ANOTHER POST? Don't you do anything else with your time? Don't you have a life? Yes, and each year my social diary includes the local degree show – this year, Duncan of Jordanstone is local, a couple of years ago it was ECA, and before that, Scott Sutherland. However, each time I visit a show, I end up ruminating about the whole construct of architectural education, rather than just the drawings on the wall.
The crits are over for another year, and wide-eyed graduates emerge, blinking, into the sunlight. The best of their work remains on the wall for a few days more, before disappearing forever into a portfolio under the bed in their parents’ spare room. In a few years’ time, the CAD files will be unreadable by the current version of Autocad, and the platter of the hard drive they’re stored on will stutter and skip, refusing to be read. If the graduate is lucky, the slightly-dog-eared sheets of Fabriano run through the Designjet will remain as a memento of happier days…
For now, though, those drawings are fresh and the ideas are up for scrutiny.
We have a fascination with the intangible means by which tangible things come into being. We make vain attempts to get closer to the work, and we struggle to externalise what goes on in other folks’ heads. Their work is tangible, but the thoughts preceding it are immaterial, so that in the end we focus on the creator, since we can apprehend the person more easily than the process. It’s easier in the case of architecture students, because the work is unmediated, and students are relieved if anyone takes an interest.
So, what is this architecture thing? Is it just as much about the architect as his or her creation? What do this year’s graduates have to look forward to?
We may visualise Scarpa, Lewerentz or Corbusier as a figure in dark, sober clothes: an old man, peering through glasses, thanks to poor eyesight born of decades spent staring at drawings. He leans forward, engrossed in laying lines onto paper; in front of him, a wall of shelves crammed with books, postcards, architectural models, interesting bits of stone, photographs and boxes of slides.
His nodding head and shoulders adopt the set of the anglepoise lamp clamped to the drawing board. His forearms sit on the cant of the board, along with a clutch pencil, a roll of detail paper and a box of aquarelles. At his elbow is an assistant – perhaps an a trusted associate, more often a recent graduate – someone who is grateful to be there, who may work long hours for little gain, in return for the opportunity to see genius in action.
The space is large, high-ceilinged, with northlight thrown deep into it by tall windows and diffused by raw, whitewashed walls. In the corner shadows are black steel planchests set onto a woodblock floor, and hung on the wall is a giant model consisting of layers of balsa and boxwood built up into buildings and contours. The model represents a whole city block, torn apart and recreated.
Hold on there son, Genius, did you say?
Kurt Vonnegut's novel “Bluebeard”, posits that three unusual and unlikely types of people are needed are needed for any revolution to be successful. Architecture, I guess, is no different.
“Slazinger claims to have learned from history that most people cannot open their minds to new ideas unless a mind-opening teams with a peculiar membership goes to work on them. Otherwise, life will go on exactly as before, no matter how painful, unrealistic, unjust, ludicrous, or downright dumb that life may be. The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise the revolution, whether in politics or the arts or the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail.
“The rarest of these specialists, he says, is an authentic genius – a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation. "A genius working alone," he says, "is invariably ignored as a lunatic."
“The second sort of specialist is a lot easier to find: a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad. "A person like this working alone," says Slazinger, "can only yearn loud for changes, but fail to say what their shapes should be."
“The third sort of specialist is a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people, no matter how stupid or pigheaded they may be. "He will say almost anything in order to be interesting and exciting," says Slazinger. "Working alone, depending solely on his own shallow ideas, he would be regarded as being as full of shit as a Christmas turkey."
“Slazinger, high as a kite, says that every successful revolution, including Abstract Expressionism, the one I took part in, had that cast of characters at the top – Pollock being the genius in our case, Lenin being the one in Russia's, Christ being the one in Christianity's.
He says that if you can't get a cast like that together, you can forget changing anything in a great big way.”
If the keen-eyed and keen-eared graduate is lucky, she may have landed on her feet. She may be in the company of Vonnegut’s first sort, the authentic genius. In which case, she’ll discover that the design studio is as important a creation as the image of the master himself – it is neither drawing office nor artist’s workshop, but a hive where the lights burn all night and in that, it replicates architecture school, where work sometimes continues through the wee hours, fuelled by caffeine and desperation.
However, architecture school still looms large in her mind. She is conflicted. From whom will she learn best: the professor who teaches, or the godhead who builds? She has a deep suspicion that the staff at the architecture school look upon the students as being Vonnegut’s third sort, the kind of people who open their mouth during crits and let their belly rumble. She suspects they view those students as Christmas turkeys.
A young woman – let’s say she’s Danish – pins up the drawings of her final scheme for a crit jury. After several days with little sleep, she is about to experience the serial inquisition which terrorises architecture students. She lays off for fifteen minutes about the concepts behind her design, the influences she has paid homage to.
The prof. sits with smouldering pipe, listening intently, then pronounces – “Aye lass, that’s aa richt and richt enough…” at which point he fixes her with beady eye, and continues with vehement emphasis – “but FAR’S THE LAVVIES?”
This is the knock-out blow, and having worked through the night, her resistance is low and she is quite unprepared for it. She fights back tears as she tries to engage this giant bearded man, with smoke issuing from his head, about “architecture”. He, however, is looking for a different thing entirely, confusingly also called ARCHITECTURE. It’s a practical art: surely you can see that? The crit is not a success.
Yet it is the image of the master, rather than the prof, which is the lasting one which students fix on. Having left architecture school, the acolyte takes her opportunity to get as close as possible to the fountainhead. Most of her time, she exists in a different place, with unstable computers, tins of dead Rotrings, and irate clients who telephone to ask why water is pouring through their light fittings.
Her other time – her “own” time, often late into the evening – is spent hunched over the master’s board, taking a junior role in debate, as sounding board, occasionally devil’s advocate. She may not contribute positively to the creation, but the master uses her to knock out the negatives (in both senses). Thus the scales slowly fall away from her eyes…
For my next post … I may actually get to the point, and do a review of the Duncan of Jordanstone Degree Show. Possibly the Scott Sutherland show, too.
At architecture school, we learned about the canon. Only the great, and a few of the good, made it into the canon. Yet once we win a glimpse inside the decision-making process, we discover that someone has spiked the canon.
We ask ourselves, “Which is best?”
The short answer is, “I like this building.”
The long answer is, “How do you answer a rhetorical question?”
Notions of “best” are based on our immediate responses: subjective, emotional, preconceived. Beyond the gut reaction, choices are made on the basis of taste and discretion, both of which can be learned from publications and teaching. However, the architecture which appears in books and on shortlists for awards represents a mere snapshot, and the decision-making process is rather less objective than it may appear from the outside.
Not only will many folk disagree with the results of the Best Of, but some question why we need it at all. Why do we need a canon?
Why do we single out certain buildings? Should awards be there to reward excellence, or pour encourager les autres? There are certainly far more competitions around than there used to be: the Scottish Design Awards, Saltire Society diplomas, the RIAS/ Andrew Doolan Prize, the Regeneration of Scotland Award… Perhaps there is a danger that they become self-regarding, even self-congratulatory: it’s certainly true that there is an agenda at work in each case.
Awards are the creation of philanthropists and altruists, as well as architects who want to keep their name alive – and journalists in need of copy.
