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.
Everyone can tell when you have a big project on site, because you start being philosophical about contractors, or Sympathy for the Construction Industry. We have a main contractor from over the North Channel, and a cladding contracts manager who is the spit of Samuel Beckett - with an aquiline face and glasses pushed up into his shock of grey hair.
So we shot the breeze. What conclusion did we reach? Of the many analogies you can draw to illuminate how building contractors operate – a three ring circus; the Muppet Show; or an anarchists’ symposium – the most apt is that of a medieval court.
In reality, whilst they may see themselves as progressive, the Main Board directors of large contractors actually preside over an organisation which is feudal, and at least 500 years out of date. Many construction firms cling to hierarchies, and confrontational ways of working – they think of themselves as a conquering army, and as a result, a passion for the fight overtakes good business sense. Perhaps that explains why their profit margins are so low despite their high turnover and huge amounts of capital employed.
Yet the power of the analogy really lies in what happens on site. I’ve watched several of the big contractors at close quarters – the stock market-listed leviathans – and they strongly resemble each other in how they do what they do. Immediately the contract is let, they arrive on site from elsewhere, much like the medieval court which voyaged around Scotland and set up in the fields around the castle. In this case, the tented camp takes the form of the site establishments: the huts.
Hut City is a diagram of the contractor’s power structure. Although the Lords Temporal aren’t here, room has to be made available in the admin offices for the courtiers, including a Darnley figure in the QS’s room. Visiting statesmen are accommodated in the meeting room, and there’s a retinue of camp followers who are provided with a staff mess to change into their courtly rigger boots. The men-at-arms are given a wee buckie and tabards marked “Security”. Then of course there is the baggage train, who deposit their shipping containers around the standard, just like a stockade.
Everything is painted in the house colours, and that livery even extends to clothing and tool boxes. Whilst that identifies everyone, it also makes it easy for fifth-columnists to merge with the ranks. It is surprisingly easy for a spy in the court to move freely: all it takes is a hat and tabard matching all the others wandering around on site. I know this because I’ve done it, and it proves that “security” on sites is illusory. Why would you climb the stockade of spiky-topped Heras fencing, when you can walk directly over the drawbridge and in through the main gate? That’s called being hidden in plain sight.
When a small, country-based builder takes on a project, he puts a portable bog and a tool store on site, then each day two or three of his vans turn up, filled with time-served tradesmen. By contrast, when the Court of the Crimson King comes to town, the resulting site establishment costs are crippling. By creating Hut City, you create a hiding place for the site management, who are already far removed from the lads on the tools. The site is by now a muddy plain resembling a battlefield, churned up by modern siege engines running on crawler tracks.
Don’t be fooled, archaeologists of the present, by the laser rangefinders, hydraulic piledrivers, and all-terrain dumpers: the early stages of construction are still dirty, crude and primitive. They take as their precedent the work of Dark Ages military engineers (the original “engineers”) who undermined city walls, built massive catapults, and rode in Trojan horses. Modern methods of construction have nothing on this: wall ties lie strewn like crossbow bolts, towers of scaffolding lay siege, and the impression of a mailed fist marks the place where the M&E sub fell out with the ceiling installers.
Construction is bad neighbour activity, much like pitched battles, because of the noise, filth, and the fog of war. At 7.30am sharp, a row of excavators and articulated dumptrucks are started up: the air fills with blue smoke, coarse language and the throbbing of many large capacity diesel engines. All this reassures the contractor that “there’s something gaein on”, even if he’s “jist steerin up the mud.”
So with his warlike attitude, an army of hangers-on, and the paraphenalia of battle, the big contractor needs to take the fight to the enemy. Or rather, he opens a second front. On one hand, the conflict continues with the architect over extras and delays; on the other, the sub-contractors endure a second round of tendering. In this, they are paying tribute a more powerful force. The royal house is building up a war chest, and imposing payment terms on the vassals is a good way of accomplishing that.
