Somewhere in our past, a lone kilted figure looks out over a herd of Highland cattle, knee deep in heather and thistles. Through the mist, the pipes skirl, a towerhouse glowers and a burn tumbles, brown with peaty water running off the moors. This is the heritage which Walter Scott invented for us in the 1820’s, and which the Victorians assiduously set to work, marketing their engineering might by pretending that its forges and steel mills were in Brigadoon, not Bridgeton. Which, I guess, is why the spring clips we use to clamp paper to a board are stamped “WAVERLEY”.

The bulldog clip is a seemingly simple gadget of tempered spring steel. It comes in many varieties, yet all consist of a barrel spring with two lever-shaped handles. Every home has several, tucked away in the back of a drawer. I first relied on it when I was a schoolboy: several clips clamped a large sheet of Fabriano paper to a board, and that allowed me to go outside to sketch. Through its life, the bulldog clip evolved, and its highest evolution is the Waverley Clip.

The bulldog clip was reputedly invented at the end of the 19th Century in Birmingham, where metallurgists developed spring steel, and where the British stationery industry grew up, centred on dip pen nib manufacturing. The technology quickly spread. MacNiven & Cameron was a firm of printers and stationers, originally founded as Nisbet MacNiven, a paper maker in 1770 at Balerno. They developed as a stationery wholesaler after moving into Edinburgh in 1788, and for many years they had a printing works at 23 Blair Street in the heart of the Old Town. The brothers John and Donald Cameron became involved in 1840, and the firm’s name changed to MacNiven & Cameron in 1845.

Duncan Cameron, another brother, invented the Waverley nib: its narrow waist, with an upturned point rather than a convex point, took the extreme point of the pen off the paper and made writing smoother. It was first manufactured for the company by Gillott in 1864, and later by others. In 1881, the company diversified and the Oban Times newspaper was acquired then run for a time by Duncan, then his son Waverley Cameron – the boy being named after the pen, rather than vice versa!

As their business grew, MacNiven & Cameron expanded their “Waverley” brand to include the Waverley Clip. Premier Grip, which has been in production for a century, claims to be “the original bulldog clip”, but Myers make their Foldback clip, Rexel their Boston clip, and Perry their Victoria clip… all of which are variations on the same theme, yet the Waverley clip is perhaps the highest evolution. It bears no ornamentation, nor decorative tooling, just a simple fluting of the handles for strength. Its name, in chunky moderne lettering, is pressed into the steel lips of the clip. It’s appealing simply because it’s the ultimate in unregarded objects.

The clip’s trade name and trade dress recalls the powerful reach of Walter Scott, author of the famous “Waverley novels”, the first of which was published in 1814; his portrait was combined with the McNiven & Cameron’s slogan on product packaging: “They come as a Boon and a Blessing to men: The Pickwick, the Owl, and the Waverley Pen”. Scott is shown complete with bangs of flowing hair and a high collar, but he didn’t endorse the nib or the clip, because he died long before they went into production.

Brands like Waverley are strong simply because we know that their reputation grew from quality and longevity, and they emerged before the onset of corporatism and the relentless cost-cutting which is really the destruction of value. If the clip was launched today, it would be injection moulded from plastic in a sweatshop, then packaged to sell on price rather than quality.

Eventually MacNiven & Cameron bought a factory at Watery Lane, Bordesley, Birmingham and manufactured clips, nibs and other things for themselves, from 1900 to 1964.  By the 1960’s, the stock-in-trade of their factory was the barrel spring-type paper clip, although some nib manufacturing continued to the end, mainly for the Indian market. After that, the company moved to the Waverley Works in Edinburgh: thus, earlier Waverley Clips are stamped “Made in England”, and later ones “Made in Scotland”.

More recently the remnants of the company relocated again, still making stationery under the Waverley Cameron name, to Dunkeld Road in Blairgowrie. That too became the Waverley Works, which is where the Waverley clip ended its days.

MacNiven & Cameron’s progress follows a familiar trend: a slow decline from Victorian times, firstly they closed an old factory in the Black Country, then their offices in the heart of Edinburgh were shut because the buildings were worth more than the business they contained. Finally they moved to a modern industrial unit in a small provincial town, always moving further north, to lower overheads and the margins of the industrial belt. The business shrank, Walter Scott fell spectacularly out of fashion, but the Waverley Clips are still going strong.

Image from Maynard's Wine Gums advert – copyright Aardman Animation, used with permission.

By Mark • Albums: independence

Beyond Ben Alder, deep inside the lonely grey mountains which lie to the west of Loch Ericht, there is a singular place.   Persistent rumours tell of a cavern higher than the greatest Gothic cathedral, with a nave double the span and several times as long.  Just like Clunie's Cage on the slopes of Alder, it's well hidden and rarely talked of.  Existence is conferred by more than simply an appearance in magazines or books, but in the case of the Monadhliath 2 powerhouse, it is an absence.  It doesn’t “exist”.  Not officially, at least.  Instead, it seems to have become something mythical, a cavern into which Lewis Carroll might have peered.



It was built during the era of Cold War paranoia, the 1980's, as a power station which would be called upon after Zero Hour, after much of the country’s generating capacity had been destroyed by an exchange of nuclear missiles.  Whereas many power stations are built on the surface, and offer easy targets, hydro generation can be hidden.  In this case, the intakes lie deep underwater in a remote hill loch: the giant penstocks and the powerhouse are carved out of the heart of the Grey Mountains.  

Monadhliath exists rather like the Norse myth about the great wolf Fenrir, who the gods believed would bring about the world's destruction.  They caught the wolf and locked him in a cage, but he broke free of every iron chain they shackled him with.  Eventually, they trapped him, and he was chained to a rock a mile underground where he awaits the end of the world.  When the End arrives, he will break free from this prison, too, and devour the sun.

The Monadhliath hydro scheme was first proposed in the 1960’s, when the Mackenzie Committee reported on future prospects for hydropower in Scotland. The odds of Monadhliath being constructed grew longer as time went on.  After the Cruachan scheme’s completion in 1965,  the North of Scotland Hydro Board’s great Development Plan appeared to grind to a halt.  Opposition to future hydro-power came from landowners who resented the people of Scotland benefitting from our own mountains.  Yet work at Monadhliath carried on, and a myth slowly grew around it.

The powerhouse is a mighty place, on a scale unparalleled by anything else in Scotland.  Yet it was the first man-made thing on these mountains: before the dam, the top reservoir was just a lochan of shallow, peaty water, overshadowed by mountains.  Few humans had been here.  The area around it is a jumbled mass of rocks, studded with moss and lichen, crossed by foaming burns. 



The powerhouse was hewn from solid grey gneiss, lined with concrete and enamelled steel panels, a mystery hidden at the head of a remote stalker's track.  Larger than its predecessor at Ben Cruachan, larger than Dinorwic in Wales, larger than any of the Snowy Mountains power stations in Australia, Monadhliath is a modern wonder.  Ben Cruachan was a pumped storage scheme which utilises cheap night-time power to drive water back into the head reservoir after it has flowed through the turbines at peak time, as opposed to a conventional one which uses the water only once.  Monadhliath develops that principle further.