Some buildings will make every list: St. Peter’s Seminary at Cardross is the prime Scots example of a serial poll-winner. By contrast, there is always another architecture, often over-looked and under-represented – you stumble across these buildings, then try to find out more in books and magazines – only to discover that they are invisible. Who decides whether these latter works should remain outside the canon – and by contrast, who will ensure that the iconoclasts don’t ignore good architecture just because it’s “too obvious?”
Our critical faculties need to be sophisticated enough to distinguish between unfamiliar points of departure and merely bad buildings.
Likewise, it is worth considering why buildings which are regionally as well as nationally significant should be included: a Scottish list which only features architecture from a small part of Scotland would not only be unrepresentative, it would also destroy the listmaker’s credibility. In this regard, Neil Gillespie of Edinburgh architects Reiach & Hall made an acute observation a few years ago: deep in some glen, there is probably work of international importance being produced. In this and the pieces which will follow, I aim to put forward some examples which may counter the idea that much of the architecture in Scotland can’t be good, because it isn’t “canonical”.
That we don’t get to know about it is due to a lack of research on the part of the judging panel, rather than our unwillingness to open up to something new.
Goalposts must be set accordingly, too. The architecture of capitals is not equivalent to that of provincial cities: budgets are different, some ideas can’t be scaled down, and certain types of building are missing. Therefore, how well a building works within its context must be a determining factor – and this is where Scotland can show off its credentials. We have always had local architectures: the Art Nouveau of Langlands & Lamond in Dundee (which David Walker first highlighted in the 1950’s); the expressive Modernism of Peter Womersley in the Borders; the modern vernacular of Baxter Clark & Paul in the North-east.
Finding out about them may not be so simple, but the research will reward you with something fresh to think about.
Scottish architecture has operated in a series of cycles – the emergence of a New Vernacular after the war; the Post Modernism which travelled north with Alan Phillips; and Robert Matthew’s creation of a National Movement of the late ‘50’s, are all cases in point, which lead in turn to reactions and reversals. Awards march to a faster beat. So it is that any considered list should be representative of the whole era in question, even though the cycle has low points as well as highs, since posterity will re-evaluate the work of unfashionable architects.
Awards or publications which consider several years’ worth of buildings have an advantage, whereas annual contests suffer from periodic gluts and droughts. They both serve a less immediate purpose, too: they can chart the progress of our architecture from the fashions of the Fifties and Sixties, to the fashions of the present. In fact, the selection process becomes fraught once you consider recent architecture.
Architects who are still in practice have a personal investment in the results: plaudits and publication are important for your reputation, since winning the bays will ultimately lead to both new commissions and peer recognition. Too much is at stake, and these beauty parades are often just an extension of the practice’s public relations effort. Too bad if you’re a small practice without a marketing tsar, or (imagine!) a designer who feels a blush of shame when promoting herself.
Quite often one set of award judges will be loathe to acknowledge a building already recognised in a separate competition, and the panel may even wander past the display boards, whistling that old Bryan Ferry standard, “The In-Crowd”, as the habitués of the shortlist turn up yet again.
So, what drives the decision making process? It’s worth considering the psychology of how we reach decisions. Sometimes the reasons are less our own than we’d like to think. Firstly there’s the “herd of independent minds” – architects have similar backgrounds, and most have passed through the same architecture schools, so we behave similarly and exhibit similar tastes. As a result, we tend to think alike and often arrive, independently, at the same conclusions. There’s also the heuristic of social proof, which says that folk copy each other, because each believes that the others may know something he doesn’t.
On the other hand, there’s the so-called salience heuristic, which suggests that we suffer from cognitive biases such as wishful thinking, which is often buttressed by the “Lake Woebegon” effect – we believe that we’re smarter than all the other idiots out there. Other factors at work may include our self-serving memory, which remembers success, but forgets failures, and tells everyone else accordingly. The suggestible among us may also suffer from the “Halo” effect: our belief that all good qualities must be connected, magically, by some common factor.
Architectural education also breeds a cult of individuality, which runs from the genius, portrayed in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”, to the bloody-minded individualism which many of us exhibit at some point in our career. Finally, we all suffer to some extent from a love of novelty, and that sometimes means that we value the new over the good. Are you still convinced in the worth of the canon?
In the end, reaching decisions through open debate is likely to improve the rigour of a short leet, and that’s exactly how we should consider any “Best Of”. After all, only when your arguments are robust enough to present, debate and defend in public, can you really justify them, and that’s one thing the canon lacks, writ large as it is on tablets of stone.
For several years, I contributed to The Lighthouse’s website, and those contributions began in 2006 with an article about Donald Trump’s plans for the Menie Estate. Given how much interest those plans attracted, The Lighthouse was keen for me to write more articles along those lines, and fewer about the obscure things I’m usually drawn to…
Pieces on Trump appear to fall into two camps: hatchet jobs by his opponents, or PR influenced by George Sorial, the Trump Organization’s spokesman. However, I believe it’s more productive to illustrate examples of good practice, than to pick off the things we don’t like. Keen students of human nature know that we’re more motivated to attack bad things than to support good ones, but while sneering may entertain you, over the years, skepticism becomes cynicism, and all is lost.
The ongoing melodrama at Menie, with the “Best Golf Course in the World” completed, but Trump’s hotel ambitions thwarted for now by an outbreak of wind turbines, masks the struggle to find an appropriate architecture for tourists visiting Scotland. Better to offer a well-designed Scottish coastal resort which Mr Trump could use as a model: yet once again the focus has turned to Trump himself, this time with the perceived bonus of Alec Salmond as an adversary.
Trump the man is easy to dismiss with glibness and ad hominems: Barack Obama called him a “carnival barker”. Discussion turns quickly to his appearance, his personal taste, his style of business, and his grand pronouncements. Decades of property development have made him thick-skinned, but like other self-made men, he probably feels he is misunderstood and puts that down in large part to the envy and jealousy of his detractors.
Journalists have been using a standard script over the past eight years, so we know exactly what newspaper copy will say: it’s been well rehearsed. A typical piece on Trump is unlikely to head off in an unexpected direction like, say, Eddie Mair’s softly-spoken interview which spelled death for Boris Johnson’s political ambitions. Mair had the benefit of an element of surprise, plus the combination of an acute, well-researched journalist, with an ill-prepared interviewee who likes to play the buffoon.
Trump is more media savvy. He is outspoken but eminently quotable. He takes up the cudgels on his own behalf. He turns the tables by publishing his own propaganda.
Witness his 1980’s book, “The Art of the Deal”. I picked up a copy in an Aberdeen charity shop, and it did exactly what it promised, by demonstrating how capitalism works. You may not make money if you buy his book, but Donald Trump will make money if you buy his book... unless of course you part with 99p to your local Oxfam. Having digested the book’s simple thesis, I realised that Acanthus Architects DF’s (Douglas Forrest’s) recent design for a golf hotel at Menie is the real matter at hand.
If you study the history of holiday resorts in the North East, you discover several notable failures. The outdoor lido at Tarlair lies derelict. The Carnoustie Golf Hotel has reportedly struggled to fill its rooms. Another ambitious developer tried and failed on the same stretch of coast as Menie, at Cruden Bay. The Great North of Scotland Railway (GNSR)’s prospectus was even more ambitious than Donald Trump’s, because they hoped to create a tourism industry from a standing start.
In 1899, the coastal haar cleared to reveal a piece of High Victorian whimsy. The GNSR had created a five-storey high, 94 bedroom hotel in pink Peterhead granite. Crowsteps, pepperpots, Scots Baronial ... everything which the railway company imagined would attract visitors from South Britain to this northerly airt of North Britain. It was an over-scaled pile, an urban form transplanted to a rural location where its dominance made it seem like a town hall or bank head office stranded in a wilderness of dunes.
