From the Ground Up: Scotland's Architecture Fringe

Architecture Fringe organiser Andy Summers and participant Gunnar Groves-Raines describe the exciting plans for this year's Fringe, and what makes it so distinctive from other festivals of its kind.

Article by Adam Benmakhlouf | 25 May 2018

Scotland’s Architecture Fringe festival returns for a third year this month. Designed specifically to challenge conventional expectations of what might be expected of architectural discourse, the 70 events (up from 50 last time) are focused on considering the social and political implications of the built environment at the intersection of architecture, design and contemporary art. Says one of the organisers, Andy Summers, “Architecture is all about other people, buildings are for other people… Everyone experiences architecture all the time; we buy it, live in it. For us, what’s crucial is the cultural and socio-political context in Scotland. That’s the main point of our departure, it’s not about nice taps.”

Started in 2016, the Architecture Fringe emerged as a direct response to Year of Innovation in Architecture and Design and the “top heavy approach” of the main festival by the Royal Institute of Architects in Scotland. Summers remembers “it was not easy to understand how grassroots organisations would take part.” From this, the organisers of the Architecture Fringe came together to build their own fringe that would “not just include architects but would be a wider expression of the arts, activism and society in general.”

In order to promote this kind of openness and interaction of disciplines, politics, art and activism, the Architecture Fringe is based around an open call. “We’re a non-profit community interest company. Eleven of us all run the Fringe as volunteers. We basically are very hands-off, as to partake in the platform is free and it’s open access.” They do not curate the programme, but instead produce a core programme that responds to the annual theme. This year, that theme is 'common senses.' However, when it comes to the 'open programme,' Summers makes clear, “we only watch the quality, but we don’t curate that, as that’s how new cultures can emerge. We have very strict submission criteria, about tickets and levels of organisation expected, but beyond that we’re very hands-off… New ideas and new voices can come onto the scene very easily.”

As well as being open to the social issues around itself, there is also the question as to how the Scottish architectural scene is interrogating its own problems, make-up and the diversity of its own population, and how easy it is for anyone to break into the discipline and flourish. “Within architecture, this reflection is definitely up and running,” says Summers. He mentions the high profile architect Richard Meier in New York, who has been recently brought to account for sexual misconduct. “Within the Fringe itself, there are four projects that deal with women, misogyny and generally the institution and cultural shift. Architectural Killjoy is one of those, and will be an open space where people can come along and generally share and open up conversation. There’s also Voices of Experience which is in Glasgow, an archive project which rediscovers older professional women who have been ignored and forgotten, and they’re paired with younger professional women to share experience and are remembered.”

Some of the main ambitions of the programme can also be understood from the Custom Lane Summer Pavilion, which is both one of the 70 projects and one of the central meeting points of the entire Fringe. According to one of the Summer Pavilion’s main facilitators Gunnar Groves-Raines, “Custom Lane down in Leith is a creative hub and centre for design and making. Our project with the Architecture Fringe is to describe a temporary pavilion [a main meeting point for the Fringe] in a lane space that we have at the front of our building. As a creative hub, we have a lot of people who are based here including designers from different disciplines and we also have the Edinburgh Tool Library in our space. The idea is to use all that expertise, with the community and a lot of volunteers to design and build a structure that will be there for the duration of the summer.”

The Summer Pavilion also draws out some of the significances of the the theme 'common senses,' according to Groves-Raines. He thinks first about the 'common' part, and the implied community and conversation, in relation to the Custom Lane building itself. “It’s about sharing experience, knowledge, information and supporting one another. It fits very well with the building,” he says, alluding to some of the daily exchanges that take place between the different studio holders. “The structure [the Summer Pavilion] is then thinking of that as a public space that anyone can use if they want to come in and create an atmosphere where any members of the public can come and experience design and architecture, and not in an intimidating environment. “In terms of the ‘senses’ part,” he continues, “we have a resident band who are very experimental and we’re looking at whether we can play on multiple senses [within the Summer Pavilion], whether their musical performance can be tailored to the structure and whether the two can inform one another.”

If you’re not yet convinced to visit any of the 70 free events across Scotland that will comprise Architecture Fringe, the past visitors’ feedback also speaks to the quality of the Fringe programme. Summers describes their success, as 95% of the audience last year responded that they would enthusiastically recommend the Architecture Fringe. 

One point that comes up in both interviews is the distinctive nature of the practice of architecture in Scotland, and how this emerges from the regulatory and commercial factors at play here. “For those involved [in the Summer Pavilion], it’s about being free to build something. It’s very difficult to get things built in Scotland as an architect, especially as a young architect,” explains Summers. Similarly, he continues, “to build is very difficult, there’s either no money or the way that the procurement system works, it favours large companies. That’s the same across the world, that there’s a favouring of commercial enterprises and smaller independent people find it more difficult. So what architects have to do is diversify into areas beyond actual buildings.” One particular strength Summers identifies as coming through the Fringe is “very strong social engagement, e.g. helping to get a community centre off the ground." Giving a sense of the strong basis of the experimental and socially-minded Architecture Fringe, Summers is clear that "Architecture in itself in Scotland is very plural, and architects are very socially engaged on the ground because that is where the work is.”

Architecture Fringe 2018, 8-24 June, across Scotland.