Monadhliath, according to the Mackenzie Report of 1961, was to be a scheme of two stages, the first of which would total 150MW output but in the event, it's supposed that the output is much higher, since this station would be used over a short timespan, perhaps just a few hours, as a last resort.   At Monadhliath 2, six turbines of perhaps 500MW each run at far higher power, but a far lower load factor, than originally anticipated by the 1960's era Hydro Board.  

The size of Loch Ericht, almost 20 miles long, and the fact that other hydro schemes control both its inflow and outflow means that large fluctuations in level due to the secret power station can be absorbed, un-noticed.  It is likely that the controls are all thermionic valve-powered: rather than being a step backwards from microprocessors, these robust old-fashioned electronics would survive a nuclear explosion when our TV’s and cellphones had all fried in the flashover. 

But is there any evidence for what Monadhliath actually is?  Its existence is alluded to in Duncan Campbell’s "War Plan UK", which predicts the fate of atomic power stations, and coal-fired giants like Drax, during a war.  Peter Payne’s "The Hydro" summarises the Mackenzie Report’s findings, going into some detail with Monadhliath 1 and 2, even locating them on its endpaper maps.  

Yet the clinching proof is an image taken from an obscure Swiss journal on hydropower*, which confirms the scale of the turbine hall, and that the sets were manufactured for the Swiss-Swedish firm ABB, most likely by a Clydeside shipyard, the only fabricators capable of dealing with the scale of the turbines' high-tensile steel blades and casings.



Monadhliath is more than I've suggested, though.  Designed by the Property Services Agency, who were responsible for all government works during that era, there is a clandestine air about Monadhliath which doesn't only arise from its purpose.  After all, Ben Alder is one of the remotest tops this side of Knoydart – far out of the way, and bleaker than any other Munro – so who would care what went on there?

Perhaps Monadhliath is still held in strategic reserve.  Just don't ask Scottish & Southern Energy, or the Scottish Government, or Westminster, to confirm the rumours about this place.  They'll deny its existence, just as they have done for the last 30 or more years.

*Zeitschrift fur Hydro-technik, published by Kirschner Verlag in Berne.

By Mark • Albums: technology

There’s a special kind of nihilism at work in Barrhead, on the south side of Glasgow.  The vandals have returned time and again to smash up somewhere that’s already been utterly destroyed.



In the 1980’s, the town had a thriving Nestlé factory, a Volvo bus and truck import centre, and a large sanitaryware factory which belonged to Shanks of Barrhead.  Today the town is living through an industrial death – Nestlé, Volvo and Shanks have all gone.  In a world where the remediation of old industrial sites is often swift – to preclude ongoing business rates, and clear land for lucrative housing – Shanks’ former site became a black eye for the local council. 

25 years after its bosses down south shut the Shanks pottery and foundries, there’s finally a hint of renewal.  A few years ago, some buildings had been cleared, others had fallen to the bottom of the value chain, taken over by car repairers and second hand furniture men.  Still other parts had their plumbing (ironically) and wiring stripped out for copper, their roofs lost their lead, walls covered in graffiti, then burned out, random parts demolished, and the shells filled with rubbish.



Beyond the works lay mountains of broken pottery: smashed seconds, crocks, kiln furniture, firebricks, chipped enamel ware.  Everything had been bulldozed into hills ten metres high – a tessellation of crazed white vitreous china plus the arctic blue, blush pink and avocado glazes of 1970’s bathroom suites.  Below them lay an industrial blight, with piles of burnt-out tyres, broken pallets, and rubbish strewn across the nearby railway embankments.

Shanks of Barrhead was started by Paisley plumber, John Shanks, around 1851.  In 1865, he invented an under-waterline closet for use in ships, and in 1868 he opened a foundry in Barrhead to make brassware.  It was many years later before he developed the bath and lavatory fittings which made the firm famous.  Shanks supplied all the sanitaryware for the ocean liners RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth, as well as many humbler ships.

The firm was incorporated around 1875, and in 1904 the firm moved from the centre of Barrhead to a much larger site on Blackbyres Road alongside the railway, and began to manufacture their own sanitaryware.  Shanks’ Tubal Works and Victoria Pottery were built on the site during the first couple of decades of the 20th century, at their peak employing over a thousand people. 



After World War Two, Shanks recognised that the future lay in vitreous china, rather than the earthenware which many Scottish industrial potteries produced.  During the 1950’s and 1960’s Shanks took over its Scottish competitors such as Howies of Kilmarnock and Southhook Pottery, eventually becoming the largest and finally last of the Scottish sanitary ware firms.

Shanks of Barrhead remained independent until it merged with Armitage Ware in 1969.  The English firm was founded in 1817 by Thomas Bond in Armitage, Staffordshire – the new company became Armitage Shanks – and by the 1970's it was the only company left in Scotland manufacturing sanitary ware.  The new firm closed subsidiaries in Kilmarnock during the 1970’s, but the Tubal Works to the west and neighbouring Victorian Pottery to the east remained at the heart of Shanks.



In 1980 another takeover resulted in the company becoming part of the Blue Circle Industries: the company experienced difficulties during the 1980s, and in 1989 the decision was taken to close the Tubal Works, marking the end of brassware production at Barrhead.  Despite concerted protests, the announcement was made shortly afterwards that the Ceramic Works would close, too: the successor to the Victoria Pottery shut completely in April 1991, with 345 people losing their jobs.  After a period as a distribution centre, the site was abandoned.

A group of Shanks’ former workers came together to resurrect the business as a cooperative called Barrhead Sanitaryware, claiming it was the spiritual descendant of the famous Shanks of Barrhead.  They hoped to employ up to 100 people.  Barrhead was founded in August 1992 and took a factory on the Hillington industrial estate in Glasgow. 

In February 1995, it became part of the Baxi Heating group, and by the 2000’s, Barrhead was the only independently British owned vitreous china manufacturer, but it was sold to Utopia Bathroom Group and shut down a few years ago.  The factory’s pottery machinery was put up for sale in 2010.  That just left Carron Phoenix  – the grandchild of the great Carron Foundry – making sinks and so forth in Scotland, and their parent company recently announced that will soon shut down, too.



Meantime, when I visited Barrhead in 2012, the sad remains of Shanks’ pottery and foundry made up one of the most devastated landscapes I’ve seen: much already demolished, other buildings remaining but clearly not maintained since Shanks gave them up, and still others burned out by arsonists.

To the east lay those huge mountains of broken crockery.  From the 1930’s, you could choose from a wide spectrum of colours – lilac, pink, yellow, ivory, avocado green and baby blue – whereas today Armitage Shanks only offer white, Chablis (cream) and Honeymoon (ivory), “fired to a glass-hard finish and guaranteed permanent and fadeless”.  Smashed fragments of them all remained in giant mounds on the site, which was known as the Shanks Industrial Park. 



