They were the future, once.
During the 1950’s, the Hull construction firm of R.G. Tarran, builder of the Tarran Prefab, adapted the former dyeworks of Pullars of Perth to produce the Dorran House, a single-storey bungalow built from precast panels.
Dorran houses are like Structural Insulated Panel Systems or SIPS houses, but pretty much without the “I”. The Dorran system consists of storey-height precast panels which are 16 inches wide, which seems an odd width for a structural module, but we now live in a world which has the luxury of setting out in metric, usually on multiples and fractions of 3000mm.
Whether Dorran licensed the system from Tarran, or the company was a direct subsidiary, isn’t obvious – but during the 1950’s, they sold to the public sector with houses for the Forestry Commission in outlying parts of the Highlands, small developments of social housing in rural counties like Argyll and Caithness, and even domestic accommodation at RAF Saxa Vord on Shetland.
Dorran Construction later offered a range of bungalows to private buyers; the houses had couthy names like The Glen Shean, The Glen Varloch, The Glen Frugart and The Glen Clova. By the 1960’s they fabricated around 10 houses each week at their precast factory in Perth, and a total of 2500 had been erected by 1962.
According to the Building Research Establishment report I consulted, two-storey Dorrans have a characteristic protruding band at first floor level, like a string course, formed by a precast ring beam. Timber floor panels were strapped to the ring beam with joist straps, and the precast panels were tied together using steel bolts. Some Dorran bungalows appear to have a concrete ring beam at ground level, too.
For vapour control, the concrete panels were lined with 2-ply bituminous felt as a damp-proof membrane. When the wall was erected, the joints were filled with gunned bitumen, then pointed up in cement mortar. Interestingly, a newspaper article from the 1960’s notes that one of their outstanding features was the level of insulation in the walls and ceilings. A half-inch-thick internal layer of expanded polystyrene sat between the concrete panel and its plasterboard lining … half an inch, which is better than nothing.
By the 1970’s there was disquiet about non-traditional methods of construction, and two of the Dorran houses’ failings were shared by several other systems. The panels’ lack of proper insulation led to condensation problems, and serious corrosion of the steel ties between the panels which were a by-product of it.
The BRE identified the problems during the early 1980’s, which eventually led the designs to be designated under the Housing Defects Act 1984, which effectively condemned them and made them un-mortgageable. However, the 1984 Act was consolidated into the 1985 Housing Act, which provided grant assistance for people who had unwittingly bought former council houses constructed using problematic systems.
Perhaps if the Dorran system had been constructed using stainless steel fixings, and with effective insulation, the houses might have succeeded. As it is, the remedial works entailed in fixing them range from adding a masonry skin outside the precast panels, to propping the roof then demolishing the panels and building a brand new external wall. Instead, many chose to demolish the existing house and build a timber kit on the site instead.
While it’s true that we probably won’t make exactly the same mistakes again in future, we may make slightly different mistakes in pursuit of the same goals.
A few years ago, I worked on a project with some of the first zero energy houses in Scotland, built using a SIP system comprising JJI joists skinned with OSB board, and a cavity filled with injected cellulose fibre. There were no insulation or corrosion issues that I’m aware of – but the high degree of airtightness meant that when tenants switched off the whole house ventilation system (because they were concerned about running costs) they suffered from condensation problems in kitchens and bathrooms.
A different kind of prefabrication, a new type of problem, caused partly by a novel approach to design and more so due to poor communication between the landlord and tenant about how the house worked. The other lesson of Dorran Construction Ltd. lies in how we may try to meet today’s unmet demand for housing by using off-site construction, which is the new, untainted name for system building, aka prefabrication.
In the early 1960’s, Dorran looked southwards and after 1964 during which it made a profit of £96,000, the firm opened a precast factory in Consett and another in London. By 1967 it had built 4000 houses across Scotland, but by signing up to fixed price contracts in England during an era of rampant inflation, Dorran committed its fatal mistake.
The company lost money on its English contracts, the factories in Consett and London closed, and the parent firm in Perth struggled to survive. By the time that Dorran Houses began displaying the first symptoms of structural corrosion, the firm was no longer producing them – and the post-war housing boom was over. As demand slackened, the industry pulled back from mass produced housing.
“House factories”, the dream of technocrats and Le Corbusier alike, are much trickier to achieve in practice than you might think. Dorran Houses have been condemned, both literally and metaphorically, as a failed experiment in mass production. After the 1984 Act, mortgage lenders viewed precast panel houses as “Non-Traditional” and as far as most buyers were concerned, that euphemism was the kiss of death.
Now, we’re burdened with the legacy of the past when cheap housing was constructed at breakneck speed to replace overcrowded slums; consequently we ended up with a modern version of the same. What was the alternative?
Another name from Tayside during the 1950’s and 1960’s is W, T & H Dye Ltd. which was founded in Dundee around 1959 and fell into liquidation in 1988. In the intervening thirty years, William, Thomas and Harry Dye were less radical than Dorran, and they targeted a different market. If little has been written about Dorran, I’m not aware of anything at all about the Dyes.
Their family-run business generally built their own developments. They concentrated on small sites in the West End of Dundee and Barnhill, and their houses were better quality than run-of-the-mill bungalows. Dyes typically used facings in local Leoch stone, harling and natural slate roofs to create what one ambitious estate agent described as “Voysey-style” bungalows. Not quite, but some of their larger houses were vaguely Arts & Crafts in a watered down style.
Dyes typically built in the spaces left behind by other developers – they were evidently happy to achieve a steady rate of sales on gap sites. They built on ransom strips, backlands, landlocked plots and spaces left over after planning. If you wait for a generation, the rising tide of land values usually encourages someone to sell that overgrown plot and fit houses onto it: although the quarter- or fifth-acre parcels that Dye used are now only a seventh- or even an eighth-acre in area!
