Malcolm Fraser Architects was set up in 1993 by Malcolm Fraser, who previously worked as a community architect in Wester Hailes (an Edinburgh peripheral housing scheme) and for radical theoretical placemaker Christopher Alexander in Berkeley, California. The 15-strong Edinburgh practice has considerable experience in arts/lottery-funded projects, most notably Dance Base, the National Centre for Dance in Edinburgh. The firm has also worked, or is working on, Grade A-listed buildings such as the Halifax Bank of Scotland Headquarters and Broughton Place Church.
The Scottish Storytelling Forum, a charity founded in 1992, exists to encourage and support storytelling across all ages and sectors of society. Initially a volunteer-run organisation, it occupied the top floor of the Netherbow Arts Centre in Edinburgh's Old Town.
The new Scottish Storytelling Centre is a partnership between the Scottish Storytelling Forum and the Church of Scotland and is the physical home for the forum and its national network.
The construction of the Scottish Storytelling Centre (SSC) was funded by the Scottish Arts Council Capital Lottery fund, the Church of Scotland, the City of Edinburgh Council, Edinburgh World Heritage, the Heritage Lottery fund and Scottish Enterprise.
The completion of the project sees a further glimmer in the constellation of organisations focusing on the literary culture of Scotland. Adjacent to the SSC is Sandeman House, home to the Scottish Book Trust; across the High Street in Tweeddale Court is the publishing house Canongate Books. Further down the Royal Mile on Canongate is the Poetry Library; further up, in Lady Stair's Close, the Writers' Museum celebrates, among others, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. Edinburgh is the UNESCO City of Literature and at festival time Charlotte Square is given over to the International Book Festival.
The SSC is situated on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh's Old Town, in the conservation heartland of the World Heritage Site. This is a street of stories and storytellers; they inhabit and inform every nook and close. Literary tour guides wind their way down the Royal Mile with visitors hanging on their every word; there is a thin line between fact and fiction in these performances.
Likewise, the architectural story of the Royal Mile is a tale of halftruths and lies, spun in the pursuit of a character that perpetuates the myth of an extant medieval scene. The ancient garb of the former Scandic Crown Hotel (now Radisson SAS), completed in 1990, exists to confuse and denies anything or anyone after 1745.
While the architectural giants are pushing the envelope of defendable development in Edinburgh, Foster's Quartermile is currently sprouting heady towers of glass; and while Make is proposing towers in the Firth of Forth reminiscent of scenes from Arabian Nights, local practices continue to sift the pickings and layers of the historical midden. Their commitment to realising relevant work is evident in a clutch of commendable buildings:
Malcolm Fraser Architects' Dance Base and Poetry Library and Richard Murphy's Fruitmarket Gallery, not to mention the maligned Parliament masterwork of Enric Miralles and the erudite formalism of Benson and Forsyth's Scottish Museum.
Physically connected to the 15th-century John Knox House, the new SSC is a radical reworking of the Netherbow Arts Centre. The original arts centre was a hesitant, self-conscious 1970s exploration of mannered contextualism. It lacked the confidence and common sense of the 1960s Swedish Modernism of Robert Hurd's work further down Canongate. Malcolm Fraser sees the latest rendering of this site as a 'paean to context, addressed with optimism and confidence, liberating and empowering'.
The appointment of Fraser was entirely appropriate; he is an articulate and inveterate teller of stories. A convincing narrative is never far away, especially when collaborating with associate Neil Simpson (now principal of Neil Simpson Architects); both worked together on the acclaimed Scottish Poetry Library. Such is their ability to convince that planning and listed building consent took only six weeks; remarkable in this fiefdom of conservatism.
SSC director Donald Smith refers to storytelling as the 'gateway art', a threshold to other worlds. The Netherbow was literally the gateway into the Old Town. The history and location were critical to Fraser's reading of the site.
The Royal Mile facade is composed of three distinct elements. The rendered, regularly punctured elevation is all that remains of the original Netherbow Arts Centre. The existing pitched roof has been masked by extending up the parapet wall.