Rumour has it that site clearance began at the end of 2012, which seems sadly in synch with everything else that happened to the Scots fireclay industry that year, when the brickworks at Manuel, Etna, Mayfield and the museum at Birkhill were also demolished.  I’ve already written here about the death of the Scottish brickmaking industry…

Other places feel melancholy, because when a small corner of a bustling city falls derelict, the sadness is tinged with the knowledge that it will be regenerated.  Barrhead had a hard edge to it: yet the folk remain, the same folk who we first met in Edwin Muir’s “Scottish Journey”, and James Campbell’s “Invisible Country”. 

A teenage lad in a Tacchini tracksuit, picking over the wasteland as he walks with his collie cross.  A young woman who gives me an awkward smile as she hands on an open gate – wearing a fashion jacket and long black boots – “Pendulum” spilled out as an earphone bud fell from her ear.  Both probably wondered why I was bothering to take photos of this coup, a shooting of rubbish in an abandoned corner of Scotland.



They are the same folk who our various governments have failed for the last quarter century, deprived of the chance to hope for something better, because Shanks’ works was left to rot.  For years they were governed from a place that felt so far away that it may as well have been on Saturn.  So the recent PAN (Pre-Application Notice) lodged for a “major residential development” at Shanks Park is a step forward: with the site cleared, the optimists have something to hope for, and the nihilists are left with nothing.

Postscript: If you’re interested in the firm’s history, I recommend seeking out a copy of “Shanks: The First Hundred Years 1851-1951” by Gilbert M. Shanks

By Mark • Albums: ghosts

This online journal has reached its 101st post – or more accurately, its 151st.

I wrote for the print edition of Urban Realm’s predecessor, Prospect, for a few years then began contributing to The Lighthouse’s website ten years ago, in December 2006.  The last piece I uploaded there was dated August 2009, more or less when The Lighthouse was extinguished.  As it happens, that was the 50th article I’d written for them.

I picked up the online journal again, for Urban Realm, in February 2010 and it’s taken six years to reach 101 posts here.  Taking into account what I wrote for The Lighthouse, that’s 151 posts in more or less ten years.  Not that anyone’s counting…

Each piece takes a few hours to write, although those hours can be spread over several months.  The object has always been to share inspirations – buildings, places, images, writing, people, things – and speak critically but positively about them.  After all, there’s already plenty of banal architecture out there, along with crap music, unpalatable food and unflattering clothes – and they don’t need any more coverage than they already get.

Nonetheless someone occasionally takes umbrage, and they ask self-righteously what qualifies you to criticise – or even to form an opinion on the subject.  That happened when Urban Realm visited Nairn five years ago and an anonymous voice wondered why we had the temerity to voice an opinion on a town we didn’t live in.

As the German playwright Gotthold Lessing once said: “You do not have to be an egg-laying hen to know when an egg is foul!”  Except that in this case, we were nothing but positive about Nairn, although the town had been put forward for the Carbuncles by a disgruntled resident with an ulterior motive.  To extend Gotthold Lessing’s analogy, just because you haven’t designed a theatre, it doesn’t mean that you can’t form an opinion about theatres in general.

So much for the separation of criticism and authorship.

Being “critical” isn’t synonymous with being “negative”, but some believe that criticism consists solely of making negative judgments about things we don’t like.   Often they back up their argument with what passes for common knowledge, but starting a sentence with “everyone knows”, “many believe…” or even “some people think…” could be regarded as an ad populum argument – a cheap and lazy way to score points.

If you save the populist soundbites for “short form” journalism, then cultural journalism – the kind that architecture magazines usually print – tends to be “long form”, in order that it can explore the issues in detail.  That’s what this piece tries to do, too.

The real test of anything we build is not aesthetic, practical nor even economic – but what happens in an emergency.  In extremis, after a serious fire or explosion, the structure must hold together long enough to allow people to escape.  However, whether they get out safely is down to human nature as much as building design … vehicle design … or indeed aircraft design.



In order to “type certify” a new airliner, trial evacuations are carried out - the photo above shows a Boeing 747 "Jumbo Jet" as it was about to go into service in 1970.  The testing of the Airbus A380 – the "SuperJumbo" – was the most recent, during which an airframe parked inside a hangar at Hamburg was fully loaded with people.  In this case, 853 passengers plus cabin crew.  When the command to evacuate was given, the aircraft was emptied in an astonishingly fast 78 seconds.  For the purposes of the test, a regular Lufthansa crew was in charge; some smoke and loose objects had been introduced into the cabin; it was dark (although the emergency lights were working); and some exits had been blocked off.

The speed of the passengers’ egress wasn’t down to Teutonic efficiency alone, though – the guinea pigs were well briefed beforehand, and had time to consider the best way to escape.  Tellingly, they co-operated with each other because they knew they weren’t in mortal danger.  Most people treat all alarms as false alarms, until proven otherwise – just watch any building site once it’s near to completion.  Each time Kidde, Minerva or ADT set off the alarms, workmen come sidling out long after the sirens first began to sound.

Yet once people believe they really are in peril, the alarm instills panic into their behaviour.  Sounding the tocsin goes back to prehistory, when the great war horns sounded a warning.  In medieval times, the pealing of the cathedral’s bells warned the city: Fear Fire Foes.  That led to the banshee screaming of the air raid siren during modern wars, then the klaxons alerting RAF crews to scramble in the ‘60’s when the Three Minute Warning sounded.  Very early in our lives, a connection is made between alarms and danger: self-preservation is a deep instinct and ultimately it over-rides everything else. 

The difference between our responses to a practice run, and the real thing, are almost impossible to replicate.  That’s where evacuation tests on aircraft and the fire drills we all experienced at school fall down.  They can’t represent the terror of a real emergency because the mind isn’t adept at self-deception.  It operates in a unified way, so if the higher rationalising part knows this is just a drill, then the primitive, instinctual response will be subdued. 

Words are inadequate to describe what happens when you do have to flee a building.  Instinct kicks in and the brain suspends any functions which aren’t critical to escaping.  Adrenaline takes over.  The advice about walking calmly towards an exit means nothing when danger is close at hand.  You move as fast as you physically can, and afterwards you can’t recall any detail of that 30 seconds, which subjectively felt like a lifetime.  The routines hard-wired into us succeeded – we survived to tell the tale.  Yet sometimes things turn out differently.

After the 1985 accident at Manchester when a British Airtours Boeing 737 suffered an engine fire on take-off and 55 people died in the resulting crash, Cranfield University made a detailed study of aircraft evacuation.  Critically, it took five-and-a-half minutes for the last passenger to emerge from the burning 737 at Manchester Ringway; the aim of the research was to find out why.  The researchers used a retired Hawker Siddeley Trident and some cash-strapped volunteers.  Uniquely, most of the participants were students who were paid £10 to turn up with the promise of another fiver each time they succeeded in being among the first few to escape from the plane. 

