Carrying on the theme of Tayside’s shrinking construction industry from my previous article about the demise of Muirfields, I thought it would be worth recording another sector which has virtually disappeared: construction plant manufacturing.
I grew up a mile from Low’s Foundry in Monifieth, a long-established engineering firm which occupied the block between High Street, Reform Street, South Street and Union Street. After at least a century of manufacturing textile machinery, James F Low (Engineers) Ltd sought to benefit from the post-War building boom, so their trajectory changed around 1955, and they diversified into “Rob Roy” construction plant.
Photo courtesy of Plant wiki
The small amount of information published about the firm concentrates on their textile heritage. Monifieth Foundry was established by James Low and Robert Fairweather before 1800, and the firm became internationally known for machinery to prepare and finish coarse textiles such as jute, hemp and flax. At one time Low’s exported to 30 countries and their foundry spread over 15 acres. Until the 1950’s they made machinery for the many jute mills in Tayside, and were eventually taken over by a company on the Indian sub-continent where much of their machinery was latterly sold and from which raw jute is imported.
While giant yellow bulldozers and full-slew excavators grab the attention, small plant is often overlooked. Rob Roy’s range was at the lighter end of the spectrum and included site dumper trucks, forklifts, concrete mixers, concrete pumps and vibrating pokers. Through the post-War years they developed a range along the lines of what the Winget company produces nowadays, and many of their machines were powered by Lister or Petter 2-cylinder diesel engines.
The “Rob Roy” of its name has little or nothing to do with Clan MacGregor but is part of the undercurrent of Walter Scotticism which lasts in Scotland, even to this day. I guess its use in this context is intended to suggest the same ruggedness as with Albion Motors’ “Claymore”, “Reiver” and “Clydesdale” lorries.
Speaking to folk who worked in the local construction industry during the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, Rob Roy concrete pumps were prone to break down at the critical moment (“they were buggers of things to choke up”) but otherwise their 4/3 and 5/3 concrete mixers were sturdy and reliable, and their 1/2 yard and 1 yard site dumpers were basic but tough pieces of kit. As I was growing up, I remember the thumpity-thump of a two-stroke Lister diesel as the Rob Roy dumper trundled around a building site.
However, as with the much larger Vickers conglomerate which I wrote about previously, Rob Roy’s construction plant business proved less profitable than hoped. While Vickers retreated back to their natural territory, the defence industry, Rob Roy disappeared around 1984 when James F Low went into liquidation. The site was sold and partly cleared: William Low’s (no relation) built a supermarket on the northern part of the foundry, then a few years later sheltered housing and spec-built villas emerged on the southern side.
With the exception of JCB, which is gradually catching Caterpillar in the battle to become the world’s largest construction plant manufacturer, Britain’s retreat from heavy plant began in the 1980’s and has continued ever since. Somewhere in the wilds of Lanarkshire are warehouses full of obsolete plant parts bearing names such as Liner, Mortimer, Hymac, Whitlock, Priestman and Massey Ferguson – which are now of value to collectors of classic machinery but little use to the men who use and hire out plant to earn a living.
Priestman were bought over by the owners of Acrow and all their clever design innovations, such as the variable-counterbalance excavator, were lost. For over 70 years Benford was a leading manufacturer of dumpers, mixers, rollers and compactor plates; they were taken over by Terex in 1999 and the name was dropped. Ruston Bucyrus became RB Cranes, changed hands, and Langley Holdings eventually closed them down after they succumbed to the 2008 recession. Barford has similarly disappeared in the past few years.
In Scotland, Hydrocon Cranes of Coatbridge were a major manufacturer of off-road mobile cranes.
As their name suggests, they pioneered hydraulic cranes but their former factory is now part of the industrial museum at Summerlee. As another example, while I was researching the brick industry for an article a couple of years ago, I discovered that Mitchell Engineering of Cambuslang were once in the major league of brick-making machinery manufacturers, but they went out of that business as the Scottish brickmaking industry shrank. It continued to shrink, until as it stands today there’s only one active brickworks, and a handful of abandoned sites.
Before you reach for the whisky and raise a toast entitled, “Sympathy for the Construction Industry”, there are some heavy plant success stories in Scotland. McPhee Brothers of Blantyre build concrete truckmixers and Albion Motors still exists too, in the form of Albion Automotive who build lorry transmissions in South Street, Glasgow.
As for Rob Roy, it’s unlikely that any of their machines have been preserved in museums, but some are still to be found lurking in the overgrown yards of small contractors. A rusty Rob Roy 1/2 yard dumper lay, unused and unloved, in the flood plain of the Gowrie Burn until recently, when a small developer began building a clutch of houses on the site. Presumably the dumper went off to the great scrapyard in the sky, perhaps via one of Morris Leslie’s epic autojumble auctions at Errol.
If anyone has any promotional material, brochures, photos or memories of James F Low and Rob Roy, please get in touch.
It’s the battle at the heart of every social science going: the individual against the mass. The distance between “me” and the rest of the world lies at the very core of the human condition. Despite the fact that we are social animals, biologically and psychically we're separate and apart from other creatures. Each of us is essentially alone. We can’t know what another person feels or thinks, nor can they experience our feelings and thoughts.
This separation has powered several of the great novels, like Hunger by Knut Hamsun, Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, and The Outsider by Albert Camus. We can change, we can renounce the things we believed in, but we can never leave the human race – at best, we set ourselves apart from other people and try to live outside their society.
Many of us go through a phase of teenage rebellion, but the truest sense of splitting apart from the mass of humanity only comes later in your 20’s or 30’s, once you have experienced many years’ worth of what Anthony Burgess described as the formicating crowds of big cities. You begin to feel dissociated from the milling strangers, and grow tired of the social codes we live by. You become disenfranchised by them, and wish for something else.
Some people – artists, poets, novelists – are able to use this experience to feed their work; others disengage completely and withdraw from the world. What the French call anomie, the feeling of being tired with and unsatisfied by life, may either cause you to chuck it all in … or grow more determined to find your own way in the world. Architects try to serve society, so they aim for the latter.
