August started off with a bang for U.S.-based design practice wHY.
The firm came out on top in a £25m competition to design a new pavilion, visitor’s facility and landscape enhancements for the West Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh, site of Castle Rock, perched on a volcanic remnant.
wHY’s entry triumphed over seven finalists culled from an original field of 125 teams and 400 firms. They won mostly because they kept their ear to the ground and listened at the local level.
“We realized when we read the brief that this can’t work without addressing context and landscape and public opinion, and we took great care to do that,” says Mark Thomann, design director, grounds at wHY. “We heard it from the client and the council, and that approach to engaging local people and really letting it come out of the landscape made it the winning choice – that was our strategy going in.”
Their entry, a thoughtful collaboration between architects and landscape architects at the firm, is both iconic and subtle in its solutions.
“It’s a beautiful site – you walk up to the castle, then down to the valley and to the gardens and you’re overwhelmed,” he says. “That’s where we developed specific interventions to improve access, further enhance the landscape, and further enhance the castle.”
Their visitor center, an elegant, curving, glass-fronted facility literally covered in living landscape material, has been defined by a friendly press as a “Hobbit House.”
“But it’s more sophisticated than that – we integrated it into the earth and maintain it as elegant piece of architecture with different entry spaces, creating the brow and arching it up to the castle, and on other side it kind of reinforces Castle Rock being a volcanic remnant,” he says. “Originally the city built on a Castle Rock, so we looked at the visitor center as having same forces as growing out of the ground and becoming a legible piece of architecture.”
Clearly, this is a firm that knows not just how to listen – but to learn, too.
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