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 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.