Respect and big props are due to those who plough their own furrow – in this context, the architects who neither teach, lecture or write articles. Reading the story of the Barbican development in London, I was struck by the fact that Chamberlin, Powell & Bon kept their own counsel – not through lack of self-confidence in their approach or opinions, but perhaps through a recognition of the ugly truth, that a good deal of architectural journalism is blatantly self-promotional, yet pretends to critical objectivity.
If you take articles written by “big name” designers, they invariably flesh out their thesis using their own work I guess that it takes a large measure of humility not to do that. There is also the suspicion that the “big names” seek a column in a journal, or a publishing deal, as an outlet for their ego. Given that, you could argue that Outside is the safest place to be, since you are forced to think for yourself and evaluate places and situations.
This piece isn’t intended to be didactic or preaching, but I think this lesson is widely applicable – it ranges from the need to question critical theories in architecture books, to the screaming necessity of avoiding trouble in life. Why does anyone study architecture? Not because they foresee that one day they’ll work for Practice X, producing window schedules by rote. Instead, they have their own hopes and aspirations to pursue. They want to fulfil their own destiny. In that, architects differ from most other walks of professional life.
Setting up your own practice is not only about making more money, or having your name above the door – it’s the ability to build your own designs rather than someone else’s. The Outsiders are just a more extreme version of this imperative.
I’ve talked in previous pieces about practices such as Shearer and Annand, and Bowen Dann Davies, who didn’t court publicity – but the second type of outsiders are those whose work falls entirely outwith the canon, rather than those who simply adopt a low key approach to practice. Designers such as Rudolph Steiner (Goetheaneum); Constant (New Babylon), and Frederick Kiesler (Endless House) produced work which falls outwith any critical category. These are rare examples of architecture which is “ab initio” – thought out from first principles, and without reference to anything else.
Some of these designers were propagandists, who put forward their own manifestoes – Constant was part of the Situationist International for a time, and his designs were part of a greater scheme to reshape the whole world, changing the way we’re governed, as well as the way we build. Rudolph Steiner developed educational theories into which he tied in an approach to architecture. You could call this move to the outside a manifesto in itself, or perhaps an escape from manifesto-waving activists.
Regardless of the “position” they choose to take, it’s a pleasure to be offered a fresh view of the world by these designers – and it contrasts with the conventional histories of modern architecture, where you read about the same buildings and the same architects time and time again. Those books are really just the products of an intellectual conspiracy, since their authors are academic rivals, who compete with each other, yet quote each others’ work in their own footnotes.
They are the true insiders, and they work a little like a mutual back-scratching society. If someone comes along with a completely different set of reference points, then that threatens the world view of their academic gang … and they don’t like it up them, as the saying goes. For the outsiders, these petty intrigues are irrelevant, because they choose not to play the game.
As Dieter Rams wrote, “A designer … does not need to give impressive lectures about it. He does not need to formulate explicit theories. After all, he is a designer and not a sociologist, psychologist, historian or philosopher.” Alvar Aalto backs him up, “The Creator created paper for drawing on. Everything else is, at least for my part, to misuse paper.” Perhaps that has something to do with Aalto’s early life – just before starting his architectural studies, Aalto was a trainee in Toivo Salervo’s office. Said Salervo to Aalto – “You’ll never be an architect, but aim for a career in journalism”. Maybe that created a lifelong aversion to written communication …
Chamberlin, Powell & Bon neither lectured, tutored nor wrote articles in the specialist press: that made them appear enigmatic, perhaps, but they were interested in practice and saw that the best way to win work was to get on with it. New commissions arose from existing ones, and they were able to largely side-step the critical debate about the Barbican which ran in magazines of the time.
Of course, the flip-side of keeping your own counsel is that others may talk on your behalf – but a waspish review in a magazine will be forgotten within the year, whereas the building will stand for a couple of generations. In these media-obsessed times, that’s worth remembering.
Architecture students beware – it’s a jungle out there.
In the next few weeks, young monkeys will leave the protective bosom of the troop, and make their way into the jungle. So far during their sheltered upbringing, they have learned about the world indirectly, and their responses have been carefully conditioned. They can distinguish “good” from “bad”; they can discern, and they can declaim pastiche … all thanks to the jungle elders who taught them to admire the chest-beating antics of the mighty silverbacks.
As Rudyard Kipling knew, every jungle has its king, and the particular megafauna in charge of this stretch of upland forest are loud, aggressive characters who like to impose themselves on those further down the food chain. Sure, there are other threats – sleek silent predators with gleaming teeth, and unspeakable things which lurk in the mangroves – but the bellowing of the Great Apes makes a lasting impression on the young monkeys. Something with so much presence must be important – right?
All that chest-beating and branch-shaking must have a purpose. They make so much noise and fuss, they must be in charge, isn’t that so? These are the beasts at the top of the tree, after all …
One youngster harboured a desire to work for one of the greatest apes. The latter’s name was Maximillian. He was greater than the other apes in many ways – he had his own private jet, for example. His wife dressed only in Prada. He rose into the tree canopy using his own private elevator. The young monkey was hugely impressed when she met Maximillian, overpowered by his musk of charisma and his “presence” – hence she was delighted when she found a place waiting for her after the interview.
In fact, she found it disarmingly easy to join the troop, and apart from a close circle of confidants around Maxi, the youngster found herself surrounded by young primates just like herself. All fresh-faced, keen and looking for direction. So keen in fact, that they approached the Great Ape with deference and worked gratis, or for next to nothing. Strangely, that earned them his disdain rather than respect.
Once she had her start, the youngster was dismayed to find that Maximillian wasn’t good to be around. Being alpha male meant that he had to spend part of each day beating his chest, because his life was a constant struggle to maintain status in the jungle hierarchy. He scanned the papers, earwigged the gossip and tuned in to the jungle telegraph to find out when he was mentioned, and with how much deference, compared to the other silverbacks. If he appeared to be slipping, he grew tetchy. For example, the youngster learned that she couldn’t discuss other Great Apes within his earshot: if anyone did, he bared his teeth and roared at the youngsters, occasionally sweeping several of them off a branch in a fit of pique. They didn’t try to climb back up.
At other times, Maximillian was quiet and sly, creeping around to find out what the monkeys said about him in private, behind his back. Yet even she knew not to listen to the chimps’ idle chatter. She had imagined that Maxi would be far too busy, and too thick-skinned, to worry about trivia like this, but apparently not so. The youngster had hoped that she would benefit from, and be enriched by, working with Maximillian, but it turned out to be a one-way transaction.
