Floored by Malcolm

For an architect who dislikes competitions, Malcolm Fraser is doing quite nicely. The man already voted Scottish Architect of the Year 2002 was awarded a £20,000 prize on Friday by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) for his work on Dance Base in Edinburgh. That same building is also on the shortlist for this year’s Stirling Prize - the UK’s most prestigious architectural award.

The 20,000 Stirling Prize is organised by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in association with the Architects’ Journal to honour the best building by a UK practice working in the European Union. The country’s best-known architectural game show is broadcast "live" on Channel 4 every October and pulls in more viewers than the Turner Prize.

Fraser is up against stiff competition, but according to bookmaker William Hill is one of the favourites. The hot tip this year is Gateshead’s "non-wobbly" Millennium Bridge - a few short steps away from the Baltic Centre, where the winner will be announced on 12 October. But, as Fraser says, the judges have been known to pull a few surprises out of the hat ...

According to Fraser, he also likes to be surprised by his own work and his nominated design - Dance Base in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket - is a typical example.

The project has taken about seven years to complete, from first meeting to opening, and was built in what Fraser describes as a "raggedy site" in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, owned by three different organisations - Edinburgh City Council, the Crown and Scottish & Newcastle Breweries.

"It’s not so much a building you can stand and admire from the outside as a sequence of articulated spaces," says Fraser.

Access to the spaces is via a pend from the street, leading up light-filled stairs to a modest reception. Inside, there are four main studios, each with its own distinctive character and spectacular views of the castle and Edinburgh skyline. And the proof of the centre’s success is that the studios are already heavily used, not just at weekends but during the week.

Two key factors influenced the creation of Dance Base, says Fraser. First, the project needed architectural vision and was "architect-led". And second, the client had clear views on what was required and had a close relationship with the designer throughout. What made the project so unique was that it was not a site looking for ideas but a vision in search of a site.

"Normally," says Fraser, "things happen the other way round. The client first identifies the site, secures the funding, then holds a beauty contest to select the architect, who has to work within the limitations of the site."

By driving the project from the very beginning, in coordination with Dance Base, Fraser was already part of the foundations when the project received the green light. Based on his original brief, he had found a site and carried out a feasibility study, then he had drawn up outline plans, before helping the client apply for lottery funding. Meanwhile, he began negotiations with the owners of the site.

What Fraser highlights in his design is the "context" of Dance Base - not just surrounding buildings but the culture, the client, the neighbours, the materials and technology available, and the people who use it.

"We wrestled for ages to get the design right," he explains. "Good communication is always important. There’s no point talking from on high about the principles of so-called good design. If you can’t convince people with your proposal, you should question yourself about what you are doing, rather than try to impose your opinions."

Fraser’s background as a community architect in Wester Hailes, where he started working after graduation, goes a long way to explaining why he pays so much attention to what he calls "creative conversation" and the "political context" of buildings.

"In Wester Hailes, I tried to learn how to make buildings work for the people who use them," he says. "A building is nothing until people use it." This human dimension is characteristic of Fraser’s designs. He hates what he calls "signature architecture", where the building is an expression of the architect’s personal vision rather than a building for people.

"I distrust egotistical buildings," says Fraser. "I’m also much too Calvinist to like a showy architect like Gaudi."

The choice of one of his favourite buildings still echoes the religion of his youth - the parish church in Burntisland, Fife. According to Fraser, it is a fine example of a building which expresses the tradition behind it, as well as the social and spiritual changes taking place at the time it was built. "It is a radical representation of democracy and the freedom of man to communicate directly with God," he continues. "It is also an interesting mixture of the vernacular and the religious."

Fraser describes himself as "driven", but his idea of "Platonic perfection" is not the automobile but the bike and, as he cycles to work every morning, he passes one of his least favourite buildings - the Little Sisters of the Poor in Gilmore Place. "A building that rejects the world around it and seems to hide something within," Fraser says.

Fraser also flirts with contradictions and the memories of his Edinburgh childhood. He condemns his former school, George Watson’s College, as "arid, overscaled neo-classicism, a building quite unsuitable for children".

