Architect in Profile - Alasdair Rankin

This month, we talk to Alasdair Rankin, the creative force steering Aitken Turnbull Architects. From a childhood LEGO fascination to designing spaces that defy norms, Rankin’s interview unveils the unique path he’s carved in the architectural world. Find out more about his impactful projects, including transformative work with Macmillan Cancer Support, and catch a glimpse of the lighter side – a memorable story involving a scaffold ladder and mistaken identities.


Alasdair Rankin

is the Managing Director at Aitken Turnbull Architects

Tell us about your career journey.

From an early age, I was fascinated by LEGO (in fact, I still have some in my office). This developed into an interest in design and making. By the time I was deciding on university courses, I was torn between architecture and geography. However, I realised quickly that my interest in geography was predominantly in how the environment influences people and how they live and that a career involved in making and shaping the built environment was for me.

Were there any pivotal moments or experiences that solidified your decision to pursue a career in architecture and design?

The most important moments have been interactions with inspirational people and places. On a university open day, I met the leader for the course I went on to study. His interest in people and the impact well-designed buildings and environments can have on their lives convinced me to study architecture.

In my first year out, the director I worked for specialised in healthcare work and, as a result, I was able to see the improvements in the patient experience from well-designed, patient-focused buildings.

As I’ve progressed in my profession, I’ve come to enjoy sharing my knowledge and seeing younger team members progress in the industry.

If you hadn’t followed your passion for being an architect, what other career path would you have pursued?

I like to think I would have been a chef. The combination of creativity and pressure appeals to me and the idea of motivating and inspiring a team – or in that case a brigade – to get through a service as well as actually producing something tangible that brings joy to people, and I love the instant feedback!

Who has been your greatest influence and source of inspiration?

I’m inspired by the belief that things could be better, that the places and buildings we have could be improved and that our lives and experiences could be better. Too often we allow the quality of what we do to be dictated and limited by inadequate environments and buildings. The drive to improve this is a constant influence and guide.

What’s been the most memorable project you’ve worked on?

I’ve been fortunate to work on an amazing range of projects; from the conservation of listed cathedrals and the design and delivery of contemporary pipe organs in venues and concert halls around the world to award-winning boutique hotels and contemporary office fit-outs.

The work I’ve done with Macmillan Cancer Support, designing and delivering bespoke environments for people living with cancer, is among the most rewarding. Some of the projects are small but the impact that a considered, high-quality environment makes on the lives of those who use the building is huge.

I know as an Architect that we can’t change the circumstances of the people getting a cancer diagnosis, but we can improve the environment that the news is delivered in and that treatment and support is given.

Can you share a personal anecdote or experience that taught you a valuable lesson about being an architect?

The one that sticks with me is a simple one about being methodical on site visits and respecting the rules on building sites.

When I was training, I was fortunate enough to work on restoration works on St Giles’ Cathedral in central Edinburgh. One Friday morning I went to site to check something I’d missed the day before. I’m old enough to remember the days of printed drawings and large plastic drawing tubes that you carried them in.

I arrived to find the site was closed up and the cabins locked. Undeterred, I took the spare key, opened the heras fencing and started to climb the scaffold ladder. I was around halfway up when I hear shouts from below about ‘armed police’. I looked down and discovered it was me they were shouting at.

Apparently, the large black tube strapped to my back had raised concerns as I climbed towards the cathedral roof as the then-First Minister of Scotland was about to meet the Russian Premier at the front of the cathedral and the site had been closed to prevent the roof being a security risk.

Thankfully, no shots were fired and, after a fairly awkward conversation, I was allowed to leave. Explaining it to my then-boss was slightly more challenging!

Could you walk us through a typical workday in your role?

It sounds like a cliche, but no two days are the same. My time is split between meeting clients, working with colleagues and team members, and running the business. This can see me visiting one of our studios to spend time with the team, or review progress on a project, travelling to meet existing clients across the UK or meeting potential new ones.

I’m fortunate that I love what I do, so I don’t mind that I often start early and finish late. I have a fairly short attention span so jumping between multiple different tasks really suits me.

What is your favourite building and why?

I couldn’t possibly narrow it down to a single building! Jean Nouvel’s Institut Monde d’Arabe is one of the most elegant; although, at the same time, so complex that I don’t think it ever really worked as it should.

Dominique Perrault's National Library of France in Paris is a simple, beautiful urban gesture that incorporates a library, a civic square and a park in a very crisp and clean grand gesture.

David Chipperfield’s work at Museumsinsel in Berlin, specifically the Neues Museum, is a fantastic reimagining of the original building preserving the layers of history, including the damage from World War II and making the building an exhibit in its own right. I can’t wait to see his Procuratie Vecchie in Venice!

In your opinion, who is the greatest architectural mastermind of our time?

It’s difficult to narrow down, but, on balance, Norman Foster. I think his ability to maintain an inquisitive approach for so many years, to grow into a truly global practice designing everything from cities to furniture and tableware while loving what he does is difficult to beat.

If you were hosting a dinner party to discuss architecture and design, and you could invite three individuals, either from the past or the present, who would you choose to join your conversation?

This is probably the most difficult question. I’d love to ask Brunelleschi how he built the dome on the cathedral in Florence, and I’d really like to talk to Battista Farina of Pininfarina about how he designed some of the most beautiful cars ever made.

But, ultimately, I’d want to have dinner with Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and David Chipperfield. While their architecture and approach is different, they have overlapped through their careers – with Foster and Rogers studying and working together and Chipperfield having worked for both. As well as their approach to architecture, I’m interested in their ideas on legacy and developing and inspiring future generations. I could also spend hours speaking to Chipperfield about sailing and designing yachts with Luca Brenta.

Looking ahead, what projects can we anticipate from you in the coming year?

We have some really exciting projects on site that will complete in the next 12 months including a 350,000ft2 fit-out in Croydon for the Government Property Agency.

Our practice is growing and, as well as strengthening our existing studios, we are planning to open a new studio in Manchester. We already have a pipeline of projects in the North West and are looking to build from these to establish a strong local base that engages with the local community.

We’re also expanding into new sectors, growing our offering while maintaining our current high standards and knowledge-driven approach.

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