LA’s wHY moves forward on park fit for Princes

A proposed makeover of the historic Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh, by design firms wHY and GRAS, gets the go-ahead.

The Scottish know how to throw a party. One of their most popular spots for public gatherings like Hogmanay (Scots for New Year) or the big summertime Edinburgh Festival is Princes Street Gardens, the picturesque park in a bowl of volcanic rock at the base of the darkly dramatic ancient Edinburgh Castle. 

Princes Street Gardens sits at the base of the Edinburgh Castle but its stage is decrepit (photo: Frances Anderton.)

Despite the location’s popularity for periodic large gatherings, the park has some serious design flaws. The once-elegant Victorian pleasure gardens, located along the south side of Princes Street, features a hill called The Mound. It was created in the 18th century, and divides the park into the 2-acre West Princes Street Gardens and the 8.5-acre East Princes Street Gardens. Running through the entire park is a railway, which renders large areas off-limits to visitors. An open-air auditorium at the bowl’s natural center has a stage so outmoded it has to be built over for performances.

Residents believed the park was not fulfilling its potential. So a local hotel owner named Norman Springford began a movement to upgrade the park.

The design team proposes a new performance space buried in a grassy knoll (rendering courtesy wHY.)

Springford gathered support from civic leaders, seeded a nonprofit called Ross Development Trust with $5 million and launched a competition to build a new pavilion and open up access to the park. Designers were tasked with finding ways to unite the divided halves of the park and make it more open and attractive to people year-round.

The competition attracted many of the world’s top design names, among them Bjarke Ingels and Sir David Adjaye; and last summer the Los Angeles firm wHY, in partnership with Edinburgh firm GRAS (part of Groves-Raines Architects), won the competition.

Now the trust is busy working towards an agreement regarding ongoing maintenance and operations that will permit fundraising and design to start in earnest.

Kulapat Yantrasast, left, and Mark Thomann of wHY (photo: Frances Anderton.)

The scheme by wHY and GRAS features a series of low-level, discreet, glazed pavilions roofed by undulating gardens that was praised by locals for its modest approach.

David Ellis, Managing Director of Ross Development Trust, and a young and highly enthusiastic advocate for the project, told DnA, “Its design is completely in keeping with a garden landscape and does not detract or interfere with the castle in the background. The designers also understood what the gardens mean to the city and the people that live here better than any other team.”

Architect Gunnar Groves-Raines, left, and David Ellis, Managing Director of Ross Development Trust (photo: Frances Anderton.)

wHY is helmed by Kulapat Yantrasast and has a landscape team directed by Mark Thomann. They have designed several Los Angeles galleries and adapted a Millard Sheets-designed Masonic temple into the Marciano Art Foundation.They smartly teamed up with GRAS, whose principal Gunnar Groves-Raines is deeply embedded in the fabric of his native town.

About their design, Yantrasast says, “The memory of the castle and rock was a strong inspiration, like Mont Saint-Michel or the Giant’s Causeway – powerful natural landscapes that really elevate one’s senses.  The changes of the natural light, the lightness of the green plants on the heavy rock,  they are nature’s cathedrals.  Any intervention must complement, not compete with the rock and the castle.”  

The new design aims to enhance, not dramatically break from, the current experience of the park, with winding paths and rich vegetation (rendering courtesy wHY.)

In addition, Gunnar Groves-Raines told DnA, “We have thought of the space as a public garden first and foremost, and have focused on the interventions we can make to enhance and improve that sense of a garden space. We were determined that for the many days of the year when the performance space is not in use, it doesn’t feel like there’s an empty building waiting for an event in the middle of everything.”

Groves-Raines’ parents, Nick Groves-Raines and Kristin Hannesdottir, are also architects who have specialized in preserving Scottish renaissance architecture, especially tower houses of the early 17th century. Their current home and office is in Lamb’s House, a loving adaptive reuse of a house built by a Hanseatic merchant.

Lamb’s House, built by a Hanseatic merchant, was restored and adapted by Groves-Raines Architects (photo: Frances Anderton.)

