It was late afternoon in November when I was heading back towards Berlin from Saxony, and realised from the signs on the autobahn that I was close to Dessau. Martin Pawley’s description of Dessau twenty-odd years before, just after the Berlin Wall came down and the East was accessible again, stuck in my mind.
At that time, in the early 1990’s, the Bauhaus was an active design school but hadn’t been made ready for the 21st century. Pawley’s was a pre-internet Bauhaus, reproduced in monochrome in dozens of books. East Germany was a black-and-white place, the DDR before re-unification, and Pawley found Dessau strangely desolate, lacking in traffic, investment and hope. To him, it felt very flat and grey although he chose to express that greyness in Trabants and soot.
Relying only on Google and a Michelin map, I discovered that Dessau’s road system is confusing – it’s a city without a real centre, just a main drag which invariably sends you in the wrong direction each time you come round. However, the Bauhaus was unmistakable when I eventually found it by setting off down a side road and keeping going in what felt like the “wrong” direction.
I certainly crossed to the wrong side of the railway tracks, into a run-down area with a derelict, Victorian-era brewery crumbling onto the pavement. The bricks simply seemed to turn to dust, and the windows were glassless hollows. But only a couple of turns later, Dessau changed again and the road emerged onto a broad avenue of trees with immaculate inter-war blocks of flats behind them on one side, and a 3/4 scale model of a famous building suddenly popped up on the other.
After I parked nearby and walked slowly up to the building. At first it looked underwhelming, but I guess that’s often the case when you think you know somewhere – yet have only seen heavily-mediated images of it.
I didn’t pay the fee or take a guided tour: I wandered around myself, and once I was done it was enough just to stand on the most famous stairs in Europe and disregard the students and staff filing past. Rather like meeting a well-known person you’ve seen on TV, or finally acquiring something you’ve lusted after for a long time, the experience was different to what I expected: neither better, nor worse, just different. So much for preconceptions…
Some of the Bauhaus was as you imagine in your mind’s eye: the beautiful typography, bright corridors and stairs, and planes of sheer glass. Yet one aspect which surprised me, in a way, were the splashes of bright colour. So many architectural photos were shot in monochrome, and most architecture books from the birth of the Bauhaus right up to the 1980’s were printed in black-and-white, that you picture it in black and white.
As Mark Twain noted, “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice,” and that surely holds true for the Bauhaus. It’s arguably the wellspring of all Modern architecture, yet it’s so often misunderstood. After my visit, I realised I had been among the many who misunderstood it. The Bauhaus isn’t monochromatic. There are planes of chrome orange and cadmium yellow, bands of bright crimson red, planes of sienna brown linoleum – the old-fashioned battleship lino that DLW still make at Delmenhorst in the north.
Only the exterior is tonal: the interior is a colour exercise which demonstrates how controlled Walter Gropius's grasp of design is, how colour advances and recedes, works with and against tone. Of course I should have known better, having read Johannes Itten’s colour theories, and bought a book a few years ago about the “ideal house”, written by Bruno Taut around the same time that Itten developed his ideas. Both go a long way to demonstrate how integral colour was to the Modern Movement – and that’s hopefully clear from my photos.
When I went outside, I was treated to the afterglow of the winter sun hitting the Bauhaus lettering on the building’s gable: and then it was a rush through the back streets of Dessau, across bumpy pavé that takes you past the derelict brewery to find the Way Out. Even so, it was dark by the time I hit the Berliner Ring, concentrating very hard to make sure I found the turn-off for Genshägen and didn't wind up on my way to Poland…
Happy Christmas. :-)
I came across these images while distractedly browsing the net as I listened to a Radio 4 discussion about cuisine from the 1950’s. A weird convergence. While the food chat was interesting, the most telling comment was that, “in those days, no-one spoke about food, money, sex, politics or religion.” No-one in polite society, at least.
However: food, money, sex, politics and religion are some of the things which bring pleasure and meaning to life. The lady chefs interviewed for the documentary acknowledged that many of those unspokens were unwrapped during the 1960’s – and that’s when this advert, which was commissioned by Jaguar Cars’ American concessionaire, was published.
The E-type was unveiled at the 1961 Geneva Motor Show. At the time it seemed like a startling artefact from the future, and this one has Old English White bodywork and an oxblood red interior. The MkII saloon is similarly rakish. The shape we perceive looked like progress, and since we tend to believe that whatever we think is the right thing to think, the E-Type became shorthand for the future.
Until then, Jaguar’s saloons were suited to stuffy diplomats, smoking cigars and twirling their moustaches. In the words of Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett: "Splendid! Excellent!! First class!!!" The XK-E, as it was known across the Atlantic, was different. The car appealed to the Americans, partly because it was fast, partly because it was sleek, and also because it was European. It emerged from an era when American designers like Paul Rand and Eliot Noyes pursued an aesthetic quite different to their European counterparts such as Dieter Rams.
The ad men of Madison Avenue used the E-Type to reach out to the Commissioning Classes, the 1% of the population who patronised oyster bars and appreciate modern art. At least some them, represented here by the guy in the dark suit with the Mk2 Jaguar, commissioned the post-war skyscrapers which made New York and Chicago crucibles of Modernism – a functionalist architecture.
There has never been a Functionalist car; even those which claim to enable minimal motoring like a Lada, or with everything superfluous stripped out, like the Lotus Elan, aren't minimal. The E-Type is an expressionistic design which looks sleek and cuts through the air. Malcolm Sayer was an aerodynamicist: he designed the car's skin. Nowadays car makers employ surface designers, a discipline unknown in those days.
Some designs age badly. Others remain not just ahead of their time, but outside of time, fashion and taste. Half a century later, the E-type is regarded one of the high points of car design. There are only a dozen or so cars in this category: the original Mini, Land-Rover and E-Type. The Fiat 500, VW Beetle and Porsche 911. The Citroen 2CV and DS, the Ford Model T and the Willys Jeep.
Yet while the E-Type fixed head coupé of 1961 appeared to come from 1971, the folk in the advert seem to come from 1951. She wears a turtle neck sweater in French grey and leans on the cant rail of the coupé; he stands casually, hands deep in the pockets of his mock-turtle brown tweed suit. The fashions seem old-fashioned today, but unlike our current horrified, cynical world-view – guys from that generation evidently loved to smoke, drink and swear without giving it any serious thought. The ladies always appear extremely well turned out. Or so we’re told.
Radio 4’s chefs make the point that social mores changed quickly in the Sixties – but this incarnation of the Sixties is pre-hippie, pre-Swinging London, yet seems a world away from the restraint and muted off-colours of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s as portrayed in the recent feature film “Carol”. The difference couldn’t be more marked, and it suggests that you can read interiors, cars, advertising and even fine art by the colours of the period.
