A few years ago, I walked into a bookshop in a small town and found a paperback copy of "Atlas Shrugged”.  It was gathering dust on a high shelf – something which had been ordered but never collected, according to the lady bookseller.  That was the beginning of my curiosity about Ayn Rand, and why some architects secretly admire her.

Born to a wealthy family which fled the early days of Bolshevik Russia, Rand is best known for “The Fountainhead”, which is the single worst piece of publicity the architectural profession has received in decades…

The Fountainhead’s main character Howard Roark was reputedly based on Frank Lloyd Wright.  His egotism and will to power are only matched in American fiction by Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ film.  But Rand’s book is much less about the genius of design, more about how he forced buildings into existence through sheer force of will. 

Rand rejected the collectivism of the USSR and instead argued that history is forged by a small élite of so-called great men who she called the “motor of the world.”  Frank Lloyd Wright neatly fits that bill.  These man (and although Rand was a woman, her protagonists are men) are set apart by their ruthlessness and possess what she charmingly terms “the virtue of selfishness”.  According to Rand, they are the “most oppressed minority” because they have to negotiate with unions, follow labour and environmental laws, and pay income taxes.

Rand’s later novel “Atlas Shrugged” tells of a few more great men, led by John Galt, joining together and withholding their contribution to society to protest against having to pay income tax, follow anti-monopoly laws and respect the right of workers to form unions.  They even go so far as to withhold their greatness from an ungrateful society.

We’ve all met people who believe they are indispensable – but indispensability is a delusion.  You struggle to find any proof from history that a business won’t live on without a specific leader or ideology.  The USSR survived Lenin, John Pierpoint Morgan has been gone for 100 years, but the bank bearing his name is still with us.  Even Jaguar Cars carried on without William Lyons, although it’s been a close run thing on several occasions. 

What is capitalism, if not a perfect example of the world moving on from Adam Smith’s time but an idea surviving?

Anyhow, it was a strange decision of Rand’s, making Roark an architect.  He wasn’t fighting intransigence: he was actually fighting against the fundamentals of what architecture is.  Design is a collegiate activity.  Unless you somehow build a house for yourself by acting as your own client, funder, architect, engineer, buyer and labourer all rolled into one, you can’t operate in a vacuum.  Architecture isn’t an act of pure creation in the way that sculpture or novel-writing can be.

Maybe if Roark had been a poet-hero figure such as Ted Hughes, or perhaps like Captain Ahab locked in his duel with the giant whale, then we could accept that the moral purpose of his life was the pursuit of pure self-interest, as Rand claimed.  “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

From an enlightened modern point of view, it’s difficult to subscribe to that.  In the hands of Rand and her modern successors such as the people behind the Adam Smith Institute and the Battle of Ideas, libertarianism – the freedom to act in a free unconstrained way – actually offers licence to a select few to do as they will, to everyone else.  They believe the only path to achieve “liberty” is by supporting laissez-faire capitalism.

But with that, “libertarian” has lost its true original meaning, just as “National Socialism” has little to do with socialism, and Neo-Liberal represents nothing like liberality.  Aside from dreadful acts of misogyny in The Fountainhead, Rand’s so-called objectivism is morally ugly.  Her underlying message – the triumph of the individual over the mass – is actually about psychological mastery.  For her, life revolves around the egotism of winning, and the need to keep score.

Interestingly, I read a while ago that in the US, sales of Atlas Shrugged go up during an economic downturn.  Perhaps its message comforts casualties of the recession.  Instead, it should anger them, because their jobs may have been destroyed by the very laissez-faire capitalists who were inspired by the book in their hands.  I’m sure that Donald Trump, if he reads books, will have a copy of Atlas Shrugged at his bedside.

Another of Rand’s assertions, “Throughout the centuries there were men who took the first steps down new roads, armed with nothing but their own vision,” is an example of incomplete thinking and faulty logic.  She suggested that some men are genuinely "self made," and that they alone were the pavers of their own "new roads," but Isaac Newton’s famous non sequitur which is inscribed into the milled edge of the £2 coin, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” comes closer to the reality.

One of those giants is Jeremy Bentham.

Rightly or wrongly, many of us believe that architects need a theoretical base, just as academics should also build things.  You may still end up with compromised buildings – but at least you’re trying to resolve all the competing demands of cost, quality, ergonomics, aesthetics, longevity, and so on by adopting an *approach*.

Utilitarianism is an approach which everyone misquotes.  “Utilitarian” gets a universally bad press.  Too often it means a low spec, plainly-finished thing which is robust rather than stylish, but the term has its roots in what Bentham called "the greatest happiness principle" or "the principle of utility", a term he borrowed from David Hume.  At its crux is the notion that we should do that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

Bentham wrote, “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness.”

So, where does happiness reside?  Is there, as Alain de Botton’s book suggests, an Architecture of Happiness?  If so, can we use Bentham’s ideas to measure that happiness?   Well, his abiding concern was the total reform of British society and law based on the principle of utility.  In an effort to apply it to legal reform, Bentham developed the hedonistic, or as it is sometimes called, the felicific calculus.  If the end result of that reform is happiness, then that could be an index of his success.

So referring to a building as Utilitarian Architecture should actually be a back-handed compliment, although “utilitarian” means completely different things to a philosopher and a designer.  Nonetheless, the impact of Bentham's ideas is still powerful today: the words international, maximise, minimise and codification were all coined by Bentham.

Bentham’s other connection with architecture is less obvious.  When he joined his brother Samuel in Russia in 1785, he devised a plan for the Panopticon, a model prison where prisoners would be observable by guards at all times.   The planform ensured that prisoners could never see the “inspector” who surveilled them from the centre of a radial plan.  Because the prisoner never knew whether he was being watched, he was more likely to behave.

He hoped the concept would interest the Catherine the Great but after his return to Britain in 1788, Bentham spent the next 20 years fruitlessly pursuing the idea, spending the bulk of his inheritance in the process.

Bentham also had a great influence over British politics: the Reform Bill of 1832 and the secret ballot both reflected his concerns and his influence spread to some unexpected places.  George Kinloch, the reform candidate for the Dundee constituency, marked his friendship with Jeremy Bentham in a unique way.  The village of Ardler lies in the very heart of Strathmore, and there Bentham Street, one of the shortest streets in Scotland, is named after Kinloch’s friend, the political radical. 

Remember that whereas Rand thought that a person’s own happiness was the moral purpose of their life, Bentham felt that we should do that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  Which is the fundamentally moral approach?  Just as they dreamed that a rational architecture would bring about a rational society, perhaps a "moral" architecture could improve society's moral fibre.

Of course, just as the moral choices we make are never so clear-cut as Food Bank versus Puppy Slaughter, there are subjects we're wary about tackling.  Bentham had no qualms about addressing emotive issues such as penal reform, religious adherence and egalitarianism – perhaps today we could add sex, drugs, and euthanasia.  In the modern world, Nina Hartley promotes the idea of thinking “sex positive”; Calton Athletic FC championed the harm reduction model for drug addicts, Margo MacDonald supported tolerance zones for prostitution in Edinburgh and pursued a campaign to legislate for the right to assisted suicide. 

It would be easy to condemn some of the people affected, but that spirit of moral improvement has been largely consigned to the dustbin of history.  For that reason it’s worth reading Rand’s books, such as The Fountainhead, even if you find yourself flinging them across the room in disgust.  If nothing else, they demonstrate how some people have a vacuum where the soul would be in a moral human being.

By Mark • Albums: books

Journalists love conjecture, but more than that they enjoy the possibilities for disaster afforded by a Doomsday Machine.

A few weeks ago, Investors Chronicle led on the Euro referendum.  Now that the Scottish elections are out of the way, we'll have to face another bout of political sloganising and electioneering - yet few have looked at the benefits for Scotland if we get a split vote: such as when the South-East of England secedes from the EU, but Scotland votes to stay in.

During the Cold War, Britain was described as America's Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier, but for a long time it has also been the English-speaking world's entrepôt into Europe.  If Britain leaves the EU, the writer suggested, it will lose its advantages as a cheap and easy route into the Europe - both for goods such as cars and phones, and financial services. It will be considerably less attractive to many types of people, including bankers.

The Investors Chronicle writer suggested that one unintended consequence of the referendum might be that there will be a massive outflow of capital from London - to the tune of several trillion pounds.  If the Doomsday scenario happens, and a second Scottish independence referendum is triggered soon after an Out vote, it's just possible that you may see investment managers and financial wizards - not usually known as political firebrands - coming out in support of independence. Obviously, their support would be driven by their own purposes; but isn't everyone's politics based around pragmatic self-interest with a degree of dogma?