The cash was handed over as soon as they reached terra firma, and the professor conducting the experiment judged that the mixture of the students’ natural competitiveness and the promise of hard cash would prove “as compelling an incentive to escape as life itself”.  You can imagine the reaction when the stewards called on the passengers to evacuate – “The desperation to escape quickly was quite alarming as volunteers battled to be the first through the exits,” wrote Max Kingsley-Jones in the magazine Flight International.  People were carried along in a throng, crushed under seats, wedged in the aisles and caught against bulkheads.

While the Airbus trial achieved a rapid evacuation thanks to the passengers co-operating with each other and escaping in an orderly manner, women and children first, the Trident trial was a closer reflection of reality.  Although it was carried out in the late 1980’s and has never been repeated, the trial was closely examined by the Civil Aviation Authority.  The fact that the Germans carried out the A380 trial as they did suggests that they weren’t paying attention: they didn’t come across panic, or the other extreme, abject resignation to your fate.

Sometimes people just give up and huddle in a corner to await their fate.  It’s well known in mountain rescue attempts that climbers suffering from hypothermia gradually cease to fight as their core temperature drops.  Eventually they just give up, psychologically.  Both panic and resignation are illustrated by Dad’s Army, that popular TV re-enactment of World War 2: when trouble came along, Fraser resignedly exclaimed, “We’re aa doo–oomed!”, whereas Jones cried out, “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!”  We are two sides of that same coin.

One way around panic and resignation is methodical training.  Although occasional fire drills don’t prepare us to face disaster, over-familiarity with crisis situations does seem to work for firefighters and airline pilots.  A large proportion of a pilot’s training is devoted to preparing for emergencies, in order to make his responses as automatic as possible.  Several hours are spent on the simulator every month, practicing stall recovery, flame-outs and forced landings: the intention is that the pilot “over-learns” the skills needed, because the shock when it actually happens may diminish his ability.

Over-learned responses and realistic situations give the pilot confidence to stay calm: but however realistic the simulator, that shock factor is still missing.  Psychologists have understood for decades that the brain doesn’t function well when overloaded with stimuli, and the tragic illustration of this is a passenger trapped in the blazing wreckage of an aircraft who continues to struggle with an unyielding emergency exit, yet ignores the gaping hole in the fuselage close by.  The brain fixates on one thing to the exclusion of all else.

More recently, both aeronautical and architectural fire engineers have begun to use software modelling to replicate evacuations.  For a project I ran a few years ago, a computer model representing 12,000 sq.m. of floorplate and 1150 people was created by SAFE Fire Engineering in Glasgow.  The evacuation sequence looks like an L.S. Lowry painting brought to life: but the matchstick people behave differently each time, as computer algorithms try to take account of the randomness of human behaviour – panic, confusion, our reactions to other peoples’ irrationality and the heat, smoke and toxic gases.  The software’s ability to run evacuation scenarios over and over again generates an “envelope” of performance, rather than a single datum, hence a truer representation of reality.

Software has the advantage over full-scale aircraft certification trials that the latter cost £1million a time and volunteers are sometimes accidentally injured, or worse.  However, it does rely on the programme's code being suitably nuanced that it can predict how fickle humans will react, and that’s the real skill.  Fire engineering is a specialist field, and only a small proportion of buildings benefit from it.  For the rest, architects rely on the prescriptions of the Technical Standards to guide them on how the building should assist people to escape from a fire. 

Are we, or the people who write the Standards, any closer to understanding why people react the way they do?  That peculiar mixture of crowd psychology, brain chemistry and self-preservation: how will that turn out, when the VESDA sensors sniff out smoke, then the sounders are activated, zone by zone, and the alarms grow louder and louder?  The corridor smoke doors swing shut, the power goes off and the emergency lights glow on.  It’s not a drill this time.  It’s for real. 

How will you react…?

By Mark • Albums: technology

It was late afternoon in November when I was heading back towards Berlin from Saxony, and realised from the signs on the autobahn that I was close to Dessau.  Martin Pawley’s description of Dessau twenty-odd years before, just after the Berlin Wall came down and the East was accessible again, stuck in my mind.



At that time, in the early 1990’s, the Bauhaus was an active design school but hadn’t been made ready for the 21st century.  Pawley’s was a pre-internet Bauhaus, reproduced in monochrome in dozens of books.  East Germany was a black-and-white place, the DDR before re-unification, and Pawley found Dessau strangely desolate, lacking in traffic, investment and hope.  To him, it felt very flat and grey although he chose to express that greyness in Trabants and soot.



Relying only on Google and a Michelin map, I discovered that Dessau’s road system is confusing – it’s a city without a real centre, just a main drag which invariably sends you in the wrong direction each time you come round.  However, the Bauhaus was unmistakable when I eventually found it by setting off down a side road and keeping going in what felt like the “wrong” direction.



I certainly crossed to the wrong side of the railway tracks, into a run-down area with a derelict, Victorian-era brewery crumbling onto the pavement.  The bricks simply seemed to turn to dust, and the windows were glassless hollows.  But only a couple of turns later, Dessau changed again and the road emerged onto a broad avenue of trees with immaculate inter-war blocks of flats behind them on one side, and a 3/4 scale model of a famous building suddenly popped up on the other.



After I parked nearby and walked slowly up to the building.  At first it looked underwhelming, but I guess that’s often the case when you think you know somewhere – yet have only seen heavily-mediated images of it.



I didn’t pay the fee or take a guided tour: I wandered around myself, and once I was done it was enough just to stand on the most famous stairs in Europe and disregard the students and staff filing past.  Rather like meeting a well-known person you’ve seen on TV, or finally acquiring something you’ve lusted after for a long time, the experience was different to what I expected: neither better, nor worse, just different.   So much for preconceptions…





Some of the Bauhaus was as you imagine in your mind’s eye: the beautiful typography, bright corridors and stairs, and planes of sheer glass.  Yet one aspect which surprised me, in a way, were the splashes of bright colour.  So many architectural photos were shot in monochrome, and most architecture books from the birth of the Bauhaus right up to the 1980’s were printed in black-and-white, that you picture it in black and white.



As Mark Twain noted, “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice,” and that surely holds true for the Bauhaus.  It’s arguably the wellspring of all Modern architecture, yet it’s so often misunderstood.  After my visit, I realised I had been among the many who misunderstood it.  The Bauhaus isn’t monochromatic.  There are planes of chrome orange and cadmium yellow, bands of bright crimson red, planes of sienna brown linoleum – the old-fashioned battleship lino that DLW still make at Delmenhorst in the north.





Only the exterior is tonal: the interior is a colour exercise which demonstrates how controlled Walter Gropius's grasp of design is, how colour advances and recedes, works with and against tone.  Of course I should have known better, having read Johannes Itten’s colour theories, and bought a book a few years ago about the “ideal house”, written by Bruno Taut around the same time that Itten developed his ideas.  Both go a long way to demonstrate how integral colour was to the Modern Movement – and that’s hopefully clear from my photos.



