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Potterrow Development - Planning Application

4. Urban Design


The opportunity to develop a new building in an urban campus is an opportunity to fulfil not only the university’s functional requirements but also to contribute to the public realm and image of the university. This statement was prepared by the Enterprise LSE Cities (London School of Economics) on behalf of the University of Edinburgh.

The Public Realm

The public realm in the context of a university should be seen to include not only the roadways, roadside pavements and distinct public spaces but also those areas that allow the public - more specifically, the student body – to move through a block occupied by a building or collection of buildings. What is especially important in a campus situation is the creation of sequences of public and semi-public spaces that link destinations, create short cuts between them and provide ample opportunity for positive student, staff and faculty interaction.

Occupying an entire block, the Potterrow development must respond to the condition of the four streets it edges. As it happens the streetscape of all four all stand in contrast to one another. Perhaps the most important in a local street hierarchy, with respect to the campus, is Charles Street. This street marks the major axis and access from the city to north- south for pedestrians and is fronted by diverse buildings. The Potterrow development proposes a generous pedestrianised surface, in contrast to that of the roadway, across the street emphasising the fact that this area already supports a high amount of pedestrian traffic – indeed, this new building will increase the amount of pedestrian activity. This paving extends north to forge links with Teviot House, Bristo Square, an existing public space, and turns onto Marshall Street, in recognition of the corner entrance. The pavement is generous on Marshall Street alongside the Potterrow development, giving pedestrians some distance from the loading bay of the Student Centre building.

As the most well-travelled pedestrian route it is logical that the Charles Street elevation presents the most ‘public’ face of the Potterrow development. The building façade is very permeable both in terms of actual entrances and views into the building and the courtyard and in terms of its ground floor activity. A café marks the courtyard entrance and blurs the distinction between the public and private realm. Again, this is visible as one walks towards the building from the north. A large meeting room on the ground floor is visible through a large window in the southern portion of the façade. At the same time as signalling the public or welcoming nature of the Potterrow development, an effort is made to ensure a sense of privacy for people in the ground floor rooms. This is achieved by creating a finished floor level that is above the pavement level. The south-west corner facing George Square is very significant location and this is the ideal place for a major building entrance to the School of Informatics.

Crichton Street provides an ample pavement, and most importantly, another generous entrance into the courtyard. The line of the pavement on Crichton Street follows the kerb at the north side of George Square. A recess within the pavement allows the incorporation of taxi drop off, service access and a bicycle shelter. The building pulls back from the corner of Crichton and Potterrow providing a useful meeting space and acknowledging the civic presence of the mosque.

Potterrow Street is where the campus can be said to intersect most directly with the city. This elevation is the least permeable, presenting an urban façade that contributes to a sense of enclosure along the street itself.

The Potterrow development is situated at a key location within the University of Edinburgh campus. It is pivotal in terms of occupying a block that sits between key public spaces, namely George Square, Bristo Square and Nicholson Square. It therefore must contribute to what can be seen as a sequence of public spaces, but also a diverse offering of public spaces. The courtyard of the Potterrow development is both intimate yet very accessible. It provides both a route through the block and can support small groups of people who may spill out of the meeting rooms or offices. One can also imagine, given its rather unique quality in the context of the campus, it becoming a destination for people seeking a quiet outdoor room. The sightlines through to the space and the amount of glazing facing onto the courtyard also ensure that even when the daylight is restricted the space will feel safe and secure. This courtyard will clearly contribute to the social sustainability of the University.

Movement and Connectivity

It is paramount that in general the University of Edinburgh provides strong and clear pedestrian connections through the campus as well as with the rest of the city beyond. The city and the campus have a mutually beneficial relationship both socially and economically – this should and can be reinforced spatially.

The role of the Potterrow development should be to reinforce existing favoured routes as well as create new ones. The major new route articulated by the Potterrow development is the provision of a diagonal access route through the block. Not only does this pick up on the historical street alignment of Bristo Place but also it acknowledges a desire line that stretches between Bristo Square and Potterrow Street. It is particularly appealing as an alternate route to walking along Potterrow and Marshall Streets.

The Potterrow development edges all of the primary or secondary routes into the campus precinct. In response to these routes, along Charles, Marshall, Potterrow and Crichton Streets, the development has responded in at least two ways: one is to provide a strong edge to the street (discussed further in Enclosure and Continuity section) and the other is to provide routes into and through the development at key locations. Along Charles Street the courtyard entrance is skewed slightly to ease movement and visibility from the Bristo Square direction. Also, given the nature of Teviot House and the amount of students travelling in and out of it, it is especially fitting that a courtyard entrance is place opposite this building. Access to the courtyard from along Crichton Street is also via a generous ‘funnel’ and ensures good views towards Potterrow Street and Reekie’s Court, a pedestrian route to the south. The Crichton Street entrance to the development is carefully located opposite the Appleton Tower corner, making a clear visual connection at the very least. An entrance to the Potterrow arm of the development is carefully situated on axis to Nicholson Square in the northeast corner.

Movement through the campus is quite strongly segregated between pedestrians and vehicles, with Marshall Street and the intersection of Crichton Street and Charles Street as minor exceptions. Service access is still required to Charles Street Lane but the new paving surface will signal to drivers that this is foremost a pedestrian precinct. The reduced width of Crichton Street will slow traffic down. Similarly, the new paving will alert service vehicles and cars accessing Marshall Street that they are on a shared surface. Bicycle racks are thoughtfully supplied in a visible and safe area along Crichton Street.

Further on the topic of vehicular transport, the bus stop for the University Bus Service on the north side of George Square will ensure a connection to Kings Buildings.

