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The Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

Key Facts


National Galleries of Scotland






April 2011

Clever internal re-organisation transforms this grand dame of Queen Street

Project Info

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery is a remarkable Edinburgh building, opened in 1889 to designs by Rowand Anderson, and held in great affection by many. In part this is related to its:

  • Distinctive urban form.
  • Witty baronial gothic aspect set in the heart of Edinburgh New Town.
  • The unique juxtaposition of exquisite taste and robust industrial technologies.

There is a general presumption against altering historic fabric without good reason but underlying the delightful form of the building was its subdivision between two users, the National Galleries and National Museums. Various investments over the last decade freed the building to be reconciled into one gallery necessitating an exciting and unifying change.

Although the envelope of the building had been well maintained the interior of the building had become worn in its finishes. The aim was to improve the safety of the Collection from fire and water, be adaptable and flexible to suit the changing needs of a gallery environment and deliver a high-quality product that will stand up to the ongoing wear and tear of a gallery environment.

Heritage & Conservation

Externally, the principal effect has been the completion of the programme of restoration of the stonework and windows. Internally the significance of the various elements of the building, as set down in the Conservation Plan, has allowed for their careful conservation and protection. A primary goal of the project was to put the whole of the second and first floors back into public use, displaying the Galleries’ permanent collections and housing temporary exhibitions.

The conservation programme for the stained and leaded glass is of particular interest, and was based upon the aim to retain original material where ever possible whilst ensuring structural stability. This did mean some re-glazing with new lead calmes. Panels were to be assessed individually and where the lead work was sound it was retained. Fine detail or interlocking shapes were left in their original leads to avoid the possibility of unnecessary damage.



Arts & Culture

The adaptations made to the Portrait Gallery have transformed physical access both into and around the building, and critically, two new openings on either side of the existing entrance vestibule at ground floor level have been formed to increase visibility and encourage visitor flow to the contemporary galleries, seminar room, café and shop.

A new, ramped, legible mezzanine floors along the rear of the building has been inserted.  These mezzanines provide the answers to several problems: additional usable space for cellular and open plan offices, storage and an alternative escape route.

The gallery spaces provide a variety of characters in which to display the collection. Just inside the entrance, the newly formed temporary gallery presents a diverse programme of work and the first floor galleries celebrate the industrial aesthetic of the original structure. The enfilade upper floor galleries present work in a more traditional setting, albeit with clever solutions to enable natural top light to be used, developed in conjunction with lighting designer Foto-ma.


Throughout the building, temporary partitions, lowered ceilings and window blockings have, where practically possible been carefully removed to allow the robust spaces to work as originally intended.

The architectural language of the interventions takes its lead from the originally intended materiality of the exposed steel structure within the Rowand Anderson gallery spaces with the original steel beams now exposed where feasible.  The new elements “touch the building lightly” allowing the existing spaces, structure and forms to become preeminent.


“Scotland’s national portraits at last have a home worthy of them. Our great iconic building now looks tremendous and is the perfect showcase for our rich and unique collection.”

James Holloway Former Director of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Selected Awards

Scottish Design Awards 2012 - Leisure / Culture Building

RIAS Award 2012

RIBA Award 2012

GIA Conservation Award

Special Mention for the Andy Doolan Award 2012

Carbon Trust Low Carbon Building Award 2012

Building Conservation Award, RICS Scotland Awards 2013

Scotland Project of the Year Award, RICS Scotland Awards 2013

Highly Commended in Public Buildings category, Lighting Design Awards 2013

UK Property Award 2013

National Civic Trust Award 2013


Project Manager: Gardiner & Theobald
Structural Engineer: Will Rudd Davidson
M&E Engineer: Harley Haddow LLP
Cost Consultant: David Langdon
CDM Co-ordinator: Gardiner & Theobald
Contractor: BAM
Photographer: Andrew Lee
Lighting Consultant : Foto-Ma
Interior Designer: Graven Images