When I went outside, I was treated to the afterglow of the winter sun hitting the Bauhaus lettering on the building’s gable: and then it was a rush through the back streets of Dessau, across bumpy pavé that takes you past the derelict brewery to find the Way Out.  Even so, it was dark by the time I hit the Berliner Ring, concentrating very hard to make sure I found the turn-off for Genshägen and didn't wind up on my way to Poland…



Happy Christmas. :-)

By Mark • Albums: memory palace, canon

Son of Jaguar E

22/11/16 21:35

I came across these images while distractedly browsing the net as I listened to a Radio 4 discussion about cuisine from the 1950’s.  A weird convergence.  While the food chat was interesting, the most telling comment was that, “in those days, no-one spoke about food, money, sex, politics or religion.”  No-one in polite society, at least.

However: food, money, sex, politics and religion are some of the things which bring pleasure and meaning to life.  The lady chefs interviewed for the documentary acknowledged that many of those unspokens were unwrapped during the 1960’s – and that’s when this advert, which was commissioned by Jaguar Cars’ American concessionaire, was published.

The E-type was unveiled at the 1961 Geneva Motor Show.  At the time it seemed like a startling artefact from the future, and this one has Old English White bodywork and an oxblood red interior.  The MkII saloon is similarly rakish.  The shape we perceive looked like progress, and since we tend to believe that whatever we think is the right thing to think, the E-Type became shorthand for the future.



Until then, Jaguar’s saloons were suited to stuffy diplomats, smoking cigars and twirling their moustaches.  In the words of Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett: "Splendid!  Excellent!!  First class!!!"  The XK-E, as it was known across the Atlantic, was different.  The car appealed to the Americans, partly because it was fast, partly because it was sleek, and also because it was European.  It emerged from an era when American designers like Paul Rand and Eliot Noyes pursued an aesthetic quite different to their European counterparts such as Dieter Rams.

The ad men of Madison Avenue used the E-Type to reach out to the Commissioning Classes, the 1% of the population who patronised oyster bars and appreciate modern art.  At least some them, represented here by the guy in the dark suit with the Mk2 Jaguar, commissioned the post-war skyscrapers which made New York and Chicago crucibles of Modernism – a functionalist architecture.

There has never been a Functionalist car; even those which claim to enable minimal motoring like a Lada, or with everything superfluous stripped out, like the Lotus Elan, aren't minimal.  The E-Type is an expressionistic design which looks sleek and cuts through the air.  Malcolm Sayer was an aerodynamicist: he designed the car's skin.  Nowadays car makers employ surface designers, a discipline unknown in those days.



Some designs age badly.  Others remain not just ahead of their time, but outside of time, fashion and taste.  Half a century later, the E-type is regarded one of the high points of car design.  There are only a dozen or so cars in this category: the original Mini, Land-Rover and E-Type.  The Fiat 500, VW Beetle and Porsche 911.  The Citroen 2CV and DS, the Ford Model T and the Willys Jeep.

Yet while the E-Type fixed head coupé of 1961 appeared to come from 1971, the folk in the advert seem to come from 1951.  She wears a turtle neck sweater in French grey and leans on the cant rail of the coupé; he stands casually, hands deep in the pockets of his mock-turtle brown tweed suit.  The fashions seem old-fashioned today, but unlike our current horrified, cynical world-view – guys from that generation evidently loved to smoke, drink and swear without giving it any serious thought.  The ladies always appear extremely well turned out.  Or so we’re told.

Radio 4’s chefs make the point that social mores changed quickly in the Sixties – but this incarnation of the Sixties is pre-hippie, pre-Swinging London, yet seems a world away from the restraint and muted off-colours of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s as portrayed in the recent feature film “Carol”.  The difference couldn’t be more marked, and it suggests that you can read interiors, cars, advertising and even fine art by the colours of the period. 



For example, these muted 1950’s colours - Leaf Green, Old Gold, Coral and Flame, Tan and Slate – come from Frank Lloyd Wright’s collection for an American wallpaper manufacturer.  Schumacher's Taliesin Line of Decorative Fabrics and Wallpapers was launched around 1955 by F. Schumacher & Company, who were and still are a New York interiors firm based on Madison Avenue which sells luxury textiles: perhaps the eponymous “Mad Men” furnished their houses from Schmachers’ showroom.

So we can date cars by their colours as well as their styling: strong colours extended to motor cars with the development of cellulose paints in the 1960’s.  Soft greys, celadons and dull umbers come from the 50's, orange and green are the 60's, earth tones from the 70’s and so forth until we reach today’s “Ralph Lauren” colours… which actually hark back to Bauhaus ideas of colour, shape and line.



All that from a car advert…?  Yes, because this ad was perfectly realised, and fifty years later we can read all these things into it, making many cultural associations the ad men intended – plus a few they would rather we didn’t.  And that’s the the genius of the advertising men.

By Mark • Albums: memory palace

I fetched up at Stirling on a scorching July afternoon, when heat had slowed the city’s traffic to a crawl.  Sunshine soaked into the Monaro I was driving at the time, its boot filled with boxes of old architecture books, and every surface inside the cabin was hot.  The honey-coloured sandstone of Stirling’s terraces gave off wafts of heated air which made the place shimmer when approached down the M9 motorway.

Ahead lay the great rocky incline which the castle sits on; another pinnacle with the Wallace Monument perched on top, and further west, Craigforth rising up from the floodplain where the Teith meets the Forth.  Turning off the M9 you leave Craigforth behind, with its great wooded mound and cluster of insurance company buildings set apart from the city, and head up towards the university. 



Designed by RMJM, and built between 1967 and 1974, Stirling was the first complete newbuild campus in Scotland, as distinct from existing technical or university colleges which gained a promotion.  Looking back through magazines in the dusty stacks, the University was well critiqued at the time it opened, such as in John McKean’s piece in The Architectural Review of June 1973. 

It was the only brand new Scottish university built after the Robbins Report was published, and the first to be established in Scotland since the University of Edinburgh was founded in 1583.  Unlike the “Redbricks” in England from the same era, Stirling consists of crisply-detailed buildings of dimensional blockwork and precast concrete, all faced with sparkling chips of white spar.  The whiteness was dazzling that day, but I located shade near the base of the Pathfoot building and quickly realised that my visit had coincided with a conference on Poetry and Politics.

Pathfoot was the first piece of a masterplan which conceived of terraced buildings set around an artificial loch, with carefully-considered contours and planting.  It steps down a landscaped hillside in a series of cascading flights of steps linking the long, transverse wings whose spirit is Scandinavian.  The white precast fascias, black timber spandrels, and large expanses of yellow pine joinery inside are so typical of that era – and the building’s whole programme is contained in a coherent building.

The political poets – or perhaps poetic politicians – made parallel tracks across the campus.  In fact, I’ve heard that some of those who use the building complain of the sameness of the rigorously rectilinear corridor system, but that grid was necessary to contain the great variety of functions.  The Pathfoot Building is a variation of the “spider” plan, often employed for military barracks and also wartime emergency hospitals such as Bridge of Earn, Stracathro and Killearn.



As the first building of a new university, Pathfoot used that arrangement of a main spine corridor with wings and secondary corridors branching off laterally, to organise its accommodation.  The spider contains staff rooms and library on the lowest terrace; undergraduate and research laboratories, lecture rooms and admin offices on the middle terrace; with common rooms, seminar and lecture rooms, and restaurant on the topmost level.  Other typologies from that era included the Racetrack plan and the Mat building.

