Kate Gray, director of Collective: 'I'm excited by what this observatory can be for the city as a contemporary art space'
- David Pollock
- 23 November 2018
New complex on top of Calton Hill offers a sense of space and time for reflection
There's a lot to talk about with the new Collective and City Observatory complex on top of Calton Hill, but let's first direct attention to the main, William Henry Playfair-designed building at the heart of the site. Dating back to 1776 – there's also a memorial to Playfair's uncle John here, the president of the Edinburgh Astronomical Institution – the newly-refurbished observatory building looks grand from the outside, but is no bigger than a small cottage when you get inside. It contains a small museum display of telescopes from the former observatory, and the Collective's gallery shop.
Here, the merchandise is reason enough to pay a visit; a range of caps, tote bags, mugs and tea-towels branded with the words 'Edinburgh's Disgrace' in a clear font like squeezed toothpaste. Edinburgh's Disgrace, of course, is the Parthenon-aping 19th century structure a little to the east on the hill, the tribute (also co-designed by Playfair) to Scottish troops who died in the Napoleonic wars, but which was never finished. It's a strange kind of landmark, a derelict ruin from the moment it was created, yet the new life brought by the observatory redevelopment will add new character to a space most often thought of by locals and visitors as being about a breath-sapping walk, a good view and a glimpse of the Disgrace.
Not that any of these things aren't worthwhile in themselves, but the dilapidation of the observatory spaces since the observatory itself moved over to Blackford would have been another disgrace, were it allowed to continue. 'Back in 2009 we were developing an artists' project with Jenny Hogarth and Kim Coleman, and we were looking for a site-specific space outside of our gallery in Edinburgh,' says Kate Gray, director of Collective, the arts organisation at the heart of the new development which used to have a gallery space on Cockburn Street. 'We visited the City Observatory as a possible site, and ended up delivering it here.' The intention had been just that one show, 'but because we came into dialogue with the museum service for Edinburgh Council, we started to understand the history of the site and the predicament it was in.
'At that time the building was in a major state of disrepair, it was on the Buildings at Risk register. The council had ownership of it, but they didn't have a plan, so they were holding stakeholder groups to brainstorm the site. We weren't part of this, but we heard about it through our project, and the then-curator of the site, who worked for Edinburgh City Council, said "we could do with people like you, with new ideas". I was looking behind me thinking, "that doesn't sound right!"'
This was in 2010, and in 2013 Collective began to seriously fundraise. They moved into a temporary gallery space in the old observatory dome to begin, says Gray, 'to really understand what the site was like, how it functioned, who came here, and what they needed and wanted from a visit to Calton Hill'. In 2016 – having gathered the £4.5m needed from Edinburgh Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Creative Scotland, as well as Edinburgh World Heritage and various trusts, foundations and individual donors – they closed for the two-year redevelopment. The new site is very much worth the wait; as well as the old observatory building, there are gallery spaces in the City Dome and in the sunken new-build Hillside space behind the observatory.