The troop worked on into the night, when everything in the jungle apart from the bats and night-crawlers roosted and slept. The hiss of carbide lamps, and the circling of great dark moths, grew to be familiar experiences to her. When the sun came up the next day, they were all shattered, but providing Maximillian was off travelling the continent in his private jet, work ground to a halt and they caught up with sleep. Everyone knew it wasn’t a good way to operate: it sapped their will as much as their energy, yet it was perpetuated by Maximillian.
The same unreality extended to the detail of the work they did. Maxi had a licence from his clients to do whatever he liked – the lions, tigers and bears of this world don’t curtail his budget, and never restricted his ability to decide on their behalf what they should have. So he specified Carrara marble (the most expensive kind) on every surface, and always used lights made by iGibboni (sorry!), the famously expensive makers of mangrove chandeliers.
This is not a true reflection of how the world works, as all the other monkeys out there are on a budget. Maximillian seemed to be happy, provided everything specified was suitably expensive, and that drawings and models were ready on time. Trouble erupted when he jumped off his jet just hours before the next big meeting, and reviewed the work they had produced for it. If he didn’t like it – and often he picked on something he himself had decided on weeks ago – then there was a chorus of screaming, bellowing and rending. Pack up your things and go, he roared after whichever CAD monkey took the blame.
This year, more than before, things are tough in the jungle. For each position, there are countless jostling cybergibbons – all of them prepared to work for peanuts. Having grown used to peanuts, it may take years for them to raise their sights – even when things improve. Meantime, Maximillian lives up to his name (he maks a million in fee income alone, nevermind the personal appearances at lectures, and product design endorsements) – whilst letting go of troupes at the edge of his empire. Hopefully the chattering of macaques will drown out the bad P.R. Nevertheless, there are fewer beasts at the top of the pyramid prepared to let him crave their indulgence. Has he changed his approach? What do you think?
Why does he act the way he does? asked our youngster after a few weeks in Maximillian’s employ. ”Because he gets away with it,” replied one of the monkeys who had worked for him a little longer. You see, Maximillian travels the world, courting every other species for work, giving lectures, gaining professorships, honours and other bays – but he doesn’t look after his own.
The young ones who arrive each summer are part-formed: he was once just like them, but he’s long ago forgotten that. They rely on him to show them how the jungle really works, to take on a pastoral role while they find their feet and gain confidence, but he shows them only himself. The strong ones who demonstrate character end up fighting him, and are ejected from the troop. The weaker ones are cowed, and eventually limp away having lost enthusiasm and motivation. Yet each time a monkey leaves, it takes a little of the troop with it, and so the collective memory of “how we do things” is lost. Maximillian chooses to ignore that.
This youngster was smart enough to discover that although she normally lived on the lower branches, she could still climb to the top of the tree occasionally, to see how the primates live. More importantly, she knew she could climb back down again, leaving them to it.
Hugh Ferriss is best known as the illustrator of New York’s skyscrapers. He’s also the spiritual father of Lebbeus Woods, who I previously wrote about; both were visionary architect-artists who drew other people’s buildings then went on to create their own imaginary worlds.
Ferriss trained as an architect – but according to Daniel Okrent, author of “Great Fortune”, he built little or nothing of his own. Instead, he was employed by large commercial practices in New York to create presentation drawings. Soon, Ferriss became a professional renderer and in parallel he developed as an architectural theorist – also, and probably not coincidentally, Lebbeus Woods’ career path.
The 1929 book, The “Metropolis of Tomorrow”, lays out Hugh Ferriss’s ideas for Art Deco mega-cities of the future. I also have a copy of “Power in Building” acquired from Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon … when it turned out that William Stout’s in San Francisco only had a modern facsimile rather than the original edition. The power of the internet …
Ferriss used dramatic, almost violent perspective, which combined dynamic angles with strong light and shadow. His renderings of the “Zoning Law”-era skyscrapers which were built during the period between the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gilded Age, through the Great Depression, to the start of World War Two made him famous.
“Metropolis of Tomorrow” grew from Hugh Ferriss’s experience illustrating the Chicago Tribune Tower, Rockefeller Centre, Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. He also portrayed pre-war proposals for the United Nations headquarters, then the Perisphere and Trylon from the New York 1939 World's Fair. Further afield he drew Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West in Arizona, as well as the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver.
When war intervened after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Ferriss drew the process of aircraft production at Lockheed’s aircraft factory, bomb shelters, and the construction of the Shasta Dam in California – but I recently came across his wartime drawings for the United States Pipe & Foundry Co. which I hadn’t seen before.
Ferris’s reputation rests on those two books “Metropolis of Tomorrow” and “Power in Building” plus a few exhibitions such as the 1986 show at the Whitney Museum in New York … but the pipe foundry drawings don’t appear to feature in any of them, which is a shame, because they show another complementary facet of his work.
These adverts are industrial propaganda, and their imagery is powerful because Ferriss’s style is ideally suited to his subject. Compared to the social realism of other wartime adverts – which seem strangely Soviet in their portrayal of the triumph of organised labour – Ferriss captures the scale, drama and theatricality of the pipe mill and iron foundry. He hints at the Fordist approach of mass production, with huge production halls and endless rows of components awaiting shipment.
I guess this irony was lost on his patrons: while industry in America became more and more mechanistic and increasingly automated, it relied upon charcoal and crayon renderings made by a highly individual hand. The Adverts for Tomorrow were anything but Fordist in execution.
We discovered that Muirfields were in trouble one Wednesday morning, when a colleague’s wife texted him to say that folk were standing around outside their offices in Dryburgh, Dundee – seemingly locked out by the management.
Rumours had been circulating during the preceding week … but we were lucky, in the sense that Muirfield Contracts had just finished dealing with the defects period on a local project I worked on. Several hundred workers were less lucky, and it must be heartbreaking for Maurice McKay, who left Charles Gray (Builders) Ltd. at the end of the 1980’s to start Muirfields, then spent the next 25 years building it into one of Scotland’ biggest privately-held contractors.