Dyes’ developments ranged from a couple of dozen houses in Ardmore Avenue to half a dozen in Holly Road, and a couple in Navarre Street. Nowadays, similarly small-scale developments avoid some of the complexity, for example the cost of planning gain and Section 75 agreements (providing parks, playgrounds, contributions to roads schemes and primary schools), and the complexity of SUDS systems using swales and constructed wetlands. Dyes avoided those thanks to the era they worked in, and the scale of their projects meant they weren’t caught by some other regulations.
One giveaway is that the streets I mentioned have unmade pavements and sometimes unadopted roads: they were what some call unbonded developments, which the local authority will only take on with reluctance, if at all. At the time the houses were completed and occupied, there weren’t financial bonds in place for the roads and sewers. It often takes decades before the streets are adopted and pavements surfaced with tarmac.
On reflection, “barriers to entry” for this type of housebuilding seem low. Many joinery firms entertain the idea that if they can build houses, they should also be able to put together developments of houses. But the functions of a developer – land acquisition, finance, project management, marketing – are very different to those of a builder, and for the past thirty years they’ve become more complex every year.
Similarly, with the coming of the timber kit from firms like Interbuild and Stewart Milne, Dyes’ cavity walls with stone facings became an anachronism. Also virtually gone are the “All Trades” building contractors who directly employ their own concrete workers, bricklayers, masons, workshop and site joiners, roofers, painters and decorators. Likewise firms with joinery shops which can manufacture their own doors, windows and stairs: the best you can ask are kit panels rattled together with a Hilti gun.
As a consequence, houses are built to meet the relevant standards but the construction is less robust (gang-nailed trusses versus couple roofs; timber kit walls versus cavity masonry), and the finishing is to a lower standard (flush ply versus panel doors, MDF facings versus hardwood). Dyes’ houses are still popular: while a Bett bungalow in the area we’re talking about sells for £200k-£250k, its Dye counterpart is now worth £300-£350k, which is significant. People notice the difference in quality, and usually lean towards conservative taste.
There’s a reason why homebuyers are conservative. Most have little say in what their house looks like or how it’s built, yet they tie up most of their wealth in it and sink much of their sense of self into it too. “Traditional” housing (what that actually means varies from person to person) has always been popular: partly because it’s time-proven, and also because it doesn’t lose its value in disastrous ways, like Dorrans’ houses did.
Houses like Dyes built in the 60’s and 70’s are inefficient to procure in large numbers, but they’ve proven to be a remarkably good store of value over the past century. Perhaps, depressingly for those with a “social” model of housing, that’s the real message.
This is an expanded version of my review of City of Darkness Revisited, which was published recently in the RIAS Quarterly.
City of Darkness Revisited is an unusual book about an astonishing place. Just over twenty years ago, Kowloon’s Walled City was demolished. In the early 1980’s over 40,000 people lived there, although only 33,000 were officially registered, and at the time it was the most densely-populated place on the planet – all built without the input of an architect.
The Walled City evolved from a squatter settlement near Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport. Some 300 buildings, which ultimately rose to 17 storeys, were crammed onto a site of 200 x 100 metres. The only building code adhered to was a height limit set by the proximity of Kai Tak’s flight path.
KWC confronted the rest of Kowloon along its north edge, the Tung Tau Tsuen Road. The thoroughfare was lined with the illuminated signs of doctors, dentists and convenience stores; the precarious caged balconies which residents built to extend their apartments cantilevered out above them. The city’s south and west elevations overlooked a park built after squatters’ huts were cleared in 1985, and this reduction in density introduced more sunlight into the Walled City.
The Wall consisted of a haphazard elevation of balconies, stairs and verandahs – rifts between the apartments provided the narrow pends through which you entered it. Behind the apartments, many only one room deep, lay a maze of alleyways broiling in heat, humidity and darkness. There, the City of Darkness lived up to its name, but most stairways led up to the roof where residents could breathe fresh air and escape the claustrophobia.
KWC’s roof was also a place from which to gaze towards Lion Rock to the north and watch the planes taking off and landing at nearby Kai Tak airport. In fact, the most arresting images from City of Darkness Revisited show just how close the Walled City was to the final approach into Kai Tak. Aircraft only ever flew “short finals” onto its runway: the approach was steep, followed by a banking turn after which airliners lined up on the VASI lights at the last moment. At decision height, they were pretty much flying at rooftop level!
The Kowloon skyline is a jumble of skyscrapers and apartment blocks which make up only part of Hong Kong’s urban agglomeration. KWC’s architectural identity lay in an extreme version of this, and from ground level the way its seemingly chaotic blocks loomed over the conventional Hong Kong streets surrounding it.
With unimaginable density and living conditions, KWC has been described elsewhere as anti-architecture. Perhaps no architect could have dreamt it, but film designers have since attempted to re-create it. Outsiders assumed the Walled City was entirely autonomous and lawless, a place of “drug divans, criminal hide-outs, vice dens and even cheap unlicensed dentists,” but the authorities did collect rubbish and supply power and water – although illegal connections were made whenever folk thought they could get away with it.
The Walled City was condemned in the late 1980’s, but even though Lambot and Girard spent five years photographing it, Mr Lui the postman was acknowledged as the only person who knew his way around the whole City. A network of bridges and corridors at the higher levels meant the City could be traversed without ever touching the ground. Photographing there, as Lambot admitted, was a constant adventure. “It was pretty easy to get lost in the maze of stairways and corridors whenever you entered the buildings, so I learnt pretty quickly to photograph anything interesting when I saw it as you might never find it again. It was always that combination of being in the right place at the right time with just the right light.”
Since its demolition in 1993, the Walled City’s influence has extended from the film Chungking Express to William Gibson’s “Bridge” novels, which gave rise to the myth of the city as cyberpunk dystopia and went on to inspire both video game designers and urban theorists. Laurence Liauw's polemical essay, "KWC FAR 12", in MVRDV's book FARMAX, focuses on the density, fluid organisation and blurred typologies of the place.
Much of KWC’s influence is down to the Lambot and Girards’ original City of Darkness, which was published in the 1994 and has since become a cult book. Perhaps that has been amplified by the politics of post-colonial Hong Kong, where natives and expats alike feel sentimental towards what the colony once was.