Yet, on the same site is the music school, designed in the late 1960s by Michael Laird - "a rational, inspiring and welcoming building that has a good relationship with the spaces around it, as well as open views and good materials".

In Edinburgh’s St Andrew’s Square, Fraser names two other neighbouring buildings at opposite ends of his taste scale, reserving his unkindest words for the new Harvey Nichol’s department store, while singing the praises of the Scottish Provident building - on which his father worked as the structural engineer.

"It’s great to see investment coming into the city, but the Harvey Nicks building is miserably dull," he declares. "It has been described as fitting well into its context, but this bland building sits alongside flamboyant, ambitious, commercial palazzos."

Fraser’s not an architect who minces his words, or shies away from controversy. Sometimes, it is also hard to pin down where he stands on certain issues or define what he believes in. He considers himself to be a "modern" architect, but that doesn’t mean he’s anti-tradition.

"I believe we can only make modern architecture," he explains. "We need to respond to the context we build in - look at, respect and learn from the people before us. But we also have to respond to the climate, topography and culture, as well as our concerns about sustainability, living with the world around us rather than continuing to brutalise it."

Many of his designs incorporate prominent glass and steel features, integrated with existing structures, but he also respects conservationist views - Historic Scotland and the Cockburn Association are much more open to modern ideas, he says, than their critics suggest. "Like me, they also like to be surprised," he adds.

He is also on record as describing Princes Street as a "shocking mess", and once said of the Royal Mile that, "our history hasn’t ended", in the sense that we should not be frightened of organic development, since it is the jumble of buildings added over the centuries that makes the street so special.

"I’m an optimist," says Fraser. "Fifteen years ago, 99.5 per cent of our new buildings were not very good, but today that’s down to only 99 per cent - which is good."

When proposals were announced for a new underground shopping mall in Princes Street, Fraser was the only private witness at the inquiry to oppose the scheme. Instead of merely rubbishing the proposals, however, Fraser’s practice came up with an alternative concept, envisaging a four-storey glazed atrium, making better use of the "tawdry" buildings already there which "fail to exploit either the retail or the architectural potential of their setting."

In the practice’s work, retail and architectural potential go hand in hand. The design of a building can often boost its economic value and Fraser knows this from his work for both Pizza Express and Montpelier’s chain of entertainment venues.

"In my experience, most successful businesses want to rack up the quality of their product," says Fraser. "They recognise that good design can be a draw to customers, as well as help to utilise space, but, in general, we do not invest enough in our buildings, or care enough what they look like."

Fraser could certainly not be accused of not caring. In fact, he may even take his role as an architect too seriously sometimes. As someone who has lived most of his life in Edinburgh, apart from brief stints in Bristol and Berkeley, he says: "I feel responsibility for every bad building in the city, as if I should be doing something about it."

Instead of just being a critic, however, he rolls up his sleeves - collaborating not just with his colleagues but also with public bodies and private clients to get things done. He has also concentrated on his local reputation, taking the "low road" to success.

His contribution to the city continues to make an impression. Following the success of his design for the Scottish Poetry Library in Crichton Close, and the rave reviews for Dance Base, his practice is now embarking on a major new project at the Netherbow Arts Centre, including the creation of a new Scottish Storytelling Centre. His domestic work also makes him one of the most sought-after architects in Scotland, including highly praised extensions in Edinburgh’s Grange and Colinton areas, and a private house on Speyside overlooking the Cairngorms, plus a major new project for Stewart Milne Homes in Bo’ness.

Perhaps a clue to what makes Fraser tick is his passion for black American music, which he sees as the great inspiration for music today. "Blues, reggae, jazz and hip hop are probably the greatest cultural legacy of the 20th century," says Fraser. "The sense of rhythm and the sense of space, the simplicity and the concision, are something we continue to learn from. You can’t make vacuous intellectual statements in music - because if you do, nobody listens …"

Even though one of Fraser’s colleagues in his 16-strong practice describes him as having "two left feet", Dance Base also mirrors Fraser’s passion for music and dance - and his passion for honesty and simplicity in his designs.

Dance Base was designed for the people who use it, not to win an architectural game show, but if you fancy six to one odds, then Fraser is the architect to bet on.