If you’re trying to find a prototype for Scottishness in architecture, I would argue that you can rule out golfing hotels, because they are inevitably bombastic. The others I’ve come across are overdone and over-large, too. It seems there is a strong preconception about what a golf resort should look like, and architects appear not to challenge their clients on that fundamental point.
Another American plutocrat, Herb Kohler, is redeveloping the Hamilton Halls overlooking the Old Course in St Andrews. It was the first hotel in Europe to have a lift, and the first to have indoor plumbing within the rooms … Now called the Hamilton Grand, Kohler bought the building after its previous owner tried and failed to turn it back into a hotel. Its key characteristic is scale: Thomas Hamilton built it immediately after his application for membership had been rejected by the R&A. It’s a monster in Locharbriggs stone, at least two storeys too high for its site, but achieving dominance was probably the idea.
Further inland in Perthshire, Gleneagles is a grim-looking railway hotel, and no amount of sparkling wristwatch concessions can make up for its lack of elegance as you approach. Its lumpen mass has been extended several times – and now it seems more like an airport Marriott, with endless corridors linking its spa, arcade, restaurants and ranks of bedrooms. Like Menie, and the Hamilton Grand, its selling point is overpowering size and its proximity to golf, rather than any inherent Scottishness in its architecture.
Modern architects have done no better: the Old Course Hotel is a piece of 1960’s Travelodge modernism which crouches on the edge of the fairway like a giant toad. Scotland is the “Home of Golf”, an epithet which the Royal & Ancient jealously protects and would dearly like to copyright: yet they have no influence over the buildings which surround their skiting grounds. Like the Melville Grand, the Old Course Hotel is owned by Herb Kohler: Trump’s peer, his golf resort-building rival, and according to Forbes Magazine, a man with exactly the same amount of cash in the bank.
Yet money is no help, as there are seemingly no good demonstrations of an appropriate style – or better still, a pertinent approach – for Menie. The extent of Donald J. Trump’s ambitions for the estate became clear in 2010 when he renamed Menie Dunes as “The Great Dunes of Scotland”. This proved to be a publicity stunt, to keep interest going while plans were drawn up for a hotel on the coast at Balmedie. It would surely be grand in a superlative manner, but would it be fitting?
In terms of topography, Lawrence Halprin’s Sea Ranch springs to mind as a building responsive to its site: it lies on the foggy western seaboard of the US overlooking the ocean, and its organic plan fits into the contours of the site. The grassland sloping down the Pacific isn’t dissimilar to the Aberdeenshire coast. The dunes at Menie would be well suited to low-lying, enwrapping courtyards, shelter belts of pine trees, clusters of buildings. Perhaps better suited than the bluff six-storey front of Trump’s original Disney-style proposal, or Douglas Forrest’s current three storey scheme, of which a couple of images have been released.
They reveal a very long, rather flat facade in grey granite (or perhaps Fyfestone), with little modelling, and nothing to deflect the North Sea storms. Based on the CGI impressions, there is an Aberdeenshire motif in the detailing of the cross-gable roofs, which reflects the nearby Menie House. However, there’s no sense of the hierarchy needed to handle a facade of this scale, nor to relieve its overwhelming flatness. Maybe a fake castle would be better?
Perhaps not. In the wake of the Scandic Crown Hotel in Edinburgh, expectations are low. Each successive revival of the Baronial Revival proves to be tacky and superficial. Its motifs - tartan carpeting, fielded timber panels, more bloody corbels and crowsteps - are expected to evoke Brigadoon. They copy details from ancient buildings, but never evoke the grandeur which lies in the mind of a stranger to Scotland who has formed an image of the country based on the romance of its history and the atmosphere of its ancient places.
The Romantic image of Scotland is well known but poorly understood: the scholar-architects who restored the Old Town have long since passed away, Walter Scott’s novels are deeply unfashionable (still), James Macpherson’s Ossian cycle is sneered at, and Hamish McCunn, who wrote “Land of the Mountain and the Flood”, is long forgotten.
McCunn’s deeply romantic view of Scotland, moving and symphonic, is a natural extension of Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture”, but was last heard before I was born, as theme to a similarly long-forgotten television programme called “Sutherland’s Law”. Mike Scott tried to recapture that spirit in the 1980’s when he created the “Big Music”, although much of it is Celtic-Irish rather than uniquely Scottish. Some songs make the birse on the back of your neck stand up, though, and like McCunn he creates atmosphere rather than just applying motifs.
Arguably, we need to re-evaluate the Romantic tradition in Scotland before we attempt yet another Scots Baronial revival building. Done properly, it could celebrate a side of our culture which has been given up to sentimentalists and postcard publishers. Perhaps it even has the power to redeem golf. Done badly, it will be another self-parody to join the rank of kitsch spanning from Harry Lauder through Russ Abbott to “Brave”.
I’ll return to this subject again in future, but meantime if you’re interested in the troubled history of Scottishness, try to get hold of a copy of Murray & Barbara Grigor’s “Scotch Myths”, which is the best source for where all this stuff originates. Or perhaps if you’re planning a golf hotel, it’s time to consult another book, “Powerhouse Principles”, sub-titled “The Ultimate Blueprint for Real Estate Success in an Ever-Changing Market”, written by Donald J. Trump…
History doesn’t repeat itself, said Mark Twain, but it does rhyme. Even to the extent that I’ve used that quote at least once before... and spoken about Donald Trump’s plans for Balmedie, too. As an introduction to the Menie Links, I thought it would be worth re-posting this article which was originally published on scottisharchitecture.com in 2006.
So Donald Trump hopes to build a golf course on the Menie estate at Balmedie, just north of Aberdeen. The boy from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn will face obstacles… and perhaps some will prove to be intractable. After all, the scheme has already stalled once.
Part of the area is a nature reserve: Balmedie is close to the Ythan estuary, which is of world importance for migratory birds. The area also gets a world record amount of haar. It's on the wrong (north) side of Aberdeen - have you ever tried to get from the city centre, through the Brig o’ Don then up past Blackdog, during the rush hour? Trump’s director of golf, Ashley Cooper, calls Balmedie a “beachhead” in Europe. That’s a poorly-chosen metaphor, since many ships have foundered along this stretch of coast.
"The £300 million project - his first golfing venture in a cool climate - will feature a five-star Victorian-style hotel," said an early press release. You can imagine that a mock baronial clubhouse will take shape on the windswept coast, with its dreich grey granite houses and wind-blasted trees, although Mr Trump’s aspirations may stretch to something grander. He already has a string of holding companies which own casinos, restaurants, a university, and of course other golf clubs. The Trump website boasts of Los Angeles, Bedminster, Westchester, West Palm Beach and Canouan Island– but Trump International Golf Links will be his first course outside continental America.
By November 2006, the Menie scheme’s value had increased to £1 billion, and it was being touted as a saviour for this dead quarter of Aberdeenshire, which the Oil Rush had passed by. However, recent arguments about the effectiveness of Scottish Enterprise's policy of "inward investment" raise doubts about Trump’s claims, and there is also the spectre of the political clout of inward investment will might Planning permissions to be bought, in the interests of injecting cash into the local economy. So much for democracy, and due process.
