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Edinburgh World Heritage/City Observatory

A world-class contemporary visual arts space

Kate Gray - Director of Collective

City Observatory

City Observatory

A project to make the City Observatory on Calton Hill publicly accessible for the first time in decades (Image via Collective)


Playfair's City Observatory

A Collective effort

In 2013, the City of Edinburgh and Collective, an arts organisation, approached Edinburgh World Heritage to help find a way forward for the City Observatory, a well-known landmark building in the heart of the World Heritage Site.

The project was a small grant through Edinburgh World Heritage’s Conservation Funding Programme, which is funded by Historic Environment Scotland.

The Project

The City Observatory had lain empty and been neglected for many years, classed as a building at risk. Extensive roof leaks had led to dry rot, which destroyed traditional lath and plaster ceilings and highly decorative cornices.

The building is an excellent example of the work of William Henry Playfair, built in 1818 as a Tuscan Doric pedimented pavilion in the design of a Greek Cross, each wing having two pilastered bays and a hexastyle portico. It has a central observatory dome on an octagonal drum. Playfair’s design is based (loosely) on the Temple of the Winds in Athens and Tycho Brahe’s Observatory on Hven. The form of the building is similar to Palladio’s world famous Villa Rotonda, and it is second only to Greenwich Observatory in London for its significance to astronomy and timekeeping in Britain. The great dome could be smoothly rotated in any direction while the rest of the instruments were hidden behind hatches, which opened to the heavens. 

A particularly striking feature of the observatory is the full length ‘transit’ slot in the ceiling for the main telescope, aligned with the local meridian line so stars could be observed and used to keep the observatory clock accurate. In 1854 the time ball was installed on the nearby Nelson’s Monument, which was visible from the port for the benefit of shipping. The ball was controlled by electrical pulses from the Observatory clock.

In an effort to save the building, the Collective gallery moved from Cockburn Street to temporary accommodation on Calton Hill in 2013, with ambitions to create a new gallery and offices there. A small grant from the Edinburgh World Heritage Conservation Funding Programme helped kickstart the project, ensuring a conservation statement was written which set out the policies needed to help secure the future of the building. Contributions followed from the Council and Collective’s own fundraising efforts,  and work began in earnest in 2014.

Kate Gray, Director of Collective added: ‘our vision is for the City Observatory complex to be a world-class contemporary visual arts space that brings people together to experience new art in one of Edinburgh’s most iconic locations. The support of Edinburgh World Heritage is crucial to the success of this project, both in terms of financial support and conservation expertise.’

Extensive leadwork repairs were made to the roof, stonework was repaired, the interior was restored to Playfair’s 1827 open plan layout for the ground floor, and the Old Transit House, which pre-dates the observatory building, was saved.

The total cost of the building is estimated to be around £4.5million. This means the Edinburgh World Heritage grant of around half a million pounds was able to lever in around ten times as much additional funding to ensure the future of this building.

The City Observatory project is a great example of the importance of a conservation statement, an important starting point that has to be produced as a condition of our grant. It helped ensure that informed decisions were made to protect the building’s architectural, historical and cultural value and its significance to Calton Hill.

Playfair’s original floor plan

City Observatory

The project in numbers


Observatory built


Grant from EWH


Total project cost


Levered-in funding

Observing the changes

Scenes from the how the repair work has progressed at the City Observatory, including the Old Transit House, and the brand new building that is also part of the site.

“We are delighted to be supporting Collective and their plan to transform the City Observatory. These buildings are of national and international significance – we have invested significant funds in the conservation of other monuments on Calton Hill over the last ten years and are pleased to support these works which form the final piece of the jigsaw.”

Adam Wilkinson

Director – Edinburgh World Heritage

Playfair's vision

Opening in 2018

All the buildings are now sealed from the elements with new glazing and roofs are wind and water-tight. Sometimes framing a view can enhance it. The floor-to-ceiling windows in the new restaurant overlooking the city and the Firth of Forth now augment what was already a jaw-dropping panorama. In the City Observatory and Transit House traditional lath and plaster has been applied and is slowly drying out. A team of apprentices from St Mary's Cathedral have completed their restoration of the original stonework and the opening will be taking place soon. See our blog for the latest.


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