50 George Square

Re-imagining of Edinburgh’s listed modernism to create 21st century learning spaces

50 George Square is part of a prestigious group of buildings, including the Adam Ferguson Building and David Hume Tower, all classified under Category A listing. These structures were originally intended to accommodate the Arts Faculty, representing a significant example of Scottish Modernism. To preserve their historical essence while adapting them for contemporary use, our approach involved meticulous conservation efforts.

Edinburgh University has made substantial investments in its post-war legacy buildings. Our involvement primarily focuses on a cluster of structures designed by Robert Matthew and Johnson-Marshall and Partners, which includes the Category A listed David Hume Tower. This complex is linked to the four-storey Category B listed William Robertson perimeter block, completed in 1970. This block now serves as the new home for the School of Literatures, Languages, and Cultures. The department was relocated as a result of a Central Area Study undertaken by Page\Park in 2010, which informed the updated University Estates Strategy 2010 – 2020.


This cluster of buildings exemplifies Scottish Modernism, with 50 George Square standing as a counterpart to the Adam Ferguson Building. Both are constructed with a reinforced concrete frame and block infill, adorned in York stone with horizontal bands of timber-framed windows. The main entrance of 50 George Square defines the eastern edge of George Square itself. Its connection to the nearby Georgian terrace is historically significant, given the controversies surrounding the 40GS tower buildings, which became a focal point in city planning, conservation, and modern architectural history.

Originally, the courtyard opening to the 40GS tower basement formed an L shape. However, this space was underutilized due to strong winds and a disconnection from the users. After discussions with Historic Environment Scotland, changes were made to maintain the architectural composition, including reducing the courtyard’s opening and enhancing the basement’s relationship with the courtyard.

Interventions were carefully carried out in both 50 George Square and the 40GS tower basement, respecting the existing architecture and drawing inspiration from the site’s history. This approach aimed to bridge the past with the future, managing the buildings’ evolution. It was especially crucial in these highly serviced structures where integrating architecture with services was key.


The new school’s brief evolved through discussions with staff, University standards, and activity needs. Key meetings addressed societal framework development, usage perceptions, academic excellence, spatial layout for research, and specific space requirements.

Simultaneously, an analysis considered the existing building’s area, potential expansions, adaptation opportunities, and structural constraints. This approach aligned the LLC school’s vision with the existing building, creating an organogram that defined the new structure:

  • Ground floor reception leading to bookable lecture spaces and a ‘welcome’ hall.
  • ‘Welcome’ hall branching to administrative areas, teaching spaces, and support facilities.
  • Stairs connecting to office and teaching floors with social learning areas.
  • Rooftop dedicated to research spaces, offices, and staff areas.


Despite the historical significance of 50 George Square in the 40GS setting, its interior needed improvement, particularly the circulation system. The renovation focused on:

  • Installing a new main stair and atrium, enhancing natural lighting.
  • Establishing clear circulation paths for better user orientation.
  • Preserving the original room design while updating finishes and furniture.
  • Adding a new fourth floor and multi-purpose project space externally.
  • Designating the ground floor as a bookable teaching space and linking it to the 40GS’s lower ground level.
  • Adapting the upper levels for the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, including a new reception at the first floor.

Changes in the linking basement area:

  • Introduced modern teaching spaces for 21st-century teaching methods.
  • Created flexible spaces for additional income-generating activities.
  • Offered study facilities to support teaching.
  • Revitalized a core teaching area that was mostly unused.
  • Improved connections between buildings and enhanced breakout areas.

The original ‘L’ shaped plan with twin corridors and cellular rooms was reconfigured to create a top-lit internal promenade stair. This new stair links all levels, providing teaching spaces, breakout areas, and a more user-friendly environment. The first floor serves as the hub for the school, offering support services, a circular meeting room, learning resources, and postgraduate research space. The introduction of timber linings creates a warm, unified atmosphere throughout the building


50GS and the 40GS basement were stripped to their concrete frames, allowing new extensions and internal reconfiguration:

  • A new Project Room was added on the first-floor level.
  • A new steel frame floor level created extra space.

Lower floor changes included partially infilling the courtyard, additional connecting elements, and opening up the basement. Modernizing a 20th Century building with 21st Century services was a major challenge due to limited space. Coordination was crucial for maintenance access, integrating timber and metal access panels. The LLC now occupies three upper floors and the rooftop extension. The ground floor has bookable rooms, and the lower level provides more teaching spaces.

The north-west entrance is the main gateway. A new staircase introduces the LLC school on the first floor, and the Project Room serves as a hub for the wider community. Warm timber details enhance the building’s interior.

The project achieved a BREEAM “Excellent” rating, maximizing passive features for significant savings: about 60% in carbon emissions, 25% in energy, and 55% in running costs.

Project Info

The University of Edinburgh
50 George Square, Edinburgh, EH8 9JU
RICS Awards 2015 – Conservation Award
Scottish Design Awards 2015 – Commendation in Listed Building Category
GIA Awards 2015 – Commendation in Education Category
Structural Engineer
Harley Haddow LLP
M&E Engineer
Harley Haddow LLP
Cost Consultant
Thomson and Bethune
CDM Co-ordinator
Summers Inman
Balfour Beaty
Andrew Lee