Although Trump’s supporters may compare the two figures, Trump isn't a latter day Andrew Carnegie, so may not be welcomed like Carnegie was at Skibo. Despite his claims to Scots blood on his mother’s side, he isn’t a native like Carnegie was. He may have money, but he’s far far short of being the richest man in the world. It’s more likely that Trump will be regarded like the Texas oilmen were in Bill Forsyth’s film, “Local Hero”, of which film-maker Bill Forsyth said–
“I saw it along the lines of a Scottish Beverly Hillbillies– what would happen to a small community when it suddenly becomes very rich - that was the germ of the idea, and the story built itself from there. It seemed to contain a similar theme to Brigadoon, which also involved some Americans coming to Scotland, becoming part of a small community, being changed by the experience and affecting the place in their own way.”
Architecturally, the images released so far depict a 450-bedroom hotel and palatial golf clubhouse which are rather like a diluted Disneyfied version of Cape Cod, with timber verandahs, shingled towers and festive bunting. Trump’s architects haven’t taken the obvious source - Scots Baronial - and built a rugged castle from granite and slate. After all, Slains Castle is nearby, but perhaps Trump’s American architects haven’t yet been affected by the place yet: maybe it will grow on them, as Ferness did in Local Hero.
A more serious question is whether we need yet another golf course? Didn't the National Golf Centre at Drumoig (outside St Andrews) go bust just a couple of years ago? Isn’t the future of the Carnoustie Golf Hotel - brainchild of developer Michael Johnston - currently in jeopardy? Mr Trump should also remember that just up the coast from Balmedie there was a Victorian golf resort at Cruden Bay, built by the GNSR railway company as a resort: but it disappeared, hotel gone, tramway taken up. As the Trump website says, “Up to the Second World War, Cruden Bay was a favoured holiday destination of the wealthy from the south, journeying up by train to a luxury hotel near the course which has since been demolished.”
Looking through the archives, the same claims made by Cruden Bay’s backers are being repeated by the Trump Organisation. Investment, jobs, a catalyst for development, improving the area’s profile, better transport links et cetera… in the end, it was a case of Boosterism. The hotel lost enormous amounts of money during the Great Depression, and it was forced to close in 1932. During WW2 it was used by the Army to billet soldiers in, and by the end of the 1940’s it lay in disrepair, and was later sold for demolition. The golf course remains and today the Cruden Bay Golf Club’s website boasts it is the “61st BEST COURSE IN THE WORLD”. Only sixty places behind Menie Links, in fact.
Beyond that, there is concern about Scotland’s coastline becoming a monoculture. Golf, even links golf courses, are an un-natural land use. They are man-made. The ecology of sand dunes is a shifting one, and dunes wander inland, choking grass and killing it. That won’t be popular with the green-keepers. Just like industrial farming, golf curtails diversity by controlling which species are allowed to grow, and controlling access to the land itself. While bents and fescues may continue to grow in the rough, the varieties of grass on the fairways of golf links tend not to be native to the area.
At the moment, Trump’s plans are in for planning permission, and everything seems to be going fine: yet the protagonists of Local Hero discovered that the rights to the beach belong to an old beachcomber (played by Fulton Mackay, the prisoner governor in “Porridge”), who is determined not to sell them. His tumbledown beach hut became the stumbling block which forced the American investors to think again.
“Bleak, dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless, starving wretch to lay him down and die. Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our bare streets, at such times, who, let their crimes have been what they may, can hardly open them in a more bitter world.”
If you recognise that quote from Oliver Twist, but don’t think it has any bearing on your life or work, then you’re surely in the wrong profession.
I was down in Edinburgh, and as tea-time approached, I headed towards Waverley from the offices of the firm where I was completing some urban design work. First, I saw a sheet of cardboard on the ground. Then I noticed the young woman huddled in a blanket, with her feet drawn up towards her, in the doorway of a tenement on the edge of the New Town. Her face was a study of inscrutability; she had switched off against the cold. Passers-by barely registered as they hurried past.
This, remember, is one of Europe’s great cities. Affluence is relative, but wealth is absolute. Despite everything which has happened over the past five years, we live in a country which is still one of the richest in the world. If the will was there, we could virtually eradicate homelessness and the need to beg for money. The fact that we haven’t done so damns government, churches and charities: but most of all it challenges our moral courage and the good intentions we voice when we see homeless people.
I don’t care how the young woman landed in that tenement doorway in the snow – it’s none of my business, even if she’d wanted to tell me – but it’s an affront to our society that she felt she had no other option. On reflection, she didn’t need cash, although on the level of human empathy, a couple of quid for a roll and a hot drink would make a huge difference on a winter’s evening. Yet that would treat the symptoms, but not the disease.
Perhaps the young woman’s problems spiral from the housing shortage, which isn’t down to an absolute lack of buildings, but a result of economics. Mortgages are too expensive, and there is a lack of starter homes and small flats. As a result, more people have to rent privately, so rentals increase. That increase in rental yields drives landlords to buy up more housing stock, so the problem worsens and more people look to social housing.
However, although there are lots of large houses and executive flats lying empty, unsold for years due to their high cost, there aren’t enough housing association flats or council houses to go around. More people end up homeless, and end up in temporary accommodation like B&B’s. Those who fall off the end of that chain, end up sofa surfing or on the streets. If they’re lucky, they may get a place in a night shelter.
Perhaps she was crouched in a doorway as a result of a drug habit. Or mental illness, divorce, drink, unemployment, breakdown … It’s a measure of our civilisation that any of these personal tragedies could result in someone ending up without a roof over their head. Rather than cash, she possibly needed help to quit her habit, to get clean and get away from the people who had dragged into this state, and help to get a roof back over her head. Our society is wealthy enough to provide an umbrella for those who really need it.
Contrary to what the Tory Party claimed, there is such a thing as society. We don’t have to provide huge “hand outs”, because putting a roof over everyone’s head isn’t a financial or economic issue - but a practical one. The property industry is in huge surplus - not financially, but materially. Drug rehabilitation projects, such as Calton Athletic, and community healthcare practices, need premises. Think of all the unlet offices, empty flats and derelict buildings: a tiny proportion given over to bedrooms, kitchens, workshops, could provide for folk who’ve ended up on the street. Some buildings could be adapted very simply, others could be renovated, incidentally creating work for the people they are designed to help.
When I reached Waverley and found a seat on a train heading northwards, I opened my book for the journey - a book about the life and work of Colin Ward. Following Russian thinkers like Kropotkin and Herzen, Ward was a passionate believer in co-operativism and mutual aid. He believed that politics should nurture small-scale initiatives like friendly societies, mutuals, credit unions and the like, which in turn would foster self-build housing, allotments, adventure playgrounds and other things which folk can do for themselves to improve their own lives. Thus a huge range of modest projects would replace the tyranny of giant, centrally-planned policies which governments like to impose on the people who voted for them.
The current government sees people like the young woman in St Stephen Street as a burden on society. The mass media presses its telephoto lens into the face of human tragedy – only if that face belongs to celebrity. To the hungry addict or abused teenager begging on its doorstep, it turns it back. Collectively, we could help. In fact, if architecture can’t help those who most need our help, then it has failed. After reflecting on Colin Ward’s manifesto of gentle anarchism, I recalled one of my friends, whose email address includes the phrase, “compassionate fury”. Rather than pity, shame or disgust, that is surely what we should feel when we see poverty and suffering on the streets of our cities.
