With a dazzling repertoire of styles, varying from classy to very blue, the Edinburgh Quay development is a real entertainer. In fact, if ever a building belonged on the Fringe, this is it.

It was launched this week at the Fringe. It’s fresh and exciting, it’s attracting the crowds, but it’s not a blend of modern jazz and political mime performed in a tub of live whelks. No, indeed. It’s a mixed-use building called Edinburgh Quay.

Given the title, you’d probably assume it’s the next commercial megascheme on Edinburgh’s seafront by Leith. But no, it’s nowhere near there. It’s actually up on the hill less than half a mile west of Edinburgh Castle. It really is a shipping quay, though, and a historic one. Not a marine quay, admittedly – rather it is the Lochrin Basin terminus of the 1822 Union Canal that links Edinburgh to Grangemouth and, since 2002, up the spectacular Falkirk Wheel boatlift and along to Glasgow.

Lochrin Basin was all but unknown until recently – and with good reason. Just like Paddington Basin in London, it was barricaded from the street network by a ring of semi-derelict industrial buildings. And like Paddington, Lochrin has now been transformed by an eye-catchingly modern and vibrant development fit for post-industrial Scotland.

Edinburgh Quay has been developed at a cost of £60m by British Waterways Scotland in its first joint-venture development with a private-sector developer, in this case Miller Developments of Edinburgh. Its initiator was the architect, the long-established Edinburgh practice of Michael Laird Architects, which saw the potential of the site as long ago as 1996 and approached Miller with sketch proposals.

The site certainly has a lot going for it, as it lies right on the path of Edinburgh’s commercial regeneration as it spreads westwards beyond Terry Farrell’s drum-shaped conference centre and BDP’s large Scottish Widows headquarters of 1997. Thus the main ingredient of Edinburgh Quay is offices – about 7600 m2 of them.

The offices have been formed into a nine-storey mini-tower alongside a four-storey rectilinear block fronting onto the street. With an elegantly curved frontage facing central Edinburgh – a combination of curtain walling and honey-coloured reconstituted stone – as well as a recessed, glazed top storey and a projecting canopy roof, it has the presence of a minor landmark.

Unfortunately, the effect is undermined by a characterless setting, as the building is sandwiched between a feeble 1930s bingo hall and a huge post-war brewery masquerading as an oil refinery, and faces on to a rather pathetic mini-roundabout. All of which is enough to send explorers scurrying back to the Royal Mile.

Despite this, it’s well worth venturing down a narrow alleyway between the mini-tower and the rectilinear block into the hinterland of the site. Follow this cobbled route alongside the vivid blue-rendered side wall of the lower block, and a more exciting scene quickly unfolds. Within a few feet, the alley opens out into a wide pedestrian piazza encircled by buildings and paved in dark Caithness stone. At its centre lies the small canal basin occupied by three or four colourful narrow boats.

Here the new buildings lose the decorum of their Edinburgh pseudo-masonry and become bolder and more animated. The rear of the four-storey rectilinear block forms a stop-end to the canal. Along the other side of the alleyway, a six-storey curtain-walled wing extends from the side of the nine-storey tower to a large rectangular projecting bay. Then the wall surface switches to white render and sweeps round the side of the canal basin in a gentle convex curve. Four vertical banks of prominent balconies add a sculptural quality by stepping round the curve, with each projecting at a slightly different angle.

The focal point of the piazza is a swanky two-storey pavilion containing a restaurant that stands alone on the other side of the water. It has a window-wall facade, curved corners partly clad in natural hardwood boarding, a recessed band of clerestory windows and a flat roof canopy that oversails the building at either end.

The cluster of buildings add up to a stimulatingly rich composition of rectilinear and curving forms, glass, metal, render and timber materials, and grey, white and blue colours. As well as the piazza they all look on to, the feature that draws all the buildings together is their bases, as the ground and mezzanine floors are faced in clear-glazed window walls set back behind a loose colonnade of cylindrical concrete columns.

The architectural diversity around the canal basin expresses several distinct uses. The office block stops at the large projecting bay, and the curving white wall with balconies that continues on from it contains 20 luxury apartments including four £750,000 duplex penthouses. The ground and mezzanine floors, like the free-standing pavilion, are planned to contain an unbroken band of restaurants and cafes. It is, in short, a truly mixed-use scheme as encouraged by city planners – albeit a distinctly upmarket one with no social housing.

The architectural design and building uses are more than just compatible: they actively support each other to create a stylish destination. On the building uses side, the offices were the main financial driver for the development and have been let to a firm of lawyers, an accountant and three estate agents. The restaurants, two of which are already occupied by smart à la carte establishments, rely on the lawyers upstairs and are also a magnet to visitors. Along with the apartments and the canal boats themselves, they bring life to the complex, day and night.

On the architectural side, the handling is fresh, assured and a few cuts above most commercial developments. It prevents the rich composition from becoming over-frenetic and infuses the cluster of buildings around the piazza with a strong civic character.

In the wider scheme of things, Edinburgh Quay plays an important role in regenerating the western side of the city and has already won best regeneration project at this year’s Scottish Design Awards. A separate private apartment block has been developed across the canal. Next month, construction starts on the second phase of the development, which is a smaller office block above shops on the public road frontage. After that, the joint venture team has its eyes on the bingo hall next door and a derelict factory, both of which form backdrops to the piazza.

It is particularly apt for Edinburgh Quay to be launched at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Just as the Fringe has overtaken the Edinburgh Festival proper, so this new mixed-use development towards the city’s western edges is already establishing itself as a vibrant central venue.

Edinburgh Quay key points

  • Mixed-use development regenerating Edinburgh’s historic Lochrin Basin canal terminus
  • Vibrant architectural composition clustered around new civic piazza and restored canal basin
  • Synergy of uses between offices, luxury apartments, restaurants and canal boat moorings
  • Catalyst for regeneration of west Edinburgh

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