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University of Edinburgh - Old College

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Notes in italics are extracts from Pevsner Architectural Guides,
Edinburgh by John Gifford, Colin McWilliam and David Walker (1991), Yale University Press.

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The outside of the quadrangle is by Robert Adam, 1789, his greatest public work, the inside by William H. Playfair, 1819-27. There are overlaps between the two stages, but all the magnificent  Greek Revival interiors are Playfair's. The dome is of 1887. ...
Building began in 1789 ... but stopped in 1793 after the outbreak of the Napoleonic war and the death of Adam and of his cousin William Robertson, Principal of the University. A plan for economical completion ... was at last obtained in 1815 ... ' - regard always being had to the part already executed and to the preservation of the architecture of Mr Adam as far as practicable'.


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Nothing in Scotland is grander than Adam's ENTRANCE FRONT. 69 m. long, its massing enhanced by the upward slope of South Bridge from N to S, it has a major and two minor archways framed by Roman Doric columns and flanked by advanced distyle porticos of the same order, all giant monoliths of Craigleith stone. ... Over the arches a great lunette ... Three-bay links and pavilions, the windows set closer at the ends. By skilful juggling of the window-cornices and pediments, both first and second floors have the aspect of main storeys; the third floor is just a plain frieze with plain oblong windows punched in it. ...  
Playfair proposed that the dome should be built as Adam designed it (a small-scale finial to the monumental E entrance); the large dome eventually built is however by R. Rowand Anderson, 1887, with a gilded figure of Youth bearing the torch of Learning by John Hutchison.


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Above the cornice a wide panel with the inscription ' ... ARCHITECTO ROBERTO ADAM' .


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The entry is awe-inspiring. Plain domical vault in the centre, three groin-vaults on each side.



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North (2) - South - West

The N and S fronts (109 m. long) have end pavilions with Venetian over columned tripartite windows. The N side, originally facing the narrow lane of North College Street, follows Adam's design. At first only the E pavilion had its rusticated base and median guilloche frieze, but in 1888 Anderson suitably embellished the W and the pedimented intermediate pavilions as part of the architecture of Chambers Street. On the S side Playfair modified and subdued Adam's grand centrepiece and intermediate pavilions to suit his own large library. ...



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East - North - South - West

In the QUADRANGLE, Playfair repeated at the other three corners the Ionic-columned NW quadrant he inherited from Adam. His somewhat changed design for the W museum block (e.g. with doubled pilasters at the ends) is still an insufficient climax for his own splendid N and S elevations, their en-to-end Corinthian pilasters twice modulated into pedimented colonnades over the faculty entrances.
Balustraded terrace round the courtyard, with many stairways, 1831.


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The E side, an unhappy version of Adam's front with insufficient leg-room, is rendered still more inadequate by the ponderous dome overhead.  ... 


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Detail of:  South-east quadrant - West range - North range


Other University Buildings:
McEwan Hall and Medical School

More by Robert Adam in Edinburgh

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