It is important to us and our audiences that Filmhouse remains in a city centre location that is easy to reach by public transport.
Festival Square is only 35 years old, being formed as a space in the mid-80s and 90s when the Sheraton Hotel and two office buildings on either side were built. Presently, the space is underused, despite the availability of some public seating and efforts to improve the space with artwork and some landscaping. With the exception of two bars on the north side this is largely due to the absence of any "active frontage" anywhere else and also the reality that square has little through footfall.
A re-imagined Festival Square
One of our key aims is to bring new life to Festival Square, creating an architecturally successful building with a minimised footprint, which retains as much open space as possible. Our design must help to maximise the potential of this valuable city centre space, ensuring it works as a public area and destination, and create a welcoming and inspiring environment for all.
We will work with landscape consultants Optimised Environments Limited (OPEN) to improve the space with proposals that incorporate seating, planting, lighting and public art, to create a more welcoming and interesting environment for Edinburgh’s residents to spend time in. We have deliberately kept our landscaping designs open as we want to first gather public input through this consultation phase. Below we’ve outlined concepts and design ideas that we believe would help make the Square work better, to generate discussion; but we want to hear your thoughts and suggestions here.
We believe that the combination of one of Edinburgh’s most highly valued cultural venues together with one of its leading festivals, effective public realm and landscaping, and a striking building design that aims engages with the surrounding space, would make a strong case for helping Festival Square live up to its name. Filmhouse’s position in Festival Square is designed to be the catalyst that brings to life an underused and underwhelming public space. Nevertheless, the new building footprint has been designed to be as small as possible while accommodating the facilities required to make it fit for purpose. Our proposal uses 14% of the total Festival Square space, with 50% of the new Filmhouse building sited underground.
Encouraging social activity
Our overall aim is to increase social activity in the Square. We want it to become a place that people choose to spend leisure time in, meet up with friends or simply wander through, knowing there’s bound to be something to see or do. There should be opportunities to see, hear, watch and meet other people, and reasons to pause and spend time there. The aim is to create a combination of conditions that not only increase visitor numbers but also lengthen the time people spend in the square, helping to establish a level of social activity that in turn attracts others.
We therefore need a people-friendly design that encourages social interaction, offers visitors something to see and do, creates a sense of movement and activity, and considers how the space will be used, and can look, at different times of the day or year. To support this, we are considering a combination of soft and hard landscaping, including planting, trees, seating and lighting and functional spaces that facilitate routes and accommodate activities. The designs would be inclusive, allowing access for people of all ages and abilities, including for example the use of ramps and lighting and automatic doors to the new Filmhouse building.
Things to see and do:
Comfortable fixed public seating and places to dwell will be positioned to face areas where there are likely to be other people or activities to watch, providing places to eat lunch, read, wait for friends and watch the world go by.
Planting with year round seasonal interest will be included. The existing trees would need to be removed for construction but the proposal would include new tree planting using a diverse range of species. This would be supplemented by soft landscape that would again introduce a wider variety of species with the aim of enhancing biodiversity and habitat creation.
There would be areas suited for temporary tables and chairs for Filmhouse’s Café Bar, with flexibility as to their location and number to suit different conditions. The furniture would be stored securely out of sight overnight or in poorer weather.
Walking routes that increase social interaction would be encouraged, making it more likely that people cross paths and connect with others. There should also be good connections to any walkways, cycle routes and businesses that surround the square, maintaining and enhancing connections, and encouraging adjacent uses to interact further with the Square.
A strategy would be put in place with regard to the installation of any permanent and temporary artwork, ensuring the Square is dynamic with new objects to see over time. The existing artwork (First Conundrum, Women and Child) and the Bell Tower will be carefully considered as part of the landscaping plan. If relocation within or outside of the site is required, this will be in full discussion with The City of Edinburgh Council.
The positioning and quantity of any signage and street furniture (e.g. public waste bins) would be carefully considered. We want the space to be user-friendly but avoid too much clutter.
Lighting would be designed to enhance the Square at different times of the day or year. A well-lit and well-maintained space together with the presence of others would help create a safe and welcoming public realm. Advice would be taken on design and management that improves safety and security.
In addition to informal gatherings and community activity, the Square could occasionally be used for outdoor events, screenings and other activities organised or hosted by Filmhouse. The emphasis would be on smaller-scale, free, public events that enhance and contribute to the unique character of the square and might link with partners and happenings in other parts of the City. Importantly, activity arranged by Filmhouse would aim to be inclusive, inspiring, innovative and have integrity, values that are central to the organisation’s aims. The design would include areas that are open and flexible to easily accommodate groups and events.