Anyhow, the analogy of military misadventure could be spun out for entertainment value, but it can be swiftly routed by noting what came after the Dark Ages … Enlightenment. 250 years ago, architects were called the “Masters of Works”. A client proposed to construct something: the architect liaised with him, then designed, organised and oversaw building work. The Adam Brothers offered a turnkey service, much as an architect-developer with a direct project management arm would do today.
The Victorians, by professionalising design, and splitting it from construction, set us back by several centuries. That lost time has yet to be recovered. Only by re-uniting the folk who draw buildings, with the folk who make them, will we drag the construction industry out of its Dark Ages.
Several decades ago there was an ideal of “Great Britain”. The broad, sunlit uplands of Churchill’s phrase evoke farmland dotted with Southdown sheep (the breed which look like woolly teddy bears) and hedges full of songbirds. The horizon is punctuated with spinneys of elm trees and the spires of parish churches. Did it ever exist in reality?
We released a long, pent-up breath and went in search of somewhere else … Unwittingly, just like Jonathan Meades, we found ourselves abroad in Britain.
During the 1940’s, the image of broad, sunlit uplands was a powerful metaphor; it gained currency during six years of total war. Spitfires roared overhead as the smell of roast beef wafted over a honeysuckle hedge. The ideal was something to yearn for while bogged down in the trenches of the Bulge.
During the flooding earlier this year, the uplands metaphor took on another significance, since the uplands aren’t floodplains. The Somerset Levels and Thames Basin were inundated; in previous years, the Humber at South Ferriby suffered, and before that the River Tay overtopped its embankments at Perth.
The higher land acted as a refuge from the flooding, just as it was a bulwark against the loss of British identity during wartime. That cherished landscape, abundant with trees, wildlife and villages has inspired many pieces of pastoral music, and perhaps you can already hear Vaughan Williams’ “Lark Ascending” playing in the distance…
A biographical article which I’m writing at the moment reminded me of the parallels between place, architecture and music. The visual and auditory cortices in the brain are closely allied: they have rhythm, structure and composition in common and sometimes they come together in a synaesthetic way. As I was writing, I thought about this song, which evokes the broad, sunlit uplands.
Talk Talk’s track, “New Grass” is topographical. The sound picture it draws is an open, rolling landscape; the warm-toned electric organ and lilting guitar achieve a feeling of tranquillity and disquiet. The music seems to capture what the uplands, but also hints at fears for their future. New Grass evokes a folk memory of agrarian Britain, particularly the years immediately before the Great War when radical young men in walking boots explored the countryside.
The Great War poets suggested that Britain’s essence lay in the pastoral, with its traditional and modest values: by contrast, the city was brash and inauthentic. That duality carried into the Modern era with poets such as W.B. Yeats who looked back to Thomas Hardy and forwards to Phillip Larkin. Similarly, it had a relationship with pastoral music where Talk Talk found a place of their own, between mystical Romantics like William Blake and composers such as Delius and Vaughan Williams.
“The Lark Ascending” was written at the start of the Great War when there was an underlying fear of the loss of countryside, culture and ways of life. Similarly, Mark Hollis of Talk Talk completed “New Grass” in the last years of the Thatcher government. The track was released in 1991, by which time much of the Green Belt had been lost, agribusiness had destroyed the hedgerows and joined hands with suburbia. The Idea of the South remained, but the reality had shifted.
That’s just my interpretation, of course, because Mark Hollis retreated from the showbusiness machine many years ago, and doesn’t seek out publicity. Apart from "Chaos" on the UNKLE album Psyence Fiction (the one with Futura’s cone-headed aliens on the cover) he has kept a very low profile. Maybe he decided that the yearning and wistfulness of New Grass said everything he needed to say.
Still, for me, New Grass *is* the South Downs, which roll gently towards the Channel. It’s more than an idealised version of wartime Britain: in that track the ideal, the image and the music are now inextricable with the place.