City of Darkness Revisited is a companion volume which develops the authers’ thesis in a larger format. It’s a 21st century book, in the sense that they funded it through a Kickstarter campaign, and it goes some way towards de-mystifying the Walled City by focussing on its daily life. Lambot and Girdard combine oral histories, maps and essays with vivid photos which are evocative of a way of life swept away during Hong Kong’s last few years as a colony. By fusing architectural, social, cultural and photographic material, the book provides a more rounded understanding of the Walled City.
Now to consider what I didn’t have space to discuss in the printed review: why the Walled City grips our architectural imaginations so hard.
Perhaps KWC appeals to a mindset which has outgrown the systematic, rational approach of Modernism. The growth of the Walled City bred an intense visual complexity, and made it easy for us to view it as an organism which had somehow freed itself from human agency and taken on a life of it own. The city as organism (bacteria, fungus, beehive, ant’s nest) is a popular metaphor amongst architectural theorists, but one man’s complexity is another’s chaos.
In KWC the many competing forces reached enough of an equilibrium for the city to work in a quotidian way – but it was forever in flux, and more importantly the human forces at work were subtle and unseen. Even though the facts revealed in City of Darkness prove otherwise, the idea of Kowloon Walled City operating within its own rules – perhaps like a principality such as Andorra, a city statelet along the lines of Passport to Pimlico, or a micro-nation like Sealand – remains an attractive idea. It harks back to the walled cities of medieval times, and through that, KWC has become a metaphor for some kind of workable anarchy.
One of the book’s many messages is that you can’t legislate for a community like this – in fact, the authorities tried to stifle it at birth. Another is that the Walled City’s very persistence offers hope that centrally-planned redevelopment projects, which consume vast amounts of time and resources in their assembly, aren’t necessarily the only way forward. A third theme is that it’s possible for people to live at far greater densities that we acknowledge, but the highest cost in this case is darkness and squalor. Like La Torre David which I previously wrote about here, the Walled City is not necessarily a “model” to apply elsewhere, but shows that doctrinal Modernism isn’t the only way to achieve high density urban development.
City of Darkness Revisited is the most engaging book I read in 2015. If you enjoyed other things I’ve written about – such as Lebbeus Woods’ drawings, Lucien Kroll’s architecture, or what the anarchists achieved at Christiania in Copenhagen – you may well enjoy both text and images in City of Darkness Revisited. It comes from the same vein of socially-engaged poetic inquiry into architecture in its widest sense.
City of Darkness Revisited can bought from the City of Darkness website, or if you’re in Edinburgh, from the RIAS Bookshop in Rutland Square.
All images courtesy of Ian Lambot at Watermark Publications.
Girard, Greg and Lambot, Ian. “City of Darkness Revisited” London: Watermark Publications, 2014. ISBN: 978-1873200889
Other titles about Kowloon Walled CIty include:
Girard, Greg and Lambot, Ian. “City of Darkness: Life in Kowloon Walled City” London: Watermark Publications, 1999
Miyamoto, Ryuji; Muramatsu, Shin. “Kau Lung Shing Chai” Tokyo: Atelier Peyotl, 1988
A small format photo essay about the Walled City, shot on monochrome film. This is the first edition, and certainly the more valuable for book collectors.
A later edition was published in a different format as:
Miyamoto, Ryuji. “Kowloon Walled City” Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1998
Suzuki, Takayuki and Terasawa, Hitomi. “Large-scale Illustrated Kowloon City” Japan: Suzushi Kuwabara
Large, intricately-detailed cross section drawings of KWC.
Maas, Winy and van Rijs, Jacob. “FARMAX: Excursions on Density” Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 1998
Expositionary essays about various places including the Walled City.
Happy New Year. Traditionally, this is a time of year for reflection, and I guess we should be grateful for any stimulus which makes us examine our lives.
I never met Jon-Marc Creaney. He studied at the Mac, practiced in Lanarkshire and was around my age. I only became aware of him thanks to the photos, blog and the comments he posted on the net under the nom-de-guerre “Scarpadog”. It strikes me that he would have been a great guy to strike up a friendship with, as he had many interests and enthusiasms to share with the world. But I’ll never have the chance to do that, because he passed away in 2011.
The continuing existence of Jon-Marc’s Flickr and his blog provide an insight into his hopes and aspirations, plus his fears and concerns as he came to terms with during his cancer treatment at the Beatson in Glasgow. I was prompted to think about Scarpadog again by what a close friend is going through at the moment. All the time you want to help, but you can never be sure if standing back and giving space, or reaching out to give them a hug, is the right thing to do. Often the “right” thing to do changes from day to day.
Similarly, it’s difficult to write about someone who I never knew in person, and who wasn’t a public figure – but discovering the things which Jon-Marc left behind made me ponder about the nature of the internet and anonymity in the 21st century. I knew Scarpadog through his work, and a shared interest in contemporary architecture and abandoned places.
It’s comforting to think that we’re known and remembered for life-affirming things: our passions for music, photography, travel and friends as well as the all-encompassing sense of shared humanity which Burns coined so neatly in “A Man’s a Man”. I’m sure it’s heartening to his friends and family that Jon-Marc Creaney will be remembered for those positive things – and that strangers like me will come along occasionally and still be inspired by him. The traces of Scarpadog which remain on the net are a tribute to him.
Hopefully some will also take heed of one of the final posts on Scarpadog’s blog, “I recalled lying on the sun-drenched slopes of Gran Paradiso feeling on top of the world, what a change in a year and I would say to everyone to grasp and enjoy these moments you get in life to the fullest – you never know when they can be taken away.” That Jon-Marc wrote this while he was seriously ill says a great deal about his self-awareness. He was brave to share how he felt at that moment, and in a way because he posted it under the identity “Scarpadog” it somehow made what he said all the more universal. Prompted by that, I’d like to consider how we communicate through the supposedly anonymous medium of the net.