As a parting shot, compassionate fury could also direct the activities of under-employed architects, and graduates who can’t find conventional jobs with architectural practices. I challenge anyone who has set themselves up recently to provide community engagement, participation sessions and neighbourhood consultations, to demonstrate the social worth of their work when they consider the desperation which is manifest in Scottish cities.
Ah yes, reply the engagers, but homelessness is outwith our terms of reference. We won’t get grants from the Scottish Government to help those who are homeless (therefore we won’t make any money ourselves!) In fact, although we can’t admit it openly – if communities were encouraged to go down the Colin Ward route of self-help and mutual aid, there would be no need at all for the community engagement, participation sessions and neighbourhood consultations we provide – and all the effort and money spent on them could be redirected.
Perhaps that would be no bad thing. If we can’t help those who are in most desperate need of our help, then we will need to admit that nothing has improved since Dickens’ time, 150 years ago.
Saturday evening’s lecture by David Mach was life-affirming. It was an insight into Mach’s process of making art and the drivers of his personality, and emphasised how creativity can be put to work. Forcefully.
For some reason, the University of Dundee runs these lectures in the Dalhousie Building – modern, with rather spartan interiors – whereas a parallel series of British Association lectures are held in the Tower Building – Modernist, with rich timber and carpeting. No matter. Neither venue would have been large enough for the crowd which turned up to see Mach. His appearance attracted many hundreds of people and they were rewarded with an evocation of the artist’s pure joy at waking up in the morning and racing to the studio to start work on the ideas fermenting in his head.
Tower of Babel
Mach was brought up in Methil and studied in Dundee: the attitude he found in the city has never left him. He described how he was shy and unforthcoming when he arrived in the city but over time he found self confidence. His first public artwork in Camperdown Park, a net of leaves suspended from the trees, encouraged him to interact with the public, and eventually after looking on intently for a few minutes, an auld boy came up to him – “What’s that you’re doin there, son? Is that a bridge for the squirrels?”
As a result of this early experience, Mach explained that he is more interested in engaging the art-hater - there’s something to work with there - rather than the uncritical art fan who loves everything the artist presents to them. When he came to Duncan of Jordanstone to study in the mid 1970’s, Mach discovered that the Dundonians were the most bolshie people he’d come across, and perhaps that has grounded him throughout his career. He described art world players in New York who sidle up to him and explain how rebellious they are: Mach smiles because he knows the Dundonians would size them up shrewdly, see through their pretension and bullshit, and eat them for breakfast.
Temple at Tyre
I recall Mach’s first works in Dundee - from the “King is Dead”, a fibreglass gargoyle perched on the hammerbeams of the McManus Gallery roof, poised to throw a chimney pot down onto the art lovers – to the magazine stacks in the Central Library, enveloping concrete columns with tidal waves of old magazines. Early in his career, he built the “Temple at Tyre” in Edinburgh - a Parthenon built of worn truck tyres - two enormous Sumo Wrestlers, and the Big Heids on the M8, which are seen by thousands of M8 motorists every day. He went on to build several magazine installations, each bigger than the last, culminating in giant Corinthian columns at the Tramway in Glasgow – a colossal undertaking which took months of planning and a considerable amount of cash.
Mach describes himself as a materials junkie: this is where the lecture became particularly interesting, because iterative pieces made with many thousands or even millions of repetitive components - magazines, bricks, matchsticks, pins, coathangers – have become a theme in his work. For example, we discovered the roots of his famous brick locomotive in Darlington. He began with a steam train made from stacks of magazines, but harboured a dream to build it full size, an express steam locomotive in brick, its clouds of smoke and exhaust thrown backwards and merging with a terrace of brick houses.
It was one of the first National Lottery-funded artworks, and fascinating to hear about the years of battling with committees, dozens of maquettes and collages which it took to achieve it. Once on site, he laid about half a dozen bricks, then the brickies chased him away! But he learned about the limitations of brickwork, and developed an understanding of how to communicate what he wanted to achieve. The lesson was how to make progress with committees – the attrition of keeping coming back at them when they try to knock your ideas down – and how to gain the respect of craftspeople who could help you to realise them.
Mach’s art plays with notions of the monumental: the Temple at Tyre, his magazine columns in the Tramway, and the recent “Golgotha”, reach monumental scale, yet they are temporary installations made from expedient materials. In fact, his work ranges from small scale sculpture – the painstaking craft of the “Matchheads”, to large scale public art – the brick locomotive in Darlington, and a Polaris submarine made of tyres outside the Hayward Gallery in London – and visually rich collages … which evolved from a studio perhaps unsurprisingly piled high with magazines. During the evolution of the Darlington brick locomotive, a series of collages emerged with brick trains glowered at by a Politburo of committee men in grey suits, and when someone suggested the voids inside the brick structure could house bat boxes, an opponent seized on this, so Mach made a collage with vampire bats to present at the next meeting...
Similarly, he enjoys challenging peoples’ assumptions about what is possible - he admitted several times that the more folk say “there’s no way that’s going to happen”, the more he grits his teeth and says, “yes it fucking it is!” Within that expression of Scots thrawn-ness lies the roots of the works which have made his reputation. Some take years of planning, having begun gestating early in his career. Recently Mach became well known for the coathanger Christs at the City Art Centre in Edinburgh: but like the brick locomotive, it’s a concept which he had been carrying around in his head for more than a decade.
At the opening night of the 2011 Festival Fringe, he placed a bust of the Devil, made out of thousands of brightly coloured matches in a courtyard at the College of Art then lit it with a dowp. It burst into flames, then Mach artfully extinguished it so that it could take its place alongside “Golgotha”: three huge figures of threaded coat hangers impaled on metallic crosses constructed in the City Art Centre, as part of Precious Light, a modern interpretation of the King James Bible. I recall pressing my nose against the glass one cold day while the exhibition was being installed, and gaining a glimpse of the ferment of activity inside. The result was a moving and unusual tableau of religious art, long viewed as unfashionable.
Don’t give a Fuck bear
I’ve often thought during lectures that I would rather fight a bear than be here doing this – but David Mach turned that notion on its head by presenting his “Don’t give a Fuck” bears, the mean cousins of the Care Bears. In a similar vein is a timber staircase carried by armies of Barbie dolls, and the other emblems of popular culture he has co-opted such as Neil Armstrong, King Kong and the 101 Dalmatians. As with Jeff Koons’ art, all these say something about celebrity, but set against a background of waste, the post-consumer shite which piles up all around us. The magazines, tyres and matches make a point which Mach summed up his art's "criticism of materialistic attitudes, which I hope points right back into the art world, where there is as much of a commodity market as anywhere else."
This is the best lecture I’ve attended in several years, and the rest of the audience thought so, too. Mach’s dry wit and plain speaking complements a real gift for communicating ideas and enthusiasm. If you get a chance to see him, take it, for there is no post-modern irony or cool distance in David Mach’s presentation. Underneath the humour and pop culture references, there is a serious message being hammered home about unwrapping your creativity and seizing every chance you get in life.
Images from davidmach.com, all copyright the artist
Happy New Year. Twelve months ago, Mr Wolf made a guest appearance with his upbeat message. A year on, having gorged on mincemeat over the festive break, he’s indisposed: so this time you will get a gloomy dyspeptic burp.