The South is another country. Where does it begin and end? You keep travelling until you run out of land in Sussex. Brighton seems the most English of towns, but it’s almost as close to Dieppe as to London. Nonetheless, the Great Wen has the same push-pull attraction on Brighton as it does on the rest of the country, and going up to London takes just an hour on the electric train. Perhaps it’s too close…
The North is far enough from London to seem exotic. From the wild moors above Haworth to the sooty gritstone of those dark satanic mills, it was captured in John Bulmer’s photojournalism from the 60’s, a Kestrel for a Knave, to the TV drama Our Friends in the North. For the metropolitan media, The North is Lancashire and Yorkshire; it’s Way Up North when you hit Teeside and Tyneside, and the Far North once you cross the Royal Border Bridge at Berwick.
At architecture school, I discovered how this perception differs according to your starting point. For people living near the south coast, The North would be an escape – but Scotland was like internal exile. Jo from Guildford, Nick from the Isle of Wight, Pat from Southampton: among their reasons for choosing Duncan of Jordanstone, so they claimed, was to get as far from home as possible…
At first, the hard-edged Scots tongue must have seemed abrasive. Those stone-built cities which climb up towards the Campsies, the Pentlands and the Sidlaws come from a different tradition. The clear air, harsh winters and heavy industry bred hard men and socialism. So the place was straightforwardly different, even though people are people across the world; all brothers and sisters under the skin.
As the North is to them, so the South to us.
One day, I escaped from London and explored the town at end of the sunlit uplands … Brighton … a magnet for teenage runaways, love-struck couples and musical dreamers. The hazy sunshine and mild winters are agreeable, and soft accents roll from stucco terraces which go down to the sea. Yet beyond the comfortable politics of reaction, there’s a community of bohemians and anarchists here, radicals on their own terms.
So, join the Little Magnets who tumble off the train like freshly-struck coins, then stroll along the Marine Parade and take in the swirl of hot dogs, candy floss, perfume and cigarettes around the Palace Pier. Leave the attics in bedsitter land and walk out along the front on a quiet midweek afternoon; saunter through the antiques markets and vintage clothing stores, hang out in the coffee shops and catch gigs at the Concorde.
The Brighton scene has pedigree: from Graham Greene and Mods & Rockers, to Quadrophenia and the Zap Club. I remember the cool graphics of club fliers which drew me there: punk was followed by indie music, then the crusties and acid house came along. Brighton also has a full-on graf scene: writers have made their mark in sprawling wildstyle. And it has COTS – the Colossus of the South – a series of vast stormwater chambers which tempt the bravest to explore during dry weather.
But most of all Brighton meant Transvision Vamp. I recall a friend at school, Scott Clark, who was a huge fan of Wendy James, but I can appreciate them for the music they wrote, too.
As she said in an interview, “I was a young teenager and the world was opening up for me… My life was beginning, that's how I remember Brighton. The world was full of possibilities, and Nick and I made our own bubble and lived in it, working, working, working towards the day that we would have our music ready for the world.” Freed from other peoples’ expectations, they were able to make themselves up as they went along.
That comes through in the music, along with the trashy aesthetic of Pop Art which chimed with Brighton, the saturated colours of Jamie Read’s posters along the Kings Road, the powerfully-amplified fairground music which encircles the pier and beneath it the onrush of the Channel breaking over the shingle beach.
Transvision Vamp became what Talk Talk began as: a pop band which sprang from punk. For a glorious moment, they achieved what they set out to do. They channelled all the yearning, the pent-up energy, and the self-discovery into three minute pop songs. Who knows what their equivalent is today; it certainly isn’t played on Radio 1.
That’s the first impression, of high-energy kinetic tracks such as “The Only One”. The song reaches its chorus, then… (Clarkson Pause) … the middle eight punches out. On a tinny iPod you pick up how compressed the guitars are, but over a club PA with a decent bass response, it destroys the place. It’s also a good example of eidesis. The lyrics don’t repeat through laziness: they repeat for effect, just like Miesian buildings gain much of their power through the unbroken repetition of the grid. That’s a rhythm thing.
The Gardyne Campus Library in Broughty Ferry was designed by Thoms & Wilkie and opened in autumn 1976 as part of the new Dundee College of Education. It was the last major work by this architectural practice, and arguably the best late-Modern era building in Dundee, set in mature parkland to the east of the city centre.