He sold the business to Azure Investments, a private equity firm, about 18 months ago; a day after the gates were locked, the Dundee Courier stated that over 400 employees’ jobs were at risk. What went wrong?
Muirfields were the last of the big, Dundee-headquartered contractors … for now at least … and the environment they worked in appears to have changed. In the past few years, they built many care homes for Balhousie Group - whose period of rapid expansion is perhaps at an end. Muirfield's specialist rendering division was very successful at winning local authority housing contracts, although I imagine that much local housing stock has been upgraded now. Muirfields built several schools over the past few years, but changes in procurement when the East of Scotland Hubco framework was won by Robertsons must have had an effect.
As an aside, the Hubs, just like PFI before them, have served to reduce choice and drive out competition, which will eventually push prices up … the opposite of what was intended.
As for the catalyst of Muirfield’s demise, we can only speculate. According to reporting in The Courier, the firm’s managing director left after a few months in post, then the finance director quit a month before they went into administration – that’s always a bad sign. In other cases where a contractor has plenty of work and a decent “pipeline”, as Muirfields appeared to have, yet still went into administration, two factors are often blamed.
Poor cashflow caused by difficulty getting the money in, or a lack of working capital from the firm’s backers, eventually strangles the firm. Both of these financial throttles lead to delays in paying suppliers, sub-contractors and finally their employees … as a result, the firm's credit rating drops, their accounts with the merchants are put on “stop”, and the firm struggles to get completion bonds. Business becomes unsustainable when the rumours spread to the extent that workers walk off site.
As I say, we can only speculate. However, if you know about construction, you’ll know that firms regularly go bust, so that over the course of a decade or two you end up dealing with the same folk, in the same capacity, but working for a different firm each time. If you think about it, each contract won comes at a price. By winning a tender, you’ve come in below everyone else and by definition that means either your estimators have missed something, your margin is vanishingly slim, or worst of all you’re having to “buy” work merely to keep the business turning over.
If you know about investment … you’ll be aware that building contractors aren’t a good punt. In fact they’ve been trying to turn themselves into “property services” or “facilities management” companies for years – because the margins are thin, the return on capital is poor, and the risks are high for general contractors. The people who invest in them seem to underestimate the challenge of funding contracting firms, with their endless appetite for working capital. Short term, you can use a contractor’s turnover to draw capital out of a business – longer term, money has to be ploughed back in if it’s going to survive.
Balfour Beatty, the largest civils and building contractor in Britain, has performed poorly for years by various measures, including that of its share price against the stock market index. You’d be much safer to invest your pension in a drug company, a car manufacturer, or an inventor of widgets. Probably best to avoid the banking sector, though. ;-)
A couple of years ago, I wrote that W.H. Brown Construction had gone into administration: it joined a list of large Dundee contractors who have gone bust in the past few years. Before that I mentioned Charles Gray (Builders) Ltd., who were the biggest contractor in Dundee and one of the largest in Scotland at that time, employing many hundreds of people. They went down in 1994, during my Year Out, and that came as a shock because Grays were turning over more at 1994 prices, from memory around £40m, than Muirfields’ turnover of £48m at today’s prices … if you adjust for inflation Grays were two or three times as large as Muirfields.
In between Gray’s and W.H. Brown’s failures, Taycon, Torith, Forman and several others have gone, too. Now Muirfield Contracts joins the unhappy list.
The irony of Dundee’s ailing contracting sector is that the city is in the midst of a multi-billion pound growth spurt. It’s the first since the glorious decade from the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s, when Dundee was practically rebuilt. During that period, the Overgate was re-developed, the Tay Road Bridge constructed, Dundee University expanded all the way back to the New Hawkhill, the Wellgate Centre was built, along with countless new schools, many tower blocks built, and Ninewells Hospital, the largest teaching hospital in Europe, was created. Dundee’s contractors boomed: Grays, J.B. Hay, and John McConnachie’s firms all benefitted and grew with the city.
In the 2010’s, the Central Waterfront is being redeveloped – only this time none of those firms are around to contribute, nor are there any Muirfields, Browns, or Toriths. That leaves the next tier of contractors such as George Martin Builders, Alexander Oastlers, and Shepherds of Forfar – plus incoming firms whose interest in the city will pass once the glamour jobs are finished. So far Interserve have converted the Tay Hotel into a Malmaison, McAlpines are working on the Waterfront’s infrastructure, and BAM have just begun on the V&A’s groundworks.
Other business failures have changed the shape of the construction industry in Tayside. For example, there are lots of laminate and furniture firms in the River Tay corridor – both fabricators and merchants – and for years I wondered why that was. Shore Laminates in Perth, Lam-Art in Dundee, Tayfirth Laminates in Dundee, and the largest of them, JTC Furniture Group who occupy the former Timex factory on Harrison Road in Dundee.
I discovered that all of these firms (and several others) were the direct or indirect offspring of Tay Valley Joinery, the furniture firm built up by James Chalmers, a distant relation. TVJ was set up in 1971, and from the old bleachworks at Claverhouse they grew to have two factories in Dundee and one in Perth until 1984, when “a catalogue of unusual business events coincided to bring about its demise”. Those who served their time with TVJ went on to start their own firms, and James Chalmers went on to start JTC, so at least their collective knowledge wasn’t lost to the area.
Perhaps that’s how it goes with building contractors – their existence is tenuous, even when they appear to be well established. Look at the recent influx of firms such as Graham Construction and Lagan Construction from Northern Ireland – their home market has dried up, many domestic competitors have gone bust, and now they’re searching for work in Scotland. Look also at what happened to one of the longest-established Edinburgh contractors, Melville Dundas.
I clearly recall when Melville Dundas, who were a large, well-known 200-year old contractor, went bust at the end of the 1990's. I also recall trying to discover what happened to them. There was little information to be had, so I began a staircase of phonecalls towards the heart of the business, explaining that this was a press enquiry, and trying to resist the requests to speak to the administrator. Eventually I reached a P.A. who promised someone would ring me back. No-one ever did.
For whatever reason, it always proves difficult to discover much about building contractors, and soon after that Melville Dundas ceased to exist, and both their assets and staff were spread to the winds.