A couple of years ago, Mark Zuckerberg got into a spat with internet hacktivists about the myriad of anonymous accounts that exist on Facebook. Zuckerberg felt that folk who post anonymously portray a false and sometimes malicious reality – other figures on the internet such as “Moot” disagreed. Moot said, “Zuckerberg equated anonymity with a lack of authenticity, almost a cowardice, and I would say that's fully wrong. I think anonymity is authenticity, it allows you to share in a completely unvarnished, unfiltered, raw way and I think that's something that's extremely valuable." Moot is correct that throughout history, free speech has depended on anonymity.
In a political sense, anonymity acts as a shield from the tyranny of the majority. As the American First Amendment has it, anonymity can protect unpopular people from retaliation, and their ideas from suppression at the hands of an intolerant mob. Anonymous speech was used by the likes of Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) to criticise common ignorance, and the Economist Magazine believes that keeping authorship anonymous moves the focus of discussion away from the speaker and on to the subject of the piece – which as it should be. Sometimes authorship is vital: we like to get credit where it’s due for our work. Sometimes anonymity is crucial: if that’s the guarantor of free speech and free expression then so be it.
On a personal level, if posting as “Scarpadog” enabled Jon-Marc to be more honest about his life and what he chose to share with the world, then that was the right thing to do. It’s also in the original spirit of the internet, where we chose exactly what to share and what to keep private but increasingly, the decision on what to make public and what to keep private isn’t even ours to make. Facebook and other sites manipulate your account and unless you keep checking your “privacy” settings, things are revealed to the world at large (and to their advertisers) which you never intended to share.
Ultimately you can’t guarantee the integrity of anything on the internet, but when folk like Jon-Marc post openly and honestly about themselves, that rings true despite the digital clutter. We habitually confide in close friends because we trust them; yet occasionally we lay ourselves bare to strangers in the hope that something we thought or felt is transferrable and it may touch them. That’s what paintings, novels and pieces of music can do – we don’t need to know who made them or why, in order to take something from them.
During the heyday of open architectural competitions in the first half of the 20th century, most entries were made anonymously – but rather than being allotted a number, each entry was identified by a chosen name. Sometimes the name was a scrap of Latin or Greek, sometimes a nickname known only to the architect and their own circle. Identifying yourself this way perhaps frees up creativity by allowing you to travel in a fresh direction, or to take a risk which you wouldn’t otherwise have taken for fear of harming your supposed reputation. Thinking about yourself through an alter ego – whether Ziggy Stardust for our parents’ generation or the many noms-des-plumes which graffiti writers use – can provide a fresh outlet or some critical distance.
Of course we all have curiosity to satisfy and the internet has made it insatiable. We peer into peoples’ lives through Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and nowadays less so Bebo, DeviantArt or Friends Reunited. Investigative reporters – when they’re not hacking into celebrities’ iPhones – can find out a great deal about folk quite legally using what we post in unguarded moments, even “public” comments on Facebook which we assumed were private.
One of Jon-Marc’s own buildings, at Wellwynd in Airdrie.
So you do have to filter what you post on the net. You’d like to think that the millennials, as internet entrepreneurs characterise the generation now in their teens and early twenties which followed Douglas Coupland’s so-called Generation X, are more internet and privacy savvy than those of us who grew up with computers, but are old enough to remember when the net began.
Well, perhaps. In 2015, internet “content” is a feral thing: as soon as you post something it takes on a life of its own. You may try to catch it and take it back – but as Mike Donnachie wrote elsewhere, the closest you’ll get is a glimpse of it howling at the moon from a distant mountaintop. Perhaps that will discourage people from being authentic, and we’ll eventually become so guarded that life will be conducted through avatars and ciphers.
That would be a great loss. Scarpadog carefully chose what he wanted to share, and that act of consideration was important because the internet has preserved Jon-Marc Creaney’s words and photos – just as a book, painting or piece of music lives on independently of the person who created it.
All photos are Jon-Marc Creaney’s, from his Flickr page - https://www.flickr.com/photos/scarpadog/
“Except for a period in the 1990’s when I got sick of the whole business and went to America, riding trains like a Dustbowl hobo, I have been for the last few years an architect in the city.”
Just who is Mr Wolf? Is he an allegory? No. He is, in fact, quite real. I often see his bushy tail disappearing around a corner, a couple of streets ahead of me. Mr Wolf is always ahead.
His grandfather, J. Carruthers Wolf, Esq. got his start in business after the War and quickly found that many companies had a need for his cleverly-designed machinery. Business flourished, and his firm supplied Scotland’s factories, shipyards and gasworks with equipment. He wasn’t a great believer in advertising, but he enjoyed a network of personal recommendation built up as a result of fair dealing and a job well done, or, “Mr Wolf will have what you need”.
This was a late flowering of the great cities of Empire, when sophisticated technology began to supplant steam power and brute force. Progress meant we could make things faster and better; it also meant fewer of us were needed to make more things. There’s a tension between these two ideas – perhaps they’re even antithetical.
Is it because the technology is now so complex that it is beyond simple analysis, or do we resent the fact that nowadays, machines even make other machines. Mr Wolf’s particular line of business was in developing multi-axis machine tools. Until recently there were still jobs that neither these, nor advanced casting, could achieve.
Solid fabrication techniques have changed that with the advent of stereo-lithography, laser sintering and direct metal laser sintering. The easiest way to explain these is “3D photocopying”. Today, computers can tell a laser to trace a cross-section of the component in a vat of liquid photopolymer resin, or in a powder bed, then layer by layer the desired shape will emerge as material is fused by the heat of the laser beam.
However, Wolf’s father developed the predecessors of the 3D photocopier which machined components from a solid lump of aluminium, titanium or stainless steel. Most of his competitors were American firms, many of which grew out of the USA’s enormous military aircraft-building industry.
All this industrial machinery appealed to the junior Wolf, and his fascination with America grew as he heard about it from his father. America was the place where much of the late 20th century emerged. America grew in his mind until it became an obsession: it was music, books, paintings, photos, poems, dreams, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows.
