Architecture: Modern tragedy of a Greek Revival: The Royal High School in Edinburgh, a Neo-Classical masterpiece, is threatened with redevelopment. Neil Manson Cameron reports

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One of Britain's finest Neo-Classical buildings, the Royal High School in Edinburgh, faces a highly uncertain fate. The Greek Revival masterpiece of the 1820s, which was designed by Thomas Hamilton and helped Edinburgh to earn the title the 'Athens of the North', is to be sold. An announcement has been made in the House of Commons that the building, which was acquired by the government in the late Seventies as a home for the proposed Scottish parliament, is now surplus to requirements.

If public funds cannot be found, it may be converted to commercial use, an idea that has caused grave concern in conservation circles in Britain's most heritage-conscious city. The Royal High School is one of the principal elements of the Edinburgh cityscape, punctuating the north-east side of the centre in a highly dramatic fashion. Amenity societies are concerned that it may fall into the hands of an unsympathetic developer.

A spokesman for the Cockburn Association, which is devoted to the preservation and enhancement of Edinburgh's architecture, has said that 'any ownership which restricts public access is not appropriate ownership'. This would exclude most commercial uses such as offices, banks and hotels. Undaunted by such niceties, estate agents are viewing the sale as one of the most exciting marketing prospects in Scotland for many years.

One possibility is that it may be bought by Edinburgh District Council. As it was previously owned by Edinburgh before being bought by government, the city has first refusal on buying it back. However, it must do so within two months or the building will be sold on the open market. The price at which it will be offered depends in part on the interpretation of legislation that applied to its compulsory purchase in 1976 and on an assessment of its commercial value. Both possibilities are being debated fiercely.

Whether Edinburgh will have sufficient funds to buy the Grecian masterpiece is far from certain, although the council's Labour group is adamant that every effort will be made to keep the building in public ownership. Labour councillors propose to convert it into a centre of architecture and design as part of the city's bid to become the Arts Council 'City of Architecture and Design 1999', for which it has been shortlisted along with Glasgow and Liverpool. The city has committed itself to an architecture and design centre whether or not it gains the Arts Council award. In due course, however, it is proposed to house this centre in a new building for which there will be an international architectural competition, leaving the long-term prospects for the Royal High School unresolved.

The news of the disposal of this famous Edinburgh landmark has brought a strong political reaction. Although used by the Crown Office for more than 10 years, it was converted in the late Seventies to house the proposed Scottish Assembly at a cost of about pounds 3.75m. Its selling off has been viewed as a political gesture by which the Conservatives have underlined their opposition to Scottish separatism. In the aftermath of the failure of the referendum on devolution for Scotland, the building has become a symbol of extraordinary resonance, encapsulating for many Scots their unsuccessful attempts to secure greater political autonomy.

Opposition parties are therefore concerned about the fate of this focal point of Scottish political aspiration. A spokesman for the Scottish National Party described the building as 'a national monument which should be kept for the people of Scotland and must not fall into the hands of private developers'.

Since its construction between 1825-29, the Royal High School has always been in public ownership, having been built largely at the expense of the city to replace the Old High School at which Robert Adam and Adam Smith studied. Intended to rival Edinburgh Academy, which was designed by the architect William Burn and championed by Sir Walter Scott, it was to be open 'to persons of all ranks - to the general character of the nation'.

As an example of Greek Revival architecture it has been described by the historian Sir John Summerson as 'more picturesque and imaginative than anything of its kind south of the border'. Thomas Hamilton (1784-1858), whose work is hardly known outside Scotland, was a self-taught genius who was notoriously unsociable and almost deaf. The Royal High School is his masterpiece.

The building is partly modelled on the temple buildings of the Acropolis at Athens and makes exceptional use of an almost impossibly steep site - all the city was able to spare at the time - creating a monumental composition of distinct parts integrated by a masterly use of massing and light. Although it cost more to build than the original estimate of pounds 24,200, the severe Doric style was chosen in part to keep costs down (the Doric, unlike its sibling Ionic and Corinthian orders of Classical architecture, demands little in the way of decorative carving or elaborate stonework). In contrast, the main hall of the building made early use of cast-iron columns, their wild leafy capitals adding a jaunty decorative touch to the character of the interior, which is largely original.

The Royal High School is perfectly in tune with its surroundings, seeming to be a part almost of the rock on which it is built and reflecting something of the craggy appearance of nearby Arthur's Seat. This picturesque quality was entirely in accord with the taste of the period, demonstrating that Neo-Classicism, although often chaste in its forms, was by no means a dogmatic architectural agenda to be set in opposition to Romanticism, especially in a city of such natural theatricality as Edinburgh. But whether the building has a romantic and public spirited or unromantic and private future remains to be seen. A future as a temporary architecture and design centre and then as the seat of a Scottish government would be the ideal choice for a magnificent building that so perfectly represents the values of art and democracy handed down to us by the Greeks.

(Photograph omitted)