The repetitive square windows give it a vacant expression. The eroded Dunhouse Grey stone bell tower contributes an entirely different scale and ambiguity to the composition. What looks like a stair is in fact offices; the slot windows that appear to follow the turn of a stair actually light the small offices. They also give the building a certain miniaturisation that accords with the picturesque scale of John Knox House. The new Bell Tower contains the city bell of 1621. Simpson says: 'The bell previously hung in the Netherbow Gate across the High Street, so its voice is familiar.' From the tower there are open views to the sea, recalling and mirroring Patrick Geddes' Outlook Tower at the head of the Royal Mile. The final component of the elevation is a stainlesssteel horizontal entrance canopy and wall cladding that serves to complement the verticality of the stone tower.
The level entry into the dark complexity of John Knox House is a welcome relief from the heat and crowds on the street.
It is a memorable moment moving from the dark and closeness of the 15th-century house into the light of the new foyer. The foyer opens to the High Street and a further stepped entrance to one side; on the other, it connects with an enclosed court via a wellproportioned café. The court is a generous double-height space that is flooded by top light. It ends with a magnificent window that looks on to a delicious urban garden and views of Sandeman House beyond. Originally, the enclosed court was a walled external court and roof to the theatre space below. The original theatre has been reconfigured and dramatically redesigned to create an intimate venue; the spoken word, unamplified, was a primary aim of the brief. The raked seating addresses a raised stage, behind which is a further window on to the garden.
The plan thus divides simply into wee rooms that abut the John Knox House, containing offices, an education suite and service spaces that support the larger venue spaces. The expansion of the space from the foyer and café serves to extend these functions out into the court, which also acts as a performance space itself.
Fraser talks of the intimacy of storytelling and also its important relation to hospitality. The court is seen as a ceilidh room, but the generosity and ambition of the space seems at odds with the creation of an atmosphere that would impart an intimacy.
This scale issue has been recognised in the east wall, which is designed with a depth; a servant wall which folds out to describe a smaller space. An alcove and seat are revealed, creating 'a corner of shadows', to quote Simpson. The wall itself is a series of vitrines and recesses that will, over time, be filled with maquettes and illustrations of stories. Fraser talks of this interior relating to land, city and sky, from the Bell Tower to the sea, thereby connecting this space to the real and imagined world in the way that storytelling itself tethers people to place.
The internal architectural and detail language is finely wrought and explored. Douglas fir is used throughout the interiors either as veneered panels or solid strips. These mellow surfaces are complemented by simple white painted planes. The vocabulary is refined, detached and well resolved; this is an intelligent and lucid work. Paradoxically, this is where the building is most challenging; it appeals to the intellect as the idea of storytelling conjures up the phenomenal world, the realm of the senses. There is a need for shadows, ambiguity, ambivalence, hesitancy, and the inexplicable.
The interior has an obvious intelligence yet lacks the primitivism of, for example, Valerio Olgiati's Das Gelbe Haus in Flims; its presence, internally and externally, disturbs and enthrals in equal measure. Das Gelbe Haus too is a radical reinvention of an existing building for use as a cultural centre, a place of memories, but it embodies a quality that renders much contemporary work as decadent. Lamenting the loss of the 'silent man' in today's society, Max Picard says in The World of Silence, 'listening and true storytelling belong together; they are a unity'. He differentiates between the silent and the non-speaking man; and certain architectural vocabulary is reductivist in a non-speaking way, never imagining the power and sense of silence contained within a Lewerentz or an Olgiati interior. The interiors of the Storytelling Centre will with time accrue their own ghosts and myths, that create the shadows that fuel the imagination.
The North has always had a storytelling tradition, from ancient sagas and travellers' tales to winters evenings gathered around the fire today. The abiding memory of the building is of the large window in the court that looks north, etched with the words of George McKay Brown (1921-96), poet, storyteller and founding patron of the Scottish Storytelling Forum: 'A star for a cradle/ Sun for plough and net/ A fire for old stories/ A candle for the dead/ Lux perpetua/ By such glimmers we seek you'.