Groves-Raines’ office is nearby at Custom Lane, a design hub in a 200 year-old customs house in the docklands area called Leith.

There he has created a combination of co-working office for his team and other designers, an artisanal coffee house, a design gallery and a clothing store focusing on Scottish designers, performance space and a tool library, where people can rent woodworking and other crafts tools as well as learn how to use them.

Scottish designers sell their wares at a store within Custom Lane (photo: Frances Anderton.)

Gunnar Groves-Raines was acutely aware of how the park was used by locals. For example, he says Edinburgh children grow up watching the trains that chug through the park from a small bridge, which is hidden behind the existing bandstand building.

“The children sit on the bridge and watch the trains and almost without fail, the drivers will sound their horns if there’s a child on the bridge,” he said.

Image of the park framed by Edinburgh Castle, left, and Princes Street (rendering courtesy wHY Architects.)

The team made that point a feature in the new design, creating a green bridge over the rails that expands their viewing capabilities. “The new bridge draws the landscape across its surface,” says Groves-Raines, “literally connecting both sides of the gardens, and is wide enough to provide a natural place to linger.”

“The bridge wasn’t part of the original brief, but we felt it was really important to reconnect the north and south sides of the garden in a meaningful way, while providing space for this really sweet engagement between children and train drivers to happen.”

wHY was shortlisted for the Pershing Square Renew competition with this design (rendering courtesy wHY.)

wHY came close to making over a historic park in Los Angeles. The firm was shortlisted for the Pershing Square park competition in 2016.  

Their submission, an undulating landscape with amenities tucked into hillocks, bears some similarities to their scheme for Princes Street Park. While the concept was perhaps too picturesque for this downtown urban square — a “radically flat” design by Agence Ter won — it seems to be a natural fit for the volcanic bowl at the base of medieval, Georgian and Victorian architectures.

We studied the geology and the patterns of the glaciers in shaping the crags,” explains Thomann. “We looked at how the city was born from this rock and how nature dictates the form of the city, not unlike how ports or rivers shaped great cities around the world.” 

View from Edinburgh Castle into the park (photo: Frances Anderton.)

He adds: “In fact, the amphitheater needed to be a garden. Watching a concert with the natural stage set of the castle is magic. Rather than tuck the buildings under the earth, the surfaces are like a garden, expanding the perception of landscape.”

In another respect the two parks have similarities. Both involve local business and civic leaders forming a private-public partnership to enhance an existing park they believe could better serve the city and commerce.

The design and development team hope a makeover like this can make the park more popular year-round, and to locals as well as visitors (rendering courtesy wHY.)

And as with Pershing Square, this is not the first time Edinburgh has tried to update its central gathering spot. “The Gardens have gone through a number of changes in their long and varied history,” explains David Ellis. “We see this as the next iteration of their lifespan, as currently a number of their key features are in need of repair.”

Back in 2006 local business people initiated a similar effort but the project fell apart. David says this was “a council led project and ultimately did not have money required to see the project through.”

The current park is full of old-growth trees; the design team say they aim to incorporate most of them (photo: Frances Anderton.)

This time around the team is optimistic they can succeed. They are aware that potential donors for the project, budgeted at $25 million, will be reluctant to contribute to a project that does not have an agreement in place for the long-term maintenance of the venue and gardens as well as an operating agreement and financial support for the theater and visitor center.

So they are hammering out the details of a “conservancy model” agreement with Edinburgh City Council that is not unlike High Line and Central Park Conservancy. When that falls into place, fundraising can start in earnest and, says Mark Thomann of wHY, design development may start as soon as March.

Gunnar Groves-Raines has created a mix of businesses alongside his own office in Custom House (photo: Frances Anderton.)

The other challenge the team will face is bringing the new to the old. “Edinburgh is a notoriously conservative city,” Ellis acknowledges, “and understandably so given the cultural and economic value of its built heritage.

“I do believe this has the potential to deliver a truly world class, forward-looking piece of architecture and to show that progressive contemporary design can not only exist alongside built heritage, but that it can actually enhance it.”