The new college was planned from around 1969 to replace the Edwardian-era college in Park Place. By 1970, Thoms & Wilkie had established that the building would be a series of “terraces” stepping up the hill, and that was set out in a big polystyrene and balsa model which featured in subsequent press coverage.
Gardyne Road, as the college was known, was built by Charles Gray Builders – one of their largest projects at that time – work began on site in June 1971, and construction was completed in May 1976. With a small palette of materials including beautifully-executed dimensional blockwork and varnished timber, this building is all about proportion and surface, with prismatic glazing growing from the main volume.
According to a contemporary article in The Courier, the college extended to over 300,000 sq.ft., and consisted of 400,000 concrete blocks set into a reinforced concrete frame with 40 foot main spans. The structure consumed 1500 tons of reinforcing steel, plus 40,000 tons of ready-mixed concrete supplied by Dundee Readymix Co.: special French-designed hydraulic formwork tables were used to support the coffered floorslab.
As a teacher-training college it had a working life of only 30 years, as the buildings stood largely empty after Dundee University vacated them in July 2007. At that point the library interior, with fair-faced columns and a coffered "waffle" ceiling, was completely original and intact, and walking amongst its columns, with the coffers high above, felt like crossing the floor of the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak.
I have fond memories of the place: firstly from the end of the 1980’s when I was at school and swimming lessons were held here. I usually made sure I had a cold so that I didn’t have to bother swimming: instead, I joined the reprobates at the side of the pool who shouted abuse at the swimmers and tried to push each other in.
The second era was at the start of the 2000’s, when I discovered that my University library ticket allowed me to borrow books from the Gardyne Campus library. Like the building fabric, the interior fit-out was also perfectly preserved from the late Seventies, with the original fawn-coloured needle-punch carpet, sage green moulded plastic chairs, and timber study carrels.
It was a sanctuary, and the glazed gallery around the edge of the library was reminiscent of both Jim Stirling’s work at St Andrews, Leicester and Cambridge; and the later Burrell Gallery in Glasgow was even closer in execution, its mass offset by similar bevelled patent glazing around the perimeter, hard against the landscaping. The warm, small scale reading spaces perfectly balanced the dark, high-ceilinged stacks which lay further into the plan.
On a weekday afternoon you could sit on the bright edge of the library and flick through books from the 1970’s which had long disappeared from other libraries. The shelves were stocked when the college opened and never really brought up to date: I got into Saul Bellow and Lawrence Durrell, and rediscovered Joseph Heller, thanks to its original librarian’s catholic tastes.
The building was part of the former Dundee College of Education, which became the Northern College in 1987, then part of Dundee University in 2001. Dundee College took the building on after the University left, and by 2009 the books had gone, but the shelves and tables were still there, along with worn patches in the carpet which 30 years’ worth of feet had rubbed.
The waffle soffit carried an Op Art pattern of striplights, staggered at 90 degrees to each other; beyond the library were long corridors with either vinyl tile or terracotta quarry tile flooring, and slatted ceilings of varnished red pine.
Rumours began to circulate that the Gardyne Road campus would be redeveloped, and this would entail demolishing the library. At the time, I felt that would count as cultural vandalism; nevertheless, demolition began at the end of 2009, and over the Christmas holidays the glassless walls let snow drift over the rubble.
The resulting “intervention” looks as grim as anything built in Dundee under the PFI Schools programme and is a dismal result which destroyed one of the best pieces of late Modernism in the city. It also speaks volumes about Dundee College’s disregard for learning environments.
Many of the best-known myths originate in Classical Greece. Prometheus, Midas and Achilles are well known throughout the western world. Scots myths don’t seem to travel well, perhaps because the Laird of Cockpen, or Bruce and the spider, have a certain couthy quality. By contrast, Greek myths are raw and powerful. The rawest is the mythical story of Elektra, related in dramatic form by Euripides, and made into an opera a century ago by Richard Strauss.
As it did in January 1909 when it was first performed in Dresden, Elektra still has the ability to propel you from your normal, reasoned existence into a place where savage, uncontrollable emotion wells up inside. The myth is part of the classical saga of the House of Agamemnon, a study of pathological hatred, sexual repression, and a parable of how violence begets violence.
