Last time I wrote about how architects think, I chose a metaphor coined by Isaiah Berlin - but when the piece was published in Prospect (the forerunner of Urban Realm) I discovered that someone else had used the same turn of phrase in the same issue!
There’s a subtle irony in that, because I’d illustrated the differences between generalists and specialists using Isaiah Berlin’s Hedgehog and Fox metaphor – where the fox knows many small things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. In other words, to survive, the fox has to be a scavenger and omnivore (a master of many trades), whereas the hedgehog has specialised by eating worms and defending itself using its spines.
Arguably, only another “hedgehog” would know that metaphor and choose to apply it to architecture... so this time, I’ll begin instead with one of the many small things I know. The German term, fachidiot, or “discipline fool” is the opposite of a polymath. It neatly describes someone who knows their own specialisation, but is wholly ignorant about everything else in the world.
Just how narrow our view is was thrown into sharp relief a few days ago, when I dumped my internet supplier after suffering weeks of glacial download speeds. While they told me the problem spread right across Scotland, another provider suggested that their competitor’s main internet node had failed somewhere in the Central Belt. In the process of swearing at Richard Branson, cursing BT’s noisy twisted pair cable, and trying to decode jargon, I discovered that internet companies employ fachidiots, almost exclusively.
Beyond the realms of ADSL Max and ping tests, lies a physical map of Dundee carved up into familiar-sounding but unknown districts by telecoms hedgehogs. At the centre of each one sits a physical node – such as Baxter, Claverhouse, Fairmuir, Park and Steeple. They’re superimposed onto the Bartholomew streetmap of the city and clash with postcode districts, electoral wards, power grids. Not at all well known, the cobwebs of copper form a network we stare past each day, yet don’t recognise.
Dundee’s internet nodes sit within telephone exchanges, many built during the 1950’s and 1960’s when Post Office Telephones greatly expanded the system. The large floorplates required for the Strowger mechanical exchanges are now empty in many cases, as the System X cabinets which replaced them are much smaller, faster, and digital. The technology is also hidden inside grey metal cabinets. Similarly, while the Property Services Agency’s architects once celebrated the development of telecoms - witness the Post Office Tower in London - latterly other parts of the system have gone undercover.
Many buildings hide in plain sight – Terry Farrell’s MI6 building on the South Bank in London, and Telehouse in the Royal Docks, are good examples. However, while we have an impression of what the spies and spymasters might do, the function of the big black box at Telehouse is less obvious. According to various accounts, Telehouse is the main internet node for the UK; whereas BT’s satellite earth station at Goonhilly on the very tip of the Lizard in Cornwall with its many huge satellite dishes, looks very like a place where masses of data is channelled, the node in the Docklands is discrete and sub rosa.
Similarly, Craigowl sits on the ridge of the Sidlaw Hills behind Dundee and to the layman, the masts on its summit could be TV, radio or cellphone. In reality, they carry air traffic control and military communications relays: investigative journalist Duncan Campbell revealed that the mass of aerials on Craigowl formed the northern end of Backbone, a microwave communications network which would come into its own during wartime. There are many electronic antlers on top of Craigowl, but you wouldn’t know exactly what each one is for unless you interrogate the fachidiots, as Campbell did.
Telehouse and Craigowl are part of a trend towards anonymity, and the guiding impulse of the fachidiot to make things ever more opaque. Years ago, British Telecom came in the shape of a bright yellow cartoon bird called Busby, and hundreds of those chubby yellow Dodge vans which were stabled at a depot in the Longtown industrial estate. During the 1980’s, it was relatively easy to identify parts of the BT network – most of which dated back to GPO telephones days – thanks to the Busby-yellow vans parked outside their buildings. I don’t know when they started disappearing, but one day BT’s livery changed and the vans were around no longer.
While the Post Office Tower is a good example of public works architecture, arguably Telehouse, Craigowl and the workings of the BT network were conceived by fachidiots. They ignore the self-evident truth that everything which isn’t private becomes public. Everything built by the state or corporations is public, (although they might argue against that), since the taxpayer and the shareholder paid for it. We are the beneficial owners. A vanishingly small proportion of each of these secret places belong to each one of us, through our income tax, or pension scheme.
The blank facade, the anonymous box and the fenced compound are the antithesis of an architecture parlante, and while these places provide fodder for conspiracy theorists, they also provide a hidden dimension to the city. Finding out their purpose isn’t so much hard work, as finding a way past the fachidiots to perceive a Dundee streetmap which has been redrawn.