The list of dead contractors goes on … but perhaps only John Stodart, the chairman of Azure Investments, knows what went wrong at Muirfields. He bought the contractor 18 months ago, and has presided over its failure. Graham Huband at The Courier is carrying out an ongoing piece of investigative journalism into Stodart's affairs, such the other Dundee firms which he took over and which have since gone into administration…
As an aside, you would think that with the construction industry forming around 7-8% of the economy and the workforce, the rise and progress of its companies would be recorded somewhere. You’d be wrong. Only a handful of the biggest contractors bother to record themselves (I can think of books on John Laing, Balfour Beatty and possibly Edmund Nuttalls) whereas all the others are lost to history. Perhaps the Abertay Historical Society should collect the histories of firms such as Charlie Grays, J.B. Hay, McConnachie’s, W.H. Brown, Taycon, Torith, Forman and Muirfields – along with housebuilders like Bett Brothers – before they pass out of memory, like their predecessors have.
Picture this. A design journalist, perhaps someone like Marcus Fairs or Naomi Cleaver, is raking through the bargain bin at Habitat. Like an alien sociologist on a fact-finding mission from Mars, they come across a “Design Classic”. They pick it up, admire its lines and fondle its contours – then herald it in their newspaper column.
All sorts of things, from the Kalashnikov rifle to Adidas Samba trainers have been cited as Design Classics. To a certain kind of design journalist, the classicism of the classic aligns with a certain kind of Britishness. Since we can’t readily own a Supermarine Spitfire or an AEC Routemaster bus, we buy a Dualit toaster, Dyson vacuum and an Anglepoise lamp instead.
Do we value them for what they are they are – how beautifully made they are and how much utility they have – or for what they signify? As Grayson Perry said, this is the “emotional investment we make in the things we choose to live with, wear, eat, read or drive.” Design Classics are charged with social meaning as well as design values: we hunt them down to say something about who we are.
So we head for the Habitat and the flea market, the brocante and the interiors shop. If we’re lucky, we might score a Hille Supporto task chair, some of Knud Holscher’s D-Line handles, and a run of Vitsoe 606 shelving. At the end of the search, we collapse onto an Eames chair … and pour some real coffee from a cafetière: Richard Sapper’s “9090”, made by Alessi.
On one level the search for the Classic is the search for making an ideal environment in a world that is not ideal; on another it is about finding out who we are. Arguably we belong to a “Designer” age which grew up in the 1980’s and became jaded in the 1990’s. Soon, we found ourselves looking back over our shoulder to rediscover Mid-century design, with its clean lines and fitting use of materials.
That era also retained a residual pride in the Made in Britain tag. Time was when firms such as English Electric made everything from toasters to locomotives and Lightning jets. But now British-made white goods are what you see lined up along the kerb, ready to be uplifted by the scaffies – replaced by widgets made in Turkey or the Far East.
Half a century later, design journalism affects scorn at little bijoux and “home accents”, yet delights in things like the Alessi “Firebird”, Starck’s phallic-looking gas lighter. But Firebird isn’t a Design Classic, not if design means the integration of ergonomics, economics and aesthetics to make something which works well, meets a demand, and whose appearance acknowledges and reinforces its function.
Firebird is a little piece of ornamental sculpture, a bourgeois gew-gaw like china ducks flying up the wall, or a wild boar’s head mounted on a plaque. The unshaven clown prince of design had a big laugh at our expense with the Firebird, just as he did with the “Juicy Salif”, a lemon squeezer that wouldn’t. That’s the difference between applied design and decorative art.
It also represents key themes in the 21st century: disposability, wastefulness, and the overwhelming victory of marketing over everything else.
The American approach to product design is marketing-led. The marketeers define the brief for new products by emphasising consumer research, trend research and style forecasts. Then the designers and engineers would be asked to create products in response - therefore the emphasis became stylistic and short term. That’s what happened when Braun was taken over by Gilette.
Before that happened, Dieter Rams noted that his approach at Braun was collaborative, bringing marketeers, finance, design and engineers around one table. This has been likened to the Apple design process under Jonathan Ive, which is perhaps why there are parallels between Rams' Braun products and those from Apple.
I’ve just finished reading Leander Kahney’s excellent biography of Jonathan Ive, in which he makes the point that Apple’s fabulous profits are a direct result of design quality. "We are really pleased with our revenues but our goal isn't to make money. It sounds a little flippant, but it's the truth. Our goal and what makes us excited is to make great products. If we are successful people will like them and if we are operationally competent, we will make money," he said.
Quality also means sustainability – a tag which is casually applied to everything these days.
Dieter Rams drew attention to an “increasing and irreversible shortage of natural resources” in his Design by Vitsoe speech in 1976. “I imagine our current situation will cause future generations to shudder at the thoughtlessness in the way in which we today fill our homes, our cities and our landscape with a chaos of assorted junk,” he warned. Of course, mankind knows how to make stuff that lasts; so if stuff doesn't last, it's made that way by choice.
As another of the greats, Kenneth Grange, pointed out, “That’s the force of plain commerce as opposed to manufacturing commerce, which is what happens when money is the biggest single driving force in every damn thing. You can make more money making something cheaply and selling it expensively than by setting out to make something new. And to that extent the sort of accountancy temperament that the ingenious villains of the City thrive upon has come to dominate every other branch of commerce.”
In 1968, the Situationists came to the same conclusion with their famous non sequitur: In the décor of the spectacle, the eye meets only things and their prices.
Some think that Design Classics are things which people can aspire to, such as the Eames chair – but by definition, exclusive things work by excluding you from owning them unless you can surmount the high barriers to entry – in other words, their expense.
Others think Design Classics should be objects that everyone can own, like a pair of Converse All-Stars. Those shoes represent America and rock n’ roll, in the same way that the row of toiletries on the bathroom shelf is a city skyline reduced to a scale we can afford.
On reflection, I wonder whether Jasper Morrison’s Hannover trams aren’t a far more democratic piece of design, since no-one owns a piece of them. You can’t buy or sell them; they just are.
“Strome Ferry - No Ferry” is one of the best-known roadsigns in Scotland. It owes its fame to Iain Banks’ novel Complicity, which was published 20 years ago; Strome Ferry’s glory days were long gone by then. Strome prospered during the 1970’s, when Howard Doris built enormous oil production platforms at Kishorn – but when the oil work dried up, the village shrank and eventually the hotel at Strome Ferry burned down.