Euripides shows that hatred kills the hater: Elektra is caught up in an act of vengeance against her mother, who murdered her father. In the opera, Strauss comes close to raw expressionism as he tries to represent the title character’s insanity. As a result, Elektra’s terrifying intensity has few parallels elsewhere in art. It is difficult enough to translate these feelings and experiences into literature or drama; transferring them into architecture seems almost an impossibility.
The experience of opera may be heightened by an element of fantasy: whether the dark, glamorous diva who sweeps across the foyer with her spray of black orchids, or that mysterious gent who is about to pull a silenced Browning Hi-Power from his cummerbund, and aim it at the foreign diplomat… The background to this may be baroque, rococco or merely a parametric architecture with an expensive polish.
Most environments we design are intended to be calm and rational: in fact, the Classical orders of architecture set out to achieve exactly that. It’s rare that anyone would wish to design somewhere at the opposite extreme, but such places do exist. Likewise the un-designed places which may have evolved over time – as in the case when you walk into the darkness of an abandoned railway tunnel, or a cave system. The complete absence of daylight, plus the strange acoustic of these places, suggests the Labyrinth, of Minotaur fame, and under the surface you certainly feel quite different to the world under the sun.
The senses are heightened, blood pulses in your ears, and your nerves are at a high key – despite depriving the senses of stimuli. Just make sure you take a torch, and a spare; plus a spare battery, and a spare for the spare … otherwise your mind will play tricks. The darkness does strange things to space – it grows and shrinks beyond the edge of the torch beam, and imaginary forms flit across the twilight beyond the torch beam. Fear can become an overwhelming emotion, if your imagination is left to its own devices.
Another example which springs to mind is the Rhubarb House. With its dank brick vaults hidden behind heavy wooden doors, rhubarb plants were “forced” in its darkness. The rhubarb was brought on when it was out of season, when it couldn’t grow outside due to the cold and darkness. Inside is absolute stillness, with moist air hanging at the back of the vaults and a soft carpet of humus and strawy manure which absorbs everything. When the rhubarb crowns are growing, set three feet apart and sprouting like triffids, their pale stalks and monstrous leaves dominate the space. Once they’ve been lifted, the hollow sheds are a void.
I’ve walked through them – tucked away in the Angus countryside, known by only by a handful of local people. There is a feeling of suppression and sensory deprivation in the vaults, and just like an anechoic chamber or a drainage culvert, they offer their own particular experience once you get used to the idea of being where you are. Claustrophobia is one symptom, or perhaps a vague unease about those cold, organic things with names like Timperley, Hawkes Champagne, or The Sutton.
The other extreme is a place of over-stimulation, which for these purposes we will call the Hazard Room. It does exist, somewhere south of the Pentlands – a place with yellow and black striped walls, floor and ceiling; strobing lights and revolving mirrors; sirens sounding at random; blasts of dry heat and freezing fog. Blood pressure and physiological stress levels are greatly increased: you are set on edge, and the space quickly becomes unendurable for anything more than short periods.
The loudness, exaltation, bizarre perspectives and confusing visual cues owe something to surrealism, and something more to Jungian psychology. No-one really knows why the Hazard Room was created, although its context suggests it was dreamed up by psychiatrists, or perhaps installation artists. It is not a comfortable place to be – but that’s the idea. It was designed to over-power with raw emotion to represent, or perhaps trigger, insanity.
