The architecture student’s guide to Edinburgh

05 Aug 2021
By Emily Z., Student at University of Edinburgh

The city of Edinburgh is jam-packed with architectural masterpieces and, whether visiting a friend or living here as a student, you won’t want to miss them.

In fact, if you’re an architecture student like me, you’ll find the wealth of stunning buildings and landmarks in Edinburgh an unbeatable way to enhance your learning experience. And, if you haven’t seen them already, you’ll no doubt be visiting them a time or two as your course progresses.

Edinburgh Castle

One of Edinburgh’s most famous landmarks is none other than Edinburgh castle, viewed from all directions of the city.

Built in the 12th century, it’s legacy spans centuries and, over time, has evolved to become the collection of buildings it is today. Don’t forget to stop here to explore the different designs and architectural styles that have developed throughout the years.

Fun fact: The views from Edinburgh College of Art studios look up to the castle and were, once upon a time, actually architecture studios.

Calton Hill

Another architectural site celebrated for its significant historical structures is Calton Hill.

Largely designed by William Henry Playfair, a key historical figure in the world of architecture, it’s home to a collection of monuments which form some of the most important landmarks of the city.

And, while the architectural style is largely classical, much inspiration has been drawn from ancient buildings in Greece; notably, the National Monument, an unfinished piece of architecture inspired by the Parthenon in Athens, where you can still see 12 magnificent Doric columns on site today.

Also, if you’re studying architecture history in the city, you’ll come across the Dugald Stewart Monument during your course, modelled from the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens. It features a circular temple with the more decorative Corinthian columns around an elevated urn, meant as a memorial for the philosopher Dugald Stewart.

But, even if they’re not included on your course, don’t miss other works also by Playfair on Calton Hill. Be sure to go and explore - just beware the wind!

Scottish National Gallery

While you’re here, squeeze in a visit to the Scottish National Gallery. Another piece of architecture by Playfair, it embodies a neoclassical style, exhibiting grandeur from the exterior through to the interior.

From the ionic order columns on the façade to the cruciform plan interior, the building is very much Greek-inspired, designed to be in the form of an ancient Greek temple to house a collection of fine art pieces.

In recent years, it has been developed to include the addition of the Weston link and a basement entrance in Princes Street Gardens, providing more space for exhibitions.

St Giles’ Cathedral

St Giles’ Cathedral dates back to 1124 and the existing building you see today is completely different to the one that was originally built in the Romanesque style back in the 12th century.

The cathedral is still incredibly old, though - the original structure replaced in the 14th Century with the gothic one that stands now. See how it showcases amazing gothic-style construction, such as the rib vaulting on the ceilings when you look up and the large stained-glass windows.

A noteworthy place within the cathedral is the private chapel of the Knights of the Order of the Thistle, which displays elaborate gothic-style motifs designed by Sir Robert lorimer and was built between 1909-11.

National Museum of Scotland

The extension to the National Museum of Scotland is one worth mentioning, not only for its design but also for its construction.

The design itself was inspired by the traditional Scottish vernacular architecture, particularly that of medieval castles with arrow loop windows and cylindrical towers.

But, in terms of construction, it was built with in-situ concrete before being clad in sandstone (cladding referring to a ‘skin’ layer of a building, which is commonly used for aesthetics as well as additional thermal insulation).

You’ll spot the separation of the extension with the original building thanks to the design of a glass curtain wall.

Scottish Parliament

If you’re looking for eye-catching modern architecture, make sure to stop by the Scottish Parliament building.

Architects were particularly complex with the design of internal interconnected spaces, elevations and window designs here, especially with those on the MSP building.

That’s because, thanks to drawing inspiration from its environment, it was designed specifically to look as though it were a building sprouting out from the ground.

If you head to the foot of the Royal Mile, you won’t be able to miss it.

Usher Hall

Edinburgh’s iconic concert hall is an early 20th Century masterpiece, but today you’ll also notice a new wing made entirely of glass.

Commissioned by the City of Edinburgh Council, due to the existing building lacking sufficient practical space, it was completed little more than a decade ago.

Unlike the National Museum of Scotland, though, Usher Hall’s new wing was designed in such a way that it doesn’t divert attention from the original building but rather works in harmony both visually and functionally.

When visiting, note the stunning interaction between old and new through the Grindley façade, as it combines the old façade with the new wing public space, while paying homage to the beaux arts style of the original building with its geometric design.

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Emily is studying Architecture at the College of Art in the University of Edinburgh. As someone who enjoys the arts, she spends her free time handcrafting not only as a hobby but to expand her knowledge on multiple art skills e.g. textiles, printmaking techniques and photography. Furthermore, she enjoys mountain and hill walking as a form of exercise.