I stayed at Strome for a wee while in the mid 1990’s, where I made the acquaintance of an interesting guy who we’ll also call Iain.*
Iain arrived there as an electronics technician with Marconi, working on the torpedo range at Kyle. In his spare time, he built computers. His current project was a strange Sharmanka-like object, with Motorola 68k processors slotted into an armature consisting of bits of metal. It sat close to an open fire and breathed in wood smoke and rollie-up fumes all day. The computer didn’t “do” anything in particular, it just sat there running a language called Forth and executing the bits of code which Iain compiled.
Iain’s vocation was electronics, but his day job was as a self-employed joiner, doing small works, house extensions, erecting timber kits and that sort of thing.
I stopped at Strome while travelling around the edge of Scotland and within minutes of arriving, Iain was quizzing me gleefully about the joist depths required to span his living room. At first I was taken aback by the vehemence of his opinions – he had at least 25 years on me, and his points were well made because they were well-rehearsed – but as I reflected on them and got to know him better, I understood his viewpoint.
He was determined to prove that university education left an architect ill-equipped to do the kind of work he did. That’s probably true – at university and afterwards I learned about industrialised systems, crosswall construction and sway frames. Over the next 15 years, most buildings I’ve worked on have been steel-framed with Holorib decks, plus one concrete frame and a couple of composite SIP-type timber kits plus a few random glulam beams thrown in.
At the moment I’m grappling with a set of Bison floors which the contractor seems to think will be cheaper and faster to erect and finish than Holorib with pumped concrete. He is alone in thinking that. Perhaps he has shares in Bison. Anyhow, in rural areas the constructional specialisation of the city isn’t practical, so someone like Iain thrives on being able to turn his hand to any traditional or so-called “rationalised traditional" buildings.
Hopefully our education equips us to be both a technical architect and a design architect; I think you need to be both these things if you’re going to practice successfully and realise your ideas. However, Iain’s argument went that you don’t need an architect at all to build extensions to vernacular houses. Fair point. But it seems you don’t need a “builder” either.
It still baffles me that the rural building industry casually recruits people like Iain in the way it does. Why does anyone “practical” feel that they can take up building work? After all, there couldn’t be traffic in the other direction – few joiners or brickies would tackle re-progamming a Tigerfish torpedo’s guidance computer. Perhaps Iain is right and the profession’s expertise is too narrow; maybe the professional has strayed too far from the practicalities of the self-builder Walter Segal or the enthusiasts at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that rural handyfolk can turn their hand so readily to building houses. This democracy of sorts is only made possible by the timber kit, since more skill is needed to build in stone than to nail stud frames together. As for the the pious hope that this universal access to building might lead to adequate and affordable rural housing, there isn’t an architectural solution to that issue: it’s a political, economic and land tenure problem.
As I said cheerio to Iain and his partner, she was thinking of foreign air travel, and his head was buried in the footwell of his Rover 800, sorting out a problem with its ECU (black box) in order that they could get to the airport at Dalcross a few days later. As for his homebuilt computer, it may still be running “Forth”, and I still have the pamphlet about the Forth Interest Group plus a little book about Motorola 68k instruction sets which Iain gave me as a leaving present.
The computer will probably outlive the Rover, and the house extensions he built will outlast them both…
* - In the spirit of the late Iain Banks, the people and places portrayed in this piece are fictitious, and any resemblance to real life is a mere coincidence.
Life contains many illustrations of highly improbable things happening. Here is just one, concerning the turkey. Every day for a thousand days (if it’s going to be a large bird for the table), the farmer feeds the turkey. What’s the turkey’s view of the future? It can only be one thing: food tomorrow. Rather like Pavlov’s dogs, the turkey knows that the appearance of the farmer signals the appearance of dinner. Yet a few days before Christmas, the friendly feeding hand instead wrings his neck. Gulp: past experience can be a treacherous guide to the future.
Another example is the death of drawing. In fine art circles, conceptual art killed drawing as a means of communicating abstract ideas. It’s now unusual to find art students who can draw fluently using pencil and paper, and who show off that work at their degree shows. In construction, the computer first speeded up the production of working drawings, using a method of layering similar to overlay drafting, then supplanted and killed off the drawing as the primary means of communicating the design of a building.
Who could have imagined that we would give up on drawing the buildings we design? It’s all part of a shift in the paradigm of how we represent the world. Before the 1980’s, we lived in a graphic age, where we mostly used a flat, two dimensional representation of things to communicate with. After the 1980’s, we moved into a 3D world, where things are modelled rather than drawn, and where the influence of computer games is all-pervasive.
The first examples in the media were the video for Dire Straits “Money for Nothing”, and the Max Headroom show on Channel 4. After that, Atari became Sega became Playstation, and so it goes on. It all began with Evans & Sutherland, who built the first flight simulators, using high end computers to create a “virtual reality”. How that term has been overused in the succeeding 30 years…
We may still generate flat drawings by cutting through a sectional plane, or showing an orthogonal view of the building – but increasingly these are snapshots from a three dimensional model. It’s not that the computer has killed the ability to draw – you can use Freehand or Illustrator to generate pin-sharp ortho, axo, iso or perspective drawings for presentation purposes. If you like, you can use a CAD programme to do the same – but it’s more often a case that folk expect to see rendered images and walk-though animations rather than flat drawings. In that case, the building is modelled rather than drawn.
Steelwork fabricators create unwieldy models in Tekla or StruCAD, detailing everything down to nuts and washers. This is a benefit to them, and at times it helps us to relate all the parts of the Meccano kit together, too. However, my last few weeks have been spent battling with an outfit who resist generating dimensioned, orthogonal drawings at all! Instead, they hope that the model, with several thousand lengths of steel section rendered in Smarties colours, will be comprehensible. However, nothing short of a top-end quad processor PowerMac would be powerful enough to let you navigate smoothly, and as a result, querying dimensions takes forever. We still need the hardcopy 2D drawings.
