Alistair Fair MA (Oxon) MA PhD FRHistS
Dr Alistair Fair is a Reader in Architectural History. He is a historian of architecture in Britain between 1918 and the 1990s who is interested in the relationships between architecture and wider themes in social, urban, and political history. His work locates buildings (both built and unbuilt) in wider contexts, drawing on original archive material and contemporary published accounts. His most recent major publications are Modern Playhouses: an Architectural History of Britain's New Theatres, 1945-1985 (Oxford University Press, 2018, with a 2020 paperback), Play On: Contemporary Theatre Architecture in Britain (Lund Humphries, 2019), and Peter Moro and Partners (Liverpool University Press, 2021).
Having been interested in architecture, town planning, and street lighting design (!) from an early age, Alistair studied Modern History before specialising in Architectural History. Post-PhD he worked in architectural conservation in London before spending four years at the University of Cambridge as a Research Associate and then a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow. He joined the University of Edinburgh in 2013, initially as Chancellor's Fellow and Lecturer, becoming a Reader in 2020. Alistair is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
Teaching: Dr Alistair Fair
Alistair's teaching is directly informed by his research. He teaches at all levels of the MA (Hons) in Architectural History & Heritage, and the MSc in Architectural History and Theory. His teaching includes contributions to core team-taught survey courses (on topics in history, heritage, and historiography). He originated and teaches specialist research-led option courses on aspects of British architecture in the twentieth century. These elective courses mix conventional lectures with interactive seminars and visits to key buildings and archives. Alistair also contributes to the MSc in Architectural Conservation. Beyond Edinburgh, he is a regular guest lecturer for the University of Cambridge's MSt in Building History, and from 2016-20 was External Examiner for the University of Warwick’s MSc in Theatre Consultancy.
Alistair supervises the research of several PhD students, working on topics in C20th British/Scottish architecture. Their work is examining: the architecture of Wheeler and Sproson in post-war Fife; the architectural writing of P. Morton Shand, c. 1920-50; NHS hospital architecture in Scotland, 1948-98; Scottish architecture after modernism, 1975-2000; and bombsite redevelopment in post-war London.
Public engagement has included invited talks on 1960s university architecture (Oxford, May 2014), the work of Peter Moro (November 2015), the Thorndike Theatre, Leatherhead (2015 and 2019), Scottish post-war theatre (Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, 2016 and 2017), UK post-war theatre (The Theatres Trust, 2016; C20 Society, 2018; Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, 2020), Glasgow's unbuilt cultural centre (Glasgow Doors Open, 2018), Warwickshire modern theatres (Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain, 2019), post-war office design (C20 Society, 2020), and the Royal Festival Hall (C20 Society, 2021). A grant (2016-17) from Edinburgh Research and Innovation supported a programme of Knowledge Exchange in collaboration with The Theatres Trust. Alistair is a member of the Casework and Publications committees of the Twentieth Century Society.
Alistair co-created the ESALA Architectural History and Theory seminar in spring 2015, and co-convened the series until summer 2020, offering a fortnightly programme of talks for students, staff and the wider public.
Research: Dr Alistair Fair
Alistair's research examines the architectural history of Scotland and Britain in the twentieth century. His work is shaped by two key ideas. First, that architectural modernism was a broad-based project in which clients, designers, and consultants all sought to explore and respond to the idea of modernity itself. Second, that ‘mainstream’ practice is as significant as the kind of avant-garde projects more usually featured in architectural histories. As a historian, Alistair is interested in investigating these ideas using a wide range of documentary and other contemporary evidence, setting architecture in wider contexts.
Alistair began researching and writing about theatre architecture in Britain in 2004. This work was funded by the AHRC (2004-7), the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland (2014), the Royal Society of Edinburgh (2014-15), and the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain (2017). It has led to two sole-authored books, an edited collection, a co-authored book, and several articles/essays. In 2018, Oxford University Press published Modern Playhouses: an Architectural History of Britain’s New Theatres, 1945-1985 (reissued in paperback in 2020). This substantial book examines the new theatres built across Britain between the 1950s and the 1980s. Many of these theatres were part-funded with public subsidies, and so their conception, design, and reception not only reveals much about debates within the world of theatre, but also sheds important light on themes in British social, urban, and political history. The book was shortlisted for the 2019 SAHGB Alice Davis Hitchcock Medallion for the best architectural history published in Britain in 2018, and the 2019 Theatre Book Award. Alistair subsequently completed a further substantial book about contemporary theatre design, Play On, published by Lund Humphries in September 2019, and a book about an architectural practice known for their theatres, but whose other work was also significant (Peter Moro and Partners, Liverpool University Press, 2021).
Other current research interests include:
- New towns in Scotland, 1945-2015 (funded by the Leverhulme Trust, July 2021-June 2023, £278k; a collaboration with Professor Lynn Abrams (Glasgow) and Professor Miles Glendinning (Edinburgh)). (Please see the link to the project website, below)
- Spaces of community and citizenship in Britain, c. 1919-79 (funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust, 2020-22)
- Scottish architecture in the twentieth century, including work on the Scottish Special Housing Association, and architecture and planning in post-war Edinburgh.
Alistair has also written about post-war universities, hospitals, and the history of environmental design, and has co-authored several innovative articles which show how historical understanding can fundamentally inform the sustainable refurbishment of hospital buildings.
Publications engage not only with academic audiences but also the wider public and industry, internationally. They include, in addition to the books above, articles in leading refereed journals, an edited book on twentieth-century theatres in a variety of international contexts (Setting the Scene, 2015), and a co-written book on theatre architecture in the 1990s and early C21st (Geometry and Atmosphere, 2011). Alistair has written for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2019), has appeared on television (Phil Spencer's History of Britain in 100 Homes, More4, 2019), has contributed invited chapters to books on topics from new towns to Brutalism to post-war conservation (the latter two in German publications), and regularly writes for international theatre 'industry' publications such as Sightline, Theatres Magazine, and Bühnen Technische Rundschau.
PhD Supervision Topics
I supervise topics in C20th architectural history, with a particular focus on C20th British/Scottish projects. The PhD students whose work I am currently lead-supervising are exploring the following subjects: the architecture of Wheeler and Sproson in post-war Fife; the architectural writing of P. Morton Shand, c. 1920-50; NHS hospital architecture in Scotland, 1948-98; Scottish architecture after modernism, 1975-2000; and bombsite redevelopment in post-war London.
Potential PhD students interested in working on a topic in C20th British architectural history are encouraged to make contact with me in advance of making a formal application, in order to discuss their ideas and to see whether I am likely to be available to supervise in the following year. Early contact is recommended, not least if an applicant wishes to apply for AHRC funding: our internal deadline for such applicants is in early December each year.