How the design of Virgin Hotels Edinburgh came to life

Nestled in the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town and a UNESCO World Heritage site, the first Virgin Hotels property outside the USA, designed by architecture and interior design studio Ica, has recently opened its doors. The Ica team’s heritage know-how, combined with their creative talent and hospitality expertise, led to a design that was able to unlock the viability of this challenging city-centre site…

wood panelling and oil paintings above the fireplace in the commons club bar in Virgin Hotels Edinburgh

In an area of the capital renowned for its varied topography, picturesque medieval streets, closes and wynds and diverse architectural character, Ica’s challenge was to combine the restoration of three distinctly separate ‘at risk’ listed buildings, which occupy dramatically different levels within the local cityscape, with new build elements carefully considered, to re-establish the historic form of the site, whilst also showcasing a bold, contemporary Edinburgh.

The structural design developed by the studio allows for the three listed buildings to be linked both to each other and to the new build part of the hotel with sympathetic yet modern interventions, creating a new flow through the complex site and deliberately framing unexpected views out into both the more intimate bustling local streets and closes and towards the grander views of Edinburgh Castle and the Old Town roofscape. Ica’s design, together with Shoreditch-based design studio Four-by-Two, provides for dramatic public spaces, rooftop gardens and cosy bedrooms, creating a bold contrast between old and new, light and dark, modern and traditional.

modern light fitting contrasts with traditional panelling on staircase of Virgin Edinburgh

Image credit: Virgin Hotels

In working with existing buildings, every project has its inherent quirks and there are always challenges. However, the key to a successful refurbishment is careful planning, creativity, and lateral thinking. Ica have mastered the art of ‘expecting the unexpected’ and are adept at designing a well-executed historic development, combining the existing elements of unique properties with the perks and privileges of a contemporary luxury hotel.

An intricate design solution for the new build exterior façade was embraced, creating layers and depth. Skilled at working within the existing topography and with local Planning and Historic Environment Scotland guidance, Ica’s exploration of potential design solutions, along with a detailed understanding of the local Old Town character produced a bold, yet sympathetic design, which allows the new hotel to blend seamlessly into Edinburgh’s distinct topography and roofscape. Sandstone was used to allow the new build elements to sit harmoniously with neighbouring buildings, while showing glimpses of modern detailing in the stonework, gables, windows, and rooflines. Balconies were partially hidden, wrapped in glazing with a printed sandstone image, allowing light into the rooms, while presenting a discreet stone outer skin to the street.

glass rotunda a seen from below in the atrium of the Virgin hotel Edinburgh

Image credit: Virgin Hotels

The interior, however, is anything but hidden. Collaborating with the Virgin Team, Ica’s interior designers brought the brand’s playful concepts to life, designing for Edinburgh’s past and future and creating joy in the unique spaces that the Virgin brand offers within both the listed and new build elements of the building. The existing grandeur of the exterior extends into the interior design to enhance the features of the listed buildings while anchoring everything in the signature Virgin experience. Original features were retained – a beautiful domed glass rotunda with authentic decorative cornicing captures the eye as you arrive at the atrium, a modern take on a classic library and beautiful timber panelling is retained and extended within the ground floor public bars and restaurants.

stonework and velvet in eclectic mix in commons club restaurant in virgin hotel edinburgh

Image credit: Virgin Hotels

In combining the old with the new, more contemporary design features were sprinkled throughout the hotel to inspire wonder and awe: a glass-panelled corridor leading to the reception area, a very modern ‘scarlet lounge’ sitting within a very traditional corniced room and the exposed stone in the Commons Club restaurant combined with eclectic lighting and artwork bring a playfulness to the public spaces.

“Virgin Hotels Edinburgh is our first hotel outside the US so it had to be special,” said Teddy Mayer, Vice President Creative Director, Virgin Hotels. “We’re thrilled with the design Ica delivered. Edinburgh’s character and Virgin’s signature brand are strikingly reflected in both the interiors and exteriors”.

bed and textiles in neutral tones in junior suite with pops of virgin hotel red in the fridge

Image credit: Virgin Hotels

Sheltering 222 guestrooms, the luxury Chambers and Grand Chamber Suites are combined with a variety of bars, restaurants, and private dining spaces at street level enlivening both Victoria Street and Cowgate and opening out onto re-established closes, a semi-public external courtyard and a stylish new rooftop garden sanctuary, showcasing unobstructed views of Edinburgh Castle and Greyfriars Kirkyard. The Chambers themselves combine sophisticated neutral tones and pops of bright red colour, faithful to Virgin’s signature brand.

wooden table and low lighting in Commons Club kitchen

Image credit: Virgin Hotels

The brand’s flagship Commons Club restaurant and bar, a show kitchen, and Funny Library all opened as part of the first phase launch. The second phase will see the opening of Greyfriars Hall – a 19th-century church repurposed as a special event venue, Eve – all-day dining and late-night entertainment space at Cowgate and a roof terrace garden with dramatic views over Edinburgh Castle and across the Old Town.

For the team at Ica, the new Virgin Hotel is the outstanding result of many years of specialised experience, a lot of hidden hard work in both design and technical expertise to de-risk and make the project viable, conceptual talent, a love of hospitality and a flair for problem-solving.

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Main image credit: Virgin Hotels