After years of dreaming, he crossed the East Coast on a Laker DC10. He arrived in Chicago, which his old man first visited a quarter of a century before. Despite the grid-iron plans of New York, Detroit and Chicago’s city centres, the form which their suburbs took when they were allowed to grow unchecked was sprawling and organic. Screeds of slaughterhouses and meat-packing plants, transit sheds and lumber yards and beyond them, the tract houses which multiply like bacteria in a Petri dish.
That was Wolf’s first discovery about America: the second arose from the novel way he crossed the continent. After the tightly-packed cities of Western Europe – between which you never really enter open countryside, but pass instead through a succession of man-made features like plantations, motorways, canals – here there were hours of wilderness between the “divisions” or wayside towns. Those and much more he saw from the open door of a freight train, riding the rails.
Wolf’s trip began with a feeling of incredulity that he was finally here. But there he was, wearing a pair of Levis and a hooded sweat, with a bedroll in his pack and a camera jammed into his pocket. He had a roll of Jacksons stuffed into his sock and shot a few rolls of Kodachrome during his trip.
Precious few images, really, considering the thousands of miles he travelled, but enough to prove he had been there. In fact, whenever he has gone through tough times, he looked through the photos and drew on the strength he gained from hopping freights.
But before he could ride, Wolf had to be patient. Waiting to catch out at the side of the railroad left him ample time for reading, lying still in the brush beyond the track. The trains sat dead in the yard all day, with no sign of activity. His favourite book was The Bottom of the Harbour, collecting Joseph Mitchell’s essays from The New Yorker magazine.
Mitchell wrote using precise, spare English with no hype or sentimentality and barely any adjectives. He was Wolf’s hero, although of course Wolf would never admit to holding anyone as a hero. However, he recognised Mitchell’s genius because so many people have pressed mediocre books on him over the years, and he has slogged through them out of guilt.
That kind of reading seldom works out for the best.
In late afternoon, that familiar horn blared out. The brakes were charging up with a characteristic ticking noise; a minute later, the units revved up and the train eased out of the switchyard. Each train might have four or five locomotives hauling a rake of boxcars quarter of a mile long. He chose an immense train of loaded autoracks and UPS containers.
There is a romance to hopping freights, but it’s dirty and physically-tiring work. Wolf developed the strength required to run alongside the four foot, snatch a grab-iron and pull himself up into a moving train. All the time, he kept in mind the old Chicago alderman's maxim: "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."
He climbed up into the fourth unit. Manufactured by General Electric, it weighed 391,000 pounds and generated 4,000 horsepower. The train was crewed by flannel-shirted railroaders: a driver (the engineer), an second engineer, and a brakeman. Over the cab radio, he could hear the engineer and dispatcher discussing the hardships of railroading.
Wolf travelled in the Fall. In summer, the heat was unbearable. In winter, tramps passed out in the cars with their soaking clothes hanging from their bodies and froze to death. Yet even in the Fall, it got perishingly cold when the train goes over a high pass. At night he pulled the bedroll out of his pack and drew his jacket tightly around him.
He changed trains and travelled from Laurel, Montana, to Seattle, Washington, along a non-Amtrak 623-mile route that passed through the filming locations for A River Runs Through It, and crossed the great Beartooth Pass, near the northeast entrance for Yellowstone. He slept fitfully as the train clattered over the ties at 45 miles an hour.
Eight hours later, the light was up and the train crawled up into the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon, a land of steep fir-dotted ridges. The wildlife paraded past: herds of elk, mallards floating down the streams, pheasants. The train picked up speed on the downgrade. The sun broke out near milepost 60, dispelling the cool greyness of the Stampede crossing: mountains give way to sagebrush desert.
After a month of travelling, he was one with the fruit tramps, bums, hobos and vagabonds. His skin was seasoned with the sun and grime and his clothes were fit for the dumpster; Mr Wolf resembled nothing so much as a coyote.
Chuck Jones based Wile Coyote on Mark Twain's book Roughing It, in which Twain described the coyote as "A long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton," which is "A living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him and even the flea would desert him for a velocipede.”
The Hill. That's what Jack London, A-No. 1, and several generations of other tramps called the Sierra; John Muir termed it the Range of Light. Later, he would traverse the Bitterroot Range, the Cascades, and the Mojave Desert. Was this the real American West? There were certainly thin pickings in the wayside towns, and Mr Wolf could see just how Cousin Coyote came to have his ribs sticking out.
After he crossed the Great Divide, Wolf expected to see DC Thomson’s 3 Bears raiding Hank’s Store for grub. These railroads were built with Dundee money in the last years of the 19th century, using jute profits sunk into US railroad bonds. Railroads in the Pacific north-west opened up the Oregon Trail in the 1880’s and 1890’s, the Goldrush years and the epitome of the Wild West. A century and a quarter later, the Scots have disinvested and Warren Buffett now owns America’s biggest railroad firm.
Finally, he reached the west coast. Wolf unstuffed his sock and drew out a couple of bills for a room in a motel in Ventura. He showered then lay on the bed. The last remnants of sunshine reflected off the windows as storm clouds moved swiftly in. He lay listening to an Amtrak train rolling through town as the sun set across the Pacific.
Next morning, he treated himself to a regal portion of coffee, eggs, avocado, salsa, biscuit and a side of blueberry pancakes. Then he spent a few days walking in the footsteps of Steinbeck, from Tortilla Flats to Monterey. The places are much changed, but some of their spirit remains, despite the tourist hell of Cannery Row. Sand Dollar Bay in Big Sur lived up to its name, a stretch of sand and rock pools straight out of “Sea of Cortez”, and he finally saw Halprin's Sea Ranch with his own eyes, wreathed in coastal fog.
This is also the land which Pynchon wrote about in “Vineland”. When he reached Arcata, home to the medical marijuana industry, here must have been an epidemic of some kind: the whole town was stoned. Beyond it lay giant redwoods, fern-filled gorges, pounding surf and "All that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to West Coast, and all that road going."
All told, the journey was quite an adventure – the stuff of blind chance-takers, adventurers, nothing-to-lose optimists.