Legibility and Orientation

The University acts as a landmark within the greater city of Edinburgh. This occurs not only at the level of the prominent Appleton Tower but also due to the fact that its buildings form a district of a distinct, albeit diverse, character. It is in the University’s interest to encourage a campus that is easily recognisable as well as easy to navigate to and through. The reinforcement of key views and vistas is a critical way in which to effect urban legibility.

The University of Edinburgh campus is visible from several important natural and/or historic viewpoints including Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh Castle, Salisbury Craggs and Calton Hill. The Potterrow development has acknowledged these prospects through habitable terraces and ‘floating’ rooftop light boxes. As one moves closer to the campus the McEwan Hall dome, Old College Dome, Register House Dome and Royal Infirmary Clocktower present further, albeit rare, views towards the Potterrow development. Of course, just as the new development will be visible from various landmarks around the city, the inverse will also be exploited, as the terraces will provide excellent views out towards these same landmarks, allowing people to orient themselves and gain an understanding of how the University is situated in the city.

There are several key vistas within the University precinct. The Potterrow development has made every effort to respect and reinforce these, maximising the legibility of the immediate area and allowing for easy orientation. A major vista is that which follows the route along Charles Street north towards Lauriston Place – i.e. the city – and south along the west side of George Square, terminating in the William Robertson Building and others at the southeast corner of George Square. The massing of the student hub and light box at the corner of Charles and Marshall Streets is especially important in guiding people into the campus and providing a foreground to the Appleton Tower. The main building entrance, at the base of the hub element, along Charles Street is very visible from the north, likely the most frequent approach. As one gets closer to the development the courtyard entrance becomes visible. The vista along Charles Street in many ways emphasises the spine of the University. The Potterrow development’s strong Charles Street façade provides a frame for this vista. The slope in grade northward means that the roof garden planting will be visible from the ground giving an indication of semipublic spaces provided by Potterrow. Indeed the roofscape of the Potterrow development is in the foreground of key views from the Appleton Tower. The floating light boxes and roof gardens will certainly act as a pleasing foreground to the city beyond. The light boxes will act as ‘beacons’ from several directions. As one approaches the Potterrow development from the southwest – the Meadows parkland and George Square – the boxes along the Charles Street elevation will be visible.

The Potterrow building responds to entry points to the university precinct in all directions. The route along Crichton Street from the top of George Square is becoming increasingly busy as new development takes place at Quartermile to the west of George Square. The new building provides clear sightlines to the entrances along its southern elevation and to the bus stop from the north and east sides of George Square.

Enclosure and Continuity

Ultimately it is recommended that the buildings associated with a university perform in a manner similar to that of the buildings within any dense and pedestrian-accessible city. That is to say, they should create streets and spaces with a sense of enclosure, promoting comfortable public life. Continuous street walls and well-defined open spaces tend to create environments that are welcoming and human in scale. The issues of enclosure and continuity are, of course, directly related to those of legibility and orientation, framing the outdoor or unbuilt spaces within the urban fabric.

The Potterrow development, situated in a highly central position to the campus, is striving to be a good urban neighbour, providing consistency in building lines and massing and ultimately presenting a strong face to the rest of the city on behalf of the University. As mentioned above, the key north-south route into the University precinct, along Charles Street is edged consistently and solidly by the Potterrow development. This is especially important given the rather inconsistent building setbacks along the west side of Charles Street. Similarly, the Potterrow elevation provides a strong street wall, again opposite a somewhat undulating street edge to the east.

The courtyard, partially visible from Crichton and Charles Streets, as discussed above, offers a secure sense of enclosure. The 1.5 metre height differential from north to south is evident in the courtyard itself and aids legibility from this approach. From within the courtyard one can still have direct view of the abutting streets, yet is removed from their bustle.

Building Character

There is always the danger in the context of a university campus that is developed or redeveloped over time that each building is entirely self-referential, resulting in a collection of unrelated ‘object’ buildings. As articulated above, the sound position from an urban design perspective is rather to create new buildings in response to the existing context, no matter how diverse. This works both at the grand scale as well as that of a building’s massing, materiality and disposition with respect to environmental factors.

The Potterrow development strives to act both as a strong signature building for the University at the same time as mitigating the very diverse urban context in which it sits. This is achieved in part, as discussed above, through the massing. The development presents varied building heights and massing, overcoming any sense that it is a monolithic block. A common architectural vocabulary unifies the development, yet variations in cladding materials and architectural detail ensure responsiveness to the immediate context.

Along the Charles and Crichton facades a natural stone is employed. This is a harmonious continuation of the cream coloured stone of the George Square buildings. This is perhaps the most ceremonial of the elevations, recognising the primacy of Charles Street as a route through the campus and the proximity to McEwan Hall and Bristo Square, venues for gathering and ceremony. The elevation along Charles Street is varied in heights with the central mass being the lowest, reflecting the courtyard – i.e. semi-public space - captured in the centre of the development’s mass. Similarly, the Crichton Street elevation and massing emphasises the route into the courtyard and steps down at the corner with Potterrow to match building heights across the street.

Potterrow presents a more variegated elevation. Grey cast stone panels are used, mitigating the rather busy array of materials one sees along the east side of the street. The Potterrow elevation is at a consistent height along its full length, again minimising variation and ‘calming’ the street.

The courtyard is light in all senses of the word. It is faced in a combination of glazing and white cast stone, maximising the reflection of light – something very important in this part of the world.


The Potterrow development will be a highly respectable addition to the University of Edinburgh campus, strengthening campus-wide connections and providing well-thought out venues for social interaction. However, furthermore it will mend a currently unsatisfying urban condition – replacing a car park with a building that is both architecturally interesting and at the same respectful of its urban context.


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