Unbuilt Edinburgh

Most notorious unbuilt architectural projects in Edinburgh

With motorways going through the city, different buildings serving as landmarks, or even a different castle, Edinburgh could have been a drastically contrasting city with what it is today. By exploring what the Scottish capital could have been, we can make sense of the cityscape that we know. Alternatives help to explain decisions made and understand our current built heritage. Therefore, it is interesting to examine unbuilt architectural projects. Here is a selection of the most interesting schemes proposed for Edinburgh.

Prince Albert Memorial Keep, David Bryce, 1862

Artistic recreation of the tower (Image: Quick Quid)

A year after the death of Prince Albert, David Bryce, a Scottish architect designed a proposal for a memorial in his honour. The 164 feet tall tower was to be located in the centre of the castle, changing Edinburgh’s skyline dramatically.

However, Queen Victoria herself disapproved of the scheme putting an end to the project, which remained a fantasy. Instead, the Albert Memorial took the form of a more modest sculpture in Charlotte Square in the New Town.  Today we would never imagine of altering such a historic building, but Victorians were less preoccupied with architectural conservation than we are today.

The Abercrombie Plan, Patrick Abercrombie and Derek Plumstead, 1949

A model of the Abercrombie Plan

In 1949, Patrick Abercrombie and Derek Plumstead were commissioned to design a “Plan for the city and Royal Burgh of Edinburgh”. Their proposed scheme, now known as the Abercrombie Plan, recommended the clearance of slum districts such as Leith, Gorgie and Dalry and the rebuilding of Princes Street. The proposal would add new “industrial zones”, a new railway through the meadows and a “inner ring motorway”. Post World War II Britain valued cars as a great tool for economic growth and social movement. Thus, many masterplans of the time like the Abercrombie plan placed roads in the centre of cities to facilitate mobility.

Although the project was first given green light by the council in 1963, lobbyists and heritage activists led a campaign against the project and won. The money ended funding Glasgow’s Renfrew Motorway instead.

The Abercrombie plan could have completely altered the face of the city, destroying all of Princes street. Perhaps Edinburgh would have been more similar to what Glasgow is today, with its motorway going through the city. This proposal follows a heritage of bold interventions, that transformed the city in the 19th century. Cutting through Princes street isn’t too different from building George IV bridge in the middle of the Old Town. Fortunately, the Edinburgers of the 20th century were more concerned with preservation than the Victorians were.

The Opera House, William Kininmonth, 1966, and RMJM, 1974-75

Model of RMJM's 1974 proposal for the ‘opera house’. (Image: RIBA Collections)

Often referred to as the “Opera House”, this proposal to build theatre on Castle Terrace was an ongoing project for more than a decade. The theatre was planned to be used during the year for all kind of performances and be a central hub during the fringe festival. Two schemes were put forward and neither saw the light of the day.

A first design for the theatre was proposed by Scottish architect William Kininmonth in 1966. The scheme was criticised by the local press and eventually rejected by the council. RMJM were then asked to redesign the “Opera house” completely. The new brutalist scheme frequently appeared in the local press to report delays, design flaws and financial difficulties and was eventually abandoned.

Scholar Alistar Fair argues that the real reason for the uncompletion of the project was a change in governmental strategy regarding cultural policies. Indeed, this period sees a switch from the development of major projects such as the “Opera House” to many smaller theatres. 

The Princes street gallery, Allan Murray Architects, 2002

Princes street Alan Murray architects
Allan Murray Architect’s winning design, section through Princes Street (Image: Alan Murray Architects)

In 2002, a competition was organised, asking architects to redesign Prince’s street to accommodate new mall galleries. Although the competition attracted architects from all around the word, a local practice Allan Murray Architects was selected as the designers of the project. Their proposal aimed to “bring together and to celebrate the landscape and the urban ensemble of New Town, Old Town, monuments and gardens” thanks to an underground top lit gallery and a new public square. The project was chosen because it accommodated the galleries whilst enhancing Princes street and the gardens.

Unfortunately, the project was shelved in 2004 due to the level of opposition. In 2008, Ian Wall made the following statement as he left his post as chief executive of EDI, the development arm of Edinburgh City Council : “It would not only have improved the East Gardens enormously, but it would have transformed Princes Street and created the opportunity to restore it to a proper regional shopping centre, instead of which it is slowly descending into a tourist-tat street.”

Sean Connery Filmhouse, Richard Murphy Architects, 2004

Rendered View from Lothian Road (Image: Richard Murphy Architects)

In this proposal for a new Filmhouse Centre, Richard Murphy Architects put forward a circular design. This allowed for much of the existing public square to remain open and the majority of the views from the hotel to be left unblocked. The design was exhibited at the Venice Biennale and gained popularity of the media. By placing the café on the ground floor and leaving the sunny side of the square open, the architects hoped to populate what is today “largely the realm of the skateboarder”.

The project never progressed because of opposition both from the council and the Sheraton Hotel, allowing skateboarders to enjoy their somewhat soulless square. 


We’ve done architectural tours in a number of cities and this ranks among the top!” 

Lynn, Edinburgh

Subscribe to our newsletter