Interestingly, before it became the university, the site was earmarked for a hospital, which proves the concept of system thinking.  In other words, big bureaucracies like the NHS and the further education system create similar scales of building with similar typologies on similar sites. 

As I wandered down the central stairs, I ran into groups of academics – mainly middle-aged women with cropped hair and penny-round glasses, speaking in Home Counties English and Midwestern American accents.  They were, presumably, from those same Redbrick universities like Keele or East Anglia, and they loudly extolled the “craft” of one of the speakers. 

I wondered how they responded to to the craft employed in creating the building, or whether they even perceived any parallels between the architecture and their own field?  You would assume that people attuned to the subtleties of expression would appreciate the modulation and articulation involved in creating the spaces around them.  Perhaps not.  Earwigging into their conversations, there were offhand comments about the building, mainly grumbling about the flights of stairs, and the vertical distance they had to travel …

From the original Pathfoot building and MacRobert Arts Centre onwards, the campus is laid out in a series of freestanding blocks which cluster around Airthrey Loch, an artificial body of water which, forty years on, looks completely natural.  Fringed with reeds and willows, the loch is home to waterbirds and its flowing, concave curves contrast with the stepping forms of the buildings, suggesting something of Aalto or Pietila.



This is apt, since a composite of the Scandinavian Modernists’ approaches to architecture was what Robert Matthew had in mind when he developed his Scottish Modernism a decade before Stirling.  The timber and rubble masonry approach of the Queens Tower at Dundee University, Crombie Halls at Aberdeen, plus Lochay and Cashlie power stations in Perthshire, developed into the rationalised architecture used here, with steel frames and prefabricated claddings.

The form-making at Stirling is different to those early period Matthew buildings, because RMJM were seeking a less self-conscious sense of Scottishness.  The university is located in a European, rather than Scottish or British, context, and is one of the finest collections of buildings of that era.  It isn’t urbanism, which is the fashionable discipline which students are pointed towards nowadays … instead, it’s about setting modern buildings into the landscape, to complete a unified environment which is neither urban nor rural.

In effect, the University of Stirling is a working model of a much larger community: residential accommodation is within walking distance of the workplace, and cultural facilities sit alongside.  Sports and leisure buildings are equally accessible, and there are good transport links too.  The whole sits within a landscaped park which has a benevolent microclimate, and although the Wallace Monument glowers down on the campus, it’s full of self-conscious symbolism which is far away from the qualities of Airthrey.



The conference ended and the poetry delegates filed up the steps towards the car park.  Unlike Martin Amis’s characterisation of poets – “Poets can’t, don’t, shouldn’t drive.  British poets can’t or don’t drive.  American poets drive, but shouldn’t,” – these were critics and academics, so presumably they did have driving licences.  As they climbed into their new-style Minis and retro-inspired Fiat 500’s, did they realise how Scotland changed in the century which separates the monument and the university?

Or were they in fact more familiar with the Drip Road post office in the Raploch, from which they posted off Wish You Were Here postcards featuring the castle and Wallace Monument, but missed the point completely…?

By Mark • Albums: independence

For the first time in a few years, I’m looking for a facing brick.  But not just any brick.

Last time I specified one, the choice was between an extruded brick made by Ibstock at their Uddingston plant, or a press-made brick from Caradale.  Uddingston has since closed, and Caradale went out of business a few years ago - link - leaving Raeburn Brick as the last Scottish brickmaker. 

Today I’m looking for a grey multi with character, some patterning and different tones, a little like the variation you used to get on Scotch Commons – but in grey.  On this occasion, neither Hanson Brick (now owned by Wienerberger of Austria), Michelmersh nor Ibstock have quite have the right brick, so I had to look farther afield.

However, as Britain was experiencing its Great Brick Shortage - link - with demand high, but production at low levels while mothballed brick plants were slowly brought back into production – Belgium, Holland and Germany weren’t so busy, so they were in a position to export their spare capacity to the UK. 

A decade or two ago, there were hundreds of brickworks dotted across Europe - each serving its local market.  For one thing, that kept haulage costs down, because bricks are cheap relative to their weight: unlike dressed marble, they don’t justify being sent vast distances across Europe because you can’t charge accordingly.  The fact that their clay was sourced locally, so the colour and tone of the bricks was intrinsically a good match for the local geology was an added bonus.

The latest intel from my “mole” in the brick industry is that Hanson (now known as Forterra) are thinking about slowing production down at a couple of their British brick factories, as they’ve run out of space to stockpile bricks and have even filled up a nearby haulier’s yard while they wait for orders to come in…

There are a few well-known, generic bricks:  the Scotch common, the Accrington Nori engineering brick, the London Stock brick and the Staffs blue brick.  Then you have many what you might call “housebuilder’s bricks”, which are usually colourful and rustic-looking.  In design-led projects we’re more likely to seek out the unusual, such as waterstruck or twice-fired engobed bricks, for their appearance and novelty value. 



Cruising in from across the North Sea comes Petersen’s “D29”, which is made in Denmark by artisan brickmakers in formats which are somewhere between UK bricks and Roman bricks, then given a waterstruck finish before being set in coal-fired kilns.  Petersen have gained cachet in Scotland by being specified on several Reiach & Hall projects, and have come to be perceived as the thinking man’s brick…

The Dutch and Belgians have a larger brick industry than the Danes, and much of the clay comes from the basin of the Rhine and the River Meuse.  The “Castor” by Steenbakkerij Floren (a brickworks is a “stone bakery” in Flemish), which is a small brickmaker based at Brecht in Belgium, is a subtle lilac grey multi with some kiln marks on an engobed finish.  Floren have a broad range of facing bricks, and also produce an unfired clay building block similar to the eco block which Errol Brick were developing, before they disappeared from the scene.

“Cortona”, by Vandersanden Brick, is advertised as a subtle mix of grey and anthracite, with a slightly rusticated surface and quite a variation in tone between bricks.  In reality, it looks very much like chocolate brownies - and a colleague leapt for joy when she mistook a cut brick slip for something edible…  Vandersanden is apparently the largest family-owned brickmaker in Europe with two production sites in Belgium and two in the Netherlands, making a total of around 320 million bricks a year.  The Cortona comes in the conventional 65mm metric brick format, and 50mm Continental brick, too.

There’s always the risk of inadvertently specifying something that costs £1000 per thousand, but I discovered that some of the Dutch and Belgian brickmakers have a competitive advantage: they’re paid by the government to dredge clay from the ship canals, so the raw material for their soft mud bricks comes free.  They still have to load it onto a freighter and send it across to Grangemouth Docks… but at least they know the canal is navigable…

The “Peak Multi Grey” by Edenhall – who used to be known as the concrete block manufacturer Boral Edenhall, and their website notes that they’re now Britain’s largest independent brick manufacturer and Europe’s leading supplier of concrete facing bricks.  This is more evenly textured than the D29, Castor or Cortona, but it’s a true grey rather than an anthracite, gunmetal, slate or the many other euphemisms brickmakers use for colours.

