When it was announced that the Ross Bandstand was to be replaced with a “Concert Arena” as part of a plan to “revitalise” West Princes Street Gardens, my first thought was “why?”

Perhaps it is appropriate, therefore, that the winning design is by an American firm of architects called wHY!

Princes Street Gardens form what Sir Bernard Feilden called “the great arena” which is the very heart of the Edinburgh World Heritage Site, a serene piece of low-lying gardened landscape, separating the Old and New Towns and permitting spectacular views between them. Do the gardens need to be “revitalised”?

Loading article content

The Ross Bandstand, designed by E.J. MacRae in a faintly Art Deco style in 1935, has become a familiar part of the scene.

Replacing it may well be justified, but we should be clear that “revitalisation” in this context means transforming the gardens from an oasis of calm at the centre of the city into another money-generating component of the theme park which the whole of central Edinburgh is all too rapidly becoming.

The pioneer planner Sir Patrick Geddes described cities as complex living organisms, advocated conservative surgery and warned of unforeseen consequences, not least for the resident population.

Citizens: Listen to the people of Venice and Barcelona and beware!

Having sounded such a note of caution, if the bandstand is to be replaced, then however obtrusive the activities in the new Concert Arena may be, wHY’s design is calm, unobtrusive and as responsive to its setting as any design could be. When it is built, one will still be able to look across to the castle and the skyline of the Old Town, without the eye being drawn to an assertive structure in the foreground. The wHY building, if it works well and is as pleasing inside as out, has the potential to be a distinguished piece of architecture.

Ever since Sydney Opera House was built in the 1970s, architects have sought to create ‘iconic’ architecture. They all too often forget that context is vital to any architectural design. The Sydney site demanded an “icon”. Princes Street Gardens palpably does not. The other short-listed designs were quite unnecessarily attention-seeking. If there must be a Concert Arena, the judges have chosen the best design.

Architect Dr James Simpson OBE lectures and campaigns for heritage causes.