How city life should be built-in

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LIKE Milton Keynes, Glenrothes is not widely regarded as an inspirational example of urban design. But growing up in the Fife new town, the son of a contractor, Allan Murray developed a passion for architecture.

Not that he liked what he saw there, far from it. He yearned for a different kind of place. Something like the historical city of Edinburgh on the other side of the Forth. But it took a far longer journey - to the other side of the Atlantic and back - before he got there.

But now Allan, 47, not only lives in the Capital, he is also playing a major role in reshaping it for people today and for years to come, for he is the man who, it seems, is behind almost every plan to rejuvenate the city's Old Town.

His company is set to bring the Cowgate back to life after fire destroyed the centre, and the nearby controversial Caltongate scheme featuring proposals to revamp a far larger swathe of the historic area is also Allan's.

He'll design the 20 million Leith Street development of 80,000 square feet of high-quality office space, shops, bars and restaurants and he is also working on the controversial scheme for the site of the former Lothian Regional Council offices on George IV Bridge.

Indeed "controversial" should perhaps be his middle-name. Even the numerous designs which have become a reality in the dozen years since he set up practice in the city, have not done so without some outcry - such as the striking Glasshouse hotel in Greenside Place (which, with its rooftop garden and incredible views back across the Forth, was named one of the world's 50 "coolest" hotels by upmarket magazine Conde Nast Traveller) and down at Holyrood, the green glass Tun bar/restaurant/office block.

He was also behind another, very different, award-winning building, the Cowgate Nursery, the creation of which is the centrepoint of a speech he's due to give at an international conference in London. With current projects under way including a housing development in Craigmillar, it could soon be hard to look at any section of the city without seeing the fruits of his labour.

Dressed simply in jeans and blue shirt, Allan paces thoughtfully in his office in a quiet street off Slateford Road as he recalls the childhood roots of his passion.

He says: "You crave streets, joined-up buildings, public spaces. It was probably a very determining factor in how I feel about streets and spaces. A lot of these towns [like Glenrothes] were built in a particular time. You can't criticise them for that, they were great ideas at the time."

He pauses before revealing that although growing up with a father in the construction industry also influenced him, it was his Latin teacher of all people who first planted the idea of launching his career. "He just said to me he thought I would make a good architect. I don't know why. But that's how it started."

After training at Dundee University, Allan arrived in Edinburgh in the early 80s keen to put his ideas into practice. But he was sorely disappointed. "Edinburgh was in the doldrums," he says.

"It was tumbledown city. There was very little development and really no opportunity for a young practice." After a few years he decided to try his luck in America and in 1984, after securing a much sought-after scholarship, he set off to study at the prestigious Harvard University. It was, as he puts it, a life-changing experience.

He still looks slightly awestruck as he describes being taught by world-leading architects such as the Spaniard, Rafael Moneo - "absolutely wonderful". He raves about the "intellectual debate" there, the discussions about what urban design and architecture should be about.

It may surprise critics of developments such as Caltongate that Allan is both motivated by and fascinated by history.

Referring to objections from heritage watchdogs - some of whom he says would "bark at the moon" - about such schemes ruining historic sites, he says: "I think many people are misinformed about history, or misunderstand it. Our reading of history is that it is a continuum and we are part of it.

"Everything you see was new at some time. When you look at the city in that way you understand that there was a time when architects created certain things to suit the circumstances at the time.

"We have to ask whether we have the same circumstances. There is a danger of creating a false history. I think we need to debate the city far more intellectually than we do. A lot of debate is simply based on aesthetics. Architecture is not just about aesthetics. I think cities are far more complex than that."

He continues: "It's about confidence for example. Whatever you think about Victorian buildings they show great confidence and longevity. Do we have that confidence?

"We need to create for the circumstances now. We need to make sure we are not a forgotten generation. We need to leave a mark of our culture, our society. Certain things end, others mutate and change."

Taking the Cowgate redevelopment, dubbed SoCo, as an example of what his firm is all about, he says: "Our aim is to bring life back into the area. The city is about people, and people use buildings, they don't just look at them. The prettiest building in the world won't work unless people use it.

"We have talked about the Filmhouse being there, about a hotel, about it being part of a photographic gallery . . . I think mixed use is the best. A city is like baking bread. It needs leavening. You need the right balance of ingredients, and housing is generally the flour of it all. But you also need things to do and places to work. All our schemes have tried very hard to try and get that balance of uses."

BALANCE is something he has also learned to achieve in his home life. It was back in the States while working for another leading architect called Moshi Safdie in Boston that Allan met his wife Jenny, now 41, who worked for a developer there at the time.

The pair decided to move back to Edinburgh in the late 80s and after lecturing for a few years at Dundee and Edinburgh universities Allan decided to have a shot at setting up his own practice with colleague Alexander Fairweather. Allan Murray Architects was created in 1994.

It was incredibly hard to break into the market and Allan and Jenny seriously considered moving back to the States.

But then in the space of two weeks he got his first commission and Jenny became pregnant, so they stayed. He admits that during the first couple of years he didn't see much of his first daughter as he fought to establish the business, regularly working 100 hours a week.

Now the pair have two daughters, now nine and 11, who Allan walks to school every morning. Smiling as he remembers the beginnings of his firm he says: "We worked feverishly into the night in a small room in Warriston, making models. It was such an exciting time. Sometimes some of the students helped out and there would be eight of us in that room all working away."

Remembering their first commission, a square in Wester Hailes, he says: "We were astonished because it was the first time anyone was going to pay us. That was great!"

As their reputation grew the pair were invited to enter competitions around the world to design for all kinds of buildings, from a maritime museum at Peterhead - which they won - to the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, which they didn't.

Graceful in defeat, Allan says: "We're always disappointed not to win something but you have to recognise that even winning it doesn't necessarily mean the project will go ahead. Sometimes you see a better idea and think, gosh, I wish we'd thought of that, but we're not bitter or jealous. It spurs you on next time to try and think more cleverly."

He believes that their success has come from always "punching above their weight". Moving on to air his views on the controversial Parliament by the late Spanish architect Enric Miralles, he proclaims it as a "milestone" in architectural thinking in the Capital, and Scotland. "The ripples and eddies from that building will go on for many decades," he pronounces.

With around half the now 30-strong workforce at Allan Murray Architects moving from abroad - from countries as diverse as China, Poland and America - to work for the firm, the ripples he is causing may be just as strong.