And we have the “Devonshire Grey Multi” by Crest, which is more cocoa brown than grey, reminding me of chocolate marble cake - that melange of cocoa and sponge cake which fancy coffee shops serve.  Once again my colleague got excited…  Not a grey in the real world, but the brickmaker’s grey has a great deal of latitude.  Blue bricks are more grey than blue, black bricks are usually grey, and grey bricks are often a buff colour…



Then finally the “Nevado” brick, which it turns out is the one we’ll probably select.  Along with the exotic “Kiezelgrijs” and “Rainbow Graydust”, which sound like they’re escaped from the Pokemon universe, it’s made by Façade Beek in the Netherlands.  The firm is part-owned by C.R.H., an Irish conglomerate which owned Ibstock Brick until recently and has, “been enthusiastically manufacturing unique bricks since 1912,” in the Dutch town of Beek.  The “Nevado Geel Gesmoord” brick, to give it its Flemish name, is fired twice: it’s fired with oxygen in the kiln atmosphere the first time, then with nitrogen the second time.  It’s the second firing which provides its grey tones.

Think you know the size of a brick?  Beek know better!  A British metric brick is 215 x 102 x 65mm, and Imperial bricks were around 8.5 x 4 x 2.5 inches.  However … the standard Dutch brick formats are Waal (207 x 97 x 49 mm), Waaldik (214 x 98 x 66 mm), and Hilversum (228 x 90 x 41 mm).  In addition there’s the German Bundesnormaal format (236 x 108 x 71 mm) and Dunnformat (234 x 110 x 52 mm).  Plus Danish bricks are apparently 228 x 108 x 55mm… not that we’ll ever give up on 65mm bricks, they're too engrained in the British psyche for that.

What’s interesting is that brick is on a gradual journey from low-value commodity to what economists call a differentiated product – in other words one you recognise and ask for by name, and pay a premium for.  It’s telling that we import so many bricks, despite the recent vote to turn our back on Europe and depart the Single Market.  In fact, the number of Continental bricks on the market proves how closely allied our construction industry is to Europe, and demonstrates our weakness as a manufacturing country.

Rather than keeping millions of bricks in stock, I’m told that many Continental brickmakers fire bricks to order, forcing you to call them off months in advance.  That, along with the cost of artisan-moulded, water-struck, coal-fired “clinkers” mean that we’re bricking it every time we specify a grey multi…

By Mark • Albums: technology

"…Although it is still possible, at some risk to life and limb, by climbing across railroad bridges and the like, to see Concrete Central from the other side, that is the less interesting and less familiar side of the complex, offering nothing to the view but hundreds of bins and interstitials.  The more familiar and rewarding view is the one shown in Taut [Bruno Taut's book] of its wharf side and three loose legs, though now it must be seen over a jungle of undergrowth that lies between the river and the lower reaches of Katharine Street.  Closer views are not normally to be had, unless one goes upriver to it by boat or is prepared to undertake an adventurous and circuitous safari on foot – it is completely inaccessible by wheeled vehicles these days – through thickets of red sumac bushes and along rusting rail tracks.

"The journey is worth it, however.  In lonely but not yet totally ruinous abandonment, this huge rippled cliff of concrete dominates a quarter-mile reach of the river.  It is truly enormous in scale; its capacity of four and a half million bushels made it the largest elevator in Buffalo and one of the largest ever built anywhere.  For comparison, it is about twice the bulk of recent megastructures such as Cumbernauld Town Centre or Centre Pompidou, but because it consists almost entirely of closed storage volumes to which there is no casual access, it remains impermeable, secret and aloof.  There are some elevators where one can penetrate into gigantic storage volumes – the Electric [Elevator] extensions of 1940, for instance – and marvel at their sheer dimensions, but at Concrete Central the storage volumes remain as inaccessible as the interior of an Egyptian pyramid, to use an exotic comparison…

"The first time I reached Concrete Central by land, a series of incidents emphasised its abandonment and isolation.  Shrubbery had already begun to grow out of its upper works, inviting a comparison with Roman ruins that was enhanced by the flight of a bird of prey from the head-house at the sound of my approach.  That sound was amplified when my foot crashed through a rotted plywood cover that had been laid over an open culvert.  As I extricated myself, I reflected on my folly: had I sustained an incapacitating injury, rather than mere scratches, in that fall, even those who knew approximately where I was would have no idea how to reach me, after they had finally decided they had waited too long for my return.  I remembered the fate of the Chicago architectural photographer Richard Nickell, lying dead in the ruins of the Schiller theatre for weeks before his body was discovered.

"Yet the sense of distance from help and civilisation was exhilarating rather than depressing; the presence of the huge abandoned structure produced a mood more elegiac than otherwise.  Coming out of the wharf, dominated by the three largest loose legs ever built in Buffalo, now semi-transparent as the winds of the winters had blown away more and more of their rusted corrugated cladding, it was difficult not to see everything through eighteenth-century picturesque visions of ancient sites, or even Piranesi's views of the temples of Paestum…”


This long extract from Reyner Banham’s A Concrete Atlantis - US Industrial Building and Modern European Architecture 1900 - 1925, is not only a sustained piece of good writing, it also sums up many aspects of exploring derelict buildings.  Banham's experiences will be recognised by anyone who has gawped at the Leith Mills in Edinburgh, the Meadowside Granaries in Glasgow or Millennium Mills in London, then found a way inside.

Peter Reyner Banham taught in the architecture programme at the State University of New York at Buffalo between 1976 and 1980.  During his tenure at Buffalo, inspired by the daylight factories and the grain silos of the region, he conducted research that led to A Concrete Atlantis, which charts the development of North American industrial building in the early 20th Century and its influence on European architects.

The scale and abstraction of the grain elevators of Buffalo are exhilarating, and they became one of the inspirations for early Modern architects. Le Corbusier described them as “the magnificent first fruits of a new age” and went on to use them as illustrations in his 1923 book, Vers Une Architecture. Following a visit to see the silos in Buffalo, Erich Mendelsohn wrote that, “Everything else so far seemed to have been shaped interim to my silo dreams."

A Concrete Atlantis is a good book to read if you enjoy armchair exploration, and a unique history and explanation of industrial architecture from the start of the 20th century onwards – particularly grain elevators, like Concrete Central.  Patricia Bazelon's photographs of the grain silos – despite being black and white, and relatively small, are worth buying the book for in themselves – link here.

The book also shows that the more perceptive historians and architecture writers have always explored places physically, rather than writing vicariously using other folks' experiences.  Reyner Banham isn’t the first, and won’t be the last to describe the experience as, "Once you were inside, it was like being in a totally different world." That becomes a feeling you've chased ever since, but perhaps never found again in its entirety.

As I wrote in Blueprint Magazine several years ago, exploring old buildings is personal – it’s something you do to satisfy your own curiosity.  That would appear to be the very definition of a hobby; and like all hobbies, you go a bit mad with it at the start, then chill out once you’ve got over the initial passion to consume it whole.  It’s purely about the joy to be had from exploring hidden aspects of the world.  Banham’s book reminds you of that, too.