The corollary of all this is that many architecture students don’t learn to draw with a pencil. Nor do they keep sketchbooks any more. Because architecture schools don’t introduce the idea, few will scribble, gradually becoming adept in representing the world using as few lines as possible. And that is the killer difference: the object of Colin McRae Rally or Tomb Raider is to represent a world in as much detail as possible, to maximise the number of polygons rendered in each frame. The object of architectural drawing is to represent the world with just as many lines as you need, but no more. If we suffer from information overload, well, that’s the reason why. Visual communication is, or should be, about reducing things to their essentials.
Likewise, architects used to letter using virtually the same hand. Similarly, all calligraphers letter italics in a similar way, and graffiti writers use a common visual language called Wildstyle with loops, swirls, recurves and arrowheads. My mentor used to say that architects’ lettering should be interchangeable, so that anyone can work on somebody else’s detail without the notes changing radically in style or legibility. It also looks better graphically if the text is of a piece, but I graduated in the late 1990’s, and since then I’ve witnessed architects’ handwriting degenerate into a G.P.’s scrawl on a scrip. From Plasprufe SA to Diamorphine BP, it’s not that far.
The fag packet sketch is also disappearing – and not just because we’re not allowed to smoke Benson & Hedges filters after lunch any more. The hand-drawn doodle has some latitude, you can suggest ideas and create wavering, doubtful lines. The computer model is absolute, because every point has a set of Cartesian co-ordinates, and each line joining the points is the expression of a mathematical equation.
The creative mind uses both sides of the brain, but the computer is a digital version of your right brain only. Computer draughting is deterministic. It encourages a systematic–rationalising response to something which could also be dealt with, in a freehand sketch, using the intuitive–emotional left brain. Before I’m accused of Luddism, I’ve used a Mac for almost 20 years now, and I appreciate that computers have improved many aspects of our lives – but I temper that with skepticism about the way we apply technology unthinkingly. The computer is killing our ability to communicate clearly. It allows us to send loads of information, so we do just that.
One final thought – when architects fall out of love with architecture, they can resort to sketching and watercolours. Alf Malocco, who was a partner with Parrs in Broughty Ferry until a few years ago, now has a flourishing career as a painter. Portraying cityscapes and countryside, his work is underlain by a series of sketchbook studies, and a “structure” of roughed-in pencil work. The technical knowledge of what things are, and how to draw them, came from architectural training and years of practice – in the end, what he draws uses a form of visual shorthand. It’s a real shame that many young architects have lost that aptitude.
In a couple of weeks’ time I will be writing about the influence of the military on our architecture, so rather than wish for peace on earth, I hope that (unlike the turkeys at the start of this piece) you had a happy Christmas – and that Saint Nick brought you a sketchbook and some Derwent pencils on the 25th.
The media – of which I grudgingly concede this weblog is a small part – thrives on contention, scare-mongering and the creation of bogeymen. Issues which excite public outcry are ideal, and campaigning journalism sometimes generates stories which run for months. All the better since, as my grandfather used to say, “they ay need to find something to fill up the papers wi.”
Missing children, dead pop stars and pollution are three habitual column-fillers; whilst the parameters of the first two are pretty obvious, the nature of pollution has changed over the years. No doubt early editions of Blackwood’s Magazine complained about the poor sanitation of the Old Town: the gutters were open sewers, and the Nor’Loch was a giant cess pool. This pollution made cholera and typhoid almost endemic, and it took the Age of Enlightenment to fix Edinburgh’s plumbing.
In Victorian Glasgow, the air was a choking soup of pollutants – sulphurous vapours from works like Parkhead Forge and Dixon’s Blazes, also chemical fumes from Charles Tennant’s works, the alkali plant which built the world’s tallest chimney in an attempt to fix the problem – or at least throw it a few miles further downwind. Dundee, at its height as Jute City, had some of Europe’s tallest chimneys too, yet the worst pollution hung around inside rather than in the skies above the city. Jute workers suffered from respiratory complaints due to the jute dust, and byssinosis (presumed by Lancastrians to be a complaint unique to cotton mill workers) was rife.
Every town and city sat under a smog of coal smoke – coal and coke were the universal fuels of factory, mill, forge, kirk and home. The smog which contributed to London’s “pea soupers” was an issue in Scotland, too, often mixing with the sea haar to create a colloidal fug which hung around for days. SInce the 1960’s we have gradually cleaned up our world, although noticeably more slowly than we fouled it up. The Victorians built treatment works and labyrinthine sewerage systems; the textiles industry discovered dust extraction; the oil companies paid for detergents, booms, and wildlife rescue centres. Perhaps the biggest change is that you can’t burn coal any more in cities.
Between the Clean Air Acts of the 1950’s and the death of deep mining in Scotland, most coal either goes to old-fashioned thermal power plants like Cockenzie and Longannet, or is converted into coke for the shrinking steel industry. In each case, we either look on these sunset industries sadly, regretting their decline – or express relief that they have been exported to India and China, who are just starting to understand why the West gave up this dirty work. Both power stations and coking plants in the West have sophisticated flue gas treatment machinery fitted, anyway.
Other evils were the big dirty lorries which used to annoy environmentalists so much. Not any more: Euro4 and Euro5-compliant engines burn low sulphur diesel oil, and use either exhaust gas recirculation or urea injection (AdBlue) to make their exhausts almost as clean as catalysed petrol engines. Refrigerants in air conditioning plant and freezers have been changed, replacing the ozone-depleting halon gases with friendlier alternatives, including ammonia. So what’s left? Well, we made huge efforts to fight air and water pollution, but in return the media have found new forms of “pollution”.
The new causes of pollution are the things which middlebrow journalists class as visual pollution. We have dog crap, litter, chewing gum and graffiti – the first three are an annoyance, rather than being life-threatening. Graffiti is different. Its abstract patterns, giant cartoon animals and wry observations make up part of the city’s visual richness, creating colourful murals on the dreichest walls and animating hoardings in dead parts of town. But the campaigners always need a target, whether it’s Donald Trump or traffic congestion; or representations such as the Caithness uranium prospectors in James Miller's novel “A Fine White Stoor”.