A dreadful holiday period – school massacre, fiscal cliff, Russian crash – left Mr Wolf searching for an uplifting piece on the television news during the fallow spell between Boxing Day and Hogmanay. He searched, he failed: there wasn’t one. Instead he contented himself with repeats of costume dramas. Downturn Abbey, a portrait of England in the 21st century, appeals to Mr Wolf’s venal side almost as much as the shortbread tin image of Scotland depicted in Monarch of the Glum. They’re both heritage, of a sort, and although they lack authenticity they certainly make money.
Terry Pratchett, in Johnny and the Dead, speaks about somewhere – in this case a graveyard slated for redevelopment – being the wrong kind of heritage. In essence, it wasn’t grand enough, and wasn’t in London, so there was no chance it would be saved for the nation, or money being spent to protect it. Stately homes and baronial houses née castles are different: they don’t necessarily need state help, because they have an irresistible attraction for property developers, although paradoxically they are often the thing which makes them over-reach. In fact, Mr Wolf knows of a couple of developers who have wrestled with tumbledown castles.
One bought a castle near the coast, which is gothic in atmosphere rather than necessarily in style. The previous owners had fallen on hard times. Their distant ancestor had travelled widely and incurred the wrath of the natives, hence falling under a curse, borne out when the Swedish Match Company was extinguished in the 1920’s, and much of the family fortune disappeared. The last laird’s father was reputedly a sot and toper, with an appetite for louche living and loose women. Keeping fast company, he went through the remaining money like water. In the hard years that followed, many unthinkable things happened. After selling off the family silver, the fixtures and fittings of the castle were stripped out and auctioned, then land was sold, and finally the castle was hollowed out and used as a grain store.
When Mr Wolf visited for cream cakes and afternoon tea, the current owner was very helpful; too helpful in fact, when it came to juicy reminiscences about the previous laird and his ancestors. As it turned out, the castle’s shell was sold under the duress of liquidation, and that duress generated friction between the old and new owners, which has continued and keeps two sets of lawyers busy. When Mr Wolf recounted this tale of decline in print, his publisher was served with legal papers: but what the previous laird didn’t realise is that you can only libel living people, not the dead. More importantly, you can’t sue someone for repeating what was published previously.
Nothing more was heard from the lawyers, the article has become a chip wrapper, and the new owner continued to restore the castle at the pace of a sloth on Mogadon. Just enough work to the facades that no-one can claim he’s abandoned it, but not enough to arrest its gradual slide into ruination. There have been rumours of a housing development in the grounds, to help pay to stabilise the castle. The last scion of its former owners looks on in anguish, and bristles each time anything appears in the Press.
Another would-be high roller bought a castle near the mountains. It once belonged to a great political family, which again had fallen on hard times: while they clung on to their grouse moors and tenanted farms, the Big Hoose had to go. It was on the market for a long time. Several prospective buyers came and went, all struggling to make it stack up in practice, because the planners were emphatic that it couldn’t be subdivided. The enfilade of rooms inside would have to be maintained; but most prospective developers were keen to split it into apartments.
During the castle’s empty spell, Mr Wolf took a look inside. The market was stagnant and loans were hard to come by: but the asking price remained high, and no realistic offers were forthcoming. The castle had an air of stillness and melancholy which is what you expect of these places; but it was discovered that the topmost storey was riddled with dry rot, which would require enormous amounts of money to rectify. In due course, Mr Wolf wrote a short history, expressing hope that the castle would be rescued, and wondering how the estate would pay for that, given the likely costs of restoration on top of a large asking price.
A few months later, the article appeared in print. This time it was the new owner who took exception: as it turned out, the castle had been sold during the period between writing the article and its publication. The new owner’s indignant letter to the editor was exceedingly righteous: he was saving the castle for the nation, the article was out of date, it didn’t portray the reality. He was at pains to extol the investment which would follow, revitalising the estate, the jobs created, the weddings hosted… To support that impression, he had orchestrated the publicity for his new venture, including a photoshoot in the style of Country Life with glamorous wife, adoring children and sprawling hounds arrayed around him in the drawing room. He had evidently watched Monarch of the Glum, or was at least conversant with Compton MacKenzie’s novels: tartan wallpaper, decanters of malt, log fire roaring in the grate and so forth.
As a result, Mr Wolf was surprised to discover, a year or two later, that his company had made a planning application to build several hundred houses on the estate policies. He drew two conclusions: firstly, here was a man at the height of his powers as an egotist; secondly, here was a developer with ambition. That ambition, it was becoming clear, was to build lots of executive ranch-style bungalows on the estate and make money under the auspices of saving heritage. That trump card, the enabling development, had evidently been played. It’s almost an act of altruism, we are after all just custodians for the next generation, aren’t we? And how else can the dry rot problem be solved?
In light of the earlier “Country Life” shoot, Mr Wolf realised how easy it is for magazine articles to misrepresent peoples’ intentions... Ironic, really. Perhaps one day magazines will report the world in the breadth and depth it deserves, and developers will tell the truth in substance as well as in spirit. In fact, lets’s make a resolution ... but it’ll have to be for 2014 now, won’t it?
My next piece for the blog will expand on my article in the Winter 2012 edition which recently hit the news-stands, and will look at the fate of another former asylum.
It’s a truism that the great ones die too young: the talented, inspirational, and insightful often live shorter lives than average, perhaps because they pack more into their time, and give more of themselves to the world. (Picasso, as with everything else, is the exception.) While I was away travelling in Europe, Lebbeus Woods passed away: I learnt of his death when I returned, after a friend emailed with the sad news.
We were both hugely taken with Lebbeus Woods’ work while we were at Duncan of Jordanstone, and the copy of his book “Terra Nova” in the college library was probably the most dog-eared volume on the shelves. I later bought my own copy direct from the publishers in Japan: now it’s out of print, and copies fetch prices way above what they should. Terra Nova has become a collector’s item, when paradoxically it should have been reprinted in the thousands and become widely known amongst the general public. Woods’ real currency was that of ideas.
I think the first drawing of his I can recall seeing was a colour pencil illustration for a competition to build a new aquarium in San Diego, closely followed by his striking black and white sketches for an Einstein Tomb. The drawings were so thoroughly realised that you knew there was a sketchbook full of working out and development, to make this impression buildable, but which you’d probably never get to see.
Years later, I almost met Lebbeus Woods in person, when I applied to attend a summer school in Turin in 2005. I say “almost”, because sadly the event was cancelled before it went ahead, but I had been accepted, and was on the brink of booking flights to Caselle airport. Of course I was interested in the projects which the summer school would concentrate on – but it would also have been a precious opportunity to meet, and perhaps discuss ideas, with him. That was seven years ago, but I still regret the opportunity passing me by.
I don’t feel the same regret about any other architect – the so-called architectural “stars” with their cults of personality have gained little traction – but Woods was different. It’s interesting that he rarely appeared in the journals, on either side of the Atlantic, and that tells us something important about the dead hand of journalism, and how “the debate” often centres on rehashed rhetoric.
Lebbeus Woods differed firstly through his virtuouso drawing technique – as simple as a coloured chalk ground on paper, overlain by fine coloured pencil work, but with startling depth and detail – and secondly through his powerful essays. Each set of drawings was accompanied by a long-form discursive essay, which often tackled metaphysical questions. If the concepts were challenging, then that was surely the point. His books were books of ideas, providing a superficial kind of inspiration through his wonderful drawings, which eventually pulled you into the deeper inspiration of engagement with the world’s problems.
