As the Bartlett professor receives the RIBA’s education award, Eleanor Young discovers the warmth, interest and energy that built a formidable reputation
‘I always take the stairs,’ says Murray Fraser as we climb up through the Bartlett School of Architecture to his office. ‘It is the only way I get to see people.’ Warm interchanges follow, on stairs and landings. Fraser studied here, for 17 years in total from undergraduate to PhD, then as critic and external examiner and finally returning full time in 2011. He now revels in the title of professor of architecture and global culture as well as vice dean of research.
Now he has been announced as the winner of the biennial RIBA Annie Spink Award for his contribution to education. Perhaps it is not surprising: over the years his name has come up again and again as tutor for President’s Medal and Dissertation Medal winners. He bridges the divide between design and history and theory in his teaching and his book on Design Research in Architecture and again in his work with the Palestinian Regeneration Team. He brought cultural theory into architectural history and widened the discussion to a more global subject as befits an education system for students from across the world. This is clearly demonstrated in his book Architecture and the ‘Special Relationship’, which picks up on UK-US themes, and an entirely new and renamed Sir Banister Fletcher’s Global History of Architecture – a huge project of a million words that has taken all (and more) of a year’s sabbatical to commission and write and comes out next year. ‘It is not quite an encyclopedia,’ he says, quite underselling the massive undertaking.
The dossier assembled for his Annie Spink Award nomination not only outlines his achievements, it also gives a sense of a man who has warmth and interest in those around him – ‘ever-friendly engagement’ wrote one highly regarded academic, ‘openness and tireless enthusiasm’ wrote an ex-student. As we take a seat in his Bartlett office the way he talks is inclusive – as if I was there and know the people he's talking about – but without leapfrogging the basics. He still explains and contextualises but a collaborative nature seems to be embedded in his speech patterns.
Fraser never thought he was an academic, he always enjoyed practice, including early work at Architype. But when the nineties recession made a full time teaching job look more attractive he found it was his medium. ‘I always imagined I would be teaching and practising but I just really enjoyed teaching. It is so creative, you are creating new knowledge.’ Since then his career has been marked by three institutions: Oxford Brookes, the University of Westminster and the Bartlett. This at least is simple, as his list of achievements in publications, collaborations, teaching and course conjuring is not.
Reflecting on his career ahead of receiving the award, Fraser thinks he may have spotted something new emerging – the way at Oxford Brookes he and others such as Niall McLaughlin and Alex de Rijke were feeling their way to a new model of teaching which made students co-researchers. ‘It was a very fertile time,’ he says. ‘We felt like a different generation, it changed from master and pupil or learned master and novice. We felt much more collaborative, though we didn’t realise it at the time. Now things are shifting to research-based teaching but we were doing it de facto.’
Perhaps the outstanding example of this is his student at Oxford, Tracy Meller, recently made the first female partner at RSHP. ‘Her thesis was staggering,' says Fraser. 'It was like an urban design town planning competition that she did all by herself.’ How did he help? ‘I always found being student-centred is the way to get the best of people,’ he says. It was at Oxford that his remarkable string of President’s Medal and Dissertation Prize winners started to emerge, helped by the dedication of two terms of history and theory to a major study and an eclectic set of subjects from housing provision to shopping malls.
This continued after he shifted to University of Westminster. Being in London with the capital’s architects and tutors on tap felt like a great privilege. Running part two, he put together a hugely varied set of tutors including UFO on digital design and the now-stalwarts of the London teaching scene, Susanne Isa and Simon Herron. Those in other architecture schools couldn’t fail to notice the remarkable string of President’s Medals Award winners from Fraser’ graduate diploma course University of Westminster between 2005-10: four Silver Medals in five years and five Dissertation Medals. He believes that the sorts of skills which earned these awards for his students are exactly those possessed by the best architects. ‘You have to be able to design and read and think – it’s about understanding and learning from others in the subject.’ He made that easier too, as co-investigator on the Archigram Archival Project to make an online archive of their work.
