The Scotsman Interviews Parabola Chairman - Peter Millican


The Scotsman Interviews Parabola Chairman - Peter Millican

Parabola has been involved in several key projects in Scotland, such as The Johnnie Walker Experience, and the southern phase of Edinburgh Park. Can you give more details on the firm’s involvement in these, and how they are driving forward the company - and, more broadly, Scotland’s economic prosperity?

The team at Parabola has a deep attachment to place making, and a love of Edinburgh. We acquired the undeveloped half of Edinburgh Park in 2013. Based on a master plan from Richard Meier, the Park was very successful until early 2000 when the market changed significantly and it needed a fresh start. The coming of the tram and two heavy rail stations fundamentally altered what might be possible and we set out to create a mixed community based on outstanding public transport where people could live, work and play in a green and landscaped environment.

We worked for over six years designing our masterplan which consists of offices, housing, hotels, sports facilities and art. We started on site in 2019 with our first office building, restaurant, public square, tennis courts, and football pitches.

In 2017, we acquired the House of Fraser department store on the west end of Princes Street. This was a tired but much loved building in a key location in the city. Many people have told me fondly how they used to meet under Fraser’s clock. We felt that we could create something very special. We went through several different iterations before we were approached by Diageo for The Johnnie Walker Experience and the rest is history.

Scotland, as elsewhere, suffered greatly from the financial crash, losing much of its financial heft and it has taken time for this to be reversed. However, Edinburgh now feels more buoyant than it has been for some considerable time. The strong growth in population and business optimism is driving demand for quality housing and sustainable office space which we hope Parabola can, in a small way, support.

You founded Parabola 20 years ago to build two office developments in Newcastle. Can you explain more about why you founded the business, and some of its key milestones/projects along the way such as Kings Place in London?

Designing a building from scratch is one of the most exciting things I can imagine doing. You start with a blank sheet of paper and you end up with a sculpture which people inhabit. I started with a retail business and after I sold it I bought a derelict sorting office in Newcastle which was built very substantially in the 1930s. We stripped it back to the frame and rethought it as an office building which won awards for the best refurbishment in the British Council of Offices awards. We built another new office building next door and then I looked in London for a site around Kings Cross which I considered the best transport hub in London.

Kings Cross had a reputation for things other than shops and offices and it was generally considered that the idea of creating offices with a concert hall underneath was simply nuts. Despite that I wanted to build a building which had very good office space but which also offered something back to the local community.

Kings Place has proved extremely successful winning numerous awards both for office space and its cultural offering. We run concerts for children and have a broad outreach programme. We have a sculpture gallery and a popular restaurant. I believe that this is what place making is all about. There is no silver bullet but somehow you have to sprinkle magic dust over the project and involve the broadest range of people in the enterprise.

Parabola says it has sustainability at its “core” - and is a funding partner for The NetZeroToolkit by Edinburgh Science, for example, while the aim for Edinburgh Park is for it to operate with no carbon emissions. Can you summarise the firm’s approach to sustainability, in the wake of COP26?

From my very first building in the ‘90s, I have been focused on environmental issues and Central Square in Newcastle was a leader in many ways. We specified displacement air conditioning which uses 100% fresh air and free cooling when the outside temperature is below 18C. This reduced the electrical demand to 60% of a standard office as well as giving a much bigger volume of fresh air per person

We have designed Edinburgh Park as a 100% green electric community with no gas. We are monitoring the embedded carbon in our buildings and constantly examining ideas to reduce this further. Our first office is heated using heat pumps which give an average of 2kw of heat for every 1kw of electricity used. We are installing PV on all the green rooftops and using recycled material wherever we can.

You are passionate about the arts, and this is central to your vision for Edinburgh Park, demonstrated by, say, commissioning a major new tapestry… In what way does culture “help places thrive” as Parabola has said?

I have always believed that culture is a fundamental component of place making. In my very first building in Newcastle I commissioned Eduardo Paolozzi to create a sculpture. Eduardo produced a plaster maquette of Vulcan which is now a seven metre bronze statue. Almost every week we had children coming to sketch it as part of their curriculum. Vulcan is now on its way to Edinburgh Park and over the years we have commissioned other major sculpture works which we are bringing together in Edinburgh. This will form the backbone for the sculpture shows that we are planning as the park is gradually developed.

Culture is a major plank in building relationships with the local community around us. We have engaged with local schools in poetry workshops and drawing sessions, and we are supporting Big Noise as they make their new home as our neighbour in West Edinburgh.

I have always loved tapestry which used to be the most valued art form in days gone by and I am a great fan of Leon Kossoff. I asked Dovecot Studio to weave an interpretation of one of his many drawings of “Minerva protects Pax from Mars” by Rubens. The Rubens painting is an allegory of war and peace which was given by the Spanish King to Charles the 1st as a peace offering and in this time of global unrest it feels particularly appropriate to celebrate.

To what extent was the firm’s activity affected by the pandemic - both positive and negative?

The pandemic affected everyone. The construction on site has been delayed by around six months and whilst we have coped well I can think of no positives. What has become very clear however is that people want to work in well designed and well ventilated offices and that they value green space around them.

Can you give more details on your career before Parabola - you were an optician…?

I trained as an optician and built a small group which I sold before moving into property.

Who do you admire in business?

Elon Musk.

Parabola also has The Parabola Foundation - which works with projects both in Scotland but also in the likes of Uganda and Tanzania. How would you characterise the aim of the Foundation, and how do you select projects?

I believe we should try to do what we can to help others who are less fortunate. I have travelled frequently in Africa and 20 years ago set up a charity with two friends to dig two wells in Tanzania. Each well supports around 2,500 people and we now have around 300 wells which we monitor to check they are properly maintained.

The sculpture foundry that we set up in Uganda as a charity with Pangolin Editions provides a facility for Ugandan artists to fabricate and sell their work to tourists and Ugandans. It has grown from a very small enterprise to a significant employer which is highly valued by the local community. In the UK we support several arts and music groups which we have selected on the basis that we admired the people and we felt we could make a difference.

What would you like Parabola to achieve in the next, say, five years?

I am looking forward to seeing the developing community at Edinburgh Park as people embrace what we are creating.