Wolf’s greatest debt was owed to the railroad tramps. They would never see him again, had nothing to gain, and were absolutely hard up. Yet to a man they offered information about trains and how to avoid the railroad bulls; they spared him the hardship of figuring everything out for himself.
The experience left him with a deep feeling for the country and its people, which translated into praise of kind hearts and good times, and down with humbug and hypocrisy.
* * * * * * *
Postscript: Reply to Mr Wolf
Having read your website and found this article, I discussed it with my fellow intellects. They, as I, have read the points made and have taken these into hand, but believe that you have not fully understood the premise. We all agree that this piece has nothing to do with architecture, per se.
It was written to show in an extended metaphor Mr Wolf’s relationship with the world. America is symbolic of progress, whereas Europe is the Old World. We believe the piece serves to emphasise how broadening your experience of the world may make you a more understanding and empathetic person. Happy Christmas and a fine New Year to you all.
Maxwell Allison (12), Penicuik
Having a public opinion on absolutely everything is no way to live. This is a particular problem in an era of social media where, sometimes, too much is shared. “You are not compelled to form any opinion about this matter before you, nor to disturb your peace of mind at all. Things in themselves have no power to extort a verdict from you,” said Marcus Aurelius, and those are words to live by.
A few months after Dublin, I took a trip to Greece. Whereas I hadn’t been to Dublin before, my trip to Athens came on the anniversary of my first visit in 1995, which was organised as part of the Erasmus exchange programme. Erasmus enables you to study in other European cities, for a term, semester or a year; in my case, I went to the National Technical University of Athens.
I flew from Heathrow’s Terminal 4 when it was brand new and still fresh. The flight took us across Europe at night: the sky was clear and coastal cities shone like strings of bright beads. We arrived in Athens early in the morning. The sun was up but it was still cool, and I discovered there was no Metro line to the city centre. It hadn’t been built yet. There were no buses, either, because their drivers were on strike.
When I met my fellow students later that day, they were amazed I had walked from Olympikos airport into the city centre: but when the Metro is a construction site and all Athens’ bus drivers are sitting under café parasols smoking tabs, what else would you do? Certainly not give in to the taxi touts.
As the heat rose, I explored the quarter around the hotel we were staying in. It was quickly evident that Athens has an Anglophone culture – adverts, TV stations, music, announcements on the Metro. The architectural coursework was in English, too, and Athens dispelled any notion of difference. The idioms, accents and details differ but at heart all architecture students are good, bad, indifferent; committed, apathetic, and sleep-deprived.
Athens was where I first realised the goodwill which folk in the wider world feel towards Scotland. My nationality was greeted with smiles and excitement, and in return I was delighted to feel part of a greater whole. That, I guess, demonstrates the nuts and bolts of what the Erasmus programme is about.
Too quickly I said goodbye to Kathryn from Ireland, Crista from Finland, Marco from Italy and a dozen or so others – along with the Greek students we worked with – and returned home. Niki, who was so kind and obliging and Maria, who gave me a lift back to the airport. She drove an old Volvo 340 with whining variomatic transmission - but she really wanted a big enduro motorbike. She smoked Camels all the way to Departures, and told me all about motorbikes in a husky voice … my heart could have melted.
I wonder where they all are now, and what they’re doing?
I revisited Athens in 2014, looking at Athens through two lenses. Firstly weighing the perception of memories from almost two decades ago against the present reality, and secondly how external forces like the 2008 crash has changed Athens. As with Ireland, the European Project has had an impact on Greece.
Despite the economic collapse and riots, Athens is still working and still striking too – during my second visit, the rail workers stopped work for a couple of days. There are three metro lines now, not just the one which was under construction when I studied here in 1995. Then, one of those stations was a construction site close to Syntagma Square, and a vast hole had been dug with sheet-piled sides perhaps 20 metres deep. The excavations left a palm tree stranded on a column of soil, like the sea stack known as the Old Man of Hoy.
In 2014, the metro line from the new airport carried me through miles of arid exurban land before we hit Athens proper. At Syntagma I got off the train and walked past the local Phase One dealer’s storefront. Phase One make medium-format digital cameras and software which professional photographers use – and of course they are priced to suit.
I checked in to my hotel behind a brash Chinese-American with a broken suitcase, who complained loudly about everything – then went exploring to see what had been changed by the Riots. They were a moment, as William Hazlitt would have it, “When the heart is kindled and bursting with indignation at the revolting abuses of self-constituted power.”
Around the National Technical University of Athens, walls were still covered in graffiti. The slogans were political with Antifa and anarchist sentiments; much of the graffiti declaims the “Troika”. In addition to murals the thousands of posters, stickers and pamphlets say that Athenians care about politics in a way that we had forgotten, at least until our independence referendum of September 2014. Their violent feelings have left their mark in still-shuttered windows and the remains of arson attacks which years later are still raw wounds.
However, look beyond those and in the quiet streets around the NTUA, where ripe oranges fall to earth in thundery heat, little had changed. The newspaper vendors in little kiosks, smiling policemen carrying sidearms, scrawny strays and Crazy Frog mopeds were all as I remembered from 1994. Nearby lay the squats and rancid alleys of Exarchion and dozens of stray dogs laid out flat in the baking sun.
Across the way, the prehensile arm of a concrete pump was delivering screed to the upper floors of the Acropole Grand Hotel. As I mentioned before, the spinning drums of truckmixers are a universal measure of how well a country’s economy is doing – and by that measure at least Athens was slowly recovering.
Near the old airport, Olympikos, was the brash suburb of Hellenikon, its avenues lined with car dealers and impex firms. Before I left for Greece, I read that Calatrava’s nearby buildings for the 2004 Olympics had been abandoned, and were overgrown with weeds. As I discovered, they aren’t derelict – but are certainly under-used. I suspect the rumour was black propaganda from our London-biased media, put about to contextualise the similarly under-utilised facilities at Stratford in London’s East End.