Campaigns against graffiti writers are symptomatic of a fundamental insecurity about folks’ right to self-expression in their own city, and a kind of middle class propriety which extends far beyond its natural remit. The fading paintwork on factory gables, the shop signs advertising goods from another era, the palimpsest of tags on lamp standards, the stencils which Banksy popularised, the cryptic punchlines scribbled on bus shelters – all of these animate the city. They remind us that other people are here, not just us, and that they should have their say, too.
Graffiti has its enemies. The corollary of style magazines, makeover shows on TV, carping columnists and politicians seeking re-election, is that attempts are made to sanitise everyday life. Not only risk and danger, but happenstance, clutter and serendipity are being minimised. It would be terribly good if they could be made to disappear completely. The Valkyries screech at us – urban regeneration, pedestrianisation, traffic calming, red routes, green zones, tolerance areas, Twenty’s Plenty, Take your litter with you, Pick up after your dog. Are we happy for our little lives to be bound up by so many rules?
Elsewhere, the very “mixed uses” which the gurus of urbanism like are being wiped out by their own urban villages. In Edinburgh, inner city breweries and whisky bonds have been replaced by flats, offices and supermarkets. The umbilical link to industrial processes which remind people where things come from, and which are our connection to the wider economy – the thing which built our cities in the first place – are being severed. In Kirkcaldy, linoleum plants and maltings are being replaced with flats. In Greenock, Scotland’s last marine engine builder has become waterside apartments.
Scotland’s future is Glasgow Harbour (where the residents complain that the Govan shipyard on the opposite bank makes too much noise and is an eyesore); and the serried ranks of alien flats on Leith’s waterfront and Dundee’s docks. The obliteration of graffiti is a step along the road towards a gated city, under 24-hour CCTV surveillance, with no litter, no graffiti, no smells or tastes on the air; no variety or grain. Nothing out of place. Only mile after mile of tattie print flats. The only thing that stopped them, temporarily, was the Credit Crunch.
As Sverre Fehn said in 1997,
“In the suburbs, people have developed an animal rationality. That’s why they hang themselves about with chains, dress in leather and put rings in their noses. And they start getting tattoos. Even the buildings are tattooed, by graffiti. The buildings give no answer, offer no resistance, they have no face. So people have to put a face on them.”
“Rational housing creates aggression. It has no ameliorating links, not even a porch. You just have the door, leading straight out into something. In these circumstances, humans start forming territories. Who started tattooing themselves? Sailors. Why? Because they had nowhere to live. By tattooing they made the body their house. Tattooing makes the body into an artistic object which you can’t run away from. You write on yourself and therefore inhabit your own history.”
Graffiti writers make their mark on buildings in an attempt to humanise their city – but why should it need to be humanised in the first place?
Architectural education is broken. How many times have we heard that?
Usually we hear it from partners in architectural practices who take on a graduate – then realise how much technical ground they need to cover before the graduate becomes useful as a fee-earning drone. But an architecture degree isn’t a vocational course which only teaches you how to detail buildings so that the water stays out and the heat stays in. If it teaches you to think, you’ll be able to solve technical problems which haven’t even been conceived yet.
Sometimes we listen to the cry from students who decide that architecture isn’t for them – the stress of deadlines and crits weighs heavily, especially if you’ve left home for the first time, are struggling to earn money in a part-time job, also grappling with the subject of architecture – and trying to have a life, too. For others the attractions of skateboarding, smoking joints and partying are too great.
Occasionally other voices are heard. This piece was partly inspired by a chance discovery on the internet: I found someone railing against architectural education by mounting a campaign on the web. They identified a high rate of re-sits and drop-outs from Part II architecture courses in the UK, and have used freedom of information requests to glean what they can from the architecture schools.
I suspect the campaigner has their own motivation for campaigning, years after they left the education system. I believe they stumbled on the right conclusions, but for the wrong reasons; the F.O.I. figures themselves are only a symptom, not the cause, of people failing architecture. Set against the campaign are thousands of staff in Britain’s architecture schools, and I fear the campaigner is standing outside the tent pissing in, whereas they might achieve more by climbing inside and pissing outwards.
Regardless, partners, students, campaigners alike are all asking the wrong question. Access to education in the first place is a bigger issue. You can only make something of the architecture course, or realise it’s not for you, once you get through the front door.
During the mid-1990’s, one of my fellow students came from the Ardler area of Dundee – a large housing scheme with a mix of council, housing association and private houses. Back in the day it had a poor reputation, although as the tower blocks came down and the area was regenerated, that improved. At her interview to get onto the architecture course, my friend was told, “We don’t get many folk from your background here”.
The lecturer’s comment has haunted me for years. It reflects the fact that the architecture school is a middle class ghetto. We no longer accept discrimination on the basis of gender, colour or creed – and during the 1990’s we were told that society would become more egalitarian. Still, access to education in today’s Britain comes down to your parents having the money to pay for it.
The student grant withered under Thatcher and finally died during the early 1990’s. Student Loans followed, and now tuition fees and graduate taxes affect other parts of Britain. In an egalitarian society, you’d expect that the profession would have men and women from every social background. But I have a horrible feeling that increasingly those who study architecture, and those for whom they design, are a privileged few.
Beyond the observation that access to education costs money, the problem is more fundamental. It’s actually access to literacy. A few times, I’ve visited someone and discovered that their children are being brought up in a house without books. I crumble inside when I see that. To progress in the world you have to break into the formidable cartel which literacy and scholarship has built over the past few centuries.
A study published in the journal “Research Stratification and Mobility” (2010) found that having books around the house, even unread, correlated with how many years of schooling a child will complete. Living with 500 or more books was as great an advantage of having university-educated parents. But both university education and books correlate more strongly with family income now, than they did twenty or thirty years ago.
Education is a road in to civilisation, because it provides us with the necessary intellectual and cultural equipment to take part in society. As Richard Hoggart's “The Uses of Literacy” points out, it also enable you to have some influence over the course of your own life. So if we reach a point where no-one from lower income families makes it into architecture school, then architecture schools haven’t failed (as the campaigner thinks) – but society has failed.
That is the most scandalous waste of all: not to drop out aged 21 when the course gets too tough, nor that you struggle at 18 to pay for university, but that as a child of four or five years old, your chances of entering further education are already slim. The biggest problem with architectural education isn’t how the courses are run – but that access to them has little to do with talent or aptitude.