For example, these muted 1950’s colours - Leaf Green, Old Gold, Coral and Flame, Tan and Slate – come from Frank Lloyd Wright’s collection for an American wallpaper manufacturer. Schumacher's Taliesin Line of Decorative Fabrics and Wallpapers was launched around 1955 by F. Schumacher & Company, who were and still are a New York interiors firm based on Madison Avenue which sells luxury textiles: perhaps the eponymous “Mad Men” furnished their houses from Schmachers’ showroom.
So we can date cars by their colours as well as their styling: strong colours extended to motor cars with the development of cellulose paints in the 1960’s. Soft greys, celadons and dull umbers come from the 50's, orange and green are the 60's, earth tones from the 70’s and so forth until we reach today’s “Ralph Lauren” colours… which actually hark back to Bauhaus ideas of colour, shape and line.
All that from a car advert…? Yes, because this ad was perfectly realised, and fifty years later we can read all these things into it, making many cultural associations the ad men intended – plus a few they would rather we didn’t. And that’s the the genius of the advertising men.
I fetched up at Stirling on a scorching July afternoon, when heat had slowed the city’s traffic to a crawl. Sunshine soaked into the Monaro I was driving at the time, its boot filled with boxes of old architecture books, and every surface inside the cabin was hot. The honey-coloured sandstone of Stirling’s terraces gave off wafts of heated air which made the place shimmer when approached down the M9 motorway.
Ahead lay the great rocky incline which the castle sits on; another pinnacle with the Wallace Monument perched on top, and further west, Craigforth rising up from the floodplain where the Teith meets the Forth. Turning off the M9 you leave Craigforth behind, with its great wooded mound and cluster of insurance company buildings set apart from the city, and head up towards the university.
Designed by RMJM, and built between 1967 and 1974, Stirling was the first complete newbuild campus in Scotland, as distinct from existing technical or university colleges which gained a promotion. Looking back through magazines in the dusty stacks, the University was well critiqued at the time it opened, such as in John McKean’s piece in The Architectural Review of June 1973.
It was the only brand new Scottish university built after the Robbins Report was published, and the first to be established in Scotland since the University of Edinburgh was founded in 1583. Unlike the “Redbricks” in England from the same era, Stirling consists of crisply-detailed buildings of dimensional blockwork and precast concrete, all faced with sparkling chips of white spar. The whiteness was dazzling that day, but I located shade near the base of the Pathfoot building and quickly realised that my visit had coincided with a conference on Poetry and Politics.
Pathfoot was the first piece of a masterplan which conceived of terraced buildings set around an artificial loch, with carefully-considered contours and planting. It steps down a landscaped hillside in a series of cascading flights of steps linking the long, transverse wings whose spirit is Scandinavian. The white precast fascias, black timber spandrels, and large expanses of yellow pine joinery inside are so typical of that era – and the building’s whole programme is contained in a coherent building.
The political poets – or perhaps poetic politicians – made parallel tracks across the campus. In fact, I’ve heard that some of those who use the building complain of the sameness of the rigorously rectilinear corridor system, but that grid was necessary to contain the great variety of functions. The Pathfoot Building is a variation of the “spider” plan, often employed for military barracks and also wartime emergency hospitals such as Bridge of Earn, Stracathro and Killearn.
As the first building of a new university, Pathfoot used that arrangement of a main spine corridor with wings and secondary corridors branching off laterally, to organise its accommodation. The spider contains staff rooms and library on the lowest terrace; undergraduate and research laboratories, lecture rooms and admin offices on the middle terrace; with common rooms, seminar and lecture rooms, and restaurant on the topmost level. Other typologies from that era included the Racetrack plan and the Mat building.
Interestingly, before it became the university, the site was earmarked for a hospital, which proves the concept of system thinking. In other words, big bureaucracies like the NHS and the further education system create similar scales of building with similar typologies on similar sites.
As I wandered down the central stairs, I ran into groups of academics – mainly middle-aged women with cropped hair and penny-round glasses, speaking in Home Counties English and Midwestern American accents. They were, presumably, from those same Redbrick universities like Keele or East Anglia, and they loudly extolled the “craft” of one of the speakers.
I wondered how they responded to to the craft employed in creating the building, or whether they even perceived any parallels between the architecture and their own field? You would assume that people attuned to the subtleties of expression would appreciate the modulation and articulation involved in creating the spaces around them. Perhaps not. Earwigging into their conversations, there were offhand comments about the building, mainly grumbling about the flights of stairs, and the vertical distance they had to travel …
From the original Pathfoot building and MacRobert Arts Centre onwards, the campus is laid out in a series of freestanding blocks which cluster around Airthrey Loch, an artificial body of water which, forty years on, looks completely natural. Fringed with reeds and willows, the loch is home to waterbirds and its flowing, concave curves contrast with the stepping forms of the buildings, suggesting something of Aalto or Pietila.
This is apt, since a composite of the Scandinavian Modernists’ approaches to architecture was what Robert Matthew had in mind when he developed his Scottish Modernism a decade before Stirling. The timber and rubble masonry approach of the Queens Tower at Dundee University, Crombie Halls at Aberdeen, plus Lochay and Cashlie power stations in Perthshire, developed into the rationalised architecture used here, with steel frames and prefabricated claddings.
The form-making at Stirling is different to those early period Matthew buildings, because RMJM were seeking a less self-conscious sense of Scottishness. The university is located in a European, rather than Scottish or British, context, and is one of the finest collections of buildings of that era. It isn’t urbanism, which is the fashionable discipline which students are pointed towards nowadays … instead, it’s about setting modern buildings into the landscape, to complete a unified environment which is neither urban nor rural.
In effect, the University of Stirling is a working model of a much larger community: residential accommodation is within walking distance of the workplace, and cultural facilities sit alongside. Sports and leisure buildings are equally accessible, and there are good transport links too. The whole sits within a landscaped park which has a benevolent microclimate, and although the Wallace Monument glowers down on the campus, it’s full of self-conscious symbolism which is far away from the qualities of Airthrey.
The conference ended and the poetry delegates filed up the steps towards the car park. Unlike Martin Amis’s characterisation of poets – “Poets can’t, don’t, shouldn’t drive. British poets can’t or don’t drive. American poets drive, but shouldn’t,” – these were critics and academics, so presumably they did have driving licences. As they climbed into their new-style Minis and retro-inspired Fiat 500’s, did they realise how Scotland changed in the century which separates the monument and the university?
Or were they in fact more familiar with the Drip Road post office in the Raploch, from which they posted off Wish You Were Here postcards featuring the castle and Wallace Monument, but missed the point completely…?
For the first time in a few years, I’m looking for a facing brick. But not just any brick.
Last time I specified one, the choice was between an extruded brick made by Ibstock at their Uddingston plant, or a press-made brick from Caradale. Uddingston has since closed, and Caradale went out of business a few years ago - link - leaving Raeburn Brick as the last Scottish brickmaker.
Today I’m looking for a grey multi with character, some patterning and different tones, a little like the variation you used to get on Scotch Commons – but in grey. On this occasion, neither Hanson Brick (now owned by Wienerberger of Austria), Michelmersh nor Ibstock have quite have the right brick, so I had to look farther afield.
However, as Britain was experiencing its Great Brick Shortage - link - with demand high, but production at low levels while mothballed brick plants were slowly brought back into production – Belgium, Holland and Germany weren’t so busy, so they were in a position to export their spare capacity to the UK.
A decade or two ago, there were hundreds of brickworks dotted across Europe - each serving its local market. For one thing, that kept haulage costs down, because bricks are cheap relative to their weight: unlike dressed marble, they don’t justify being sent vast distances across Europe because you can’t charge accordingly. The fact that their clay was sourced locally, so the colour and tone of the bricks was intrinsically a good match for the local geology was an added bonus.
The latest intel from my “mole” in the brick industry is that Hanson (now known as Forterra) are thinking about slowing production down at a couple of their British brick factories, as they’ve run out of space to stockpile bricks and have even filled up a nearby haulier’s yard while they wait for orders to come in…
There are a few well-known, generic bricks: the Scotch common, the Accrington Nori engineering brick, the London Stock brick and the Staffs blue brick. Then you have many what you might call “housebuilder’s bricks”, which are usually colourful and rustic-looking. In design-led projects we’re more likely to seek out the unusual, such as waterstruck or twice-fired engobed bricks, for their appearance and novelty value.
Cruising in from across the North Sea comes Petersen’s “D29”, which is made in Denmark by artisan brickmakers in formats which are somewhere between UK bricks and Roman bricks, then given a waterstruck finish before being set in coal-fired kilns. Petersen have gained cachet in Scotland by being specified on several Reiach & Hall projects, and have come to be perceived as the thinking man’s brick…
The Dutch and Belgians have a larger brick industry than the Danes, and much of the clay comes from the basin of the Rhine and the River Meuse. The “Castor” by Steenbakkerij Floren (a brickworks is a “stone bakery” in Flemish), which is a small brickmaker based at Brecht in Belgium, is a subtle lilac grey multi with some kiln marks on an engobed finish. Floren have a broad range of facing bricks, and also produce an unfired clay building block similar to the eco block which Errol Brick were developing, before they disappeared from the scene.
“Cortona”, by Vandersanden Brick, is advertised as a subtle mix of grey and anthracite, with a slightly rusticated surface and quite a variation in tone between bricks. In reality, it looks very much like chocolate brownies - and a colleague leapt for joy when she mistook a cut brick slip for something edible… Vandersanden is apparently the largest family-owned brickmaker in Europe with two production sites in Belgium and two in the Netherlands, making a total of around 320 million bricks a year. The Cortona comes in the conventional 65mm metric brick format, and 50mm Continental brick, too.
There’s always the risk of inadvertently specifying something that costs £1000 per thousand, but I discovered that some of the Dutch and Belgian brickmakers have a competitive advantage: they’re paid by the government to dredge clay from the ship canals, so the raw material for their soft mud bricks comes free. They still have to load it onto a freighter and send it across to Grangemouth Docks… but at least they know the canal is navigable…
The “Peak Multi Grey” by Edenhall – who used to be known as the concrete block manufacturer Boral Edenhall, and their website notes that they’re now Britain’s largest independent brick manufacturer and Europe’s leading supplier of concrete facing bricks. This is more evenly textured than the D29, Castor or Cortona, but it’s a true grey rather than an anthracite, gunmetal, slate or the many other euphemisms brickmakers use for colours.
And we have the “Devonshire Grey Multi” by Crest, which is more cocoa brown than grey, reminding me of chocolate marble cake - that melange of cocoa and sponge cake which fancy coffee shops serve. Once again my colleague got excited… Not a grey in the real world, but the brickmaker’s grey has a great deal of latitude. Blue bricks are more grey than blue, black bricks are usually grey, and grey bricks are often a buff colour…
Then finally the “Nevado” brick, which it turns out is the one we’ll probably select. Along with the exotic “Kiezelgrijs” and “Rainbow Graydust”, which sound like they’re escaped from the Pokemon universe, it’s made by Façade Beek in the Netherlands. The firm is part-owned by C.R.H., an Irish conglomerate which owned Ibstock Brick until recently and has, “been enthusiastically manufacturing unique bricks since 1912,” in the Dutch town of Beek. The “Nevado Geel Gesmoord” brick, to give it its Flemish name, is fired twice: it’s fired with oxygen in the kiln atmosphere the first time, then with nitrogen the second time. It’s the second firing which provides its grey tones.
Think you know the size of a brick? Beek know better! A British metric brick is 215 x 102 x 65mm, and Imperial bricks were around 8.5 x 4 x 2.5 inches. However … the standard Dutch brick formats are Waal (207 x 97 x 49 mm), Waaldik (214 x 98 x 66 mm), and Hilversum (228 x 90 x 41 mm). In addition there’s the German Bundesnormaal format (236 x 108 x 71 mm) and Dunnformat (234 x 110 x 52 mm). Plus Danish bricks are apparently 228 x 108 x 55mm… not that we’ll ever give up on 65mm bricks, they're too engrained in the British psyche for that.
What’s interesting is that brick is on a gradual journey from low-value commodity to what economists call a differentiated product – in other words one you recognise and ask for by name, and pay a premium for. It’s telling that we import so many bricks, despite the recent vote to turn our back on Europe and depart the Single Market. In fact, the number of Continental bricks on the market proves how closely allied our construction industry is to Europe, and demonstrates our weakness as a manufacturing country.
Rather than keeping millions of bricks in stock, I’m told that many Continental brickmakers fire bricks to order, forcing you to call them off months in advance. That, along with the cost of artisan-moulded, water-struck, coal-fired “clinkers” mean that we’re bricking it every time we specify a grey multi…
"…Although it is still possible, at some risk to life and limb, by climbing across railroad bridges and the like, to see Concrete Central from the other side, that is the less interesting and less familiar side of the complex, offering nothing to the view but hundreds of bins and interstitials. The more familiar and rewarding view is the one shown in Taut [Bruno Taut's book] of its wharf side and three loose legs, though now it must be seen over a jungle of undergrowth that lies between the river and the lower reaches of Katharine Street. Closer views are not normally to be had, unless one goes upriver to it by boat or is prepared to undertake an adventurous and circuitous safari on foot – it is completely inaccessible by wheeled vehicles these days – through thickets of red sumac bushes and along rusting rail tracks.
"The journey is worth it, however. In lonely but not yet totally ruinous abandonment, this huge rippled cliff of concrete dominates a quarter-mile reach of the river. It is truly enormous in scale; its capacity of four and a half million bushels made it the largest elevator in Buffalo and one of the largest ever built anywhere. For comparison, it is about twice the bulk of recent megastructures such as Cumbernauld Town Centre or Centre Pompidou, but because it consists almost entirely of closed storage volumes to which there is no casual access, it remains impermeable, secret and aloof. There are some elevators where one can penetrate into gigantic storage volumes – the Electric [Elevator] extensions of 1940, for instance – and marvel at their sheer dimensions, but at Concrete Central the storage volumes remain as inaccessible as the interior of an Egyptian pyramid, to use an exotic comparison…
"The first time I reached Concrete Central by land, a series of incidents emphasised its abandonment and isolation. Shrubbery had already begun to grow out of its upper works, inviting a comparison with Roman ruins that was enhanced by the flight of a bird of prey from the head-house at the sound of my approach. That sound was amplified when my foot crashed through a rotted plywood cover that had been laid over an open culvert. As I extricated myself, I reflected on my folly: had I sustained an incapacitating injury, rather than mere scratches, in that fall, even those who knew approximately where I was would have no idea how to reach me, after they had finally decided they had waited too long for my return. I remembered the fate of the Chicago architectural photographer Richard Nickell, lying dead in the ruins of the Schiller theatre for weeks before his body was discovered.
"Yet the sense of distance from help and civilisation was exhilarating rather than depressing; the presence of the huge abandoned structure produced a mood more elegiac than otherwise. Coming out of the wharf, dominated by the three largest loose legs ever built in Buffalo, now semi-transparent as the winds of the winters had blown away more and more of their rusted corrugated cladding, it was difficult not to see everything through eighteenth-century picturesque visions of ancient sites, or even Piranesi's views of the temples of Paestum…”
This long extract from Reyner Banham’s A Concrete Atlantis - US Industrial Building and Modern European Architecture 1900 - 1925, is not only a sustained piece of good writing, it also sums up many aspects of exploring derelict buildings. Banham's experiences will be recognised by anyone who has gawped at the Leith Mills in Edinburgh, the Meadowside Granaries in Glasgow or Millennium Mills in London, then found a way inside.
Peter Reyner Banham taught in the architecture programme at the State University of New York at Buffalo between 1976 and 1980. During his tenure at Buffalo, inspired by the daylight factories and the grain silos of the region, he conducted research that led to A Concrete Atlantis, which charts the development of North American industrial building in the early 20th Century and its influence on European architects.
The scale and abstraction of the grain elevators of Buffalo are exhilarating, and they became one of the inspirations for early Modern architects. Le Corbusier described them as “the magnificent first fruits of a new age” and went on to use them as illustrations in his 1923 book, Vers Une Architecture. Following a visit to see the silos in Buffalo, Erich Mendelsohn wrote that, “Everything else so far seemed to have been shaped interim to my silo dreams."
A Concrete Atlantis is a good book to read if you enjoy armchair exploration, and a unique history and explanation of industrial architecture from the start of the 20th century onwards – particularly grain elevators, like Concrete Central. Patricia Bazelon's photographs of the grain silos – despite being black and white, and relatively small, are worth buying the book for in themselves – link here.
The book also shows that the more perceptive historians and architecture writers have always explored places physically, rather than writing vicariously using other folks' experiences. Reyner Banham isn’t the first, and won’t be the last to describe the experience as, "Once you were inside, it was like being in a totally different world." That becomes a feeling you've chased ever since, but perhaps never found again in its entirety.
As I wrote in Blueprint Magazine several years ago, exploring old buildings is personal – it’s something you do to satisfy your own curiosity. That would appear to be the very definition of a hobby; and like all hobbies, you go a bit mad with it at the start, then chill out once you’ve got over the initial passion to consume it whole. It’s purely about the joy to be had from exploring hidden aspects of the world. Banham’s book reminds you of that, too.
A few years ago, there were few external influences on exploring: it was just you with one or two mates, plus the odd photographic book of rusty ruins which puzzled and inspired. When you discovered that others shared your interest it was a good day, rather than a source of forum rivalries. Lasting friendships were forged on the rare occasions when people met up by accident in some elysian ruin of scrap iron and ferns.
The motivation for exploring these places are complex, but as John Locke believed, fear gives our lives a shove, without which we would sink into passivity. With progress comes a mixture of hope and fear; human emotions which we need to experience, but which we rarely associate with architecture. Instead, we accept places as we find them, unchallenged and unchallenging.
There are many things to overcome; the spiky fence is the least of them. First is to break with our social conditioning: the mantra drummed into us from childhood to heed the warning signs. Then there’s our 21st century fear of scrutiny, that Big Brother is watching on the CCTV system. Next comes a fear of the unknown, accompanied by the retribution which might strike from on high.
Yet curiosity drives a few onwards, and sometimes they become consumed by recording the final throes of a building’s life. Hopeful to discover a time capsule with intact machinery from Edwardian times; wartime posters still pasted to the walls; a secret passage leading to a hidden room. They press on, regardless, with scratched arms, dirt under their nails, ripped clothes: mere collateral damage as their eyes gradually open.
After visiting, it may have taken a morning of digging in a faraway library to find next to nothing, and days more to understand a little of the place’s long and complex history. A clothbound booklet in a dusty box file might be the only footnote about a great company’s past. Where had its history gone? Its archives, ledgers, correspondence books and catalogues? Had no-one documented that before it shut? What would be left once it crumbled…?
Just one piece of advice; don’t have a Grail. Because if you’re unlucky enough to carry that Grail in your head for a few years, then finally achieve it, it kills the urge to do anything else. Ordinary life seems wan afterwards, and other experiences pall. That’s when it becomes dangerous…
I went to see "Solaris" last night, at the local arts centre's cinema. It's part of a season of films made by Andrei Tarkovsky which is currently touring Scotland. Some people are fans of the Russian director because he was an auteur; some due to the rich symbolism of his films; some thanks to the cult which has grown around him since his early passing. In this case, Tarkovsky's profound feeling for humanity makes Solaris both inspiring and moving.
Tarkovsky is often called a visionary, and for good reason. Along with the French film-maker Chris Marker, Tarkovsky's work reaches parts of what it means to be human which almost no other art has. By comparison, Hollywood films seem superficial: they think desire is Sharon Stone without any underwear. Solaris demonstrates how deeply people can feel for someone or something they've lost, and how far they'll go to reclaim a part of them which, as one of the characters in Solaris puts it, has become their conscience.
Solaris is the most profound film I've ever seen; I’ve never watched a film then thought about it constantly afterwards, gone to bed, then woken the next day with my head still full of images drawn from it and feelings evoked by it. At a time when all we seem to hear about Russia are Putin’s hardline politics and the “Ultra” football hooligans fighting hooligans from other countries, perhaps we need to be reminded of the achievements of Russian art, literature and film-making.
All of Tarkovsky's films are about the unknowable - something we reach out towards without fully understanding. His later film Stalker seems like a premonition of Chernobyl - it was shot ten years before the nuclear accident and captures the sense of a world destroyed by Man which has begun regenerating itself. The strangely mutated plants and insects which grew back in the Zone of Exclusion around the reactors was foreseen by Tarkovsky as the Zona, a temperate jungle of plants into which only stalkers (in the deer stalker, or guide, sense of the word) go.
When the three travellers in Stalker finally reach the Zone, they search for and eventually find the Room - the object of their journey. The Room is a derelict industrial hall with mounds of soda ash or a similar white powder flowing like sand dunes across the floor. In metaphysical terms, it's a place where your deepest wish can be fulfilled - but at a terrible price. Solaris similarly tackles things deep inside human nature.
At the core of Solaris is the relationship between Kris Kelvin and his wife Hari. It isn't a film "about" space travel, or science fiction - it's a film about what it means to be human. How Hari came to be on the Solaris spacecraft is a piece of pure metaphysics, but what she and Kris go through, and the agonising final scene which explores how Kelvin’s life can never have a simple resolution, peers deeply into the human condition. Tarkovsky, to use a cliché from the Seventies, was a cosmonaut of inner space.
Of course, along with its script, actors and narrative - the film relies on set and locations for its impact. The opening sequence, a shot of a pellucid stream with water flowing over weeds, is rich in translucency and colour, with the strands of weed flowing sinuously in the current … and then a copper-coloured aspen leaf floats by, suddenly introducing depth to the image. Presumably intended as a metaphor for life, a symbol of transience, the leaf in the stream becomes potent once you realise that Kris Kelvin is spending his final day on Earth before going into space.
First thing in the morning, he leaves the dacha or country cottage where he's staying and goes for a walk. Sunlight slanting through the trees, water meadows, birdsong, a pond full of weed and insect life - to which mankind adds the horse and dog, his familiar companions. Kris stands on the verandah in a thunderstorm, rivulets of rain coursing down his face: you sense that he needed to experience Earth for one last time before it was lost to him.
One hour in to a two-and-three-quarter-hour long film, you will realise, slightly amazed, this is science fiction which doesn't rely on endless special effects. As a result, it stands head and shoulders above 2001: A Space Odyssey. Solaris is pretty much unique in that it defies “genre” classification which critics love; Tarkovsky hunted alone. If Solaris borrows from anyone, it's the renaissance astronomer Kepler, who dreamt of space flight, trips to the moon and what life might be like on other worlds.
Kelvin arrives at the Solaris space station, which Akira Kurosawa said was the most impressive film set he'd ever seen, somewhere quite unique which is far removed from the usual images of SciFi: Jules Verne, Bladerunner, William Gibson or the relentless hi-tech baroque of Star Wars and Star Trek. It's an aesthetic which countless directors tried to copy but only Tarkovsky had the budget and skill to make it believable.
Can I suggest you see the film yourself, then judge how its director understood the need for meaning and purpose in our lives, for belief, for intimacy, and even our connection with animals and the rest of the natural world. Solaris is visually stunning, emotionally moving, and has the moral sense of Pasternak’s masterpiece, Dr Zhivago; it’s also too good to leave to the film snobs, hipsters and other sorts who made up half the screening’s audience.
So why am I writing about it here, on what's ostensibly an architecture magazine's website, rather than doing a quick post on Facebook - Saw Solaris, was gr8, innit bruv. Like. Well, around the same time I figured out that the best writing is about folk rather than things - because people are fundamentally interested in people - I also realised that, at their core, buildings are about people rather than architecture.
Images copyright - Curzon Artificial Eye - http://www.curzonartificialeye.com/solaris/
A few years ago, I walked into a bookshop in a small town and found a paperback copy of "Atlas Shrugged”. It was gathering dust on a high shelf – something which had been ordered but never collected, according to the lady bookseller. That was the beginning of my curiosity about Ayn Rand, and why some architects secretly admire her.
Born to a wealthy family which fled the early days of Bolshevik Russia, Rand is best known for “The Fountainhead”, which is the single worst piece of publicity the architectural profession has received in decades…
The Fountainhead’s main character Howard Roark was reputedly based on Frank Lloyd Wright. His egotism and will to power are only matched in American fiction by Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’ film. But Rand’s book is much less about the genius of design, more about how he forced buildings into existence through sheer force of will.
Rand rejected the collectivism of the USSR and instead argued that history is forged by a small élite of so-called great men who she called the “motor of the world.” Frank Lloyd Wright neatly fits that bill. These man (and although Rand was a woman, her protagonists are men) are set apart by their ruthlessness and possess what she charmingly terms “the virtue of selfishness”. According to Rand, they are the “most oppressed minority” because they have to negotiate with unions, follow labour and environmental laws, and pay income taxes.
Rand’s later novel “Atlas Shrugged” tells of a few more great men, led by John Galt, joining together and withholding their contribution to society to protest against having to pay income tax, follow anti-monopoly laws and respect the right of workers to form unions. They even go so far as to withhold their greatness from an ungrateful society.
We’ve all met people who believe they are indispensable – but indispensability is a delusion. You struggle to find any proof from history that a business won’t live on without a specific leader or ideology. The USSR survived Lenin, John Pierpoint Morgan has been gone for 100 years, but the bank bearing his name is still with us. Even Jaguar Cars carried on without William Lyons, although it’s been a close run thing on several occasions.
What is capitalism, if not a perfect example of the world moving on from Adam Smith’s time but an idea surviving?
Anyhow, it was a strange decision of Rand’s, making Roark an architect. He wasn’t fighting intransigence: he was actually fighting against the fundamentals of what architecture is. Design is a collegiate activity. Unless you somehow build a house for yourself by acting as your own client, funder, architect, engineer, buyer and labourer all rolled into one, you can’t operate in a vacuum. Architecture isn’t an act of pure creation in the way that sculpture or novel-writing can be.
Maybe if Roark had been a poet-hero figure such as Ted Hughes, or perhaps like Captain Ahab locked in his duel with the giant whale, then we could accept that the moral purpose of his life was the pursuit of pure self-interest, as Rand claimed. “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”
From an enlightened modern point of view, it’s difficult to subscribe to that. In the hands of Rand and her modern successors such as the people behind the Adam Smith Institute and the Battle of Ideas, libertarianism – the freedom to act in a free unconstrained way – actually offers licence to a select few to do as they will, to everyone else. They believe the only path to achieve “liberty” is by supporting laissez-faire capitalism.
But with that, “libertarian” has lost its true original meaning, just as “National Socialism” has little to do with socialism, and Neo-Liberal represents nothing like liberality. Aside from dreadful acts of misogyny in The Fountainhead, Rand’s so-called objectivism is morally ugly. Her underlying message – the triumph of the individual over the mass – is actually about psychological mastery. For her, life revolves around the egotism of winning, and the need to keep score.
Interestingly, I read a while ago that in the US, sales of Atlas Shrugged go up during an economic downturn. Perhaps its message comforts casualties of the recession. Instead, it should anger them, because their jobs may have been destroyed by the very laissez-faire capitalists who were inspired by the book in their hands. I’m sure that Donald Trump, if he reads books, will have a copy of Atlas Shrugged at his bedside.
Another of Rand’s assertions, “Throughout the centuries there were men who took the first steps down new roads, armed with nothing but their own vision,” is an example of incomplete thinking and faulty logic. She suggested that some men are genuinely "self made," and that they alone were the pavers of their own "new roads," but Isaac Newton’s famous non sequitur which is inscribed into the milled edge of the £2 coin, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” comes closer to the reality.
One of those giants is Jeremy Bentham.
Rightly or wrongly, many of us believe that architects need a theoretical base, just as academics should also build things. You may still end up with compromised buildings – but at least you’re trying to resolve all the competing demands of cost, quality, ergonomics, aesthetics, longevity, and so on by adopting an *approach*.
Utilitarianism is an approach which everyone misquotes. “Utilitarian” gets a universally bad press. Too often it means a low spec, plainly-finished thing which is robust rather than stylish, but the term has its roots in what Bentham called "the greatest happiness principle" or "the principle of utility", a term he borrowed from David Hume. At its crux is the notion that we should do that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
Bentham wrote, “By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness.”
So, where does happiness reside? Is there, as Alain de Botton’s book suggests, an Architecture of Happiness? If so, can we use Bentham’s ideas to measure that happiness? Well, his abiding concern was the total reform of British society and law based on the principle of utility. In an effort to apply it to legal reform, Bentham developed the hedonistic, or as it is sometimes called, the felicific calculus. If the end result of that reform is happiness, then that could be an index of his success.
So referring to a building as Utilitarian Architecture should actually be a back-handed compliment, although “utilitarian” means completely different things to a philosopher and a designer. Nonetheless, the impact of Bentham's ideas is still powerful today: the words international, maximise, minimise and codification were all coined by Bentham.
Bentham’s other connection with architecture is less obvious. When he joined his brother Samuel in Russia in 1785, he devised a plan for the Panopticon, a model prison where prisoners would be observable by guards at all times. The planform ensured that prisoners could never see the “inspector” who surveilled them from the centre of a radial plan. Because the prisoner never knew whether he was being watched, he was more likely to behave.
He hoped the concept would interest the Catherine the Great but after his return to Britain in 1788, Bentham spent the next 20 years fruitlessly pursuing the idea, spending the bulk of his inheritance in the process.
Bentham also had a great influence over British politics: the Reform Bill of 1832 and the secret ballot both reflected his concerns and his influence spread to some unexpected places. George Kinloch, the reform candidate for the Dundee constituency, marked his friendship with Jeremy Bentham in a unique way. The village of Ardler lies in the very heart of Strathmore, and there Bentham Street, one of the shortest streets in Scotland, is named after Kinloch’s friend, the political radical.
Remember that whereas Rand thought that a person’s own happiness was the moral purpose of their life, Bentham felt that we should do that which produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Which is the fundamentally moral approach? Just as they dreamed that a rational architecture would bring about a rational society, perhaps a "moral" architecture could improve society's moral fibre.
Of course, just as the moral choices we make are never so clear-cut as Food Bank versus Puppy Slaughter, there are subjects we're wary about tackling. Bentham had no qualms about addressing emotive issues such as penal reform, religious adherence and egalitarianism – perhaps today we could add sex, drugs, and euthanasia. In the modern world, Nina Hartley promotes the idea of thinking “sex positive”; Calton Athletic FC championed the harm reduction model for drug addicts, Margo MacDonald supported tolerance zones for prostitution in Edinburgh and pursued a campaign to legislate for the right to assisted suicide.
It would be easy to condemn some of the people affected, but that spirit of moral improvement has been largely consigned to the dustbin of history. For that reason it’s worth reading Rand’s books, such as The Fountainhead, even if you find yourself flinging them across the room in disgust. If nothing else, they demonstrate how some people have a vacuum where the soul would be in a moral human being.
Howdens is one of the last remaining Victorian heavy engineering works in Glasgow, and towards the end of its life, this redbrick complex was the birthplace of the tunnel boring machines which dug the Channel Tunnel. The company, now called Howden Group, is still in business but left their home of ninety years in Tradeston in 1988. The building’s future has been in doubt ever since, and it currently lies empty.
The company began in 1856, when James Howden set up in business on his own as a consulting engineer and registered patents for machine tools. Before that, he was apprenticed to a firm of steam engine builders. Howden’s interests gradually moved from machine tools to improving the design of boilers and steam engines, and he began experimenting with higher pressure compound engines.
The firm was incorporated as James Howden & Co. in 1862 and began building main boilers and engines to Howden’s own design. Howden built a factory at Scotland Street in Tradeston then began experimenting with axial flow fans to force air through marine steam engines. That was the root of Howdens’ business for the next century: fans, blowers, compressors, turbines and other steam machinery. Today, they also make wind tunnels, refrigeration plant, circulators for nuclear power stations and mobile breathing systems for aircraft.
The original works further along Scotland Street from the present site were outgrown in 1870, and a new works was built a couple of blocks down the road. “Howden’s Forced Draught System” was a great success, as it improved efficiency and fuel consumption, and in the 1880’s over 1000 boilers were converted or built to Howden’s patents. Howden then turned his attention to auxiliary steam machinery, and realised his “new” factory wasn’t suitable, so he built another factory … this one … at 195 Scotland Street.
The works and foundry were designed by Nisbet Sinclair and opened in 1898, and had handling equipment and overhead cranes built-in plus (unusual in those days) a central heating system. By then, the boilers in many famous ocean liners used the Howden system – the Lusitania and Mauretania – and later the Queen Mary, Normandie and Queen Elizabeth. The original machine and constructing shop consists of six smaller bays running east-west; the much larger turbine fitting shop runs north-south with its brick gables facing the street: they’re largely hidden by the various offices which front onto Scotland Street.
Business boomed, and extensions designed by Bryden & Robertson were built in 1904 then again in 1912, and (according to Howdens’ official history) the firm went on to build the largest turbo-generator in the country for Manchester Corporation. In fact, Howdens were pioneers in the manufacture of steam turbines, and these were used on land as well as onboard ships. When the Great War broke out, the Admiralty decided that all ships should be fitted with Howden blowers – the idea was to give them enough performance to outrun U-boats, and that saved the lives of thousands of seafarers whose ships would otherwise have been torpedoed.
The company built a factory in Wellsville, New York in order to export their system to America. After the war, Howdens gradually used their expertise in forced draught fans and preheaters to win orders for power station machinery, and in 1930, they were the probably first firm to use a fax machine to transmit data – they sent working drawings to America using radio-telegraphy. In the late ‘30’s, Howdens developed dust collectors to clean up the smoke from power stations, although the further development of these was put on hold during WW2.
From the early part of 1940, the Howden factories (Scotland St as well as Govan and Old Kilpatrick) were used to build Sunderland flying boat hulls; torpedo bomber fuselages; and fins and flaps for Lancasters. Scotland Street employed 1700 people during the war, and also developed a gadget to eliminate visible smoke from the exhausts of steamships, which was a giveaway to the location of convoys. During the war, Howdens took over the neighbouring Subway Power Station – it was unique, as it powered the world’s only cable-haulage subway system. Howdens used the building as a pattern shop.
Shortly after the war, the works received a large order of steel furniture, making use of the aircraft tooling, then orders came in from the CEGB for new power station equipment, including fans, air preheaters and dust collectors – flue gas cleaning equipment – and similar kit was fitted to a new generation of ocean liners. Howdens supplied the massive forced draught fans at Inverkip Power Station, each of which are around three storeys high.
A new block of research labs was built around 1950 at Scotland St., and as a result of their R&D, Howdens went on to supply the fans which cooled the atomic piles at Windscale from 1956. Howdens extended the Scotland St. works westwards with a large new Assembling Shop in 1954, then another in 1964. These parts lay behind Mackintosh’s Scotland Street School and have since been demolished, but they were constructed as erecting shops for tunnelling machines, the next chapter in Howdens’ adventure in industry.
Tunnel Boring Machines are a complicated mass of components and machinery. They grow ever more sophisticated over time, but effectively the components remain the same: a boring head (usually a big rotating wheel with teeth) and the means of preventing the tunnel caving in before the permanent lining is installed (a tail shield and pressure-balancing equipment which allows the boring head to work under pressure to the stop ingress of water).
The TBM also needs a means of propelling the complete unit forward as excavation proceeds (usually hydraulic rams at the back of the shield); an equipment pack with motors, hydraulics, control cabin and so forth; a means to get the spoil away - usually conveyors but there are other solutions; and finally the mechanism for receiving and erecting the permanent lining, be that segmental or sprayed concrete. It all has to get reach the back of the shield and be put in place before the shield is moved forwards.
The most famous artefacts to come out of Scotland Street were the “tunneliers” or tunnel boring machines (TBM’s) which excavated the Channel Tunnel. The order was placed by Trans-Manche Link for three Howden open-face tunnelling machines of just under 8 metre diameter and weighing over 500 tons, which made the landward drives of the main running tunnels; plus two Howden-Decon machines of 5.3 metre diameter which excavated the service tunnel which lies between them. Each of them cost £7.5m.
One of these was later used to dig a storm water sewer in Brighton, but once its sister had finished her task, she had to dig her own grave. The machines were supplied in kit form and had to be welded together on site: when work was complete, it wasn’t practical to completely dismantle them, so the TBM which dug the seaward part of the service tunnel was steered into a 60 metre radius curve away from the alignment, bored into rock, then entombed in concrete. It still holds the record for the longest single TBM drive, of 22,000 metres, which was achieved between December 1987 and October 1990. The one which survived intact was on display for a while, and then auctioned on Ebay a few years ago.
SInce I wrote that in 2008, I’ve spoken to a civil engineer who suggested that TBM's have never been buried – or certainly not the complete machine. At the end of a tunnel drive, it’s common for the machine to be dismantled and used on another drive on the same project. By the end of the project, most of the moving parts are likely to be well past their sell-by date and will be extracted then refurbished or recycled. On occasions its cheaper to leave the tail shield behind (which is little more than a short length of large diameter steel tube) as a tunnel lining, than to dismantle it and put a lining in its place.
Howdens later supplied TBM’s for the Storebaelt tunnel in Denmark in the mid-90’s, and also built tunnelling machines under licence from Wirth of Germany in the late-’90’s, but Scotland Street closed in 1988, so those were presumably built at Howden Group’s newer factory at Craigton … and then began the search for a new use for this massive factory. Even with the demolition of the post-war assembly shops, the buildings left still cover 1.5 hectares. I’ve yet to discover whether Howdens built the machines which excavated the nearby Clyde Tunnel, but it would certainly be fitting if they had done.
Scotland Street Works has been bought and sold several times since Howdens moved out, and was owned in 2008 by Tiger Developments, who reportedly bought it for £10m. It’s passed through the hands of other developers who pondered uses for it, and at one point there were proposals to convert it into a museum of industry and technology. Can you hear alarm bells ringing?
Anyone with a good Scots education knows that the industrial revolution owes its success to mass production, which relied on several things: the harnessing of steam by James Watt, the invention of the hot blast furnace by James Neilson and the development of the steam hammer by James Nasmyth. The world’s greatest ironworks which belonged to the Carron Company outside Falkirk, and it benefitted from all three developments and much more besides.
Aspects of the iron, steel and machine-making industries are preserved at Summerlee in Coatbridge (which was once the Hydrocon crane factory) but there are plenty other things to consider: the global explosives industry grew up in south-western Scotland; the UK’s paper-making machinery centre was Edinburgh, and Dundee was the capital of the world’s jute textile and jute machinery trade. As far as I know, there are no plans to preserve a recent naval or merchant ship on Clydeside. The QE2 sailed off to Dubai, but why not repatriate another Clydebuilt vessel?
Yes, Howdens should be saved; yes, Scotland probably does need a museum devoted to science, industry and technology … but the two issues are independent of each other. It might make sense to use the buildings as a museum meantime (or artists’ studios, or industrial units, or a nightclub …), but you can bet the developers will try to recover their investment by demolishing it and building flats or supermarkets on the site instead. Now that the machinery of the economy been thrown into reverse, the owners of 195 Scotland Street will need all the ingenuity of James Howden to make a success of things.
I originally posted this at the tail end of 2008 on The Lighthouse’s now-defunct website … I’m posting it again here because things haven’t improved for Howdens’ building. Finally, here’s a comment which was posted in response on the Lighthouse website:
I and a fellow plater Tam built the front section of the services tunnel machine. It was built in quadrants etc. Our names are on one of the conical plates at the front of the machine. It was a great achievement and I was proud to be part of it, but are we forgotten me and Tam? Peter Thompson came and got me out of Govan to do the Borie - Orly tunnel machine. In Renfrew I met a girl who was a PR on Borie project. She found out I was the fabricator and wondered why we the builders were forgotten. I'm the Wombat, my nickname means nothing. Did James Watt build the steam engine? No, he prepared the engineering drawings etc. So scottish platers and fabricators are not even remembered for this great feat of building the Channel Tunnel.
Yours Willie McLennan, The Wombat
Detroit, home of Henry Ford and the motor car, and of Motown and punk, was once the US’s fourth biggest city. It lay at the centre of what was once the cradle of mass production, of what became known, in Huxley’s Brave New World as “Fordism”.
It’s there, at the intersection of Manchester and Woodward in Highland Park that Henry Ford perfected mass production. The Model T Automobile Plant, built in 1909, housed the world’s first moving assembly line. At its peak, the plant built 1000 “Tin Lizzies” each day. Today it stands semi-derelict, probably the most important factory in automotive history.
An American journalist, Lincoln Steffens, coined the famous phrase “I’ve seen the future, and it works”, after his visit to the Soviet Union in 1921. Steffens was an early campaigner against the corporate corruption that dominated America’s industrial cities, and he took Detroit as a prime example. However, in his enthusiasm for an alternative, he failed to spot that the Soviet system had adopted some of the dehumanising aspects of Fordism.
Car assembly typically took place from top to bottom, with raw material on the top floor, and a car rolling out on the ground floor, ready to be fired up. Car chassis travelled down in huge electrically-powered lifts. Machines were arranged according to their function in the manufacturing process rather than by type; overhead conveyors, gravity chutes, and belts were used to transport materials from one work station to another.
Body-building, upholstering and panel-beating were carried out on the second floor. There were also machine shops which made pistons, water pumps and brake drums. The linking range may have been used as stores and quality control areas. The car’s “body in white” travelled down to the first floor where it was attached to the chassis and fitted out. Final assembly was carried out on the ground floor, then finished cars were loaded onto rail wagons on the factory’s own sidings.
Today, Detroit’s great temples to the motor car – the iconic factories of Ford, General Motors, Cadillac, Fisher Body, Packard and many others – lie in ruins. The architect who conceived them was Albert Kahn: most famously, he designed the plant at Highland Park in Detroit where the Ford Model “T” was produced but over the course of his career, he pioneered reinforced concrete frames and built many hundreds of other factories.
Arguably, Albert Kahn was The Architect of the 20th Century: his buildings made a greater impact on the world than Le Corbusier’s or Frank Lloyd Wright’s. These photos show one of Kahn’s buildings, which survives despite the ravages of time and the defeat of Fordist thinking.
Technology is spurred on by war, which in turn speeds up the process of its evolution. It's fitting, in this case, that raw materials for salvage can be found in the cast-off pile of the Ministry of Defence.
Perhaps the first spur to this salvage culture was the Ministry of War's vast Disposals Sale at Great Missenden in Oxfordshire in 1946. The War Department is the MoD’s predecessor, and to recoup war debts, everything from Churchill tanks to Bailey bridges was sold. The lots covered 20 acres and the sale continued for two solid weeks.
Not only cheap vehicles and generators but also structural parts of bridges, tents and temporary structures were available; some of the Bailey bridges exist in use to this day. When WW2 ended, the Attlee government also instigated a programme to use the no-longer required corrugated iron which had been made for air-raid shelters, as prefabricated housing.
All the things scrapmen acquire were originally produced to do a job, but they were thrown out when their usefulness in that role expired. The scrapmen use a malefic alchemy by which they turn the products of the Cold War into ploughshares. The process rests upon the hunter/gatherer instincts of the skip-rakers: people who go to vehicle auctions, rake in scrapyards and dig in tips.
With dozens of shipbuilding yards, and a heavy naval presence in Scotland – vast naval bases at Scapa Flow, Invergordon and Rosyth – there was never any shortage of ship parts. That continues today, with Faslane on the west coast plus Rosyth (now run by Babcock) with its submarine graveyard.
We also have an aviation industry: with Vector at Almondbank, BAE Systems at Prestwick and Rolls-Royce at Hillington all of whose predecessors contributed to the junk pile. For example, military aircraft breakers supplied the Dakota passenger seat which Gavin Maxwell had in his cottage at Camusfearna, along with fish boxes and butter barrels fashioned into furniture.
Likewise, old and knackered road vehicles are destined for their own specialist scrapyards, such as the locally famous CWS bus breakers in Barnsley: several firms share a fifty hectare site, covered in hundreds of reduced chassis and littered with mangled wrecks, burst engine blocks and piles of impacted body parts.
Each of these sectors – metal recyclers who break down ships, aircraft and vehicles – is controlled by SEPA. In contrast to these official operations is the approach of the inhabitants of the remote Hebridean islandsI who harvest what scrap they can and build it into their houses. Everything is used many more times than it might be elsewhere, particularly things which have had to come across at great expense on The Boat.
On South Uist, among the ruins of the black and white houses many crofts boast a caravan, either in use as additional living space or as storage overspill. Caravans are often left in situ for such long periods that blockwork walls are built around them, to protect them from the winter storms. The notionally temporary actually becomes permanent. Abandoned buses and coaches are also used for storage.
Most islanders keep their wrecked old cars, which make the inhabited areas of the island look like a low density rubbish tip. In fact, when the Atlantic began to wash away parts of the beach at Middlequarter Dunes on North Uist, the Army was enlisted to plant old cars into the ground to act as sea defences. Of course, the constant Gulfstream current also brings a constant stream of driftwood and flotsam to shore to be used for fences and firewood.
The Hebridean approach has a lot to do with the paucity of material; but expediency can also grow up around an abundant source of scrap, such as along the northern shore of Montrose Basin. As someone wrote, travellers and their elaborate mobile homes have been settled alongside the municipal tip to crop its waste: they often park up in roadside lay-bys, to set out and sort through their gleanings.
Tourists arrive for the short summer season and also camp alongside on the older middens, from where a residue of demolished homes spews out onto the south shore, now clad in wild flowers.
Sometimes, an ideological viewpoint emerges from salvage culture. Travellers’ camps exist at Glastonbury, the New Forest, the Rhythm of Life camp in the Forest of Dean, and between 1992-4 there was a camp at Glen Shiel, which evaded not only building legislation but also anti-traveller laws. Around twenty vehicles were parked up on flat land where the old Wade road to Kyle separated from the new, skirting a disused two hundred year old bridge and the track parallel to it.
Their trucks had been narrowly saved from the breakers, the sheet alloy roofs of the caravans flapped in the wind and windows were patched with insulating tape. The vehicles were surrounded by dogs in polythene tunnel kennels, and “benders” – small yurt-like domes of plastic sheet over bent wood, with a chimney at the apex – had been erected on the grassy flood shelf of the river.
I originally wrote the passage above as part of my dissertation at architecture school, and amongst other things drew a comparison between the travellers’ benders, and the green timber diagrids then recently erected at Hooke Park College by Frei Otto, ABK and Ted Happold. Having rescued the dissertation from a 3 1/2 inch floppy disc and read through it again for the first time in years, I realised that somewhere I visited a few years after graduating actually fitted the ethos better – although not an impressive piece of contemporary architecture, more as a demonstration of an un-self-conscious way of life.
The military cast-offs, Highland canniness and New Age travellers’ sensibility merged at Balnakeil: a former RAF radar station near Cape Wrath in Sutherland. It was built in 1954 to cater for a new radar station on the nearby promontory, Faraid Head. There were barracks, mess rooms, a medical centre, canteen and so forth. But the planned ROTOR radar became obsolete before it had even been completed, so the buildings at Balnakeil lay abandoned for several years, until local artists colonised them.
Somehow, the utilitarian buildings look rather Modernist with their Crittall windows and white rendered planes; from the distant glimpse, the cluster of rooftop water tanks stand out but don't have a scale, and their tower-like silhouettes make Balnakeil seem like a Highland version of San Gimignano. There’s an interesting history of Balnakeil craft village here, and its long-serving artists have proven to be the canniest of salvage men and women, long before artisanal skip-raking and “upcycling” became fashionable among the hipsters of Shoreditch in London or the Kreuzberg in Berlin, with their tweed caps and ironic beards.
Perhaps a shift of 700 miles between the densely urban and the extremely rural makes all the difference…