If investment banks flee the Square Mile because they can no longer get easy and tariff-free access into Europe, the Gnomes of Zurich will clap their hands, Frankfurt's bankers will raise a stein or two, and asset managers may look northwards.  Despite the efforts of Sir Fred Badloss at RBS and his counterparts at HBOS, Scotland still has a large financial machine - the investment trust was invented in Dundee, after all.

If banks and funds flee London for Edinburgh, once the newly-independent Scotland confirms its membership of the EU as a state in its own right, salaries in London will drop, house prices will fall, and the Great Wen will lose some of its tax base.  The first spin off is that the British Isles will become a little less asymmetrical, because Edinburgh will attract some of those whose lifeboats set sail down the Thames past Boris Island and into the North Sea.

Edinburgh's New Town, particularly the sainted part around Charlotte Square, will become even more attractive to those whose ability to earn lots of profit quickly is matched by an ambition to occupy gracious buildings.  Perhaps we'll see a mini boom in new office building in Edinburgh - but we’ll certainly experience rents driving upwards, and increased demand for Grade A offices.  That in turn means more work for architects and contractors, who will no doubt need to upgrade and adapt Edinburgh’s existing office infrastructure.

You could no more build an independence campaign around this conjecture than you could around Brent Crude staying above $100 a barrel … but it's worth thinking about when you go into the polling booth and consider whether to place your vote for a Doomsday scenario.

By Mark • Albums: independence

Howdens is one of the last remaining Victorian heavy engineering works in Glasgow, and towards the end of its life, this redbrick complex was the birthplace of the tunnel boring machines which dug the Channel Tunnel.  The company, now called Howden Group, is still in business but left their home of ninety years in Tradeston in 1988.  The building’s future has been in doubt ever since, and it currently lies empty.

The company began in 1856, when James Howden set up in business on his own as a consulting engineer and registered patents for machine tools.  Before that, he was apprenticed to a firm of steam engine builders.  Howden’s interests gradually moved from machine tools to improving the design of boilers and steam engines, and he began experimenting with higher pressure compound engines.

The firm was incorporated as James Howden & Co. in 1862 and began building main boilers and engines to Howden’s own design.  Howden built a factory at Scotland Street in Tradeston then began experimenting with axial flow fans to force air through marine steam engines.  That was the root of Howdens’ business for the next century: fans, blowers, compressors, turbines and other steam machinery.  Today, they also make wind tunnels, refrigeration plant, circulators for nuclear power stations and mobile breathing systems for aircraft.

The original works further along Scotland Street from the present site were outgrown in 1870, and a new works was built a couple of blocks down the road.  “Howden’s Forced Draught System” was a great success, as it improved efficiency and fuel consumption, and in the 1880’s over 1000 boilers were converted or built to Howden’s patents.  Howden then turned his attention to auxiliary steam machinery, and realised his “new” factory wasn’t suitable, so he built another factory … this one … at 195 Scotland Street.

The works and foundry were designed by Nisbet Sinclair and opened in 1898, and had handling equipment and overhead cranes built-in plus (unusual in those days) a central heating system.  By then, the boilers in many famous ocean liners used the Howden system – the Lusitania and Mauretania – and later the Queen Mary, Normandie and Queen Elizabeth.  The original machine and constructing shop consists of six smaller bays running east-west; the much larger turbine fitting shop runs north-south with its brick gables facing the street: they’re largely hidden by the various offices which front onto Scotland Street. 

Business boomed, and extensions designed by Bryden & Robertson were built in 1904 then again in 1912, and (according to Howdens’ official history) the firm went on to build the largest turbo-generator in the country for Manchester Corporation.  In fact, Howdens were pioneers in the manufacture of steam turbines, and these were used on land as well as onboard ships.  When the Great War broke out, the Admiralty decided that all ships should be fitted with Howden blowers – the idea was to give them enough performance to outrun U-boats, and that saved the lives of thousands of seafarers whose ships would otherwise have been torpedoed. 

The company built a factory in Wellsville, New York in order to export their system to America.  After the war, Howdens gradually used their expertise in forced draught fans and preheaters to win orders for power station machinery, and in 1930, they were the probably first firm to use a fax machine to transmit data – they sent working drawings to America using radio-telegraphy.  In the late ‘30’s, Howdens developed dust collectors to clean up the smoke from power stations, although the further development of these was put on hold during WW2.

From the early part of 1940, the Howden factories (Scotland St as well as Govan and Old Kilpatrick) were used to build Sunderland flying boat hulls; torpedo bomber fuselages; and fins and flaps for Lancasters.  Scotland Street employed 1700 people during the war, and also developed a gadget to eliminate visible smoke from the exhausts of steamships, which was a giveaway to the location of convoys.  During the war, Howdens took over the neighbouring Subway Power Station – it was unique, as it powered the world’s only cable-haulage subway system.  Howdens used the building as a pattern shop. 

Shortly after the war, the works received a large order of steel furniture, making use of the aircraft tooling, then orders came in from the CEGB for new power station equipment, including fans, air preheaters and dust collectors – flue gas cleaning equipment – and similar kit was fitted to a new generation of ocean liners.  Howdens supplied the massive forced draught fans at Inverkip Power Station, each of which are around three storeys high.

A new block of research labs was built around 1950 at Scotland St., and as a result of their R&D, Howdens went on to supply the fans which cooled the atomic piles at Windscale from 1956.  Howdens extended the Scotland St. works westwards with a large new Assembling Shop in 1954, then another in 1964.  These parts lay behind Mackintosh’s Scotland Street School and have since been demolished, but they were constructed as erecting shops for tunnelling machines, the next chapter in Howdens’ adventure in industry. 

Tunnel Boring Machines are a complicated mass of components and machinery.  They grow ever more sophisticated over time, but effectively the components remain the same: a boring head (usually a big rotating wheel with teeth) and the means of preventing the tunnel caving in before the permanent lining is installed (a tail shield and pressure-balancing equipment which allows the boring head to work under pressure to the stop ingress of water).

The TBM also needs a means of propelling the complete unit forward as excavation proceeds (usually hydraulic rams at the back of the shield); an equipment pack with motors, hydraulics, control cabin and so forth; a means to get the spoil away - usually conveyors but there are other solutions; and finally the mechanism for receiving and erecting the permanent lining, be that segmental or sprayed concrete.  It all has to get reach the back of the shield and be put in place before the shield is moved forwards.

The most famous artefacts to come out of Scotland Street were the “tunneliers” or tunnel boring machines (TBM’s) which excavated the Channel Tunnel.  The order was placed by Trans-Manche Link for three Howden open-face tunnelling machines of just under 8 metre diameter and weighing over 500 tons, which made the landward drives of the main running tunnels; plus two Howden-Decon machines of 5.3 metre diameter which excavated the service tunnel which lies between them.  Each of them cost £7.5m.

One of these was later used to dig a storm water sewer in Brighton, but once its sister had finished her task, she had to dig her own grave.  The machines were supplied in kit form and had to be welded together on site: when work was complete, it wasn’t practical to completely dismantle them, so the TBM which dug the seaward part of the service tunnel was steered into a 60 metre radius curve away from the alignment, bored into rock, then entombed in concrete.  It still holds the record for the longest single TBM drive, of 22,000 metres, which was achieved between December 1987 and October 1990.  The one which survived intact was on display for a while, and then auctioned on Ebay a few years ago.

SInce I wrote that in 2008, I’ve spoken to a civil engineer who suggested that TBM's have never been buried – or certainly not the complete machine.  At the end of a tunnel drive, it’s common for the machine to be dismantled and used on another drive on the same project.  By the end of the project, most of the moving parts are likely to be well past their sell-by date and will be extracted then refurbished or recycled.  On occasions its cheaper to leave the tail shield behind (which is little more than a short length of large diameter steel tube) as a tunnel lining, than to dismantle it and put a lining in its place.

Howdens later supplied TBM’s for the Storebaelt tunnel in Denmark in the mid-90’s, and also built tunnelling machines under licence from Wirth of Germany in the late-’90’s, but Scotland Street closed in 1988, so those were presumably built at Howden Group’s newer factory at Craigton … and then began the search for a new use for this massive factory.  Even with the demolition of the post-war assembly shops, the buildings left still cover 1.5 hectares.  I’ve yet to discover whether Howdens built the machines which excavated the nearby Clyde Tunnel, but it would certainly be fitting if they had done.

Scotland Street Works has been bought and sold several times since Howdens moved out, and was owned in 2008 by Tiger Developments, who reportedly bought it for £10m.  It’s passed through the hands of other developers who pondered uses for it, and at one point there were proposals to convert it into a museum of industry and technology.  Can you hear alarm bells ringing?

Anyone with a good Scots education knows that the industrial revolution owes its success to mass production, which relied on several things: the harnessing of steam by James Watt, the invention of the hot blast furnace by James Neilson and the development of the steam hammer by James Nasmyth.  The world’s greatest ironworks which belonged to the Carron Company outside Falkirk, and it benefitted from all three developments and much more besides. 

Aspects of the iron, steel and machine-making industries are preserved at Summerlee in Coatbridge (which was once the Hydrocon crane factory) but there are plenty other things to consider: the global explosives industry grew up in south-western Scotland; the UK’s paper-making machinery centre was Edinburgh, and Dundee was the capital of the world’s jute textile and jute machinery trade.  As far as I know, there are no plans to preserve a recent naval or merchant ship on Clydeside.  The QE2 sailed off to Dubai, but why not repatriate another Clydebuilt vessel? 

Yes, Howdens should be saved; yes, Scotland probably does need a museum devoted to science, industry and technology … but the two issues are independent of each other.  It might make sense to use the buildings as a museum meantime (or artists’ studios, or industrial units, or a nightclub …), but you can bet the developers will try to recover their investment by demolishing it and building flats or supermarkets on the site instead.  Now that the machinery of the economy been thrown into reverse, the owners of 195 Scotland Street will need all the ingenuity of James Howden to make a success of things.

I originally posted this at the tail end of 2008 on The Lighthouse’s now-defunct website … I’m posting it again here because things haven’t improved for Howdens’ building.  Finally, here’s a comment which was posted in response on the Lighthouse website:

I and a fellow plater Tam built the front section of the services tunnel machine.  It was built in quadrants etc.  Our names are on one of the conical plates at the front of the machine.  It was a great achievement and I was proud to be part of it, but are we forgotten me and Tam? Peter Thompson came and got me out of Govan to do the Borie - Orly tunnel machine.  In Renfrew I met a girl who was a PR on Borie project.  She found out I was the fabricator and wondered why we the builders were forgotten.  I'm the Wombat, my nickname means nothing.  Did James Watt build the steam engine?  No, he prepared the engineering drawings etc.  So scottish platers and fabricators are not even remembered for this great feat of building the Channel Tunnel.

Yours Willie McLennan, The Wombat

By Mark • Albums: ghosts, technology

The Other Mr Kahn

29/03/16 20:15

Detroit, home of Henry Ford and the motor car, and of Motown and punk, was once the US’s fourth biggest city.  It lay at the centre of what was once the cradle of mass production, of what became known, in Huxley’s Brave New World as “Fordism”.

It’s there, at the intersection of Manchester and Woodward in Highland Park that Henry Ford perfected mass production.  The Model T Automobile Plant, built in 1909, housed the world’s first moving assembly line.  At its peak, the plant built 1000 “Tin Lizzies” each day.  Today it stands semi-derelict, probably the most important factory in automotive history.

An American journalist, Lincoln Steffens, coined the famous phrase “I’ve seen the future, and it works”, after his visit to the Soviet Union in 1921.  Steffens was an early campaigner against the corporate corruption that dominated America’s industrial cities, and he took Detroit as a prime example.  However, in his enthusiasm for an alternative, he failed to spot that the Soviet system had adopted some of the dehumanising aspects of Fordism.

Car assembly typically took place from top to bottom, with raw material on the top floor, and a car rolling out on the ground floor, ready to be fired up.  Car chassis travelled down in huge electrically-powered lifts.  Machines were arranged according to their function in the manufacturing process rather than by type; overhead conveyors, gravity chutes, and belts were used to transport materials from one work station to another.

Body-building, upholstering and panel-beating were carried out on the second floor.  There were also machine shops which made pistons, water pumps and brake drums.  The linking range may have been used as stores and quality control areas.  The car’s “body in white” travelled down to the first floor where it was attached to the chassis and fitted out.  Final assembly was carried out on the ground floor, then finished cars were loaded onto rail wagons on the factory’s own sidings.

Today, Detroit’s great temples to the motor car – the iconic factories of Ford, General Motors, Cadillac, Fisher Body, Packard and many others – lie in ruins.  The architect who conceived them was Albert Kahn: most famously, he designed the plant at Highland Park in Detroit where the Ford Model “T” was produced but over the course of his career, he pioneered reinforced concrete frames and built many hundreds of other factories.

Arguably, Albert Kahn was The Architect of the 20th Century: his buildings made a greater impact on the world than Le Corbusier’s or Frank Lloyd Wright’s.  These photos show one of Kahn’s buildings, which survives despite the ravages of time and the defeat of Fordist thinking.

By Mark • Albums: ghosts

Technology is spurred on by war, which in turn speeds up the process of its evolution.  It's fitting, in this case, that raw materials for salvage can be found in the cast-off pile of the Ministry of Defence.

Perhaps the first spur to this salvage culture was the Ministry of War's vast Disposals Sale at Great Missenden in Oxfordshire in 1946.  The War Department is the MoD’s predecessor, and to recoup war debts, everything from Churchill tanks to Bailey bridges was sold.  The lots covered 20 acres and the sale continued for two solid weeks.

Not only cheap vehicles and generators but also structural parts of bridges, tents and temporary structures were available; some of the Bailey bridges exist in use to this day.  When WW2 ended, the Attlee government also instigated a programme to use the no-longer required corrugated iron which had been made for air-raid shelters, as prefabricated housing.

All the things scrapmen acquire were originally produced to do a job, but they were thrown out when their usefulness in that role expired.   The scrapmen use a malefic alchemy by which they turn the products of the Cold War into ploughshares.  The process rests upon the hunter/gatherer instincts of the skip-rakers: people who go to vehicle auctions, rake in scrapyards and dig in tips.

With dozens of shipbuilding yards, and a heavy naval presence in Scotland – vast naval bases at Scapa Flow, Invergordon and Rosyth – there was never any shortage of ship parts.  That continues today, with Faslane on the west coast plus Rosyth (now run by Babcock) with its submarine graveyard.

We also have an aviation industry: with Vector at Almondbank, BAE Systems at Prestwick and Rolls-Royce at Hillington all of whose predecessors contributed to the junk pile.  For example, military aircraft breakers supplied the Dakota passenger seat which Gavin Maxwell had in his cottage at Camusfearna, along with fish boxes and butter barrels fashioned into furniture.

Likewise, old and knackered road vehicles are destined for their own specialist scrapyards, such as the locally famous CWS bus breakers in Barnsley: several firms share a fifty hectare site, covered in hundreds of reduced chassis and littered with mangled wrecks, burst engine blocks and piles of impacted body parts.

Each of these sectors – metal recyclers who break down ships, aircraft and vehicles – is controlled by SEPA.  In contrast to these official operations is the approach of the inhabitants of the remote Hebridean islandsI who harvest what scrap they can and build it into their houses.  Everything is used many more times than it might be elsewhere, particularly things which have had to come across at great expense on The Boat.

On South Uist, among the ruins of the black and white houses many crofts boast a caravan, either in use as additional living space or as storage overspill.  Caravans are often left in situ for such long periods that blockwork walls are built around them, to protect them from the winter storms.  The notionally temporary actually becomes permanent.  Abandoned buses and coaches are also used for storage. 

Most islanders keep their wrecked old cars, which make the inhabited areas of the island look like a low density rubbish tip.  In fact, when the Atlantic began to wash away parts of the beach at Middlequarter Dunes on North Uist, the Army was enlisted to plant old cars into the ground to act as sea defences.  Of course, the constant Gulfstream current also brings a constant stream of driftwood and flotsam to shore to be used for fences and firewood.

The Hebridean approach has a lot to do with the paucity of material; but expediency can also grow up around an abundant source of scrap, such as along the northern shore of Montrose Basin.  As someone wrote, travellers and their elaborate mobile homes have been settled alongside the municipal tip to crop its waste: they often park up in roadside lay-bys, to set out and sort through their gleanings. 

Tourists arrive for the short summer season and also camp alongside on the older middens, from where a residue of demolished homes spews out onto the south shore, now clad in wild flowers. 

Sometimes, an ideological viewpoint emerges from salvage culture.  Travellers’ camps exist at Glastonbury, the New Forest, the Rhythm of Life camp in the Forest of Dean, and between 1992-4 there was a camp at Glen Shiel, which evaded not only building legislation but also anti-traveller laws.  Around twenty vehicles were parked up on flat land where the old Wade road to Kyle separated from the new, skirting a disused two hundred year old bridge and the track parallel to it. 

Their trucks had been narrowly saved from the breakers, the sheet alloy roofs of the caravans flapped in the wind and windows were patched with insulating tape.  The vehicles were surrounded by dogs in polythene tunnel kennels, and “benders” – small yurt-like domes of plastic sheet over bent wood, with a chimney at the apex – had been erected on the grassy flood shelf of the river.

I originally wrote the passage above as part of my dissertation at architecture school, and amongst other things drew a comparison between the travellers’ benders, and the green timber diagrids then recently erected at Hooke Park College by Frei Otto, ABK and Ted Happold.  Having rescued the dissertation from a 3 1/2 inch floppy disc and read through it again for the first time in years, I realised that somewhere I visited a few years after graduating actually fitted the ethos better – although not an impressive piece of contemporary architecture, more as a demonstration of an un-self-conscious way of life.

The military cast-offs, Highland canniness and New Age travellers’ sensibility merged at Balnakeil: a former RAF radar station near Cape Wrath in Sutherland.  It was built in 1954 to cater for a new radar station on the nearby promontory, Faraid Head.  There were barracks, mess rooms, a medical centre, canteen and so forth.  But the planned ROTOR radar became obsolete before it had even been completed, so the buildings at Balnakeil lay abandoned for several years, until local artists colonised them.

Somehow, the utilitarian buildings look rather Modernist with their Crittall windows and white rendered planes; from the distant glimpse, the cluster of rooftop water tanks stand out but don't have a scale, and their tower-like silhouettes make Balnakeil seem like a Highland version of San Gimignano. There’s an interesting history of Balnakeil craft village here, and its long-serving artists have proven to be the canniest of salvage men and women, long before artisanal skip-raking and “upcycling” became fashionable among the hipsters of Shoreditch in London or the Kreuzberg in Berlin, with their tweed caps and ironic beards.

Perhaps a shift of 700 miles between the densely urban and the extremely rural makes all the difference…

By Mark • Albums: ghosts

Long-distance train travel has its compensations – such as when a chance conversation with a stranger delivers a sudden insight.

One Friday in the autumn of 2007, I sat down beside a heavy-set young guy in a plaid shirt with a carry-out in front of him – he had clearly just come off the rigs on a Bristow chopper – and opposite was an old chap with slicked-back wavy hair and a face creased with laughter lines.  Looked like he'd been a Rocker in his day, and when offshore guy went to the toilet, the old chap offered me one of the beers  – "He'll never notice..."

We got talking, and I discovered that before he retired he had been a rep for Morgan Crucible, selling fire protection to the construction and offshore industries.  Before the advent of intumescent paint, Morgan Crucible, just like TAC (Turners Asbestos), was one of the main suppliers of fireproof boards, blankets and fibrous material which was sprayed onto steelwork to insulate it from high temperatures.  Now they concentrate on high-tech fire protection for ships, chemical plants and so forth.

Since retiring, he has delivered cars in order to make a bit of beer money, and today he was returning to Worcester after dropping off a Saab in Forres.  So the conversation moved from buildings to cars, and he got around to the fact that he once worked for "a little company in Coventry called Standard-Triumph".  I replied that the Stag was surely the best car Triumph ever produced, and he confided that after British Leyland took over Triumph, they quickly moved to close the Research & Development department.

Triumph Stag Mk2

After that happened, twelve of the men who designed and developed the Stag left Britain to join "a little company in Munich called the Bavarian Motor Works", and shortly afterwards BMW developed their first modern, unified range of compact sporting saloons and coupes, like the predecessors of the modern 3 and 5 series.  Until then, BMW’s range consisted of the “Neue Klasse” small saloons and coupes of the late 1960’s and 1970’s, most memorable of which was the 2002.  All of them were designed by Michelotti … who also designed the Stag.

Two little lightbulbs came on at that point.  Firstly, that confirms what I've always believed about the styling of 1980's and 1990's BMW's.  They look too much like Triumphs for the resemblance to be coincidental: for example, the lights and grille are contained in a narrow horizontal frame between bonnet and bumper; a pair of circular headlamps bracketed by arrowhead shaped light clusters which form the edge of the wing; a grille with blacked-out ribs, and a central bay which advances.  Then there’s the characteristic "C" pillar applied to each model in the range, and a fascia which curves around the driver. 

The BMW 1602 is a German version of the Triumph Herald; the original 5-Series harks back to the Triumph 2000/ 2500 family which was code-named “Innsbruck”.  Perhaps this affinity helps to explain why the Bavarians bought Rover from British Aerospace in 1994 … and by all accounts when BMW broke up and sold off Rover years later, they kept the Triumph brand with the Spitfire, Stag and Dolomite names.  From time to time there’s speculation about a Triumph revival, but rumour has it that potential claims from former Triumph dealers in the US helped kill that idea off.

BMW 5-series

The second, deeper insight is that when you cut off the head, the organism dies.  BL quickly destroyed Triumph's ability to develop cars, otherwise they would have continued to bring products forward and would have retained their own identity.  It's all about intellectual property, and the Germans understood that: this is also relevant to architects and designers, since so much of what we do falls into the realm of research and development. 

The point my companion made was that Triumph’s fate symbolises what had gone wrong with Britain.  Our purchases unwittingly trace the forces which have changed our lives – the decline of manufacturing, the rise of the service econony, the reduced tax take as a result, the shrinking public sector.  In fact, it could be said that nowadays only the richest and the poorest actually own things made in this country.  The rich because luxury goods are still made here – cashmere scarfs, sports cars, fine china.  The poor because they still own older things made before mass production ended in Britain. 

Assuming you were born a while before 1980, the car on the driveway was a Triumph or Austin.  The radio had a “Bush” badge.  The cooker was a New World.  The fridge was branded Astral, and the television was bought from the Clydesdale shop (remember them?) on the local High Street.  It may have been a 20-inch Ferguson Colourstar, with a veneered chipboard case, six channel buttons on the front, and a coaxial socket on the back but until 1982, when you were at primary school – it only received three channels.

Triumph Herald Vitesse

Back in the day, Ferguson was owned by Jules Thorn rather than Thomson of France, and made TV sets in a giant factory on the Great North Road as you headed out of Edmonton in London’s scruffy suburbs towards the Watford Gap and Scotland.  Now that Ferguson have effectively gone, along with Dynatron, Mullard, Baird and other firms whose names go back to the roots of the TV industry in the 1930’s, only the poorest or the canniest, still have British televisions.

You see this phenomenon at work when rubbish is set down at the kerbside for the scaffies to uplift – the white goods are Kelvinator, Creda, English Electric, but what replaced them is Far Eastern.  The new flat screen TV’s are on an even shorter cycle of obsolescence – and with the gradual closure of the brickmaking, steelmaking and ceramics industries in this country, soon we won’t have buildings made here, either.

That isn’t sustainable, so we need to understand construction fits into a greater economic system: I'll illustrate my point using the specification of building materials.  There are two different ways to look at building materials – the conventional way, to use Isaiah Berlin's well-worn analogy, is to be a fox, knowing lots of different things about a range of materials.  The other way is to concentrate on a Big Idea, perhaps to the exclusion of all else.  This is what the hedgehog does. 

Berlin expands on this notion by dividing thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea, and foxes, who are fascinated by the infinite variety of things and for whom the world cannot be boiled down into one all-encompassing system.

BMW 2002

Once, when we used a limited palette of traditional craft materials – stone, brick, lead, copper, timber – every architect had a good grasp of each one.  He was a fox.  When the systems approach burgeoned after World War Two – curtain walling, single ply roofing, cassette cladding – hundreds of new techniques and materials emerged, and it became difficult to know about every one of them.  We retreated from being foxes, and when the Green movement turned mainstream in the 1990's, it enabled some architects to metamorphose completely into hedgehogs.

Their big idea is to build sustainability, and in order to do so they have to learn a great deal about breathability, material toxicity, building biology, and so on, because there are many different ways to measure sustainability.   It isn't enough to look at the embodied energy of manufacture, or ease of reuse and recycling, or carbon footprint, exclusively.  As transportation costs rise, we need to consider where the product comes from just as much as what it's made from and how it performs in use. 

Perhaps we need to re-appraise our specifications, looking at materials which we can source locally.  We need to become more like foxes, less like hedgehogs.  Of course in order to specify locally-made products we need local factories, and if they're to last, they need to have R&D functions in Scotland.  Alternatively, inward investment from Japan, Korea or America uses Scotland as an assembly facility with profits repatriated, but no high level work or headquarters functions here.  

The British Disease is short-termism.  It's easy to close a factory which is unprofitable in the short term, especially if it lies far away from the heart of the company, whether that’s London or overseas.  A good example is the failure of Silicon Glen – several of the large silicon wafer fabrication plants like Motorola, computer assembly plants like IBM and NCR, and high end R&D firms like Calluna or going even further back, Elliott Automation, have gone.

In building component manufacturing, there’s long been a “branch office” culture and for every McAlpine Plumbing, Barrhead Sanitary and Errol Brick which was owned in Scotland, there’s a Vencil Resin or Yorkshire Imperial Metals which had a Scottish branch that succumbed to “market forces.” 

The Scottish Cure is to build up our own companies, so that we can source Scottish products, and guarantee a regular supply of jobs, too.  With that in mind, in the autumn of 2007 just after I met the effusive chap ex-Morgan Crucible and ex-Standard Triumph, I set out to "build" using only materials and products from Scotland.  Then I extended this to plant and machinery made here.  It's the type of enterprise which the Victorians willingly took on – a demonstration project  – and the results were printed in Urban Realm’s predecessor, Prospect.  I wonder how many of these are still in business?

Briggs Roofing, Dundee – roofing membranes and dampcourse
Lareine Engineering, Bathgate – rooflights
James Jones & Sons, Forres – engineered timber joists and beams
Caberboard, Cowie – OSB, chipboard

Godfreys of Dundee – geotextiles
Visqueen, Greenock – vapour barriers
Superglass Insulation, Stirling – insulation
Don & Low, Forfar – Daltex breather membranes

Blairs of Scotland, Greenock – timber external windows and doors
McTavish Ramsay, Dundee – timber internal doors
Aable, Glasgow – metal roller shutters
Chris Craft, Brechin – window blinds
Glasgow Steel Nail Co., Glasgow – nails and fasteners
McConnell Timber Products, Thornhill – timber cladding boards

Fyfestone, Kemnay – architectural masonry
Errol Brick, Perthshire – fired and unfired clay bricks
Laird Brothers, Forfar – thermal blockwork
Leith's Precast, Montrose – precast concrete stairs
Blue Circle Group, Dunbar – cement

J & D Wilkie, Kirriemuir – flooring underlays and fabrics
Forbo-Nairn, Kirkcaldy – linoleum
BMK Stoddard Templeton, Kilmarnock  – carpets
Bute Fabrics, Rothesay – upholstery fabrics
Andrew Muirhead, Glasgow – upholstery leather
Dovecote Studios, Edinburgh – tapestries

Ferguson & Menzies, Glasgow – sealers and coatings
Craig & Rose, Dunfermline – paints and varnishes
Aquafire Systems, Newhaven – intumescent coatings
Highland Galvanisers, Elgin – hot dip zinc galvanising

Barrhead Sanitaryware, Glasgow – vitreous china sanitaryware
Carron Phoenix, Falkirk – stainless steel sinks
RB Farquhar, Huntly – pre-plumbed toilet modules
Balmoral Group, Aberdeen – water and septic tanks
McAlpine Plumbing, Hillington – plastic plumbing pipework
Ozonia Triogen, Glasgow – water treatment plant
Arthur McLuckie, Dalry – iron castings
Weir Group, Glasgow – pumps

Torren Energy, Glencoe – woodchip-fuelled burners
McDonald Engineering, Glenrothes – hot water cylinders
BIB Cochran, Annan – calorifiers and steam plant
Sangamo, Port Glasgow – timer clocks and energy controls
Clyde Energy Solutions, Glasgow – heat pumps and radiators
Norfrost, Caithness – freezers

Eness Lighting, Kirkcaldy – lighting and controls
Coughtrie Lighting, Glasgow – external luminaires
BICC Brand-Rex, Glenrothes – electrical cabling
Parsons Peebles, Rosyth – electrical switchgear
Linn Products, Eaglesham – audio-visual systems

Interplan Systems, Glasgow – cubicle partitions
JTC 65, Dundee – fitted furniture
Ramsay Ladders, Forfar – extending stairs
Fife Fire, Kirkcaldy – fire extinguishers
James Ritchie & Son, Edinburgh – clockmakers
Charles Laing & Sons, Edinburgh – bronze handrails

McPhee Brothers, Blantyre – truckmixers
Albion Automotive, Scotstoun – HGV drivetrain builder
Koronka, Kinross – fuel tanks
James Cuthbertson, Biggar – HGV fittings

Meantime, next time you pore over product catalogues to select a roof tile or toilet pan, take a moment to consider what happened to the British car industry – Rover, Rootes Group and especially Triumph…

By Mark • Albums: technology

They were the future, once.

During the 1950’s, the Hull construction firm of R.G. Tarran, builder of the Tarran Prefab, adapted the former dyeworks of Pullars of Perth to produce the Dorran House, a single-storey bungalow built from precast panels.

Dorran houses are like Structural Insulated Panel Systems or SIPS houses, but pretty much without the “I”.  The Dorran system consists of storey-height precast panels which are 16 inches wide, which seems an odd width for a structural module, but we now live in a world which has the luxury of setting out in metric, usually on multiples and fractions of 3000mm.

Whether Dorran licensed the system from Tarran, or the company was a direct subsidiary, isn’t obvious – but during the 1950’s, they sold to the public sector with houses for the Forestry Commission in outlying parts of the Highlands, small developments of social housing in rural counties like Argyll and Caithness, and even domestic accommodation at RAF Saxa Vord on Shetland. 

Dorran Construction later offered a range of bungalows to private buyers; the houses had couthy names like The Glen Shean, The Glen Varloch, The Glen Frugart and The Glen Clova.  By the 1960’s they fabricated around 10 houses each week at their precast factory in Perth, and a total of 2500 had been erected by 1962.

According to the Building Research Establishment report I consulted, two-storey Dorrans have a characteristic protruding band at first floor level, like a string course, formed by a precast ring beam.  Timber floor panels were strapped to the ring beam with joist straps, and the precast panels were tied together using steel bolts.  Some Dorran bungalows appear to have a concrete ring beam at ground level, too.

For vapour control, the concrete panels were lined with 2-ply bituminous felt as a damp-proof membrane.  When the wall was erected, the joints were filled with gunned bitumen, then pointed up in cement mortar.  Interestingly, a newspaper article from the 1960’s notes that one of their outstanding features was the level of insulation in the walls and ceilings.  A half-inch-thick internal layer of expanded polystyrene sat between the concrete panel and its plasterboard lining … half an inch, which is better than nothing.

By the 1970’s there was disquiet about non-traditional methods of construction, and two of the Dorran houses’ failings were shared by several other systems.  The panels’ lack of proper insulation led to condensation problems, and serious corrosion of the steel ties between the panels which were a by-product of it.

The BRE identified the problems during the early 1980’s, which eventually led the designs to be designated under the Housing Defects Act 1984, which effectively condemned them and made them un-mortgageable.  However, the 1984 Act was consolidated into the 1985 Housing Act, which provided grant assistance for people who had unwittingly bought former council houses constructed using problematic systems.

Perhaps if the Dorran system had been constructed using stainless steel fixings, and with effective insulation, the houses might have succeeded.  As it is, the remedial works entailed in fixing them range from adding a masonry skin outside the precast panels, to propping the roof then demolishing the panels and building a brand new external wall.  Instead, many chose to demolish the existing house and build a timber kit on the site instead.

While it’s true that we probably won’t make exactly the same mistakes again in future, we may make slightly different mistakes in pursuit of the same goals. 

A few years ago, I worked on a project with some of the first zero energy houses in Scotland, built using a SIP system comprising JJI joists skinned with OSB board, and a cavity filled with injected cellulose fibre.  There were no insulation or corrosion issues that I’m aware of – but the high degree of airtightness meant that when tenants switched off the whole house ventilation system (because they were concerned about running costs) they suffered from condensation problems in kitchens and bathrooms.

A different kind of prefabrication, a new type of problem, caused partly by a novel approach to design and more so due to poor communication between the landlord and tenant about how the house worked.  The other lesson of Dorran Construction Ltd. lies in how we may try to meet today’s unmet demand for housing by using off-site construction, which is the new, untainted name for system building, aka prefabrication. 

In the early 1960’s, Dorran looked southwards and after 1964 during which it made a profit of £96,000, the firm opened a precast factory in Consett and another in London.  By 1967 it had built 4000 houses across Scotland, but by signing up to fixed price contracts in England during an era of rampant inflation, Dorran committed its fatal mistake.

The company lost money on its English contracts, the factories in Consett and London closed, and the parent firm in Perth struggled to survive.  By the time that Dorran Houses began displaying the first symptoms of structural corrosion, the firm was no longer producing them – and the post-war housing boom was over.  As demand slackened, the industry pulled back from mass produced housing.

“House factories”, the dream of technocrats and Le Corbusier alike, are much trickier to achieve in practice than you might think.  Dorran Houses have been condemned, both literally and metaphorically, as a failed experiment in mass production.  After the 1984 Act, mortgage lenders viewed precast panel houses as “Non-Traditional” and as far as most buyers were concerned, that euphemism was the kiss of death.

Now, we’re burdened with the legacy of the past when cheap housing was constructed at breakneck speed to replace overcrowded slums; consequently we ended up with a modern version of the same.  What was the alternative?

Another name from Tayside during the 1950’s and 1960’s is W, T & H Dye Ltd. which was founded in Dundee around 1959 and fell into liquidation in 1988.  In the intervening thirty years, William, Thomas and Harry Dye were less radical than Dorran, and they targeted a different market.   If little has been written about Dorran, I’m not aware of anything at all about the Dyes.

Their family-run business generally built their own developments.  They concentrated on small sites in the West End of Dundee and Barnhill, and their houses were better quality than run-of-the-mill bungalows.  Dyes typically used facings in local Leoch stone, harling and natural slate roofs to create what one ambitious estate agent described as “Voysey-style” bungalows.  Not quite, but some of their larger houses were vaguely Arts & Crafts in a watered down style.

Dyes typically built in the spaces left behind by other developers – they were evidently happy to achieve a steady rate of sales on gap sites.  They built on ransom strips, backlands, landlocked plots and spaces left over after planning.  If you wait for a generation, the rising tide of land values usually encourages someone to sell that overgrown plot and fit houses onto it: although the quarter- or fifth-acre parcels that Dye used are now only a seventh- or even an eighth-acre in area!

Dyes’ developments ranged from a couple of dozen houses in Ardmore Avenue to half a dozen in Holly Road, and a couple in Navarre Street.  Nowadays, similarly small-scale developments avoid some of the complexity, for example the cost of planning gain and Section 75 agreements (providing parks, playgrounds, contributions to roads schemes and primary schools), and the complexity of SUDS systems using swales and constructed wetlands.  Dyes avoided those thanks to the era they worked in, and the scale of their projects meant they weren’t caught by some other regulations.

One giveaway is that the streets I mentioned have unmade pavements and sometimes unadopted roads: they were what some call unbonded developments, which the local authority will only take on with reluctance, if at all.  At the time the houses were completed and occupied, there weren’t financial bonds in place for the roads and sewers.  It often takes decades before the streets are adopted and pavements surfaced with tarmac.

On reflection, “barriers to entry” for this type of housebuilding seem low.  Many joinery firms entertain the idea that if they can build houses, they should also be able to put together developments of houses.  But the functions of a developer – land acquisition, finance, project management, marketing – are very different to those of a builder, and for the past thirty years they’ve become more complex every year.

Similarly, with the coming of the timber kit from firms like Interbuild and Stewart Milne, Dyes’ cavity walls with stone facings became an anachronism.  Also virtually gone are the “All Trades” building contractors who directly employ their own concrete workers, bricklayers, masons, workshop and site joiners, roofers, painters and decorators.  Likewise firms with joinery shops which can manufacture their own doors, windows and stairs: the best you can ask are kit panels rattled together with a Hilti gun.

As a consequence, houses are built to meet the relevant standards but the construction is less robust (gang-nailed trusses versus couple roofs; timber kit walls versus cavity masonry), and the finishing is to a lower standard (flush ply versus panel doors, MDF facings versus hardwood).  Dyes’ houses are still popular: while a Bett bungalow in the area we’re talking about sells for £200k-£250k, its Dye counterpart is now worth £300-£350k, which is significant.  People notice the difference in quality, and usually lean towards conservative taste.

There’s a reason why homebuyers are conservative.  Most have little say in what their house looks like or how it’s built, yet they tie up most of their wealth in it and sink much of their sense of self into it too.  “Traditional” housing (what that actually means varies from person to person) has always been popular: partly because it’s time-proven, and also because it doesn’t lose its value in disastrous ways, like Dorrans’ houses did.

Houses like Dyes built in the 60’s and 70’s are inefficient to procure in large numbers, but they’ve proven to be a remarkably good store of value over the past century.  Perhaps, depressingly for those with a “social” model of housing, that’s the real message.

By Mark • Albums: dundee

This is an expanded version of my review of City of Darkness Revisited, which was published recently in the RIAS Quarterly.

City of Darkness Revisited is an unusual book about an astonishing place.  Just over twenty years ago, Kowloon’s Walled City was demolished.  In the early 1980’s over 40,000 people lived there, although only 33,000 were officially registered, and at the time it was the most densely-populated place on the planet – all built without the input of an architect. 

The Walled City evolved from a squatter settlement near Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport.  Some 300 buildings, which ultimately rose to 17 storeys, were crammed onto a site of 200 x 100 metres.  The only building code adhered to was a height limit set by the proximity of Kai Tak’s flight path.

KWC confronted the rest of Kowloon along its north edge, the Tung Tau Tsuen Road.  The thoroughfare was lined with the illuminated signs of doctors, dentists and convenience stores; the precarious caged balconies which residents built to extend their apartments cantilevered out above them.  The city’s south and west elevations overlooked a park built after squatters’ huts were cleared in 1985, and this reduction in density introduced more sunlight into the Walled City.

The Wall consisted of a haphazard elevation of balconies, stairs and verandahs – rifts between the apartments provided the narrow pends through which you entered it.  Behind the apartments, many only one room deep, lay a maze of alleyways broiling in heat, humidity and darkness.  There, the City of Darkness lived up to its name, but most stairways led up to the roof where residents could breathe fresh air and escape the claustrophobia.

KWC’s roof was also a place from which to gaze towards Lion Rock to the north and watch the planes taking off and landing at nearby Kai Tak airport.  In fact, the most arresting images from City of Darkness Revisited show just how close the Walled City was to the final approach into Kai Tak.  Aircraft only ever flew “short finals” onto its runway: the approach was steep, followed by a banking turn after which airliners lined up on the VASI lights at the last moment.  At decision height, they were pretty much flying at rooftop level!

The Kowloon skyline is a jumble of skyscrapers and apartment blocks which make up only part of Hong Kong’s urban agglomeration.  KWC’s architectural identity lay in an extreme version of this, and from ground level the way its seemingly chaotic blocks loomed over the conventional Hong Kong streets surrounding it.

With unimaginable density and living conditions, KWC has been described elsewhere as anti-architecture.  Perhaps no architect could have dreamt it, but film designers have since attempted to re-create it.  Outsiders assumed the Walled City was entirely autonomous and lawless, a place of “drug divans, criminal hide-outs, vice dens and even cheap unlicensed dentists,” but the authorities did collect rubbish and supply power and water – although illegal connections were made whenever folk thought they could get away with it.

The Walled City was condemned in the late 1980’s, but even though Lambot and Girard spent five years photographing it, Mr Lui the postman was acknowledged as the only person who knew his way around the whole City.  A network of bridges and corridors at the higher levels meant the City could be traversed without ever touching the ground.  Photographing there, as Lambot admitted, was a constant adventure. “It was pretty easy to get lost in the maze of stairways and corridors whenever you entered the buildings, so I learnt pretty quickly to photograph anything interesting when I saw it as you might never find it again. It was always that combination of being in the right place at the right time with just the right light.”

Since its demolition in 1993, the Walled City’s influence has extended from the film Chungking Express to William Gibson’s “Bridge” novels, which gave rise to the myth of the city as cyberpunk dystopia and went on to inspire both video game designers and urban theorists.  Laurence Liauw's polemical essay, "KWC FAR 12", in MVRDV's book FARMAX, focuses on the density, fluid organisation and blurred typologies of the place. 

Much of KWC’s influence is down to the Lambot and Girards’ original City of Darkness, which was published in the 1994 and has since become a cult book.  Perhaps that has been amplified by the politics of post-colonial Hong Kong, where natives and expats alike feel sentimental towards what the colony once was.

City of Darkness Revisited is a companion volume which develops the authers’ thesis in a larger format.  It’s a 21st century book, in the sense that they funded it through a Kickstarter campaign, and it goes some way towards de-mystifying the Walled City by focussing on its daily life.  Lambot and Girdard combine oral histories, maps and essays with vivid photos which are evocative of a way of life swept away during Hong Kong’s last few years as a colony.  By fusing architectural, social, cultural and photographic material, the book provides a more rounded understanding of the Walled City.

Now to consider what I didn’t have space to discuss in the printed review: why the Walled City grips our architectural imaginations so hard.

Perhaps KWC appeals to a mindset which has outgrown the systematic, rational approach of Modernism.  The growth of the Walled City bred an intense visual complexity, and made it easy for us to view it as an organism which had somehow freed itself from human agency and taken on a life of it own.  The city as organism (bacteria, fungus, beehive, ant’s nest) is a popular metaphor amongst architectural theorists, but one man’s complexity is another’s chaos.

In KWC the many competing forces reached enough of an equilibrium for the city to work in a quotidian way – but it was forever in flux, and more importantly the human forces at work were subtle and unseen.  Even though the facts revealed in City of Darkness prove otherwise, the idea of Kowloon Walled City operating within its own rules – perhaps like a principality such as Andorra, a city statelet along the lines of Passport to Pimlico, or a micro-nation like Sealand – remains an attractive idea.  It harks back to the walled cities of medieval times, and through that, KWC has become a metaphor for some kind of workable anarchy.

One of the book’s many messages is that you can’t legislate for a community like this – in fact, the authorities tried to stifle it at birth.  Another is that the Walled City’s very persistence offers hope that centrally-planned redevelopment projects, which consume vast amounts of time and resources in their assembly, aren’t necessarily the only way forward.  A third theme is that it’s possible for people to live at far greater densities that we acknowledge, but the highest cost in this case is darkness and squalor.  Like La Torre David which I previously wrote about here, the Walled City is not necessarily a “model” to apply elsewhere, but shows that doctrinal Modernism isn’t the only way to achieve high density urban development.

City of Darkness Revisited is the most engaging book I read in 2015.  If you enjoyed other things I’ve written about – such as Lebbeus Woods’ drawings, Lucien Kroll’s architecture, or what the anarchists achieved at Christiania in Copenhagen – you may well enjoy both text and images in City of Darkness Revisited.  It comes from the same vein of socially-engaged poetic inquiry into architecture in its widest sense.

City of Darkness Revisited can bought from the City of Darkness website, or if you’re in Edinburgh, from the RIAS Bookshop in Rutland Square.

All images courtesy of Ian Lambot at Watermark Publications.

Bibliographic details:
Girard, Greg and Lambot, Ian.  “City of Darkness Revisited”  London: Watermark Publications, 2014.  ISBN: 978-1873200889

Other titles about Kowloon Walled CIty include:

Girard, Greg and Lambot, Ian.  “City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City”  London: Watermark Publications, 1999

Miyamoto, Ryuji; Muramatsu, Shin.  “Kau Lung Shing Chai”  Tokyo: Atelier Peyotl, 1988
A small format photo essay about the Walled City, shot on monochrome film.  This is the first edition, and certainly the more valuable for book collectors.

A later edition was published in a different format as:
Miyamoto, Ryuji.  “Kowloon Walled City”  Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1998

Suzuki, Takayuki and Terasawa, Hitomi.  “Large-scale Illustrated Kowloon City” Japan: Suzushi Kuwabara
Large, intricately-detailed cross section drawings of KWC.

Maas, Winy and van Rijs, Jacob.  “FARMAX: Excursions on Density”  Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1998
Expositionary essays about various places including the Walled City.

By Mark • Albums: ghosts

Happy New Year.  Traditionally, this is a time of year for reflection, and I guess we should be grateful for any stimulus which makes us examine our lives.

I never met Jon-Marc Creaney.  He studied at the Mac, practiced in Lanarkshire and was around my age.  I only became aware of him thanks to the photos, blog and the comments he posted on the net under the nom-de-guerre “Scarpadog”.  It strikes me that he would have been a great guy to strike up a friendship with, as he had many interests and enthusiasms to share with the world.  But I’ll never have the chance to do that, because he passed away in 2011.

The continuing existence of Jon-Marc’s Flickr and his blog provide an insight into his hopes and aspirations, plus his fears and concerns as he came to terms with during his cancer treatment at the Beatson in Glasgow.  I was prompted to think about Scarpadog again by what a close friend is going through at the moment.  All the time you want to help, but you can never be sure if standing back and giving space, or reaching out to give them a hug, is the right thing to do.  Often the “right” thing to do changes from day to day.

Similarly, it’s difficult to write about someone who I never knew in person, and who wasn’t a public figure – but discovering the things which Jon-Marc left behind made me ponder about the nature of the internet and anonymity in the 21st century.  I knew Scarpadog through his work, and a shared interest in contemporary architecture and abandoned places.


It’s comforting to think that we’re known and remembered for life-affirming things: our passions for music, photography, travel and friends as well as the all-encompassing sense of shared humanity which Burns coined so neatly in “A Man’s a Man”.  I’m sure it’s heartening to his friends and family that Jon-Marc Creaney will be remembered for those positive things – and that strangers like me will come along occasionally and still be inspired by him.  The traces of Scarpadog which remain on the net are a tribute to him.

Hopefully some will also take heed of one of the final posts on Scarpadog’s blog, “I recalled lying on the sun-drenched slopes of Gran Paradiso feeling on top of the world, what a change in a year and I would say to everyone to grasp and enjoy these moments you get in life to the fullest – you never know when they can be taken away.” That Jon-Marc wrote this while he was seriously ill says a great deal about his self-awareness.  He was brave to share how he felt at that moment, and in a way because he posted it under the identity “Scarpadog” it somehow made what he said all the more universal.  Prompted by that, I’d like to consider how we communicate through the supposedly anonymous medium of the net.

A couple of years ago, Mark Zuckerberg got into a spat with internet hacktivists about the myriad of anonymous accounts that exist on Facebook.  Zuckerberg felt that folk who post anonymously portray a false and sometimes malicious reality – other figures on the internet such as “Moot” disagreed.  Moot said, “Zuckerberg equated anonymity with a lack of authenticity, almost a cowardice, and I would say that's fully wrong.  I think anonymity is authenticity, it allows you to share in a completely unvarnished, unfiltered, raw way and I think that's something that's extremely valuable." Moot is correct that throughout history, free speech has depended on anonymity.

In a political sense, anonymity acts as a shield from the tyranny of the majority.  As the American First Amendment has it, anonymity can protect unpopular people from retaliation, and their ideas from suppression at the hands of an intolerant mob.  Anonymous speech was used by the likes of Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) to criticise common ignorance, and the Economist Magazine believes that keeping authorship anonymous moves the focus of discussion away from the speaker and on to the subject of the piece – which as it should be.  Sometimes authorship is vital: we like to get credit where it’s due for our work.  Sometimes anonymity is crucial: if that’s the guarantor of free speech and free expression then so be it.


On a personal level, if posting as “Scarpadog” enabled Jon-Marc to be more honest about his life and what he chose to share with the world, then that was the right thing to do.  It’s also in the original spirit of the internet, where we chose exactly what to share and what to keep private but increasingly, the decision on what to make public and what to keep private isn’t even ours to make.  Facebook and other sites manipulate your account and unless you keep checking your “privacy” settings, things are revealed to the world at large (and to their advertisers) which you never intended to share.

Ultimately you can’t guarantee the integrity of anything on the internet, but when folk like Jon-Marc post openly and honestly about themselves, that rings true despite the digital clutter.  We habitually confide in close friends because we trust them; yet occasionally we lay ourselves bare to strangers in the hope that something we thought or felt is transferrable and it may touch them.  That’s what paintings, novels and pieces of music can do – we don’t need to know who made them or why, in order to take something from them.

During the heyday of open architectural competitions in the first half of the 20th century, most entries were made anonymously – but rather than being allotted a number, each entry was identified by a chosen name.  Sometimes the name was a scrap of Latin or Greek, sometimes a nickname known only to the architect and their own circle.  Identifying yourself this way perhaps frees up creativity by allowing you to travel in a fresh direction, or to take a risk which you wouldn’t otherwise have taken for fear of harming your supposed reputation.  Thinking about yourself through an alter ego – whether Ziggy Stardust for our parents’ generation or the many noms-des-plumes which graffiti writers use – can provide a fresh outlet or some critical distance.

Of course we all have curiosity to satisfy and the internet has made it insatiable.  We peer into peoples’ lives through Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and nowadays less so Bebo, DeviantArt or Friends Reunited.  Investigative reporters – when they’re not hacking into celebrities’ iPhones – can find out a great deal about folk quite legally using what we post in unguarded moments, even “public” comments on Facebook which we assumed were private.

One of Jon-Marc’s own buildings, at Wellwynd in Airdrie.

So you do have to filter what you post on the net.  You’d like to think that the millennials, as internet entrepreneurs characterise the generation now in their teens and early twenties which followed Douglas Coupland’s so-called Generation X, are more internet and privacy savvy than those of us who grew up with computers, but are old enough to remember when the net began. 

Well, perhaps.  In 2015, internet “content” is a feral thing: as soon as you post something it takes on a life of its own.  You may try to catch it and take it back – but as Mike Donnachie wrote elsewhere, the closest you’ll get is a glimpse of it howling at the moon from a distant mountaintop.  Perhaps that will discourage people from being authentic, and we’ll eventually become so guarded that life will be conducted through avatars and ciphers.

That would be a great loss.  Scarpadog carefully chose what he wanted to share, and that act of consideration was important because the internet has preserved Jon-Marc Creaney’s words and photos – just as a book, painting or piece of music lives on independently of the person who created it.

All photos are Jon-Marc Creaney’s, from his Flickr page - https://www.flickr.com/photos/scarpadog/

By Mark • Albums: memory palace

“Except for a period in the 1990’s when I got sick of the whole business and went to America, riding trains like a Dustbowl hobo, I have been for the last few years an architect in the city.”

Just who is Mr Wolf?  Is he an allegory?   No.  He is, in fact, quite real.  I often see his bushy tail disappearing around a corner, a couple of streets ahead of me.  Mr Wolf is always ahead.

His grandfather, J. Carruthers Wolf, Esq. got his start in business after the War and quickly found that many companies had a need for his cleverly-designed machinery.  Business flourished, and his firm supplied Scotland’s factories, shipyards and gasworks with equipment.  He wasn’t a great believer in advertising, but he enjoyed a network of personal recommendation built up as a result of fair dealing and a job well done, or, “Mr Wolf will have what you need”

This was a late flowering of the great cities of Empire, when sophisticated technology began to supplant steam power and brute force.  Progress meant we could make things faster and better; it also meant fewer of us were needed to make more things.  There’s a tension between these two ideas – perhaps they’re even antithetical. 

Is it because the technology is now so complex that it is beyond simple analysis, or do we resent the fact that nowadays, machines even make other machines.  Mr Wolf’s particular line of business was in developing multi-axis machine tools.  Until recently there were still jobs that neither these, nor advanced casting, could achieve. 

Solid fabrication techniques have changed that with the advent of stereo-lithography, laser sintering and direct metal laser sintering.  The easiest way to explain these is “3D photocopying”.  Today, computers can tell a laser to trace a cross-section of the component in a vat of liquid photopolymer resin, or in a powder bed, then layer by layer the desired shape will emerge as material is fused by the heat of the laser beam.

However, Wolf’s father developed the predecessors of the 3D photocopier which machined components from a solid lump of aluminium, titanium or stainless steel.  Most of his competitors were American firms, many of which grew out of the USA’s enormous military aircraft-building industry. 

All this industrial machinery appealed to the junior Wolf, and his fascination with America grew as he heard about it from his father.  America was the place where much of the late 20th century emerged.  America grew in his mind until it became an obsession: it was music, books, paintings, photos, poems, dreams, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. 

After years of dreaming, he crossed the East Coast on a Laker DC10.  He arrived in Chicago, which his old man first visited a quarter of a century before.  Despite the grid-iron plans of New York, Detroit and Chicago’s city centres, the form which their suburbs took when they were allowed to grow unchecked was sprawling and organic.  Screeds of slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants, transit sheds and lumber yards and beyond them, the tract houses which multiply like bacteria in a Petri dish. 

That was Wolf’s first discovery about America: the second arose from the novel way he crossed the continent.  After the tightly-packed cities of Western Europe – between which you never really enter open countryside, but pass instead through a succession of man-made features like plantations, motorways, canals – here there were hours of wilderness between the “divisions” or wayside towns.  Those and much more he saw from the open door of a freight train, riding the rails.

Wolf’s trip began with a feeling of incredulity that he was finally here.  But there he was, wearing a pair of Levis and a hooded sweat, with a bedroll in his pack and a camera jammed into his pocket.  He had a roll of Jacksons stuffed into his sock and shot a few rolls of Kodachrome during his trip.

Precious few images, really, considering the thousands of miles he travelled, but enough to prove he had been there.  In fact, whenever he has gone through tough times, he looked through the photos and drew on the strength he gained from hopping freights.

But before he could ride, Wolf had to be patient.  Waiting to catch out at the side of the railroad left him ample time for reading, lying still in the brush beyond the track.  The trains sat dead in the yard all day, with no sign of activity.  His favourite book was The Bottom of the Harbour, collecting Joseph Mitchell’s essays from The New Yorker magazine.

Mitchell wrote using precise, spare English with no hype or sentimentality and barely any adjectives.  He was Wolf’s hero, although of course Wolf would never admit to holding anyone as a hero.  However, he recognised Mitchell’s genius because so many people have pressed mediocre books on him over the years, and he has slogged through them out of guilt. 

That kind of reading seldom works out for the best.

In late afternoon, that familiar horn blared out.  The brakes were charging up with a characteristic ticking noise; a minute later, the units revved up and the train eased out of the switchyard.  Each train might have four or five locomotives hauling a rake of boxcars quarter of a mile long.  He chose an immense train of loaded autoracks and UPS containers.

There is a romance to hopping freights, but it’s dirty and physically-tiring work.  Wolf developed the strength required to run alongside the four foot, snatch a grab-iron and pull himself up into a moving train.  All the time, he kept in mind the old Chicago alderman's maxim: "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."

He climbed up into the fourth unit.  Manufactured by General Electric, it weighed 391,000 pounds and generated 4,000 horsepower.  The train was crewed by flannel-shirted railroaders: a driver (the engineer), an second engineer, and a brakeman.  Over the cab radio, he could hear the engineer and dispatcher discussing the hardships of railroading.

Wolf travelled in the Fall.  In summer, the heat was unbearable.  In winter, tramps passed out in the cars with their soaking clothes hanging from their bodies and froze to death.  Yet even in the Fall, it got perishingly cold when the train goes over a high pass.  At night he pulled the bedroll out of his pack and drew his jacket tightly around him. 

He changed trains and travelled from Laurel, Montana, to Seattle, Washington, along a non-Amtrak 623-mile route that passed through the filming locations for A River Runs Through It, and crossed the great Beartooth Pass, near the northeast entrance for Yellowstone.  He slept fitfully as the train clattered over the ties at 45 miles an hour.

Eight hours later, the light was up and the train crawled up into the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon, a land of steep fir-dotted ridges.  The wildlife paraded past: herds of elk, mallards floating down the streams, pheasants.  The train picked up speed on the downgrade.  The sun broke out near milepost 60, dispelling the cool greyness of the Stampede crossing: mountains give way to sagebrush desert. 

After a month of travelling, he was one with the fruit tramps, bums, hobos and vagabonds.  His skin was seasoned with the sun and grime and his clothes were fit for the dumpster; Mr Wolf resembled nothing so much as a coyote. 

Chuck Jones based Wile Coyote on Mark Twain's book Roughing It, in which Twain described the coyote as "A long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton," which is "A living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry.  He is always poor, out of luck and friendless.  The meanest creatures despise him and even the flea would desert him for a velocipede.”

The Hill. That's what Jack London, A-No. 1, and several generations of other tramps called the Sierra; John Muir termed it the Range of Light.  Later, he would traverse the Bitterroot Range, the Cascades, and the Mojave Desert.  Was this the real American West?  There were certainly thin pickings in the wayside towns, and Mr Wolf could see just how Cousin Coyote came to have his ribs sticking out. 

After he crossed the Great Divide, Wolf expected to see DC Thomson’s 3 Bears raiding Hank’s Store for grub.  These railroads were built with Dundee money in the last years of the 19th century, using jute profits sunk into US railroad bonds.  Railroads in the Pacific north-west opened up the Oregon Trail in the 1880’s and 1890’s, the Goldrush years and the epitome of the Wild West.  A century and a quarter later, the Scots have disinvested and Warren Buffett now owns America’s biggest railroad firm.

Finally, he reached the west coast.  Wolf unstuffed his sock and drew out a couple of bills for a room in a motel in Ventura.  He showered then lay on the bed.  The last remnants of sunshine reflected off the windows as storm clouds moved swiftly in.  He lay listening to an Amtrak train rolling through town as the sun set across the Pacific.

Next morning, he treated himself to a regal portion of coffee, eggs, avocado, salsa, biscuit and a side of blueberry pancakes.  Then he spent a few days walking in the footsteps of Steinbeck, from Tortilla Flats to Monterey.  The places are much changed, but some of their spirit remains, despite the tourist hell of Cannery Row.  Sand Dollar Bay in Big Sur lived up to its name, a stretch of sand and rock pools straight out of “Sea of Cortez”, and he finally saw Halprin's Sea Ranch with his own eyes, wreathed in coastal fog.

This is also the land which Pynchon wrote about in “Vineland”.  When he reached Arcata, home to the medical marijuana industry, here must have been an epidemic of some kind: the whole town was stoned.  Beyond it lay giant redwoods, fern-filled gorges, pounding surf and "All that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to West Coast, and all that road going."

All told, the journey was quite an adventure – the stuff of blind chance-takers, adventurers, nothing-to-lose optimists. 

Wolf’s greatest debt was owed to the railroad tramps.  They would never see him again, had nothing to gain, and were absolutely hard up.  Yet to a man they offered information about trains and how to avoid the railroad bulls; they spared him the hardship of figuring everything out for himself. 

The experience left him with a deep feeling for the country and its people, which translated into praise of kind hearts and good times, and down with humbug and hypocrisy.

* * * * * * *

Postscript: Reply to Mr Wolf

Dear Sir,

Having read your website and found this article, I discussed it with my fellow intellects. They, as I, have read the points made and have taken these into hand, but believe that you have not fully understood the premise.  We all agree that this piece has nothing to do with architecture,
per se.

It was written to show in an extended metaphor Mr Wolf’s relationship with the world.  America is symbolic of progress, whereas Europe is the Old World.  We believe the piece serves to emphasise how broadening your experience of the world may make you a more understanding and empathetic person.  Happy Christmas and a fine New Year to you all.

Yours Sincerely,
Maxwell Allison (12), Penicuik

By Mark • Albums: memory palace