The godfather of the study of these sensations is Edmund Burke, who attempted to theorise the sublime in his Philosophical Treatise of 1756. Burke was the first philosopher to scrutinise our sense of awe: what stimulates it, how it acts upon us, and why the triggers exist in our mind in the first place. He listed attributes such as obscurity, power, darkness, vastness, and magnitude. “To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”
Perhaps we need to feel, in a metaphysical sense, that there is something greater than us out there – whether through an understanding of religion, animism or aestheticism. Perhaps it does no harm to be jolted into a state of agitation by these extreme stimuli? This was the thesis of the Lettrist International, when they conceived their Formulary for a New Urbanism in the early 1950’s – that group of amateur revolutionaries later evolved onto the Situationists, who fomented the student rising in Paris in 1968. The Lettrists put forward a city which works directly on the passions and emotions, and they offered us a new conception of space:
“They are to be found in the magical spots of fairy stories and in some surrealist art: castles, great walls that cannot be climbed, small bars run to seed, caverns with a mammoth frozen in the ice, the mirror behind the pool table. Even as images as dated as these will have some power as a catalyst. Not that they could actually be used in a building a new symbolic town without being completely transformed, without being given a completely new sense. Our minds, ridden by key images from the past, have fallen far behind the sophistication of our machinery. The few attempts made to fuse modern science into a new myth that proved abortive. As a result, all contemporary art has been forced to become abstract – contemporary architecture being the worst example of all. Pure plastic art, telling no story and making no movement, cold and soothing to the eye …” - Gilles Ivain
The Situationists crystallised the impulses of their predecessors, such as the Lettrists’ “Formulary”, and Constant Nieuwenhuys went on to develop a radical proposal for an architecture in which all traces of conventional buildings and social institutions would be abandoned. Everyone would drift around in vast, labyrinthine interiors, which would be continuously reconstructed to meet their needs. Any desire could be satisfied, so the theory went, and new desires could be stimulated, along with new modes of behaviour – all through an architecture forever in flux. The underlying aim was to create an environment in which we experienced a far wider range of sensations than today.
Similarly, one of Constant’s Situationist colleagues, the Scots writer Alex Trocchi, developed a radical new kind of university (in a loose sense) called the Sigma Project. As the name suggests, it was intended as a summation of the many strands of human experience and knowledge, and owed something to the Black Mountain School of the 1950’s. Raw emotion might be harnessed alongside rational analysis – so that “Primal Scream” therapy and psychotropics might play their part in a curriculum that extended self-discovery across a wide range of arts, sciences and humanities.
More recently, Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin could be construed as an architecture of raw emotion: the harsh surfaces, disorientating floor planes and jagged forms are designed to challenge, and make you feel unsettled. It’s the embodiment of unheimlich, a German word which is slightly tricky to translate. It describes the uneasy feeling which raises the birse on the back of your neck; the edginess you feel when you know something’s out of place.
Unheimlich is what countless horror film-makers have attempted to capture: it’s the noises off in pictures like “Silent Hill” which create a clautrophobic atmosphere and account for their creepiness. These cues touch primitive parts of our brains, where the gut instincts live, and which fight the rational thoughts that tell us nothing is amiss.
Why do we need these stimuli? Firstly, at the very core of our humanity is a need to explore the world around us, and our inner selves. We seem to lose a certain degree of curiosity as we grow older, but it remains at the heart of some peoples’ lives. They need to feel challenged, to see and experience new things, and they aren’t satisfied with simply ignoring those parts of the city that the authorities have proscribed.
Secondly, we live in a heavily moderated and constrained world. A good Health & Safety culture on building sites is essential, because they are dangerous places – but it has extended into the safest parts of everyday life, arguably making us too risk averse. Because of this, we no longer live a complete existence, we do not experience life fully, nor by extension do we experience the fullest range of sensations and human emotions. After all, a dangerous world is an interesting place to be, and it will teach you to trust your own judgement, to understand your limits, and crucially it will teach self-reliance.
Meanwhile, what about Richard Strauss? It’s been suggested that because he and his librettist, Hofmannstahl, worked in fin-de-siecle Europe, consequently their operatic works were Art Nouveau. However, not everyone working at a given time uses the same aesthetic, and in fact artists often react against a prevailing trend. Edward Munch (who painted “The Scream”) is one of few artists to approach the metaphysical savagery of Strauss’s Elektra, whilst his contemporaries such as Gustav Klimt followed a very different path.
Similarly, none of the Art Nouveau architects, such as Horta, Mackintosh or Hoffman tried to cast those emotions into stone: in fact, the harmonious forms and flowing lines of their buildings seem to embody calmness and control, the very antithesis of raw emotion.
Elektra, then, is out on her own.