Edinburgh's annual arts festival has been waiting more than 40 years for a place to call its own. Now, thanks to architects Law & Dunbar-Nasmith, a supreme public funding effort and an emerging political ambition to establish the city as a key international architecture centre, the festival finally has a home.
The new Festival Theatre is a remarkably fresh-looking building for a city that has begun, architecturally at least, to be pickled in aspic by councillors fearful of a repeat of the brutal excesses of the Sixties and Seventies, which caused extensive damage to Edinburgh's virtually untarnished fabric. A sweeping curved-glass facade, punctuated only by a simple glass blister to denote the entrance, faces historic Nicolson Street, just a few steps south of the Royal Mile.
This crystalline transparency, however, is only half the story of a welcome building that proves, on closer inspection, to be a hybrid. The heart of this modern-looking theatre is a thoughtfully renovated and revamped version of the auditorium of the original Empire Theatre, which was rebuilt in 1928 from an original dating back to 1892. This was designed, like so many great British fin de siecle theatres, by Frank Matcham.
Over the years, the glitzy old Empire honoured such stars as Anna Pavlova, Charlie Chaplin, Fats Waller, Margot Fonteyn, Roy Rogers and a horse that may have been Trigger. The design quality of the reborn theatre should help to bring a fresh wave of international talent to Edinburgh. The building will provide Scotland with a full-
scale opera house, a venue for ballet and a lyric theatre that is as good as any.
The new 2,000-seat theatre is three times the size of Edinburgh's Playhouse or King's Theatre, double that of Glasgow's Theatre Royal and bigger than both the Royal Opera House and the new Glyndebourne. It has a catchment area of more than 5 million people living within two hours' drive - including potential audiences drawn from as far afield as Carlisle and Newcastle upon Tyne.
The theatre is part of Edinburgh's attempt to shake off its genteel and gerontocratic image and increase earnings through cultural tourism. Edinburgh is in the middle of a pounds 1bn construction drive with much of the money coming from the public purse. Richard Meier's business park is about to take shape, a huge conference centre designed by Terry Farrell is expected to be finished next year, Benson & Forsyth's competition-winning proposal for the Museum of Scotland is on site, and the monolithic Murrayfield Rugby Stadium is all but complete.
In addition, an open architectural competition has just been launched to extend the central library and create a new children's complex on a key site in Edinburgh's Old Town. Yet another competition is planned for the design of an international architecture and design centre. This is planned to open by the end of the decade.
All these buildings are, or will be, uncompromisingly modern, as such projects are in Paris, for example. Surprisingly, this successful drive to upturn the stronghold of preservation, which has held the city for so long, has not been prompted by the influence of Scotland's 4,500 architects, but by a politician. George Kerevan, chairman of the city council's economic development and estates committee (and a likely challenger for the leadership of the city council), is convinced that Edinburgh's, and indeed Scotland's, economy can be rekindled on a design-led ticket.
He believes that the time for immovable conservation has passed in Edinburgh; that design, information and ideas will take over from manufacturing as the country's economic driving force in the 21st century; and that Edinburgh is in prime position to grasp the initiative and become a key international city if it invests wisely in modern design and architecture.
Mr Kerevan has orchestrated the establishment of an architecture and design centre in the heart of the city. He is also a leading force behind a determined bid against Glasgow and Liverpool for the Arts Council title of City of Architecture and Design 1999. He believes the year-long design festival will be worth hundreds of millions of pounds to Edinburgh and spark further investment in the fabric of what is already one of the world's best-looking cities.
Edinburgh's new architectural persona is being encouraged on many levels. Plans to advertise local architectural sites on the sides of buses and the backs of parking stickers are pursued as vigorously as the idea of an international architectural and design clearing house, which, as well as communicating with the public and co-ordinating education programmes, would also pull together job opportunities and tenders from around the world and provide the infrastructure, marketing and business expertise to allow Scottish architects and designers to compete on an international level.
Alongside this, a huge marketing push is planned along the Danish model - a country of similar size that is training its architects as an export commodity, resulting in an increasing number of Danish architects working abroad, specifying Danish products, employing Danish construction companies and so driving a successful manufacturing industry and economy onwards.
To invest so vigorously in design and architecture on this scale is exceptional. To do so in Edinburgh, a city so often ensnared by its heritage, is even more astounding. Mr Kerevan does not agree. 'There is a fine dividing line between conservation and reaction,' he says. 'We now have to build new to go on being a vital city and we are in danger over the next 20 years of certain conservation interests not realising that they have to lobby as hard for the new as they did to preserve the old.'
Edinburgh's future is likely to be a far more dramatic one than anyone would have guessed a few years ago, starting, appropriately, with the new Festival Theatre.
The author is deputy editor of the 'Royal Institute of British Architects Journal'.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies