Many of the best-known myths originate in Classical Greece. Prometheus, Midas and Achilles are well known throughout the western world. Scots myths don’t seem to travel well, perhaps because the Laird of Cockpen, or Bruce and the spider, have a certain couthy quality. By contrast, Greek myths are raw and powerful. The rawest is the mythical story of Elektra, related in dramatic form by Euripides, and made into an opera a century ago by Richard Strauss.
As it did in January 1909 when it was first performed in Dresden, Elektra still has the ability to propel you from your normal, reasoned existence into a place where savage, uncontrollable emotion wells up inside. The myth is part of the classical saga of the House of Agamemnon, a study of pathological hatred, sexual repression, and a parable of how violence begets violence.
Euripides shows that hatred kills the hater: Elektra is caught up in an act of vengeance against her mother, who murdered her father. In the opera, Strauss comes close to raw expressionism as he tries to represent the title character’s insanity. As a result, Elektra’s terrifying intensity has few parallels elsewhere in art. It is difficult enough to translate these feelings and experiences into literature or drama; transferring them into architecture seems almost an impossibility.
The experience of opera may be heightened by an element of fantasy: whether the dark, glamorous diva who sweeps across the foyer with her spray of black orchids, or that mysterious gent who is about to pull a silenced Browning Hi-Power from his cummerbund, and aim it at the foreign diplomat… The background to this may be baroque, rococco or merely a parametric architecture with an expensive polish.
Most environments we design are intended to be calm and rational: in fact, the Classical orders of architecture set out to achieve exactly that. It’s rare that anyone would wish to design somewhere at the opposite extreme, but such places do exist. Likewise the un-designed places which may have evolved over time – as in the case when you walk into the darkness of an abandoned railway tunnel, or a cave system. The complete absence of daylight, plus the strange acoustic of these places, suggests the Labyrinth, of Minotaur fame, and under the surface you certainly feel quite different to the world under the sun.
The senses are heightened, blood pulses in your ears, and your nerves are at a high key – despite depriving the senses of stimuli. Just make sure you take a torch, and a spare; plus a spare battery, and a spare for the spare … otherwise your mind will play tricks. The darkness does strange things to space – it grows and shrinks beyond the edge of the torch beam, and imaginary forms flit across the twilight beyond the torch beam. Fear can become an overwhelming emotion, if your imagination is left to its own devices.
Another example which springs to mind is the Rhubarb House. With its dank brick vaults hidden behind heavy wooden doors, rhubarb plants were “forced” in its darkness. The rhubarb was brought on when it was out of season, when it couldn’t grow outside due to the cold and darkness. Inside is absolute stillness, with moist air hanging at the back of the vaults and a soft carpet of humus and strawy manure which absorbs everything. When the rhubarb crowns are growing, set three feet apart and sprouting like triffids, their pale stalks and monstrous leaves dominate the space. Once they’ve been lifted, the hollow sheds are a void.
I’ve walked through them – tucked away in the Angus countryside, known by only by a handful of local people. There is a feeling of suppression and sensory deprivation in the vaults, and just like an anechoic chamber or a drainage culvert, they offer their own particular experience once you get used to the idea of being where you are. Claustrophobia is one symptom, or perhaps a vague unease about those cold, organic things with names like Timperley, Hawkes Champagne, or The Sutton.
The other extreme is a place of over-stimulation, which for these purposes we will call the Hazard Room. It does exist, somewhere south of the Pentlands – a place with yellow and black striped walls, floor and ceiling; strobing lights and revolving mirrors; sirens sounding at random; blasts of dry heat and freezing fog. Blood pressure and physiological stress levels are greatly increased: you are set on edge, and the space quickly becomes unendurable for anything more than short periods.
The loudness, exaltation, bizarre perspectives and confusing visual cues owe something to surrealism, and something more to Jungian psychology. No-one really knows why the Hazard Room was created, although its context suggests it was dreamed up by psychiatrists, or perhaps installation artists. It is not a comfortable place to be – but that’s the idea. It was designed to over-power with raw emotion to represent, or perhaps trigger, insanity.
The godfather of the study of these sensations is Edmund Burke, who attempted to theorise the sublime in his Philosophical Treatise of 1756. Burke was the first philosopher to scrutinise our sense of awe: what stimulates it, how it acts upon us, and why the triggers exist in our mind in the first place. He listed attributes such as obscurity, power, darkness, vastness, and magnitude. “To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”
Perhaps we need to feel, in a metaphysical sense, that there is something greater than us out there – whether through an understanding of religion, animism or aestheticism. Perhaps it does no harm to be jolted into a state of agitation by these extreme stimuli? This was the thesis of the Lettrist International, when they conceived their Formulary for a New Urbanism in the early 1950’s – that group of amateur revolutionaries later evolved onto the Situationists, who fomented the student rising in Paris in 1968. The Lettrists put forward a city which works directly on the passions and emotions, and they offered us a new conception of space:
“They are to be found in the magical spots of fairy stories and in some surrealist art: castles, great walls that cannot be climbed, small bars run to seed, caverns with a mammoth frozen in the ice, the mirror behind the pool table. Even as images as dated as these will have some power as a catalyst. Not that they could actually be used in a building a new symbolic town without being completely transformed, without being given a completely new sense. Our minds, ridden by key images from the past, have fallen far behind the sophistication of our machinery. The few attempts made to fuse modern science into a new myth that proved abortive. As a result, all contemporary art has been forced to become abstract – contemporary architecture being the worst example of all. Pure plastic art, telling no story and making no movement, cold and soothing to the eye …” - Gilles Ivain
The Situationists crystallised the impulses of their predecessors, such as the Lettrists’ “Formulary”, and Constant Nieuwenhuys went on to develop a radical proposal for an architecture in which all traces of conventional buildings and social institutions would be abandoned. Everyone would drift around in vast, labyrinthine interiors, which would be continuously reconstructed to meet their needs. Any desire could be satisfied, so the theory went, and new desires could be stimulated, along with new modes of behaviour – all through an architecture forever in flux. The underlying aim was to create an environment in which we experienced a far wider range of sensations than today.
Similarly, one of Constant’s Situationist colleagues, the Scots writer Alex Trocchi, developed a radical new kind of university (in a loose sense) called the Sigma Project. As the name suggests, it was intended as a summation of the many strands of human experience and knowledge, and owed something to the Black Mountain School of the 1950’s. Raw emotion might be harnessed alongside rational analysis – so that “Primal Scream” therapy and psychotropics might play their part in a curriculum that extended self-discovery across a wide range of arts, sciences and humanities.
More recently, Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin could be construed as an architecture of raw emotion: the harsh surfaces, disorientating floor planes and jagged forms are designed to challenge, and make you feel unsettled. It’s the embodiment of unheimlich, a German word which is slightly tricky to translate. It describes the uneasy feeling which raises the birse on the back of your neck; the edginess you feel when you know something’s out of place.
Unheimlich is what countless horror film-makers have attempted to capture: it’s the noises off in pictures like “Silent Hill” which create a clautrophobic atmosphere and account for their creepiness. These cues touch primitive parts of our brains, where the gut instincts live, and which fight the rational thoughts that tell us nothing is amiss.
Why do we need these stimuli? Firstly, at the very core of our humanity is a need to explore the world around us, and our inner selves. We seem to lose a certain degree of curiosity as we grow older, but it remains at the heart of some peoples’ lives. They need to feel challenged, to see and experience new things, and they aren’t satisfied with simply ignoring those parts of the city that the authorities have proscribed.
Secondly, we live in a heavily moderated and constrained world. A good Health & Safety culture on building sites is essential, because they are dangerous places – but it has extended into the safest parts of everyday life, arguably making us too risk averse. Because of this, we no longer live a complete existence, we do not experience life fully, nor by extension do we experience the fullest range of sensations and human emotions. After all, a dangerous world is an interesting place to be, and it will teach you to trust your own judgement, to understand your limits, and crucially it will teach self-reliance.
Meanwhile, what about Richard Strauss? It’s been suggested that because he and his librettist, Hofmannstahl, worked in fin-de-siecle Europe, consequently their operatic works were Art Nouveau. However, not everyone working at a given time uses the same aesthetic, and in fact artists often react against a prevailing trend. Edward Munch (who painted “The Scream”) is one of few artists to approach the metaphysical savagery of Strauss’s Elektra, whilst his contemporaries such as Gustav Klimt followed a very different path.
Similarly, none of the Art Nouveau architects, such as Horta, Mackintosh or Hoffman tried to cast those emotions into stone: in fact, the harmonious forms and flowing lines of their buildings seem to embody calmness and control, the very antithesis of raw emotion.
Elektra, then, is out on her own.
Smell is an under-rated sense and one we rarely deploy when thinking about architecture. We’re trained to think visually, with some understanding of tactile things, too. Form, scale, mass, light and shade are understood and described in a sophisticated and nuanced way, because we deal with them constantly.
Nevertheless, smell is inescapable. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, growled Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. That association may never leave American soldiers who served in Vietnam. Similarly, architecture goes well beyond the visual.
When the exhibition "Beauty and Waste in the Architecture of Herzog & De Meuron" was staged at the Netherlands Architecture Institute in 2005, the architects created a limited edition perfume called Rotterdam, which listed Rhine water, dog, hashish, algae, vin chaud, fur and tangerine amongst its components. “Since architecture itself cannot be exhibited,” said Jacques Herzog, “we are forever compelled to find substitutes." So they collaborated with a perfumer to fill that void.
Peter Zumthor also touched on the notion of architecture being broader than that in his RIBA Gold Medal address in 2013. “Architecture is not about form, it is about many other things,” he said. “The light and the use, and the structure, and the shadow, the smell and so on.” Yet most smells are by-products of something else. They just happen, rather than being designed.
That’s one difference between buildings and people: people make a conscious decision to smell a particular way. They design themselves, when it comes to aftershave or perfume. Today the desire to own a few drops of liquid sophistication is what supports a £15-billion-a-year fragrance industry. Its results are tangible - often overpowering - yet rather subjective. Smells aren’t easy to define, beyond a concentration of parts per million (ppm) of many different chemicals in the air.
Sound, temperature and humidity in the air are measured in a scientific way; but smell itself is fugitive and the palette, or perhaps palate, required to describe it requires discrimination. It’s defined using a series of words: the whisky nose, the wine buff, the perfume connoisseur each have their exclusive vocabulary.
Perhaps it should be simpler; after all, smell is universal. Whether the scents which take you back to childhood such the cedarwood of a sharpened pencil, or deep in a forest after the rain with wet moss, pine needles and lots of oxygen released into the air, smell is about analogy, and perfumers design scents to evoke these and many other different things.
In fact, scent is literally a chemical analogue of a real thing. Sea salt and ozone are evoked using calzone, the strong scent of the bitter orange is represented by petitgrain, and the muskiness of a furry creature crawling from its den comes from castoreum or civet. There are also the manly smells which work their way into cologne: the aromatics and aldehydes in whisky; or the leathery smell of upholstery and farriers’ shops which inspired “cuir de russie”.
Buildings might also be designed to smell a particular way - if you lined a room with cedarwood panels or floored it with linoleum for the express purpose of spreading the material’s scent. We’re drawn to organic smells, which are wired into our ancestral memory. We feel an affinity towards timber smells - oak tannin, pinewood, cedar - and earth smells such as terracotta, stucco and concrete. Perhaps there’s a receptor in our brain which recalls the smells of medieval houses, the huts before them, then way back to prehistoric caves and forest shelters.
Although we consider that an unoccupied space is empty – aside from its furniture and fittings, the mass of air inside the building picks up aroma because when you sense a smell, you’re actually breathing in molecules of the building material themselves. You may even savour the smell of new buildings. Outside, the smell of wet subsoil and the acrid exhaust of a heavy plant, plus sharp bursts of burning powder from the Hilti gun.
Inside, freshly-ripped softwood gives you the crisp smell of pine as the resin oozes from its sap, then there’s the sharp, limey, bitter smell of new concrete as it cures, and the complex formaldehydes of carpet tiles as they off-gas. Once occupied, the building’s materials settle into the background, providing what perfumers call a “base note” - while a shrill mixture of furniture polish, toilet cleaner and air freshener hits you when you come through the door.
Those are the scents of individual buildings, which combine into a city-wide smell. That can be just as distinctive and as someone else said, Paris is the capital of smell. Balzac, perhaps: “Tout parfum est une combinaison d’air et de lumiere.” Many of the worlds’ great perfume houses grew up there, in grand townhouses off Hausmann’s boulevardes. From the giants of perfumery owned by LVMH, to the niche firms such as Creed or Diptyque, to the candlemakers, Cire Trudon. Given the Parisian sensibility, it’s no surprise that Parisians are stimulated by the noxious as well as the sweet.
One of the most unflattering descriptions was La Morandière’s description of the Palace of Versailles - “The cesspool that adjoins the palace, the park, the gardens, even the castle catches one’s breath with its stinking odours. The paths, the courtyards, the wings of the buildings, the hallways are filled with urine and fecal matter even at the very feet of the ministerial wing, a butcher bleeds and grills his pork every morning, the St. Cloud Avenue is covered with sewer water and dead cats.″
Yet you can combat the latter quite easily. During the Middle Ages, herbs such as chamomile, meadowsweet and lavender were strewn on the ground to give off a sweet smell when trampled, which grew into the Corpus Domini ritual of the flower-carpeted street. Sweet woodruff was hung from kirk rafters, rosemary was burned in hospitals to purify the air, and fires of juniper and laurel branches were lit in city squares during epidemics.
Trees such as cedar, juniper, thuya and laurel are fragrant thanks to their essential oils, which also repel insects and offer some measure of rot-resistance. Using them, plus the first man-made olfactories which we synthesised in Victorian times, we attempted to sanitise the city. Centuries later, we’ve got rid of the smells of horse manure, industrial effluent and latterly vehicle exhaust: yet if you walk through Glasgow, Manchester, Dublin or any other large city today, the impression you still gain is one of rancid piss, unemptied bins and sour drains.
The voiceover man in a recent documentary about Glasgow’s Duke Street, which is Britain’s longest pointed out, “Dirt, filth, stench everywhere - and believe me, there are back courts just as bad as this throughout Glasgow.” When we used fragrant plants to mask those bad smells, that was a reductive use of scent. By contrast, modern cities bombard us with additive smells.
Supermarkets smell a particular way for carefully calculated reasons. Just as they fine-tune the colour temperature of lighting over the fruit displays, and control the volume and tempo of music (Mahler works better than Metallica if you want wine buyers to linger in the Reisling aisle), then the yeasty pastry smell which meets you at the door of Waitrose was designed that way. Similarly, Starbucks, Walt Disney and Dunkin Donuts are reputed to carry out environmental conditioning to “enhance the visitor experience”, ie. using smells to sell more stuff.
This enhancement by scent in buildings isn’t a new idea … in fact, we rarely come across genuinely new ideas – and when we do, we dismiss them too readily because they strike us as sorts with the way we already understand the world. For example, where I grew up there were lots of invisible boundaries. One was the postcode boundary between suburb and countryside, another the catchment line which separated neighbouring primary schools. A subtler one was the Clean Air Act line: houses on one side were built in the 1960’s and had at least one chimney. On the other side, nae lums.
Before central heating banished smoke from our houses, wood fires scented the house and folk with fireplaces, who ignore them throughout the rest of the year, often make up a fire at Christmas time with pine logs. Pine smoke is a welcoming, festive smell… which is now so unfamiliar in the city that we have to visit the grandparents to enjoy the sweet smell of kindling and the acrid smell of bituminous coal banked up in the grate.
Perhaps the Clean Air Act was a turning point, during some otherwise unremarkable year in the 1960’s when the city smelt a little more sterile, ironically just as the perfume houses released all those potent musk colognes and patchouli perfumes which our parents began wearing. Simultaneously, the 1950’s world of coal gas and soot, bleach and carbolic, Woodbines and Izal receded into memory.
The more strongly individuals smell, the more architecture collectively fades into the background. Perhaps that’s another difference between buildings and people.
I’ll return to this again in future, as I’m interested in what the future looks like, and smells like…
A while ago, I wrote about the Beech Starship, a business aircraft which looks like an artefact from a future civilisation. By contrast, the DH103 Hornet fighter appears hopelessly old-fashioned – yet it reached almost 500mph in level flight, which made it the fastest piston-engined aircraft of its day. It could cruise at the speed of many today’s airliners, and outran the first jet-powered fighters.
In many senses, the Hornet was the piston-engined aircraft perfected.
A few weeks ago, the BBC showed a documentary about Eric “Winkle” Brown, the Scots-born test pilot. As a naval aviator, he set a record for the number of landings on aircraft carriers which has never been beaten, and when in his unassuming way Brown describes the Hornet as the favourite from all the different aircraft he flew, that means something. Captain Brown has flown more types of aircraft than anyone else in history.
Eric Brown is a top candidate for the Most Interesting Man in the World. As a schoolboy, he attended the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and met a WW1 flying ace. During WW2, he escaped from the wreckage of a torpedoed ship, helped to liberate Belsen and took 2,000 enemy prisoners armed only with a pistol – not to mention a few close calls where he had to abort and promptly GTFO using a parachute. After the War ended, he interrogated leading Nazis including Hermann Goering, aircraft manufacturer Ernst Heinkel and designer Willie Messerschmitt. Brown was the first man to fly a jet on and off an aircraft carrier, and he set aviation records that will almost certainly never be broken.
The de Havilland Hornet was his favourite, "For the simple reason it was over-powered. This is an unusual feature in an aircraft, you could do anything on one engine, almost, that you could do on two. It was a 'hot rod Mosquito' really, I always described it as like flying a Ferrari in the sky." The Hornet was the fastest twin piston-engined operational combat aircraft in the world while in service, and the first aircraft to demonstrate a cartwheel manoeuvre.
At the root of any aircraft’s design is the equation which resolves power, weight, lift, drag and trim into performance. In simplistic terms, power makes an aircraft climb whereas attitude varies its speed. The Hornet’s high rate of climb came thanks to the Rolls-Royce Merlin, arguably the engine of the 20th Century, which in this case developed more than 2000hp from 27 litres of swept volume. Just like the Mosquito, the Hornet had a pair of Merlins but in this case they were faired into streamlined “power eggs”.
The Hornet’s top speed is partly the function of a low co-efficient of drag arising from a sleek fuselage and a laminar flow wing; this thin wing was made possible by new materials. The Hornet’s long range came thanks to its light weight; both strength and light weight derived from de Havilland’s early mastery of composite construction.
During the 1930’s, aircraft structures evolved from doped fabric stretched across an ash frame, to the geodesic spaceframe of steel tubes which Barnes Wallis used in the Wellington bomber, and eventually to all-metal stressed skin structures. De Havillands went their own way, searching for a different method of achieving strength and lightness. They settled on timber, but rather than a load-bearing timber frame (like a Morgan car or a timber kit house) they developed the first composite monocoque.
Unlike the Beech Starship, a revolutionary aircraft which used carbon composites, the Hornet wasn’t a great leap into the unknown; it’s an evolutionary aircraft, albeit one at the very apex of its line of evolution. De Havillands had been working on composites for a decade before the first Hornet took flight - although their initial objective was to build stronger, lighter propellers.
In order to cope with more powerful engines, propellers had grown in diameter, gained more blades, and their tip speeds were approaching the sound barrier. As a result, the centrifugal forces at the propeller hub had increased to the point where there were many catastrophic failures. De Havilland Propellers worked with Aero Research at Duxford to overcome the drawbacks of laminated timber props, successfully using phenol-formaldehyde resin in the manufacture of propellers. The attraction of this material was that, with a density of around half that of aluminium alloy, centrifugal forces at the root were greatly reduced.
De Havillands was a rare aircraft company which made everything for itself. Piston engines were built at Stag Lane in Edgware, then jet engines and later rocket motors plus of course complete aircraft at Hatfield, Leavesden and later Hawarden. As a result, it was able to cross-fertilise materials research between propellors, wings and fuselage design.
The work on propellers “spun off” into fuselage and wing structures for the (almost) all-timber Mosquito, which the wartime Press christened the Wooden Wonder. The Mosquito was built from sandwich panels consisting of thin skins of plywood veneer bonded to a core of end-grain balsa wood. The core functions just like the web of an I-beam while the plywood skins function as the flanges. The sandwich panel's bending stiffness is proportional to the core thickness, in the same way that an I-beam becomes stiffer as the web deepens. Doubling the core thickness yields a panel roughly six times stronger and 12 times stiffer.
At a time when other WW2 combatants were desperately trying to smelt cobalt, vanadium and other rare metals into exotic alloys, it seems bizarre that de Havillands were in the market for balsa wood. You can only assume that German spies put this down to British eccentricity, if they even remarked on it at all, yet Baltek’s sawmills in America struggled to keep up with demand. Today the technology seems so accessible; hobbyists and model-makers have access to the same plywood veneers, balsa wood and epoxy glues that de Havillands used.
Plywood was a relatively new material, and also a composite, with plies of different thicknesses and orientations providing degrees of strength and stiffness. As well as de Havilland themselves, the Mosquito was built by Roe, Gloster, Phillips & Powis and even Venesta –the forerunner of Venesta Cubicles which is still in business today. In 1937 their "Venesta" plywood and "Plymax" metal-faced plywood made them an ideal choice as fabricators of ply composite aircraft such as the Mosquito.
The DH103 Hornet evolved from the DH98 Mosquito - and as is the way of things, it became lighter, faster, more powerful and stronger. Once step forward was the way de Havilland built the Hornet’s wing spars, and another was the wing surfaces themselves.
Mosquito wing spars have all-wooden tension and compression booms, but this would have been impossible for the Hornet, because of the large cross-section of wood necessary for the more highly-loaded wing. The problem was overcome by making the tension booms from aluminium extrusions, and using wood for the spar webs and compression booms. A layer of veneer was bonded to the aluminium parts then everything was assembled to form a spar of remarkably low weight and high strength.
The Hornet’s wings comprised an aerofoil with a composite wood and metal internal structure, with a stressed birch-ply double upper skin and an under surface of reinforced “Alclad”. This was the first time that aluminium had been bonded to timber in a structural fashion. Lift acting on the Hornet’s wing meant that the metal skin on the underside of the wing went into tension, and the ply-balsa composite went into compression – so the materials’ inherent qualities were used to best advantage.
The idea of combining skins of ply and aluminium with a lightweight core was a conceptual leap born of on a new generation of synthetic adhesives. De Havillands’ composite structures relied upon a new epoxy resin developed by Aero Research. This glue, “Redux 775”, was developed in 1941 as the first modern, synthetic structural adhesive for metals - and it was first used in the Hornet Mk1 which was built at Hatfield.
In 1948, de Havillands acquired an aircraft factory at Hawarden Airfield near Chester: it was used to build and assemble the Hornet Mk3, while other parts were manufactured at the firm’s factory in nearby Lostock. The Hornet’s fuselage was built in two halves which joined together on the centreline, so called “egg carton” construction using cold moulding to form the curves.
This monocoque structure gave the fuselage a high degree of redundancy which meant that the aircraft could sustain terrible damage yet keep flying. Many Mosquitos returned home missing large chunks of wings, fins and control surfaces, shot away by enemy cannon fire. Timber composites also avoided the hidden dangers of metal fatigue, which de Havilland fell foul of with their Comet airliner during the 1950’s.
Without the work of Aero Research and de Havilland Aircraft in the 1930’s and 1940’s, it’s arguable that there would be no plywood composites or structural adhesives, hence the SIP panel and the JJI joist wouldn’t exist, either. It’s also worth noting that the Beech Starship, which was hailed as revolutionary in form and construction, isn’t as original as I implied. The Starship was also built in two halves, and epoxy resins were also used to bond its composites together.
Although it marked the apex of de Havilland’s piston engine development, there’s no sense in which de Havillands developed a Pygmalion-like relationship with the Hornet. Even as it first flew in 1944, the firm was already building jet-propelled aircraft, so the Hornet’s career was cut short. Nonetheless, its gift to us all is composite construction, which the designers of racing cars, airliners, yachts, buildings and even fridge freezers take for granted.
The late Martin Pawley was fascinated by these technology transfers, and the crossovers between architecture and other fields. As a columnist in the AJ, BD and so forth he wrote about the design of tube trains, cars and aircraft – seeing them as complementary to architecture. He recognised the truisms that racing improves the breed, and war pushes technology forwards faster than peace. While this bandwagon was passing, I thought I'd jump onto it…
Pawley was in tune with the spirit prevailing during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when Richard Horden built a series of houses using off-the-shelf components from racing yachts, then Rogers and Foster completed a series of buildings which borrowed from the automotive and aerospace industries, such as neoprene gaskets and super-formed metals. This climate gave birth to a thousand architectural dissertations about Lotus sports cars, Slingsby sailplanes and McLaren F1.
Unwittingly, they echoed a pattern from 50 years before, when wartime firms desperately hunted around for peacetime outlets once hostilities ended. De Havilland were fortunate, as their focus shifted readily from military to civilian aircraft. Venesta gave up flying and came to specialise in toilet cubicles and IPS systems. Others were not so lucky.
What about the legacy of Ronald Bishop, who designed the Hornet? He should be remembered for helping to win the War using pioneering materials: but today it seems that War means rousing musicals, martial style (smart uniforms never go out of fashion) and the cult of the Great Man. Our superficial treatment of that era ignores Bishop and his counterparts Barnes Wallis, RJ Mitchell and Roy Chadwick who were responsible for the Wellington, Spitfire and Lancaster respectively.
They were complete designers, in the sense that they harnessed materials science, structures, aerodynamics, manufacturing techniques as well as considering damage tolerance and repairability. They also had a sense of purpose which is difficult for us to grasp now: they were part of Churchill’s enormous enterprise which stretched from shadow factories making widgets to the invention of operational research.
The sadness is that no Hornets survive at all today, although there are rumours that an entire squadron was dismantled and buried under an airfield in Malaysia when they became surplus to requirements. It seems unlikely that anyone will disinter them, but you never know…
Images courtesy of the Hornet Project website, which has temporarily disappeared from the web.
Type “Brick Shortage” into a search engine and it will return thousands of hits. TV news editors have despatched their dashing reporters (in brand new wellies) to stand uncomfortably in puddles of clay, while stolid men in boilersuits tell them that business is good. In fact, business is better than it’s been for at least five years. Behind them lie huge stacks of russet-coloured facings, wrapped in steel bands. So where’s the shortage?
Elsewhere, red-faced contractors’ buyers roar down the phone at merchants, frustrated by lengthening lead times and prices which have firmed up in recent months. Site managers are screaming for another ten thousand as the brickies shrug, heading for an early finish since they have no more bricks to lay. Perhaps there really is a shortage on some sites - and might we stop specifying bricks as a result?
The downturn of 2008 saw house-building collapse to a level not seen since the Great Depression, and because so many spec houses are clad in brick, its makers suffered. The industry carried on making bricks for a while, but eventually it was left with a stockpile of 1.2 billion unsold bricks – around half a normal year’s demand. Accordingly, it began mothballing and closing factories for good - for example, Hanson shut five plants and reduced its workforce by half. UK brick production fell from almost three billion per year in the first half of the 2000’s, to around half that level.
In Scotland, Errol Brick closed for good in March 2008, and Caradale Traditional Brick closed both their works in September 2011. As I wrote earlier, that leaves only Raeburn Brick with an active brickworks north of the border – and Jimmy Raeburn noted that his factory can meet about 15% of Scottish demand. Suddenly, the market is recovering strongly and house-building is leading that. However, the narrative in the media is that brick shortages are holding back the recovery. Can the brick manufacturers meet pent-up demand? Is the Great 2014 Brick Shortage just a newspaper scare story?
From a peak level of around 200 million bricks produced each month in 2007, demand dropped below supply and during a couple of troughs in 2009, fewer than 40 million bricks were delivered to site each month. However, ignoring the annual cycle of shut-downs (many brickworks close for planned maintenance every December), the trend is upwards from around 100 million a month in 2009, to around 150 million per month this year.
So the evidence is that brick-makers have responded to demand by increasing production. Hanson, for example, plans to reverse the 2010 closure of a plant at Claughton in Lancashire by the end of the year, and is putting on additional shifts at two other works. Even during the darkest years of the recession, the larger, well-capitalised brick companies were actually building capacity, in anticipation of the recovery. Hanson built a new factory at Measham in Leicestershire in 2009 and Ibstock opened a new factory at Chesterton in Staffordshire in 2013. Between them, they made an investment of £75m which bolsters supply by bringing new more efficient “super brickworks” on line.
On analysis, the problem may actually derive from the demand side. Much of the panic seems to arise from the low stock levels which brick merchants are carrying at the moment, and the fact that there’s a lead time of several weeks on many types of brick. Bear in mind, though, the luxurious position which contractors enjoyed three or four years ago, when almost any quantity of bricks could be had “ex stock”, and full artic loads could be called off instantly … provided you had good credit.
How that demand works in practice is that brick production in September 2013 was 14% higher than the year before, but stocks were 34% lower and imports were 34% higher. Hence production was increasing, but demand outstripped it and was met by a combination of imports and running down stockpiles. However, the peak in brick consumption may not be a natural result of an open market.
It’s been reported that some house builders are panic-buying or trying to arrange exclusive access to certain bricks. If that’s the case, then the Great 2014 Brick Shortage is both a self-fulfilling prophecy – the more people worry about it, the worse their actions make it – and a symptom of the chaotic way the construction industry moves from trough to peak.
The brick makers could cope with either of those conditions if the market remained steady, but the really tough times come when demand halves or doubles in the space of a year or two. The lead-in time for a new brickworks isn’t the 18 months it takes to build and equip the brick factory itself, but the five or more years required to battle through Planning inquiries, receive minerals extraction consents then finally open up new clay pits to feed it.
It’s the cyclical nature of the construction industry which is the real problem, acting like a Great British Whale which rises from the ocean depths and spouts out a vast plume of work, before diving into an abyss for the next few years.
What the brick firms must hope is that this “shortage” doesn’t turn into a long term re-run of the 1940’s and ‘50’s. Britain suffered an even greater shortage of bricks in the years after the Second World War when everything was in short supply, and building licences were required before construction could start. One consequence was the rise of prefabricated metal and timber houses, plus concrete system building. By the building booms of the 1960’s, the brick industry had vastly increased its capacity, and was able to compete with “modern methods of construction”. Sounds familiar?
However, the interactions of the market don’t affect bricks in isolation. In the post-war era, steel was also in short supply and since reinforced concrete uses far less steel (in the form of rebar) than a pure steel-framed building would, then both in-situ framed and precast panel systems gained in popularity. You could accuse them of opportunism, but in the last few weeks, a well-known Aberdeenshire timber kit firm has begun marketing its frames to house-builders in the south-east of England.
The Great 2014 Brick Shortage headline does little to help, as the industry goes from glut to scarcity and back again in the length of time it takes to plan, build and bring a brick factory into production. What’s needed is long term stability so that brick can be considered calmly alongside timber kit, steel frame or the various SIP’s and hybrid panel systems coming onto the market. Perhaps a steady demand will encourage a manufacturer to build a new brick factory in Scotland, as I alluded to here in a previous piece.
After all, the opencast coal industry was recently rescued by Hargreaves after Scottish Coal and ATH Resources folded, and one of coal extraction’s “by products” is vast quantities of fireclay, which would otherwise be ploughed down during land remediation…
Why do we read biographies? It’s a question I’ve asked before and one for which I’m still working out the answer. Many of us have an idle fascination with other peoples’ lives, which is why so many books of biography are produced. Most are written about well-known or famous people, and we read about them for different reasons.
Perhaps we’re smitten by them; we want to understand the root of their genius; we hope to learn something about how they came about their fortune, or we simply hope that their lives are more interesting than our own. It helps if the subject has a complicated past: 18-carat love affairs, bankruptcies, court proceedings, that kind of thing. Driven or downright strange characters are welcome, provided they have redeeming features. Those who crop at history’s pivotal events are a biographer’s dream.
As a result, Winston Churchill’s life is one of the 20th century’s most written-about, and he rarely disappoints. Perhaps, as a biographer himself, he lived his life with an eye on history’s lens.
Architectural biographies are uncommon, probably in proportion to the number of architects which the reading public can name. Charles Rennie Mackintosh is universally-known, and Norman Foster springs to mind as the only living architect which non-architects have heard of, thanks to his bouncy bridge as much as the viaduct at Millau or the HSBC bank in Hong Kong. These biographies can be split into three types, including a recent one about Foster by Deyan Sudjic in which his career was allegedly subject to some Stalinist editing.
Visual biographies which combine life and work into one, usually larger format, book with lots of images of the work. These are usually published by art book-type publishers on art paper, and are often authorised by the subject. All carry with them the danger of self-glorification, and because the lesser ones are uncritical they become little more than practice brochures. Visual biogs tend to be reviewed in the architectural glossies.
Full-blown biographies which concentrate on life and people, to which detailed discussion of the work becomes incidental. These are often produced by publishers with a respected list of biographies, such as Faber & Faber, and whilst sometimes authorised, often include a whiff of revisionism or scandal. They are sometimes researched while the subject is living, but are often published after their death – witness Susie Harries’ book about Nikolaus Pevsner. These full-blown books tend to get serious notices in the broadsheets.
A handful are vanity publications – titled “A Life in Architecture”, or something similar – which are written by architects in their 70’s or 80’s with an eye to posterity. These are self-published or put out by small presses and rarely get reviews. The reason for that isn’t that the architect was unexceptional, rather that the book has greater value as a representation of the context or milieu in which they practiced. In a similar way, Colonel Siefert took the role of a walk-on villain in books such as Oliver Marriott’s “The Property Boom”, which isn’t a biography at all, but includes many pen portraits.
In the first category are Alan Powers’ books on Albert Richardson or Tayler & Green which pull together both career and life, providing glimpses of how they fitted together. Rutter Carroll’s biog of Ryder & Yates is also a model of this approach, whereas Miles Glendinning’s long-awaited book on Robert Matthew is definitive but spoiled by its rather dry tone, and the author’s agenda. Namely, to concentrate on certain aspects of his subject’s career at the expense of others. There are so many aspects to draw upon: Lorimer, Royal Festival Hall, Turnhouse, work for the Hydro Board, Universities, Power Stations, New Town and conservation work, New Zealand House, and the International and Commonwealth architecture bodies? Perhaps you can’t fit them all into 624 pages.
The second type of biography includes Bryan Appleyard’s book about Richard Rogers, an authorised biography from 25 years ago, which is one of the best on a Modern architect. Rogers is sympathetically drawn, his humanity and flaws are illustrated without dwelling on them, and a picture emerges of him, his work, and his view of the world. Of course, there’s a supreme difficulty in trying to relate someone’s character to the work they produce: for example, was the Pompidou Centre competition really a happy accident, won by a crew of innocents? If you read these books with the aim of pinning down the essence of the man or woman in order to figure out how they design, and then steal that essence - you’ll set the book down and walk away disappointed.
Appleyard’s tales of James Stirling stealing ashtrays from posh hotels are nothing compared to the indiscretions about “Big Jim” in Mark Girouard’s book of the same name. The latter was somewhat less authorised than Appleyard’s book about Rogers, and discusses an architect in the past tense. While everyone cares about their reputation, and descendants leap to their defence once they have passed on, it’s true that you can’t libel the dead. A bad biography is a poor read, but won’t usually result in legal action. But Big Jim is another excellent book, which provides a unique insight into the man which his carefully-curated oeuvre displayed in the Black Book and White Book could never do.
Naturally, the best-known architects have had several books written about them. Modern masters like Aalto are portrayed as universal men. Corb appears like a Nietzschean force of nature, and Frank Lloyd Wright lived several lives over the course of his lifetime. Both are huge characters who biographers struggle to contain within one book. Architects such as Louis Kahn are different. An air of tragedy surrounded him, and the unrealised projects became even more poignant once you learn more about his life, and the circumstances of his death. This book achieves an sad, elegiac quality, whereas Nigel Warburton’s book about Erno Goldfinger is pure melodrama.
You get the feeling there were more, even darker and stranger, things which Warburton could have told us about Goldfinger, but was unable to do. Charismatics are a problem to the biographer, because they tend to be “controlling”, and make efforts to edit their own past. Goldfinger‘s wartime career was lived like an Alastair Maclean novel. His practice was a testing place to work and his personality overhung everything it produced. Towards the end of their life, men and women like Goldfinger make bonfires of their scrapbooks, diaries and photos; perhaps they develop an uncanny sense that someone will come along afterwards and do a hatchet job on them.
In fact, primary sources are everything. Without the chance to interview the subject, you approach their friends and colleagues. Once they’re gone (and only if their estate co-operates, back to the authorised approach) you can read through your subject’s personal papers. If those have been burned, you have to rely on anecdote and speculation, perhaps filled out with snippets from the Press of the day, and photos of the buildings. This is why some lives are written at article length when you know fine that they deserve an entire book.
Of the third type of biography, I would have loved to see a book on Peter Womersley’s life, although Rutland Press never did get around to publishing it. Perhaps it will appear yet in another form. I seem to recall a few minor press biographies cropping up in book dealer’s catalogues, one example from an architect-planner from Edinburgh, whose name eludes me just now… and I once came across a slim book about the life and ideas of a self-taught architect-monk who designed his own monastery with radically-detailed brickwork. The market for books about self-taught architect-monks must be limited – although I lent it to someone who didn’t return it, so perhaps there is more of an appetite than I give credit for.
There are parallels in other disciplines. One in particular was written by a naval architect, the splendidly-named Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt, who was the Admiralty’s Director of Naval Construction, in overall charge of designing the biggest capital ships for the Royal Navy during the spell between the Wars when it was the world’s most powerful. In it you’ll discover that he treats his career in a humble and self-deprecating way and downplays his achievement in creating the world’s largest and most complex machines for Churchill (there he is again) when the latter was First Sea Lord.
The protagonist never comes across as a “man of destiny”, yet he made the most of his circumstances and a peculiar combination of destiny, personality and luck came good. So apart from the banal conclusion that great architects didn’t necessarily lead great lives, it’s true that some characters deserve a book about themselves, far more than their contemporaries deserve a book written about their work.
There are many books in print or available second hand about the lives of Winston Churchill, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. As for the others I mentioned,
Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life, by Susie Harries; Pimlico, 2013
Norman Foster: A Life in Architecture, by Deyan Sudjic; Phoenix, 2012
Sir Albert Richardson: 1880-1964, by Simon Houfe, Alan Powers, John Wilton-Ely; RIBA Publications, 1999
Ryder and Yates, Rutter Carroll; RIBA Publications, 2009
Modern Architect: the Life and Times of Robert Matthew, by Miles Glendinning; RIBA Publications, 2008
Richard Rogers: A Biography, by Bryan Appleyard; Faber & Faber, 1986
Big Jim: The Life and Work of James Stirling, by Mark Girouard; Chatto & Windus, 1998
Louis I. Kahn: Beyond Time and Style - A Life in Architecture, by Carter Wiseman; W.W. Norton, 2007
Ernő Goldfinger: The Life of an Architect, by Nigel Warburton; Routledge, 2004
Peter Womersley, by Joseph Blackburn and Simon Green; Rutland Press, not published.
Dom Paul Bellot: Architect and Monk and the publication of Propos d'un batisseur du Bon Dieu, by Peter Willis; Elysium Press,1996
A Shipbuilder's Yarn; The Record of a Naval Constructor, Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt; Hutchinson, 1948
I wrote this when I visited the smouldering remains of the Mac a few weeks ago, although I didn’t get around to posting it until now as we were away in Ireland (trying to avoid the World Cup, in the same manner as Brazil's goalkeeper wishes he could have).
Even now, a week later, the smell of fire hangs in the air.
Things look normal from Dalhousie Street, but Renfrew Street is filled by a giant mobile crane, its outriggers stretching from pavement to pavement. Scott Street is barricaded off, and Reigart Demolition are already working on the dampened-down shell of the library.
Saturday afternoon strollers peer through the Heras fence panels at the crane and a skylift platform parked alongside it. Tourists take photos on their iPhones as the crane takes down the library tower, one block at a time. A couple of men hang suspended in the basket of the lift, 100 feet up, slinging the stones and directing the crane driver.
The parapet above the library’s oriel windows, at the western gable end of the building, was badly damaged in the fire. Each tiny piece of ashlar is lifted from its bed of lime mortar then descends, growing all the time until it becomes a metre-long block of sandstone which is landed gently on a pallet. One of Reigart’s men notes that none of the blocks weigh more than 200kg – otherwise an even larger crane would have been required.
From my vantage point on top of a wall, I spot a couple of local worthies approaching. One is like a middle-aged Anthony Burgess, whose features have compressed over the course of a hard life. He has pouches under his eyes and broad cheeks which have slumped into large jowls. Despite the sunshine his companion wears a greatcoat, and has a wild beard and sparkling eyes. They are out for their Saturday constitutional, in between pit stops.
The bearded chap glanced sideways at me -
Ye ken what did it?
I’d heard it was a slide projector which went on fire, after a lump of foam landed on it.
He shook his head.
“A lassie in the toilets - smokin’ a fag - it’ll be in aa the papers!
In the papers?
He looked questioningly at my camera, then me.
“Are you fae the Evening Times?” Shake of head. “The Herald?” Nope.
I have met Peter Ross, of Daunderlust fame, though, and he notes that Glasgow may be the only European city to have once been home to more than a million people, but to now have fewer than that.
That should give both of these worthies, the School of Art’s governors, and the City Fathers something else to worry about. Glasgow’s tax base, how it projects itself, and its future are at stake – think for example of the “Scotland with Style” banner which hung incongruously next to the derelict shell of Gray Dunn’s biscuit factory on the Southside.
The bearded chap isn’t impressed by my analysis.
“What’s your interest then son?”
I replied that I just wanted to see the devastation for myself.
He scrutinises me.
“Take it easy my man” he declares finally, as the two wander off up Dalhousie Street, arguing about how the Scottish education system should be funded…
Hopefully the restoration is swift and true. No-one wants to see a burned-out husk where Macintosh’s best work once stood.
How the web flattens out architectural history
Shearer and Annand were an important and long-established Scottish practice, who dissolved in 1994 – the year the World Wide Web was created. I worked for them when I left school – my first job, during the long summer when Acid House reigned and the Stone Roses ruled the radio. Shearer & Annand had almost reached the end of the architectural practice lifecycle by then, and worked from an office in Maygate, the old quarter of Dunfermline, along with a branch office in Broughty Ferry.
I sat there, beside a dormer window overlooking Brook Street on a creaky drafting stool and answered the phone, traced simple details using a drafting machine, and took dyeline prints. The diazo machine sat in an ammonia-reeking back room lined with old product literature and was literally eye-watering … I can just about remember “linens” (really plastic film) and brown-tinted copy negs. All the time spent in that office, had a primitive fax machine and a borrowed xerox machine in the foreground, and a background of tomorrow’s music.
Lairg Power Station, Shearer & Annand
During lunchtimes, I worked my way through a large stack of unread AJ’s – from the days when Patrick Hannay’s building reviews alone made it worth reading, and both the strong monochrome photos of urban decay, and vivid colour portraits of new buildings impressed themselves on my receptive mind. Everything was new to me, and in retrospect I learned far more from my time at Shearer & Annand than I gave credit for at the time: yet I had no idea of Shearer and Annands’ history, or their significance in 1950’s and 1960’s Scottish architecture.
That came many years later, when I read about James Shearer’s work for the Hydro Board and came to strongly identify with his approach. Marcus Johnston and Gordon Withers wound up the practice four years after I left, so Shearer & Annand exist now only in a virtual sense; the RCAHMS have preserved their archive, and part of it has been placed on line thanks to the Scottish Architects’ Papers preservation project. A limited amount of material by them and about them is available on the web – given my connection, I thought it would be worthwhile finding out more.
Aigas Power Station, Shearer & Annand
A few weeks ago, I travelled into a parallel world where the remains of the practice exist in aspic. In RCAHMS’s archive, there are buff card folders full of cream-coloured bond paper and yellow carbon copies – the letters transcribed onto them are typed in the articulate, exact language which business was conducted in during the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Not any more. Also gone is our ability to specify in poetic terms like James Shearer could:
“Facework to be random rubble not exceeding 11” high, and except where pinning is necessary, not less than 4”. No stone to exceed 180 square inches in area, or to be less than 5” thick on bed. Stone to be quarry-split, with only a moderate amount of tooling to dress off large projections. One deep bond stone to every superficial yard of surface; and inbands and outbands to external corners to be brought to courses. Joints to be raked out 3/4” deep, flush pointed, and wiped with a rubber pad.”
James Shearer tried very hard to make modern buildings which were intrinsically Scottish, and he succeeded in capturing the magical massing and proportions, along with using the right materials for his work’s setting. He was one of several consultants to the Hydro Board, but after the deaths of Tarbolton and Fairlie (in 1947 and 1953 respectively), he landed a number of large commissions. In fact, his client Edward MacColl (the chairman of NoSHEB) and he travelled around the Highlands together, looking at exposed concrete and natural stone, to see which weathered best.
Achanalt Power Station, Shearer & Annand
David Walker, the architectural historian, characterised James Shearer as an Edwardian character, a slim man who wore a brown suit, high-laced boots and a broad-brimmed felt hat. Hence Shearer & Annand – their work and the men themselves – have been portrayed by architectural historians, rather than by Shearer and Annand. That may not matter, yet it does if we have any doubt about how accurately the web portrays them. Had they stayed in business as a practice, there’s no doubt that a website would have been commissioned at some point, although it may only have featured their recent work. Architects’ websites are promotional tools rather than archival documents, and this often gives them the taint of public relations; more noticeably, they are often myopic. With only a few exceptions, a practice’s more recent works take precedence, and history is flattened out.
There are many firms in Scotland with antecedents stretching back half a century, but the current protagonists have a bias towards recent memory. The past is a foreign country, and all that … if you look at RMJM’s or Reiach & Hall’s websites. This selective view of practice hangs in the ether, picking up links and perhaps even gaining credibility. From there, context is rapidly lost, and we head towards a place where posterity is served by a top ranking on Google. The website’s potential to act as an ongoing recording device, capturing architecture as it happens and holding it there for the future, remains untapped. Provided with a suitable bit of software which serves the web pages in a suitable format – the web is moving from HTML towards XML – the information could sit on a secure server and remain accessible for as long as the web is.
Plas Menai, Bowen Dann Davies
Equally telling is what happens if you have no profile at all. A while ago, I became interested in a Welsh practice called Bowen Dann Davies, after coming across a passing reference to them. By coincidence, their architecture has similarities to Shearer and Annand’s: pitched roof, stone facings, and accretive massing. As I knew very little about recent architecture in Wales, I turned to the internet for information, particularly on their National Watersports Centre, Plas Menai.
Web searches and queries turned up next to nothing about the practice itself, until eventually a link tucked away in an obscure part of a large database brought me to the architects’ homepage. They’re now called Bowen Dann Knox, and their presence on the web means little if it is so well hidden that people can’t find it. I guess they haven’t submitted it to search engines, although their work deserves to be better known. The website can’t act as a promotional tool, far less a documentary source, if no one can find it.
Conwy Castle Visitor Centre, Bowen Dann Davies
Today, the internet presents a cavalcade of history: Beethoven bops with Blondie, Robert the Bruce batters Francis Begbie, Felix the Cat smokes Snoop Dogg – and if you look closely enough, all of human life is here. If that’s the perception, it’s a misconception. In fact, plenty of architects still don’t have a website – for instance, the Adam Brothers never got around to uploading theirs – and many of those who do, haven’t asked the most important question. “What’s this for?”
As before, all photos were taken by Mark Chalmers, and all are copyright.
The fire at Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s gesamtkunstwerk on Renfrew Street on 23rd May 2014 was quite unlike the everyday disasters we see on television. Those usually afflict people in other countries, wrecking their lives through the action of cyclones, tsunami, or a hail of bullets. On Friday the western end of the School of Art, including its beautiful library, was gutted by fire.
Thankfully no-one was injured, but the building and its contents were seriously damaged – by the flames then the thousands of gallons of water which quickly followed. It’s especially bad luck, since the School of Art was due to fit the building with a fire suppression system in the next few months. Also, with the degree show approaching, many students had brought all their work in for assessment. The timing couldn’t have been worse.
Mackintosh’s biographers have portrayed the man as being unlucky. By the late 20th century, he was held to be a prophet without honour in Scotland, who firstly went into exile in Suffolk, then latterly to the south of France. But for ill fortune and circumstances, Mackintosh could have been a prolific genius in the Wright or Corb mould. That’s an assertion which people have argued about for decades.
However, there’s no disputing the fact that Mackintosh’s buildings have suffered even worse fortune.
The Hill House had to be rescued from dereliction in the early 1980’s, with a helping hand from the RIAS. Queen’s Cross Church was converted into a visitor centre after it was abandoned as a kirk. The House for an Art Lover was stillborn, although it was eventually built on a different site to serve a different role. The Tenement House was rescued from motorway bulldozers and transplanted into William Whitfield’s Hunterian Museum. Now Glasgow School of Art has suffered a catastrophe.
Heartbreaking as it is, the fire proves several things. In a moment, it rendered insignificant Steven Holl’s new Reid Building across the street. No-one cares how good that might be, when faced with the destruction of Mackintosh’s original. The new building would always be in the older building’s shadow, now it will become a home for the fire’s refugees, rather than a building in its own right.
Mackintosh achieved the seeming impossible, by creating a modern architecture which was intrinsically Scottish – without pastiche, caricature or the kind of ersatz baronialism which consigned attempts from Abbotsford to the Scandic Crown Hotel to the dustbin of history. No-one since Mackintosh has built a convincingly modern Scottish building. James Shearer, Robert Hurd, Page & Park and Crichton Wood have tried; Robert Matthew came closest.
At the same time, Mackintosh was a romantic renegade, to use Tony Dugdale’s phrase. His was a synthesising intellect and he was a creative individual, rather than a design committee in the modern fashion. His exile came at the height of his creative powers, and the parabolic curve of his career – from *that* portrait with louche moustache and floppy cravat, to an early death – combined to mythologise him. It also granted him immortality, as it did for Lord Byron and Jim Morrison.
Mackintosh had to manage a difficult site on a steep slope, a restricted budget and an ambitious client. The School of Art surmounted those problems, and became an integral part of the neighbourhood. The fringes and skater shoes of the art students flow into a rolling sea of neds with IrnBru cans on Sauchiehall Street, genteel waves of patrons for the CCA and Cooper Hay, (Scotland’s poshest book dealer), plus the ebb tide of Blythswood with its dubious night-time economy.
Few architects understand how light works, particularly the watery light of Clydeside, as well as Mackintosh. The impact of the sequence of rooms in the Hill House – the grand reveal as you enter the Tenement House – and especially the sequence which leads you into Glasgow School of Art’s library – demonstrates Mackintosh’s mastery of it. When you walk into one of those spaces, the birse on the back of your neck stands up, you get goose-bumps and you stand silently, trying to figure out how Mackintosh did it.
He may have spawned a CRM repro industry, but unlike the “Mockintosh” designers who stole his clothes during the 80’s, it seems Mackintosh built well. It’s little surprise that the fire caught quickly then raged for hours: the building was lined with old dry wood, and the students’ turps, canvas and paper fed a fire which reached high temperatures. We’re told that 90% of the building fabric can be saved – despite the crimson flames which leapt from the windows and through the roof of the library.
It’s certain that the School of Art will be rebuilt swiftly and faithfully; Mackintosh’s stature and its A-Listing guarantees that. The less imaginative will speak about a phoenix on Renfrew Street, but it will never be the same; even the most faithful rebuilding is still a reproduction job. The masonry can probably be salvaged; the windows probably can’t be. Timber will need to be matched up, and the decorative work will need painstaking restoration.
Technically speaking, perhaps the timber can be treated with “Aquafire” or “HR Prof” to fire-proof it; a VESDA system could be installed to provide early warning of a future fire; and the School of Art could be plumbed for sprinklers, as had been intended later this year. Eventually, it will be reopened and the new work will gradually tone down towards what remains of Mackintosh’s original.
Why is it worth all this effort?
Standing on the sidelines of an Andy & Isi crit in the Bourdon Building during the late 1990’s, I reflected on why we train architects in ugly, dismal and poorly-articulated buildings. By contrast, the Mackintosh building is the best teaching tool an architecture student or tutor could have on their blonde sandstone doorstep. Hopefully the restoration of the School of Art will reveal the anatomy of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s genius to a new generation.
Meantime, the first task for Simpson & Brown, or whoever gets the job of restoring Glasgow School of Art, will be to order up a large tanker of good luck for 167 Renfrew Street.
In the spring of 2012, I visited an abandoned brickworks. The firm which ran it had already passed out of existence: I strode across tussocks of grass beaten flat by the winter storms, then over a flooded hardstanding which stank of gas oil.
Inside, the brick-making machines had already been dismantled – their gear wheels, guards and bed plates were strewn around inside – but everything else appeared intact. The walls were coated in decades’ worth of shale dust, and the floors were hidden under standing water.
I guess it’s no surprise to discover that an architect is interested in bricks, and grows a wee bit pious and sentimental when a firm whose products he has specified passes from existence. Perhaps bricks don’t mean much to the general public. After all, people overestimate the significance of their own field – this bias is known as the “deformation professionelle” – but the brick is a universal material.
The previous day, I had finished reading a book about Playfair.
The Playfair we’re most familiar with is William, who was born in 1790 and designed classical buildings in the New Town, and Scotland’s Shame on Calton Hill. What I learned about Playfair the architect encouraged me to read about the rest of his family. William came from a talented family, and the uncle after whom he was named was perhaps the most talented. His story goes far beyond the narrow concerns of architecture to touch many aspects of how the modern world works.
The elder William was born in Dundee, the fourth son of the minister of Liff and Benvie, James Playfair. William was a lad o’ pairts, as they say here, and over the course of his life, his flexible mind and good Scots tongue enabled him to become a millwright, engineer, draughtsman, accountant, inventor, silversmith, merchant, investment broker, economist, statistician, pamphleteer, translator, publicist, land speculator, convict, banker, editor, blackmailer and journalist…
Perhaps he never became a brickmaker, but Playfair grew up during the Scottish Enlightenment and after an apprenticeship with Andrew Meikle, the inventor of the threshing machine, at 18 years of age, he became assistant to James Watt. William’s greatest achievement is the so-called Playfair cycle, which presciently looked forward to how capitalism works:
Wealth and power have never been long permanent in any place.
They travel over the face of the earth, something like a caravan of merchants.
On their arrival, every thing is found green and fresh; while they remain all is bustle and abundance, and, when gone, all is left trampled down, barren, and bare.
Playfair summed up the never-ending drive for efficiency, and anticipated the nature of manufacturing. It’s now cheaper to build and equip a new greenfield factory, than to renovate and run an old one. It’s even cheaper to shift the entire operation offshore, which is what has happened to so many multinational companies. Companies are constantly being destroyed, even during the good times. This brick-making firm was one of them.
This brickworks had little romance or nobility – especially in winter, caught between the freezing sheds and roasting heat of the kilns. It offered workers nothing but hard, dirty, back-breaking work. Yet, just like the blast furnaces at Ravenscraig and shipyards of the Upper Clyde, it bred a skilled trade with a long tradition. After the final artic load of Scotch Commons departed, the legacy of the Scottish colliery brickworks was dead. Similarly, the pan mills and the breaker were built by Mitchells of Cambuslang, so the death of the Scottish brick-making industry also killed its brick machinery makers.
Once this capacity has gone, it won’t be replaced – unless a miracle happens, as it did 25 years ago. In 1988, L.A.W. Holdings opened a brand new brick factory at Tannochside, in Uddingston on the south-eastern side of Glasgow. The firm was headed up by opencast mining entrepreneurs Ian Liddell and John Weir and in the best traditions of the Carron Company and NCB, they used coal mining’s by-products for brick manufacture.