In 2011 a rare job came up at the Bartlett and he returned to his alma mater. Though it wasn’t just a sense of homecoming he was after. University rankings and the recognition of the Bartlett internationally make it easier to build connections across the EU and in China and elsewhere. Those links improve collaboration and funding – both of which Fraser has taken advantage of through architectural research groups, the journal AJAR (which he helped found) and specific projects on things like entrepreneurship.
The nascent field of research by design also drew him to the Bartlett. This recognises the value of design as a way of creating new knowledge. And en route it can bring greater rigour and depth to design in practice and greater range and applicability to academic research. Fraser was developing a course at Westminster, and at the Bartlett he found a group of other academics – Jane Rendell, Jonathan Hill – already pushing at the boundaries in this area. He sees this as a major shift in architectural education. His projects in Palestine, regenerating some of the historic villages, stemmed from this way of thinking, starting by mapping urban form, social practices and buildings. In Birzeit, for example, new paved routes were built into the historic centre passing through new squares and civic buildings.
I always found being student-centred is the way to get the best of people – Murray Fraser
So Fraser doesn’t just piece together big ideas – which can seem rather abstract to the outsider. On arriving at the Bartlett he was also asked to teach design studio to first years, an unusual request at this stage of his career. ‘It has been very fresh,’ he says, obviously revelling in the students’ energy and interests (he now teaches second and third years). And he has provided a lifeline at the Bartlett for the team and knowledge of the Survey of London, securing funding to ensure it didn’t disappear when English Heritage disposed of it. The editors and researchers are now also teachers, on a new masters in architecture and historic urban environments. Excitingly, this treats the re-use of buildings seriously. ‘I don’t know if you have seen this too, but I think the best architecture is on existing buildings,’ says Fraser (I have and I agree.) He sees a structural change in the way we treat our cities – shifting in China and India, as much as Europe – in favour of retaining the best cultural heritage instead of bulldozing it in favour of development.
Unusually for an Annie Spink winner, Fraser is not on the verge of retirement. And there is a position free at the top of UCL’s faculty of the built environment as dean. Or will he go on to do something much more unexpected, networked and unusually interesting?
Níall McLaughlin adds:
I have had the pleasure of working with Murray for almost two decades, and have also seen how he expresses his passion and enthusiasm to students and teachers around him. From the moment I first met him at the Oxford School of Architecture, Murray had the knack of communicating to everyone the urgency and significance of what they were doing. He fostered an environment that was competitive and co-operative at the same time. It was always serious and playful. As a course leader he was good at recognising the particular identity of each student and teacher, and encouraging everyone to do their own thing better. I always felt that Murray thought everything I did was worthwhile, and then I realised that this is how he made everyone feel.
I have been teaching part-time for over 20 years at the Bartlett School of Architecture and have invited Murray to all our major crits. He finds time to come with absolute regularity. There is a very small bunch of critics who I think of as the ‘pros’. They are able to concentrate fully throughout the whole long day, they treat weak and strong students with equal respect, they remember students’ projects from the last crit a month or even a year ago, they draw a crowd, they have something lively and constructive to say to each pupil, they always stay for a drink and help you mull over the day’s action. They are as rare as hen’s teeth and Murray is one of them.
It always surprises me the way Murray will remember a student years after he has seen them at a crit. He will show a keen interest in how they are progressing in their careers and how their ideas have developed. These are not even his students!
This is the kind of invisible stitching that really good teachers do, launching students in their careers and finding ways to support architectural practice. When I have asked Murray’s ex-students, of which there have been many in my office, if anything sets him apart they’ve said he is very unusual in the extent to which responds to what is given. They tell me that if you show him a piece of work, he will talk about it without the familiar round of his own references. They say that he makes you feel interesting. He has an openness and finds new links that help to extend and amplify what you are doing. He is always constructive. Students marvel at how he always replies to correspondence immediately as though he had been waiting to hear from you in particularly, although they know there are hundreds of other people demanding his time. You immediately get a sense of how fond his ex-students are of him.
Here is a teacher who operates on a remarkably broad spectrum. With all this he brings a level of personal concentration to everyone he encounters. He makes you feel that you are part of his tribe and you want to live up to his optimistic expectations.
Professor Níall McLaughlin, Níall McLaughlin Architects