated hard on getting the basics right. Therefore seemingly no frills details such as minimising air leakage and solar gain were thrust to the fore. The back to basics approach paid dividends as carbon emissions were slashed by a quarter enabling the building to achieve BREEAM ‘Excellent’ rating and a ‘B’ rated Energy Performance Certificate. “It was challenging to deliver the requirements, but we had a great team,” says a magnanimous Eitel. “There were a lot of things that could of gone spectacularly wrong, but you forget about those things when you look at the building in its current state.”
Professor Michael Fourman, head of E-Science at The Informatics Forum, claims he works in the best building in Scotland. Few would argue, including the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, which last year gave the Potterrow Building the Andrew Doolan ‘Best Building in Scotland’ award. With its transparent atrium, internal spiral staircases and roof terraces (where departmental barbecues are a frequent occurrence) overlooking Arthur’s Seat, Potterrow is Edinburgh University’s latest asset and the first phase of a major new masterplan. The Informatics Forum, which forms part of the new development, has been designed to stimulate cutting-edge scientific research – in this case, into informatics (artificial intelligence and robotics).Considering the university’s standing as one of the world’s most advanced research organisations at the forefront of the virtual community, Potterrow is very much married to its physical surroundings. As Rab Bennett, director of architects Bennetts Associates, explains, this sense of place was important from the outset: “We were always keen to retain the area’s historic urban grain.”The Informatics Forum has been built where a disused car park used to be, on a key pedestrian route to the city centre. The building is spread across two sites, with a public square in the middle designed as a diagonal through-route to bring people through the square and connect the building with Edinburgh’s centre. “Little, informal pedestrian routes are a part of this area of Edinburgh and we wanted the ground floor of the building to really give something back to the street,” project director John Miller explains. As well as a café and forum, commissioned artists will be generating work for a ground-floor gallery space to communicate what goes on in the building.While the researchers overwhelmingly work from cellular labs and offices, animated corridors around the building make the journey around the quadrangle as interesting and interactive as possible. Group networking spaces littered with brightly coloured cushions and coffee points are visible from every floor. “It sounds like rhetoric, but in an environment like this, bringing people together is how the next big ideas happen,” Fourman explains. There are close to 60 different nationalities, and between 500 and 600 researchers working in the building, from a range of backgrounds including chemistry, geography, art, medicine, maths and IT.The department wanted a space where everyone would congregate in smaller groups, both formally and informally, and wanted to aid this process through architecture. “We have been researching these ideas about office buildings for years, so this was music to our ears,” says Fourman.The ‘wormhole’ staircases, hung from the edge of the floorplates, are designed to make the floors less isolated from one another. Fourman produced a mathematical diagram of how limiting it is to only aggregate people horizontally, and how many more places people encounter one other if you introduce an easy vertical dimension. “It has changed the way the building works – you get used to nipping between floors,” Fourman explains. “The places without them feel less connected.” John Miller thinks that Fourman’s equation “should be fundamental to educational and health buildings. With increasingly fancy ways of communicating at a distance, architects have increasingly been asking the question: ‘Do we need buildings at all?’ I think this building shows you need both.”A post-occupancy survey by an architectural psychologist, using RIFD tags voluntarily worn by staff, should throw up interesting results about how the building is being used, and how the design has worked.“The Holy Grail for architecture is the scientific relationship between good design, improved productivity and occupant wellbeing,” explains Miller. “This is an important project for office and educational building design.”The informatics building was first to get an Excellent BREEAM rating in Scotland, and it also achieved this rating for its construction – despite it not being part of the guidelines when the building was designed.The building incorporates thermal mass, mixed ventilation and composite heat and power. “The university’s specialist environmental coordinator had the foresight to insist on common-sense, centralised building measures,” says Miller. “This will ensure it performs well, long after we have handed it over.”For the exterior, Bennetts Associates was faced with the challenge of finding a facade to fulfil civic demand: as well as being part of a historic university, the building sits in the most historic part of Edinburgh, just on the edge of a world heritage site.“Most of Edinburgh is built from stone from a quarry in West Edinburgh that ran out years ago, although there are two or three creamy sandstones that are relevant to new buildings in Edinburgh,” Miller explains.As a result, the natural stone for the facade came from Germany and was pre-cast in Belgium – one of only three places with the facilities to create such large-scale pieces. In a comparatively economic route, the whole facade was shipped to Leith, and transported to Edinburgh, where it was erected in one whole piece, “without even need for scaffolding,” as Miller explains.Phase two will see another department built, facing onto the courtyard, which will be covered in polished white cast stone, and planted with silver birch trees. “It won’t be one of those stuffy educational institutions with a great placard on the wall,” Miller says.In fact there is nothing stuffy about this research institute. Science and maths are the lifeblood of the informatics school, Miller explains, and for ten years they have been researching intelligent buildings, the kind that greet you as you walk in the door, and tell you who is in and out of the building. “The technology is all there, and it’s the intention of the department that with future funding it’s all unrolled in this building.”