A miracle, perhaps. One comment chalked on a door – “We will survive!” and underneath it a reply in a different hand, “No you fuckin won’t.” As I stood on a Lionweld stair overlooking the space where the brickworks’ pan mills once sat, a man around my own age walked in through a hole from which a large door had been knocked off its hinges. Despite the sea of mud around the buildings, he wore a pair of pristine white trainers.
We started talking: he’d worked here until the brickworks closed, and had come back for a last look. He explained that the owners of Scotland’s one remaining brickworks had bought up the equipment and trademarks, perhaps to ensure that no-one could buy the dead company out of administration and start production again.
As I packed my camera away, he took a final look at the devastation then turned to me. His parting words were, “I’m going to get away up the road afore I start cryin…”
Text and photos all copyright Mark Chalmers.
I began writing this in the attic bedroom of a 300 year old farmhouse in the Forest of Dean. After dark, I looked out from a dormer between the oak beams: clouds flitted across the moon and night birds called from the Severn mudflats. It was an idyllic place, although its peace was bought with remoteness.
The farmhouse sits at the end of a long, bumpy track which begins with a BT payphone. The phone box is filled with giant nettles, and the glass is opaque with mould, but at least the handset is still working. The callbox is a reflection of what happens when nationalised industries reach the private sector: the unprofitable bits are pruned or left to wither.
In the hazy distance are pairs of giant pylons which carry power lines in a graceful arc across the Severn – in this rural context, they’re a first hint of the industrialised countryside – and a few miles up the road lies the former Coal Research Establishment. The CRE was the research & development arm of the mighty National Coal Board, which once employed 700,000 men and kept British industry alive.
Perhaps our minds are wired such that we recognise cognate facts and repeating themes, but every few months I come across the work of CRE’s unlikely leader, Jacob Bronowski, in unlikely places. Bronowski came to public attention as one of the surly academics who Newman & Baddiel later satirised in their TV series. “That’s your best idea, that is…” was loosely based on The Brains Trust – a series of televised debates during the 1970’s in which academics battled each others’ rhetoric.
In fact, those debates epitomised the way in which some academics take facts and spin them into whatever argument they want to make. They then spend their working lives arguing with fellow academics over who is right, and who is wrong. Arguably, The Brains Trust did individual reputations a great deal of good, but confirmed that academics in general often pursue a personal rather than a socially useful agenda.
However, Bronowski came from a different tradition. His influence grew from his work during World War Two, and its reinvention in the post-war Socialist world. The wartime work was known as “Operational Research” – which I wrote about previously for Urban Realm in the context of the Glen Fruin Torpedo Tank. His later career was with the Coal Research Establishment, where the National Coal Board developed things like “fluidised bed” combustion, which is now used in power stations across the world.
Another project was a coal-powered motor car… I know that I wasn’t the only one to pass through the village of Stoke Orchard in search of the mythical coal-burning Torano, and now that the CRE has been demolished, I can safely admit that someone within my circle took an adjustable wrench and unbolted several doors – but left no further forward in his search. Presumably it was locked in a shed somewhere.
While the CRE experimented with coal liquefaction, its counterpart in Scotland known as the Westfield Development Centre, developed coal gasification. Using a so-called Lurgi plant, low-grade coal was converted into gas and coke under steam pressure. Like the CRE, Westfield now stands abandoned, a rotting hulk on the road to Cardenden which belies an investment of the hundreds of millions of pounds.
The Brains Trust had long since gone by the time I started architecture school. Instead, we watched Bronowski’s later work, The Ascent of Man, a magisterial series of documentaries about mankind’s evolution. I imagine it was screened in an attempt to make rational humanists of us; I fear that was only a partial success. Our history lecturer – a wry bearded man who gently communicated his disappointment in how thick we were – left us to make our own connections between Bronowski’s broad canvas, and the task at hand.
Jacob Bronowski clearly understood the dilemma of the Two Cultures, how art and science often conflict, and occasionally come together, as in the case of architecture. Bronowski also fought to escape from the long shadow of Arthur Koestler, whose “The Ghost in the Machine” was one of the post-War world’s most influential books and the bane of other émigré thinkers. He succeeded: Bronowski became a coal-powered philosopher who showed us the limits of history.
History does sometimes change things. Stuff is dug up, secrets are revealed - but the careless reinvention of history is dangerous, because all too often it uses modern thinking and applies it to the same facts in an age when people did not think in a modern way. Some today, for example, argue that the huge post-War expansion of coal mining was mistaken. No-one thought that at the time. That’s the power of post-rationalisation.
In defence of history, we can use it to explain why previous generations pursued aims that we now deem to be wrong … and perhaps it would be wise for us to think more about what we are doing now, and how history might judge that. The past does have lessons for the future. In the case of Bronowski, he applied the wartime methods of Operational Research to the peacetime extraction of coal.
O.R. studied the scientific and economic context of coal production and combustion, but largely ignored the surface traces of coal-getting. As an example, look at what happened to Selby: the largest deep coal mining complex in the world. A vast seam of coal sat under the Vale of York, but locals cried out that the countryside would be “industrialised” if collieries were constructed in it. So the NCB built collieries which were disguised so that they didn’t look like collieries at all.
By the 1950’s, the skeletal frames of colliery headgear which we associate with Victorian collieries had been supplanted by giant concrete shafts. As elements in the landscape, they echo church bell towers and the keeps of medieval castles. The arrangement at Selby was the next step in the winding tower’s evolution, and each steel-framed winder was clad in mellow-coloured brick, in order to sit harmoniously within the rolling farmland of the Vale of York. I suspect the winding towers were designed by the PSA (Property Services Agency).
Mining was controlled by a system called “MINOS”, running on Ferranti computers – its designers pursued the Coal Board’s dream of automated coal mining, which was first tried out in the late 1950’s remotely-operated loading face (ROLF) projects in Nottinghamshire. ROLF was a good example of Operational Research being applied to technical problems; perhaps it should have considered architecture and landscape, too.
The miners of Fife, the Welsh Valleys or South Yorkshire may have scoffed – but fitting a new deep mining complex into a rural setting was a constraint, much the same as geologists struggled with cyclic deformation of the rock strata at Selby, and British Coal’s sales teams fought to win markets for the coal won underground. The visual impact of the Selby Complex, as the cluster of deep coal mines was known, consisted of a number of satellite pit heads which were used to take men, materials and machinery down to the working faces. However, there was only one spoil heap and one coal washery, sited next to the main drifts at Gascoigne Wood. Haulage by rail lessened the destructive impact of heavy lorries on rural roads, and all the sites were screened by berms and planting.
Sylvia Crowe was perhaps the first designer to look critically at how industrial developments could sit happily beyond the urban edge. Crowe looked at building in the context of wilderness, such as Basil Spence’s nuclear power station at Trawsfynnyd in Wales, as well as cultivated landscapes similar to the Vale of York. Half a century later, we recognise that extractive and generating industries must have their place, but a combination of pollution laws, pressure from environmental groups, low prices for coal and a lack of subsidy, plus the politics of the 1980’s mean that deep-mined coal has shrunk to a rump of half a dozen collieries.
Selby was the last great gasp of King Coal: when it closed a decade ago, a couple of billion tons of high grade coal were abandoned underground. Perhaps we’ll go back one day to recover it. A few years later, after a series of visits to coal mines throughout Britain, I had a better appreciation for British Coal’s architecture. I wrote about Longannet, Harworth, Clipstone and Tower on scottisharchitecture.com – although like the miners’ jobs, those pieces have long since disappeared.
Just like the overgrown phonebox at the end of the bumpy track, the coal industry suffered once it left the public sector, after which a promising line of inquiry into how to integrate industrial buildings in the countryside stopped dead. Meantime shale gas comes from a similar geology to Selby’s coal, and its extraction inevitably means building industrial plant in rural areas. The new coal mines of the 1980’s, like the windfarms of the 2000’s and the shale gas operations being planned today for the 2020’s, all have that in common.
Perhaps we need to apply Operational Research to the “problem” of extractive design in the landscape? That we don’t have a solution to the industrialised countryside is Thatcher’s legacy to the formerly Great Britain. But, thanks to Jacob Bronowski, we do have the tools we need, should coal enjoy a renaissance at some point in future…