Joanna Baker: Edinburgh’s first new concert hall in a century to make a statement on the world stage

The main auditorium of the new Dunard Center in Edinburgh New Town.

It’s not just that it has taken five years to put Edinburgh’s new concert hall in the starting blocks since the project was announced.

When it finally opens its doors – in 2026 if all goes as planned – it will be the first purpose-built place in the city in over a century.

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Since brewery mogul Andrew Usher donated £ 100,000 to Edinburgh for a new concert hall in 1896, the city has not been close to delivering a new venue.

Joanna Baker is Executive Director of Impact Scotland, the charitable foundation behind the plans for the new Dunard Center concert hall in Edinburgh.

It took Edinburgh 18 long years to realize its vision by opening Usher Hall – which it never lived to see after the project was hampered by delays in finding a suitable site.

History repeated itself towards the end of the 20th century as the city scrambled to find a home for a mid-sized place to fill an increasingly obvious gap in the city’s cultural infrastructure.

It’s not just that Edinburgh lacks the kind of mid-sized venues you can find elsewhere in Scotland.

For many involved in Edinburgh festivals and events, the city has long been clamoring for a flexible venue that can be used for all styles of music, with 21st century technical facilities.

The Dunard Center will be the first purpose-built concert hall in Edinburgh in over a century.

These ambitions finally began to take shape in 2016 when a preferred site was announced – on the site of redundant office buildings tucked away behind the historic headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland in St Andrew Square.

Baker, executive director of Impact Scotland, the charitable trust that pursues the plans for the new venue, has been a central figure in Edinburgh’s cultural scene in modern times, after a 27-year tenure at the International Festival, the 13 last as general manager.

She explains: “There has been an ambition to find a site and develop a medium-sized concert hall with around 1000 seats in Edinburgh for almost 25 years.

“It was in part conducted by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, but numerous studies identified that a place of this size was lacking in the city’s cultural infrastructure.

A view of the main auditorium of the new Dunard Center in Edinburgh.

“This project is not intended to replace anything else. It’s a lot about adding to what the city has. I passionately believe that there is a need for something that has the level of facilities that the Dunard Center will have, with world-class acoustics, that upholds the city’s reputation.

“The Usher Hall is one of the reasons the International Festival has taken off so well. It is a world class concert hall and world class orchestras and conductors wanted to play here. This is what made the festival so successful.

The Dunard Center will be named after the philanthropic fund set up by American businesswoman Carol Hogel Girgor, which pledged £ 35million for the £ 75million project, with the Scottish and UK governments pledging £ 10million each and city council pledging £ 5million. .

The hall with a capacity of 1000 people will be designed in such a way that it can be easily adapted to accommodate concerts of orchestras, choirs, groups and solo artists performing classical works, pop, rock, music. electronic, folk, world and jazz music.

The southern entrance to the new Dunard Center in Edinburgh New Town.

Architect David Chipperfield, who heads the design of the venue, works with Tokyo-based Nagata Acoustics to ensure Edinburgh has a venue with sound quality “to compete with the best in the world.”

Baker says: “We are fortunate to have the most amazing places in Edinburgh.

“On the one hand, we have venues that other cities could kill for because festivals kept them open, but they’re all from the 19th century.

“If you look at cities that try to emulate Edinburgh, very few of them are close to us, but they are building new cultural infrastructure. You can’t just sit back on your laurels.

“It will be a very beautiful architecture emblematic of the 21st century dedicated to culture. This is a real statement for Edinburgh on the world stage.

Edinburgh music lovers are well used to traveling outside the city for concerts, a situation which Baker says will be resolved by the new venue, despite the lack of a Glasgow-scale indoor arena. and Aberdeen.

Joanna Baker, Executive Director of Impact Scotland and her Co-Chairs, Edinburgh International Festival Director Fergus Linehan and Scottish Chamber Orchestra General Manager Gavin Reid. Photo: Ian Georgeson

She adds: “We will absolutely have the opportunity to see things in Edinburgh that you wouldn’t see otherwise – in all genres of music.

“There are artists who are not stage bands who need a more intimate experience. They are looking for the setting that a place like this will offer, in terms of size, amenities, privacy and flexibility.

Concerns have been expressed about the impact of the Dunard Center on the viability of other venues, including Queen’s Hall and the Leith Theater, with the latter unable to reopen permanently due to its condition.

Baker responds, “I remember the same conversation when the Festival Theater was developed and how it would kill the King’s Theater. These two sites are still working very well.

“The Dunard Center will not replace Queen’s Hall or the Leith Theater, which are extraordinary places. These are really different places that will do very different things.

“I know the more activity you have in Edinburgh, the more audience you will create.

“I absolutely don’t think this will impact the viability of other sites. What he will do is provide opportunities.

“This will allow the International Festival to work where there is simply no suitable space at the moment.

“If the Scottish Chamber Orchestra isn’t rehearsing in Queen’s Hall, it’s an opportunity to do different things. There is work that wouldn’t come here in a million years and that would be fantastic at Leith Theater.

“One of the key things we all achieve in Edinburgh is that if you work closely together you are more than the sum of your parts.”

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An image showing how the new Dunard Center will fit into Register Lane.
The Dunard Center café-bar is planned to have an outdoor terrace.

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