How the building would appear within the Square
The new Filmhouse is a 8-storey building, with a further three floors below ground housing the cinema screens, education space, main Café Bar and Service level. What you will see in Festival Square is 50% of the building; an elliptical shaped tower that rises just above the surrounding skyline, creating a statement landmark home for film and screen culture in Scotland. Running around the ground floor of the building is a light well that gives a sense of the spaces below and draws in natural light to lower levels.
The visible building footprint occupies approximately 14% of Festival Square, or 8% of the square as mapped out in the City of Edinburgh Council’s City Centre Transformation Plan (which views the square as continuing across the road to the entrance to Usher Hall, with a traffic-calmed road running through it). The front of the building is 9 metres from the pavement, and the rear is 17 metres from the bedrooms of the Sheraton.
There would be three entrances on the ground floor, with large windows that could be opened, connecting the building with the square. The external finish would include transparent glazed sections on the ground floor and other parts of the building to create an active and welcoming appearance. We’re considering materials that can be illuminated so that the building appears to glow softly, with the opportunity for colour-changes to reflect activity in the building or local and national events and celebrations. There would be panels on both sides of the building for changing film images and screening times, reflecting the diverse and independent range of films and programme strands of the Filmhouse and EIFF, as well as its hosted partners.
The aim is to create a welcoming atmosphere so that people feel they can come into the foyer simply to discover what happens in the Filmhouse and enjoy our films, our events, our community activities and education programme, as well as Filmhouse’s Café Bar and shop. We want Edinburgh to feel proud of what’s on offer and visitors to the city to be impressed by how we value and encourage film and culture.
Impact of Filmhouse visitors
The new Filmhouse itself would attract many visitors to the Square. On a typical day the Filmhouse currently attracts 1,000 individual visits, and we expect this to more than double for the new building. As well as day-to-day cinema goers and café customers, visitors and users include staff, partners and people working in film, groups taking part in our learning programmes, people attending special events, and activity around film premieres during the annual Edinburgh International Film Festival. This coming and going of people would help to animate the Square, making it a more social and interesting place to be.
Unique identity of Square and West End cultural quarter
Significantly, a new Filmhouse on Festival Square could help to realise the vision of Edinburgh’s West End cultural quarter, including Usher Hall, Traverse Theatre, Royal Lyceum Theatre and extending beyond to the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh Printmakers, Odeon, Cameo, Cineworld and Edinburgh College of Art. The prominent new building and enhanced square would help to raise awareness of the cultural area and the City’s support for all art forms, offering a more usable and welcoming outdoor public space to meet and spend time in, and creating opportunities for people who enjoy and are inspired by arts and culture to come together. This unique atmosphere would enhance the Square’s sense of identity and provide a further draw for visitors.
The new Filmhouse building would be positioned to maintain open space around it to create a clear sense of the overall Square. Positioning the main entrance directly opposite Usher Hall would establish a strong connection between the two cultural buildings on either side of Lothian Road.
Convenient transport options
Festival Square is ideally located with a range of convenient nearby sustainable transport options, including bus and taxi ranks on or neighbouring the Square, and the trams are just a few minutes' walk away.
There are good pedestrian routes to Princes Street Gardens, Haymarket Station and the Union Canal, and although there aren’t currently many off-road cycle routes in the city centre, Festival Square, Exchange Crescent and the footbridge to Rutland Square (across the West Approach Road) are convenient routes for many.
The design would include areas for bike racks with advice taken on security-aware positioning and the possibility of including e-bike charging points. While regular vehicles would not be able to use the square, we are exploring the option for vehicular access to certain sections of the square for emergencies and essential servicing.
City Transformation Plan
The designs would complement Edinburgh’s plans to enhance the Lothian Road area as outlined in the wider Edinburgh City Centre Transformation Strategy which seeks to reduce the impact of traffic, introduce new boulevards along Lothian Road, and create a more inviting environment for people on foot and bike. Whilst still in the early stages of development, that plan could potentially coincide with, or follow soon after, our development timescales.
The reduction in traffic and noise from Lothian Road would improve the atmosphere on the Square creating a more welcoming place to be, while in turn the proposed improvements to Festival Square would support the ambitions of the City’s Strategy.
Please tell us what you think of our proposal here.