Woods was born in 1940, in Michigan: he studied engineering as an undergraduate, then took a master’s degree in architecture, after which he joined Roche & Dinkeloo. After being job architect for the Ford Foundation – a notable 1960’s building in New York, one of the first to have a huge plant-filled atrium, and a pioneering use of structural Cor-Ten steel – Woods chose to eschew practice in favour of research and teaching. He helped to fund his research by working as a perspectivist for the top New York practices. The answer to the question, “If architecture is a practice, then what use is the paper architecture which comes out of architectural theory?” was neatly dealt with in his series of studies on War and Architecture. As Woods wrote, “The arts have not been merely ornamental, but central to people’s struggle to ‘find themselves’ in a world without clarity, or certainty, or meaning.”
The destruction in the former Yugoslavia was one starting point, and the chaos brought about by natural disasters: his Zagreb Free Zone drawings proposed a city where destruction and reconstruction could co-exist. "Architecture should be judged not only by the problems it solves," said Woods, "but by the problems it creates." He perhaps belonged to the same philosophical strand as Paul Virilio – particularly the latter’s book “Unknown Quantity” – but he had the benefit of synthesising the products of his imagination visually, too. Virilio had to use a collage of photos instead.
I struggle to think of anyone comparable to Lebbeus Woods. Historically perhaps there was Joseph Gandy, and “Mad” John Martin, who had a similar combination of virtuouso technique and visionary imagination, enabling them to create entire architectural worlds which had their own internal logic. There’s something of the same spirit in Woods’ post-apocalyptic, post-flood, almost post-human cities: a scenographic landscape with steel tendons shooting into the sky, defying gravity. Similarly, other drawings of war-torn interiors capture the half-light which Piranesi found in the ruins of Rome. Yet Lebbeus Woods’ drawings are distinctive, recognisably Lebbeus Woods but never “in the style of”, as his draughtsmanship evolved and his compass grew ever broader.
It’s also a truism that Lebbeus Woods was an under-appreciated prophet: his influence spread widely, although he didn’t necessarily get his dues. For example, he should get the credit for inspiring Terry Gilliam’s film “Twelve Monkeys”, (in fact, he reportedly sued the film’s producers and won damages for plagiarism) and he also worked briefly as conceptual architect for Vincent Ward's ill-fated film “Alien III”, although his schemes were abandoned in favour of a set designer’s stock version of dystopia. A lost opportunity.
Lebbeus Woods took on a huge remit, searching for those architecturally-created problems across the world: from flooding on the Hudson River, to Sarajevo’s shell-scarred tower blocks, to El Malecón, the sweeping waterfront boulevard in Havana. As well as the summer schools, he was a professor at Cooper Union school of architecture in New York. As well as books of his own ideas, he also illustrated science fiction authors’ work, including that of Arthur C. Clark.
If someone organises an exhibition of his work, visit it: or if you get the chance to buy one his books, then seize it, because Lebbeus Woods was a full-blown visionary in an age when visionaries are so rare, that we barely recognise them. R.I.P., Lebbeus Woods.
There is an inherent beauty in machines, perhaps because they take on a life of their own, in a way that buildings never could. They are often mere tools created to overcome the challenges of the world – terrain, gravity, weather – yet we look on them to impose order on a disorderly universe.
As a child of Meccano and Lego, I was always interested in making things. Sometimes the parts came in kit form, sometimes I rummaged for scrap iron, pulley blocks, angle irons and so forth. Making a scale model of a crawler crane was one project: I had a single-cylinder Villiers engine from an old Ransomes “Typhoon” mower earmarked as a prime mover, and 56lb. lumps of pig iron set aside as a counterweight. The kinetics of craning, slewing and winching have fascinated ever since, and I guess there’s always the bonus of some entertainment when things go wrong.
Later, this childhood interest combined with the books I was reading, such as Lebbeus Woods’ “War and Architecture”, and Paul Virilio’s “Unknown Quantity”. The latter is quite unlike anything else I’ve read: Virilio explores a philosophical approach towards unpredictability and disaster. Once I’d read it through a couple of times, it clicked – here is a rational response to the seeming chaos of the world, from earthquakes and hurricanes to the smaller scale disorder and disasters of building sites.
Truckmixer in the mud
Having a project on site opens your eyes: the ground opens up while a truckmixer is reversing, the shifting sands swallow an excavator, cranes topple over and have to be rescued, lorries get stuck in muddy fields. Watching a vehicle being extracted from a morass is always interesting: when the ground doesn’t have sufficient bearing capacity, the wheels sink in, and the vehicle ends up resting on the rails of its chassis. A massive tractive effort may be required to pull it clear of the bog’s suction, perhaps using a Traxcavator or Cat D12 bulldozer if you happen to have one handy...
A perennial challenge is delivering materials to site without the need for double-handling. Ideally you want a vehicle which can drive straight off the road onto the site. Back in the early days of truckmixer, the influence of wartime ingenuity was still felt. Boughton Engineering are best known today for the big “rollatruck” skips which demolition contractors use; when full, they’re collected by an eight wheeler using a giant hydraulic hook which clasps the skip end and hauls it onto the chassis. However, they made their name during the 1940’s building all-drive lorry chassis for the Army, and in the peace which followed, they used their experience of all terrain lorries to convert standard Bedfords into 6x6 drive Boughtons with low-ratio gearboxes and diff locks. The end results were road-going lorries capable of driving through construction sites.
Scammell S24 tank tractor
On the other hand, a “normal” truck stuck in a hole can become a full-blown recovery job, perhaps requiring 50-tonne cranes and an ex-Army Scammell S24 tank tractor. The exercise begins with baulks of timber, snatch blocks, Tirfor winches, and a silent prayer to the Gods of Unconventional Lifting … Lorry rescue is a specialist business, and once freed, heavy goods vehicles are never towed on rope or chains. The two vehicles are connected by an umbilical cord in the form of an air line (since, unless there’s compressed air in the stranded vehicle’s tanks, its brakes will stay applied), but the towing lorry does the braking for both vehicles, with all the retardation transferred through a rigid steel towbar.
Laurel and Hardy made the most of getting stuck, and often ended up lying face down in the mud, with a Model T minus all its bodywork, a great cloud of black smoke, and a braying donkey looking on … I can sympathise. One day I arrived on site to discover the contractor trying to rescue a cherrypicker which was trapped in the glaur. A large crowd of workmen looked on as a JCB full-slew attempted to propel the cherrypicker out of its rut by whacking its engine pod using a two cubic metre bucket. It looked like something from Robot Wars – except there was no sign of a glamorous TV frontwoman wearing leather trousers – and although the excavator eventually won, I’m glad I didn’t have to take the cherrypicker back to the hire shop.
Channel Tunnel TBM
Tunnel Boring Machines or “TBM’s” are another good example of Homo Faber versus world. A typical shield boring machine, as built by James Howden in Glasgow, may weigh 500 tons, cost £10 million, and can drive a tunnel six metres in diameter at a speed of two revolutions per minute. The TBM is large and complex, leaving the factory on a train of oversize low-loaders, and taking months to erect in its new underground habitat. Disaster followed in the case of the Storebaelt tunnel in Denmark a few years ago. One full year after work began and with only minor progress made, water from the seabed found its way through the TBM head which had been left open by mechanics. Both 300 metre long tunnel drives were instantly flooded, and the two TBM’s seriously damaged. They needed a complete rebuild. The high stakes conform to Virilio’s risk thesis.