As with most other cities, Athens “improves” as you go higher. The gentrified Kifissia and Kolonaki areas sit above the city’s heat haze and pollution. The apartments are concrete-framed, clad in stucco and pale stone. Some have floor-to-ceiling glazing, with sliding timber shutters. At dusk, the lights come on and for a brief time you can sneak a glance at the lives of Athens’ professionals – but now the white Pentelicon marble-paved lobbies have security doors.
Go further uphill and the buildings give way to vetches, laurels, black pines and cordyline palms. Finally, you reach the top of one of the many hilltops and from there you can see tier after tier of apartments, the major roads terraced across the hillside and short steep flights of stairs stitching them together.
So what of the things that set Ireland and Western Europe apart from Greece and countries in the southern and eastern Mediterranean? There’s no difference between the underlying results of their economic trials, when you look beyond language, cuisine, and climate. Construction is a barometer of each developed country’s economy, whether politicians read Juvenal and adopt his “bread and circuses” approach to government – or let the Lords of Misrule have their way in the financial markets.
No, the things which differentiate Athens and Dublin are long-established patterns of development. Each is stratified by wealth, dividing the population along income lines. There’s the Anglo-Saxon culture of buying detached houses, against the southern European habit of renting apartments. In Athens the derelict buildings are being squatted; in Dublin they’re secured with steel sheeting and CCTV.
So I don’t have an opinion on how Athens and Dublin might be “fixed” – how could I with brief visits to two European capitals, one as a student and the other as a travelling photographer – but on reflection I realised that we sometimes need to stop. Think a little more deeply and look beyond the instant opinions on the screen. Speak to people, do some research, digest it, then form a thesis, which doesn’t necessarily have to be shared for re-tweeting…
Thanks for indulging me by reading this. It’s a journal entry which I chose to share, and I guess the chance of Maria reading this are infinitesimally small: but despite those odds, it would be great to hear that she got her wish and is riding a big Triumph Tiger. :-)
When I was a student, the regeneration of Temple Bar in Dublin was held up as a model of How To, but with the more recent delivery of “Helicopter Money” from Brussels to bail out the Irish economy, it became a model of How Not To. On visiting Dublin in 2014, everything seemed a bit too expensive, there were many empty shops and on the outskirts stood miles of unsold houses.
All the investment bank head offices along the Liffey were built during a boom founded on speculation. Since their failure, Dublin has evidently concentrated on a Guinness, James Joyce and U2-based economy: yet while I was there, several people told me that Dublin isn’t really Irish. The Paddywhackery theme pubs along the Liffey – as one native described them – are the same phenomenon as the pipers in See You Jimmy hats who haunt the Scots Wha Hae pubs on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.
Whether they didn’t like immigration into it, or the emigration of young professionals from from it, callers to the local radio station were unhappy with Ireland in 2014. As a talk radio host on RTE said, Dublin is the gun crime capital of Europe, with one death per week. While the violence affects peripheral housing estates rather than the touristy parts, its threat hangs over the city as a whole.
In some respects, Dublin’s history is underlain by violence: for me, Bolands Flour Mill and its place in the 1916 Rising was soundtracked by David Holmes’ “69 Police” which happened to be playing on the radio as I drove back through Dublin towards the airport. Of course, violence is a tradition in the south of Italy, in the Balkans and in Scottish cities too… and civil society has existed despite and alongside it.
One of the motives to visit Dublin was to meet up again with an Irish architecture student, Kathryn, who I met while on an Erasmus exchange in Athens in 1995. Young professionals in today’s Ireland was met in the person of a serious, moon-faced young man on the DART coming in from Malahide to UCD. He wore a cream linen jacket, loafers and distressed jeans and was absorbed in reading an article about sustainable housing (Accordia and all that) on his iPad. What future for him?
Will he be forced to emigrate, like previous generations were, only this time to escape the Ponzi scheme of a housing bubble funded by a financial pyramid, fuelled in turn by bank lending secured on ever-rising land values? Or perhaps it was a carousel fraud, with finance houses cross-collateralising and propping each other up until the money-go-round finally ground to a halt. Once that happened, many developers failed, most notably the company behind the regeneration of Battersea Power Station in London which was led by the flamboyant tycoon Johnny Ronan and his business partner Richard Barrett.
Their £5.5bn plan to revamp Battersea collapsed into administration at the end of 2011, when their main lenders – Lloyds Banking Group and Ireland's state "bad bank", the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) – lost patience and put the developers’ holding company into administration. Once Irish developers began to struggle, Irish contractors began looking greedily across the North Channel to find work in the UK.
If the city of Dublin raised the spectre of a failed economic boom, beyond the city lay the cheerful cynics of the Health Service Executive at Portrane who allowed me to shoot photos in a Georgian asylum; and the softly-spoken girl with pale skin and dark hair at the wayside strawberry trailer. In certain parts of Belgium, there are little frites stalls at the roadside, painted bright yellow: in Eire there are roadside strawberry vendors, including one with a kiosk in the form of a giant fibreglass fruit. This was Robert Venturi’s “Duck” put to work in Co. Dublin.
The Irish countryside around Kildare, Cork and Waterford prompted another question. In rural Ireland there are countless bungalows strung out in ribbon developments: it’s no different to Highland Scotland, which it resembles in so many ways. For Irish natives, the mixture of language, culture, landscape and economy makes up their own Internal Landscape and the new bungalows enable them to stay on their patch of soil, which is surely a good thing considering the economic exodus from Ireland.
Yet why do planners hate ribbon development so much? Is it because we were educated in cities – where medium and high-density developments are driven by land prices as well as a tradition of living in tenements – and are unsympathetic to the aspirations of folk in the country? If people want to live in their own detached houses, which is a traditional aspiration in British Isles, is it for us to sneer at them? Is it inverted snobbery, or the French concept of “deformation professionel”?
Arguably there’s no right answer, because adequate housing requires both land reform and bank reform. The supply of sites and the supply of mortgage finance largely dictates the supply of houses. Both of those are political issues, and people will vote for the government which looks like giving them what they want.
