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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 June 2006, 10:43 GMT 11:43 UK
The word on the Royal Mile
The Scottish Storytelling Centre incorporates John Knox House

Five choices of Britain's best new architecture

To mark Architecture Week, each day this week The Magazine will look at one of five notable new buildings to have opened in Britain in the past 12 months and ask what makes them different.

Every building has a story to tell, but this one has more than most. The Scottish Storytelling Centre celebrates the country's rich oral history tradition. This is a place where people gather to discover stories and to hear them told.

The site itself is steeped in history, standing on what was the main gateway into Edinburgh in medieval times.

Aptly, in this building that celebrates the art of the spoken word, the centre also incorporates the home of John Knox, the leader of the Scottish Reformation and founder of the Presbyterian Church.

The centre opened last month, with the revamped 15th Century John Knox House tucked into the side of the new building designed by Malcolm Fraser Architects - and taking the place of a 1970s arts centre.

This is the latest addition to Edinburgh's literary quarter, a strip which already boasts the Scottish Poetry Library, the Writer's Museum and the Saltire Society's offices.

Hearth beat

The architects took their inspiration not only from the site's history - the 1621 City Bell is represented in a new tower - but from storytelling itself.

Scottish Storytelling Centre
This is a purpose-built centre for storytelling. Pics: Brendan MacNeill
"Storytelling is, for us, intimacy, warmth and connection," says architect David Seel. And so the building adapts to form niches and storytelling places via a great hinged "wall of stories".

"Note the ceilidh at the centre of our culture - a rich, imaginative, warm, integrative gathering," one professional story-teller told the architects in the design phase of the project.

The basement theatre too builds on this idea, of hearing magical tales in semi-darkness, upturned faces ringing the storyteller. The key inspiration is the hearth. The seats are wide and shallow, with aisles to either side so that a storyteller faces people not corridor. The theatre is lined and boarded, dark and warm.

Director Esther Kent says events staged here have ranged from hi-tech performance piece to the more intimate experience of a single voice recounting a tale.

But imaginations can be fired by looking out as well as in, so the centre includes a storytelling garden. "It's a brilliant storytelling space because its designed around a circle, so everyone can share and join in."

But what she likes best about the centre is the way that it draws people from the hustle and bustle of the Royal Mile.

"The cafe is right at the front of the building, a shop window for storytelling. From the street you can get a glimpse of what's going on inside, right through to glimpses of a storytelling session in the garden.

"This building has got a warmth and intimacy that's very unusual in a modern building with clean lines and lots of white."

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

They can talk it up as much as they like, but it's just one more indifferent-looking "modern" building. It might have looked OK elsewhere, but the Royal Mile? It is completely out of place.
Gary, Edinburgh

I am at a loss to understand how this was allowed to be built on the Royal Mile, part of Edinburgh's World Heritage site. It is entirely unsympathetic to the surrounding architecture , both in design and material, and looks like a cheap hotel.
Mike, Edinburgh

I was in the Storytelling Centre the other week and I think it is a wonderful building, inside and out. The use of space and natural light is inspired and its garden at the back, although small, is an amazing place which removes you from the city and takes you to a storybook world. Yes it's modern looking, but we can't live in the past. New buildings should be fit for purpose and complement older ones, not mimic them.
Gaz, Edinburgh

Living and working in Edinburgh it is awful and second only to the Scottish Parliament in the worst buildings in Edinburgh category. It could have looked so much better but as usual people want to be different rather than traditional.
Caroline, Edinburgh

People need to get with the times, this building represents the future and a new era for architecture in Edinburgh. I think it displays vision and creativity at its best.
Ben, Falkirk

Perhaps the interior of this building is as wonderful and these gushing comments suggest. However, from the outside, it is just another concrete block spoiling one of the most historic streets in Scotland.
Oliver, UK

I have seen better looking structures in an Alabama trailer park AFTER the twister came through.
Cynthia Brann, Atlanta, Georgia

The inside looks nice. The outside, erm, doesn't.
Pete, Cardiff

Wonderful new architecture? This is the same grey, characterless rubbish that was built in the 60s!
Neil, Middlesex

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