Ground conditions have a habit of thwarting us repeatedly. On another site I attended, a hydraulic excavator scraped away the overburden and began shifting the rock underlying it. The machine worked all morning, its boom sweeping around balletically, its counterweights sliding like part of a pinball machine. Soon, men were driving timber profiles shaped like a hangman’s gibbet into the soil. Then with a loud squeal, an NCK piledriver crawled onto the site, looking rather reptilian. It moved hard against the rock face, slewed its driving gear into position – then there was a flash of light, and a resounding CRACK! It turned out there was a high voltage cable in the path of the steel pile: it was wrapped in black tarry stuff like elephant hide, which melted in the flashover. Thankfully, the driver of the piledriver was saved by his rubber-soled boots.
An unlucky horsebox
The drowned TBM, stranded lorry and zapped piledriver prove that we’re surrounded by entropy. What we casually dismiss as Murphy’s Law is actually a sign of the fundamental lawlessness of Nature, because the universe is always trying to return to its basis state. In response, we have to improvise using machines. Yet entropic chaos has been used by artists, musicians and even architects, such as Lucien Kroll or Elemer Zalotay. It may seem perverse to consciously design something to appear random, and the result may be a little contrived, like the so-called random number generator on your calculator.
Yet there is an honesty in the approach of anyone who admits to chaos, rather than forcing order on reluctant materials and as Paul Virilio suggests, we have a morbid fascination with disaster. If we spot a lorry stuck in a bog, our sympathy for the hapless driver is mixed with a little derision, a sense of the futility of Man’s actions, and perhaps the fecklessness of building contractors.
Rescue is a practical way to deal with trucks which are stuck; Kroll’s aleatoric design method is an intellectual approach to rationalise the seeming randomness of the world and its forces, but there are countless pitfalls to consider, plus some we may not even be aware of (pace Donald Rumsfeld’s rhetoric about “known unknowns and unknown unknowns”). Instead, we can learn from another American. Hungry Joe in Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch-22” collected lists of fatal diseases and arranged them in alphabetical order, so that he could quickly put his finger on the one he most wanted to worry about.
We are in a similar fix, except that there are many more things on a building site which could go wrong...
I last visited the Botanic Gardens station four years ago, in the winter of 2008 … but recently had another chance to see a fascinating place which lies deep in the city’s affections. I can recall regular “Is the Botanics accessible?” threads on the Hidden Glasgow forum in the early years of the millennium, but by then it was already rooted in folklore. A background to the station’s early life is gleaned from Frank Worsdall’s book, “The City that Disappeared”: the Botanic Gardens railway station is part of a long-closed line which runs underneath the west end of Glasgow: it was last used in its original capacity in 1939, after which the surface buildings became a nightclub, and the tunnels were used by goods trains until 1964, after which the Glasgow Central Railway’s tracks were lifted.
The eastern lightwell from ground level
Kirklee tunnel portal
The Glasgow Central Low-Level route was mainly built using the 'cut-and-cover' method, so the line runs in a shallow tunnel for three quarters of a kilometre directly under Great Western Road. The track is exposed at the station, creating a couple of ventilation shafts which are also giant lightwells. The Botanic Gardens station was designed by James Miller, a Perthshire architect who trained with Andrew Heiton before he joined the Caledonian Railway Co. The surface building at the Botanics was a strange affair, a rustic cottage with two minarets – quite a contrast to his later St Enoch Square Underground Station – but it burned down in 1970. Everything below ground remains, from the surprisingly intact concrete platforms, to the vaults spanning between the cross beams, faced in white glazed bricks.
The midwinter sun casts a ray deep into the tunnel
Fading embers of the midwinter sun
After closure, the station became disused, but never truly abandoned. The tunnels were regularly used by ravers during the 1990’s, and in 2001 the station became the centrepiece of Hamish McDonald’s novel, “The Gravy Star”, about a modern-day recluse who takes refuge here from modern society. Farchar MacNab retreats to "a black airless hole with pigeons for neighbours and a park full of beauty on the roof of his world". Scared of the light, he leaves his tunnel only at night for the safety of The Coffin - Glasgow's first death-themed pub - and The Gravy Star, a cafe where people don't stare at him. When his epiphany comes, he leaves the darkness of the tunnels and takes a journey across Europe, which also illuminates the terrible damage done to Glasgow by Thatcher’s government.
The station platform in 2012
The station platform in 2008
Although Alasdair Gray’s “Lanark” is still the best novel of and about Glasgow, “The Gravy Star” joins Jeff Torrington’s “Swing Hammer Swing” and Archie Hind’s “Dear Green Place” to show it sloughing off its industrial clothes as it became a different kind of city. Just how different was illustrated when we surfaced, like Farch, from the underground, and headed across the gardens towards the Kibble Palace. The first figures we saw were a hipster in a homburg hat and winklepicker shoes, with his girlfriend in tow leading a French Bulldog. It is hard to imagine a less Glaswegian variety of dog..
A colourful “piece” from 2008
Tagging on the skew arch brickwork at the Kelvinbridge station portal
I worried that the huge fabricated steel knuckle braces which were installed a year after my last visit would ruin the atmosphere of the station, but I admit that they add another layer to the composition, especially now they’ve been integrated by decorating them with a coat of graffiti. Perhaps the most striking parallel is with New York: just as the City Union Line is Glasgow’s “High Line”, the Botanic Gardens station represents this city’s “Freedom Tunnels” complete with screeds of graffiti and shafts of sunlight penetrating down from the public park above. The High Line in Manhattan is a celebrated example of old railway infrastructure – simultaneously very visible, yet difficult to reach – made accessible and brought into the public realm. Nevertheless it loses something in the transition, as you will see when you compare images churned out by the publicity machine of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, with the melancholy photos which Joel Sternfeld took years before the work took place, when the overgrown trackbed wound through the West Side at second floor level as a linear wilderness.
The old Kelvinbridge station platform
Kelvinbridge tunnel, around 700 metres long
The Botanics is perhaps the perfect example of a ghost station, made all the more enigmatic since you can gain glimpses of it through the ventilation shafts in the gardens, and through the railings of the tunnel portal. From previous years, I recall a couple of thesis projects by students at the Mac, one to revive the Botanic Gardens station as part of a railway system, and another for an entertainment venue, probably on the back of Stefan King’s thwarted scheme of 2007 to convert the station platforms into a nightclub. Before that, Strathclyde Passenger Transport laid plans to re-open the station and tunnels as part of their "Strathclyde Tram" scheme in the mid 1990s: that similarly came to nothing. Perhaps the station should be maintained as it is now, a walk through the darkness towards those giant lightwells and a trackbed overgrown with etiolated shrubs.
The knuckle braces, supporting the edge of Great Western Road
A final glimpse along the platforms…
Eventually, all traces of Botanics will disappear: if the tunnels aren’t brought back into use, they may be backfilled to prevent ongoing maintenance costs. So far, the giant steel knuckles are the only evidence of structural problems, but the trackbed to the north-west of Kirklee tunnel has already been built on, part of the endless demand for flats in the West End. Yet the wildcard which has preserved the station and platforms for over 70 years is the speculation of transport planners and council chiefs – proponents of reopening old rail lines, building tram networks, Glasgow’s Crossrail – schemes which may never happen, but can never be completely discounted. Unlike a previous Lord Provost’s madcap plan to build a cable car system from George Square to Port Dundas...
All photographs are copyright Mark Chalmers - none are in the public domain