A few years ago, there were few external influences on exploring: it was just you with one or two mates, plus the odd photographic book of rusty ruins which puzzled and inspired.  When you discovered that others shared your interest it was a good day, rather than a source of forum rivalries.  Lasting friendships were forged on the rare occasions when people met up by accident in some elysian ruin of scrap iron and ferns.

The motivation for exploring these places are complex, but as John Locke believed, fear gives our lives a shove, without which we would sink into passivity.  With progress comes a mixture of hope and fear; human emotions which we need to experience, but which we rarely associate with architecture.  Instead, we accept places as we find them, unchallenged and unchallenging.

There are many things to overcome; the spiky fence is the least of them.  First is to break with our social conditioning: the mantra drummed into us from childhood to heed the warning signs.  Then there’s our 21st century fear of scrutiny, that Big Brother is watching on the CCTV system.  Next comes a fear of the unknown, accompanied by the retribution which might strike from on high.

Yet curiosity drives a few onwards, and sometimes they become consumed by recording the final throes of a building’s life.  Hopeful to discover a time capsule with intact machinery from Edwardian times; wartime posters still pasted to the walls; a secret passage leading to a hidden room.  They press on, regardless, with scratched arms, dirt under their nails, ripped clothes: mere collateral damage as their eyes gradually open.

After visiting, it may have taken a morning of digging in a faraway library to find next to nothing, and days more to understand a little of the place’s long and complex history.  A clothbound booklet in a dusty box file might be the only footnote about a great company’s past.  Where had its history gone?  Its archives, ledgers, correspondence books and catalogues?  Had no-one documented that before it shut?  What would be left once it crumbled…?

Just one piece of advice; don’t have a Grail.  Because if you’re unlucky enough to carry that Grail in your head for a few years, then finally achieve it, it kills the urge to do anything else.  Ordinary life seems wan afterwards, and other experiences pall.  That’s when it becomes dangerous…

By Mark • Albums: ghosts

I went to see "Solaris" last night, at the local arts centre's cinema.  It's part of a season of films made by Andrei Tarkovsky which is currently touring Scotland.  Some people are fans of the Russian director because he was an auteur; some due to the rich symbolism of his films; some thanks to the cult which has grown around him since his early passing.  In this case, Tarkovsky's profound feeling for humanity makes Solaris both inspiring and moving.



Tarkovsky is often called a visionary, and for good reason.  Along with the French film-maker Chris Marker, Tarkovsky's work reaches parts of what it means to be human which almost no other art has.  By comparison, Hollywood films seem superficial: they think desire is Sharon Stone without any underwear.  Solaris demonstrates how deeply people can feel for someone or something they've lost, and how far they'll go to reclaim a part of them which, as one of the characters in Solaris puts it, has become their conscience.

Solaris is the most profound film I've ever seen; I’ve never watched a film then thought about it constantly afterwards, gone to bed, then woken the next day with my head still full of images drawn from it and feelings evoked by it.  At a time when all we seem to hear about Russia are Putin’s hardline politics and the “Ultra” football hooligans fighting hooligans from other countries, perhaps we need to be reminded of the achievements of Russian art, literature and film-making.



All of Tarkovsky's films are about the unknowable - something we reach out towards without fully understanding.  His later film Stalker seems like a premonition of Chernobyl - it was shot ten years before the nuclear accident and captures the sense of a world destroyed by Man which has begun regenerating itself.  The strangely mutated plants and insects which grew back in the Zone of Exclusion around the reactors was foreseen by Tarkovsky as the Zona, a temperate jungle of plants into which only stalkers (in the deer stalker, or guide, sense of the word) go.

When the three travellers in Stalker finally reach the Zone, they search for and eventually find the Room - the object of their journey. The Room is a derelict industrial hall with mounds of soda ash or a similar white powder flowing like sand dunes across the floor.  In metaphysical terms, it's a place where your deepest wish can be fulfilled - but at a terrible price.  Solaris similarly tackles things deep inside human nature.



At the core of Solaris is the relationship between Kris Kelvin and his wife Hari.  It isn't a film "about" space travel, or science fiction - it's a film about what it means to be human.  How Hari came to be on the Solaris spacecraft is a piece of pure metaphysics, but what she and Kris go through, and the agonising final scene which explores how Kelvin’s life can never have a simple resolution, peers deeply into the human condition.  Tarkovsky, to use a cliché from the Seventies, was a cosmonaut of inner space.

Of course, along with its script, actors and narrative - the film relies on set and locations for its impact.  The opening sequence, a shot of a pellucid stream with water flowing over weeds, is rich in translucency and colour, with the strands of weed flowing sinuously in the current … and then a copper-coloured aspen leaf floats by, suddenly introducing depth to the image.  Presumably intended as a metaphor for life, a symbol of transience, the leaf in the stream becomes potent once you realise that Kris Kelvin is spending his final day on Earth before going into space.



First thing in the morning, he leaves the dacha or country cottage where he's staying and goes for a walk.  Sunlight slanting through the trees, water meadows, birdsong, a pond full of weed and insect life - to which mankind adds the horse and dog, his familiar companions.  Kris stands on the verandah in a thunderstorm, rivulets of rain coursing down his face: you sense that he needed to experience Earth for one last time before it was lost to him.

One hour in to a two-and-three-quarter-hour long film, you will realise, slightly amazed, this is science fiction which doesn't rely on endless special effects.  As a result, it stands head and shoulders above 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Solaris is pretty much unique in that it defies “genre” classification which critics love; Tarkovsky hunted alone.  If Solaris borrows from anyone, it's the renaissance astronomer Kepler, who dreamt of space flight, trips to the moon and what life might be like on other worlds.



Kelvin arrives at the Solaris space station, which Akira Kurosawa said was the most impressive film set he'd ever seen, somewhere quite unique which is far removed from the usual images of SciFi: Jules Verne, Bladerunner, William Gibson or the relentless hi-tech baroque of Star Wars and Star Trek.  It's an aesthetic which countless directors tried to copy but only Tarkovsky had the budget and skill to make it believable.

Can I suggest you see the film yourself, then judge how its director understood the need for meaning and purpose in our lives, for belief, for intimacy, and even our connection with animals and the rest of the natural world.  Solaris is visually stunning, emotionally moving, and has the moral sense of Pasternak’s masterpiece, Dr Zhivago; it’s also too good to leave to the film snobs, hipsters and other sorts who made up half the screening’s audience.

So why am I writing about it here, on what's ostensibly an architecture magazine's website, rather than doing a quick post on Facebook - Saw Solaris, was gr8, innit bruv. Like.  Well, around the same time I figured out that the best writing is about folk rather than things - because people are fundamentally interested in people - I also realised that, at their core, buildings are about people rather than architecture.

Images copyright - Curzon Artificial Eye - http://www.curzonartificialeye.com/solaris/

By Mark • Albums: memory palace