Edinburgh’s Changing Architecture: An Interview with Malcolm Fraser

Over the past few years there has been increasing anxiety surrounding the possibility that Edinburgh might lose its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to an influx of new projects granted planning permission, spanning from student accommodation and hotels to imperious shopping centres.

Despite the fact that Edinburgh’s aesthetic character is one of the reasons that the city proves so popular with tourists – you only have to walk down the Royal Mile or across George VI bridge to spot tourists gawping in amazement at the unique architectural landscape – the council seems content to allow Edinburgh to become clogged with builds that merely act as commercially-viable stains on the city’s skyline.

The Student spoke with Edinburgh-based architect Malcolm Fraser, of Fraser/Livingstone Architects, about the changing architectural landscape in Edinburgh and about the political climate in which these changes are taking place. When asked about the rapidly changing fabric of the city, Malcolm wryly noted that “the contemporary Capitalist world is extremely good at taking value and thrashing it to death. Edinburgh is so jaw-droppingly beautiful that we can build a huge amount of crap within it and it still retains its beauty, and I think we are building very badly within it.”

A University of Edinburgh alumnus, Malcolm’s projects are scattered throughout Edinburgh, demonstrating that new builds can be an asset to the city when done right. Stylistically, his architecture is graceful and modern whilst remaining harmonious and respectful of its surrounding landscape, successfully toeing the line between old and new.

Discussing his process, Malcolm spoke about the necessity of thinking “about place and heritage”, and about the “things that are permanent in the city, the wonderful heights, the relationship between dense cores and open space. I try to make an architecture that respects that, but is concerned with modern notions of openness, views, light and gathering”.

This is particularly evident in one of his buildings, the Scottish Storytelling Centre, a cultural hub of the city that brings together storytellers annually in the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. During the design process Malcolm explored the Northern oral tradition, visualising “long winter evenings huddled around the fire to share art, play music, dance, sing, tell stories, understand culture”, aiming to recreate this intimacy in the building by collating storytellers first memories of storytelling into the design. Each element of the build represents a story told to Malcolm, spanning from tales of ghosts in the city to the stars on a camping trip; it is this recognition of people as valuable individuals that is captured in his architecture.

It is clear that social awareness is key to Malcolm’s ethos as an architect. To him, architecture “demands to involve social issues, the politics of who can control space, who accesses space and on what terms” and he actively fights to create a fairer, more inclusive, more innovative architecture. Working with communities, Malcolm was recently party to the government’s community empowerment legislation which is “a really vigorous and radical new direction Scotland is taking which would differentiate us from England and align us with more continental models, [where] communities step forward and take ownership of land and develop land in probably ways that are far better, more innovative and more sustainable than our private house builders who are not imaginative, not thoughtful and not progressive.”

A member of the board of the left-wing think-tank Common Weal, Malcolm regularly lobbies the government on social, political and economic issues in order to “encourage the current government to think a bit more broadly and more effectively in how to invest in the people and the place”. This social responsibility and recognition of people as individuals rather than consumers is a key part of Malcolm’s vision and success as a both an architect and an activist.

When asked if the influx of students and new student housing was damaging to Edinburgh, Malcolm laughed, stating that “today’s student is quite an absurdly well-behaved young person”. Whilst much student housing could be built better, Malcolm notes that if new student housing is currently one of the only ways the government allows investment to happen, then “we need to change the tax parameters if we want to get more social housing rather than student housing”.

He fundamentally disagrees with the anti-student / anti-visitor mentality, labelling it a “disturbing populist undercurrent” as students and visitors “hugely invigorate areas”. Malcolm sees students and visitors as a welcome, and necessary, part of the community. He goes on to invoke Robert Louis Stevenson’s vision of Edinburgh as a three-dimensional dynamo, describing “this really lovely idea that the city’s different classes can get along on top of each other, and the hoi polloi walk across the bridges and the morass of students, of hawkers or whatever, can go happily underneath”, each group fundamental and essential to the construction of the city.

Although it seems likely that thoughtlessly designed student blocks, hotels and office buildings will continue to spring up around Edinburgh, it is encouraging to see that there are still architects who take into account the heritage, character and social wellbeing of the city and community in their designs and builds. Since the opening of his new practice earlier this year, Malcolm notes his excitement at feeling “like a young and up and coming architect again”, an excitement and optimism that we can all share if architects like him are entrusted with the future of our city.

Illustration: Manvir Dobb

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The Student Newspaper 2016