Some would have no development – usually those who already own property and do not care for others to share their good fortune. Urban Realm’s visit to Nairn a few years ago was a clear example of that. Others are keen to see development at all costs – and Ireland’s ill-fated developers perhaps fell into that trap.
Perhaps the most telling thing is that I only saw a couple of truckmixers all the time I was there; the truckmixer, as I’ve written before, is the construction industry’s barometer, bellwether and its green light at the end of the dock all rolled into one.
The second part of this piece will cover a trip to Athens, and try to find common ground between the state of the western fringe of Europe and its eastern edge.
The village pub lies on a quiet road, a long way from anywhere else. You might expect it to be busy on a Sunday lunchtime, but today there’s only one patron.
Outside, the air is sharp and the trees are turning – but Mr Wolf sits in the lounge bar of the Admiral Rodney, his nostrils full of the smell of defeat and disappointment. Things aren’t going well. He’s preoccupied by the troubled project he’s working on, his girlfriend’s complicated life, and the fact that another year has passed swiftly by.
Having cleared a plate of scampi and chips, he returns to a book - Escape from Evil - written by Ernest Becker. Becker was a cultural anthropologist who spent the latter part of his career examining man's fear of death, and his struggle to overcome it through heroism and symbolism. He believed that our culture is fundamentally contrived: "Each society is a hero system which promises victory over evil and death."
And so we engage in Immortality Projects.
In Becker’s world, the creation of a building is a struggle of will, the individual’s triumph over all the other architects. Its continuing existence is a reminder that you persist, and its demolition is the abnegation of self, and proof of mortality. The book is doing nothing to cheer Mr Wolf up, but it has provoked him to think.
Becker’s thesis is one reason why the “Rubble Club” is so poignant, and why an architect who Mr Wolf used to work with bitterly regretted the disappearance of one of the first things he designed, a shopfront in a seaside town. The shop sold shoes, and in the 1970’s its frontage was remodelled to resemble a giant glass shoe.
Had Scotland been Northern Italy, the shoe-fronted shop would have been called architecture parlante. If the shop had been in Nevada, Robert Venturi would have circled it making quacking noises … but when the premises were refurbished in the 2000’s, the shoe was replaced by a big sheet of Armourplate and the shop began selling sandwiches.
“This shouldn’t happen; it makes you realise that you’re getting old,” the architect complained, although he really meant “mortal”. Not even the combined efforts of DIY SOS, John Harvey-Jones and The A-Team could disprove the fact that buildings are just buildings, dispensable, and we’re only mortal.
Perhaps the driver of architecture isn’t the egotism of a designer who believes they have more insight, talent or genius than others do. Nor is it the avarice of a speculator who wants to make money from it, nor even an expression of the client’s taste. Perhaps the pursuit of architecture really is an Immortality Project.
Some leave behind statues, books or belief systems - but buildings are concrete proof of what we achieved. Perhaps writing about them through the filter of anthropology tells us something about folk whose practices have failed, been taken over by corporates, or gave up their identities in mergers. It helps to explain why they fought so hard for what they’ve lost.
The work they created was more than a creative outlet or a business – it was their legacy. Beyond that, Becker goes on to explain why some people drive a larger Saab, Audi or Alfa Romeo than their colleagues.
"The ideology of modern commercialism has unleashed a life of invidious comparison unprecedented in history ... modern man cannot endure economic equality because he has no faith in self-transcendent, otherworldly immortality symbols; visible physical worth is the only thing he has to give him eternal life. No wonder that people segregate themselves with such consuming dedication, that specialness is so much a fight to the death ... He dies when his little symbols of specialness die."
Humans, Becker writes, will always have “a need for a ‘beyond’ on which to base the meaning of their lives.” His conclusion is that people live to ensure they have a legacy, and this is why we work so hard to prove ourselves our whole lives. In the process of doing that — especially if we're power hungry or in desperate situations — we do things which make other peoples’ lot immeasurably worse.
Becker suggests that we are not evil because we have an instinct to be, but because we're the only animal on this planet which knows it's going to die. "But evil is not banal as Arendt claimed: evil rests on the passionate person motive to perpetuate oneself, and for each individual this is literally a life-and-death matter for which any sacrifice is not too great..."
Albert Speer’s work in the 1930’s and 40’s during the so-called Thousand Year Reich is an extreme example of an Immortality Project, and arguably the methods used in pursuit of the aim lie at the crux of Becker’s book. Immortality Projects throw us right back to Thomas Hobbes - the battle of every man against every man. Life can be nasty, brutal and short and sometimes architecture does nothing to mediate that.
How can this be overcome, when society has progressed more slowly and modestly than advocated by Rousseau and Marx? Becker didn’t have an easy answer, but sometimes we need to get our heads up, release ourselves from the grip of immortality and absorb ourselves in the now.
With that weight lifted from his shoulders, Mr Wolf closed the book and wandered out into the wan autumnal sunshine.
Several years ago, the motoring writer James Ruppert coined a phrase which neatly encapsulates how to own and run a car cheaply and efficiently. Bangernomics. Tradition has it that old cars have high running costs: they burn more fuel and oil than they should; they rot; they break down. However, new cars suffer from savage depreciation. Either way, cheap motoring is a fallacy.
By contrast, the theory of Bangernomics attempts to both the capital and running costs of cars: you buy old vehicles which are in reasonable condition, but worth next to nothing. You run them for a few months, then when they break down or fail their M.o.T., you scrap them then repeat the process.
An old Rover or Audi might cost £350 from the small ad’s – but even if it only lasts for six months, the previous owner has paid for all its road tax, servicing and depreciation costs, providing you with cheap motoring and a cash rebate when you drive it (push it) into the scrappie’s yard. In many cases, the car will be perfectly reliable in the meantime, and more than adequate as your “daily driver.”
More applicable than ever during the recent climate of austerity and crunchy credit, Bangernomics is a transferrable concept – so lets try to apply it to buildings, shall we?
By the time they’re committed up to their oxters in a building contract, clients are resigned to spiralling costs and a lack of ultimate control. Building things has always been perceived as expensive: but did anyone point out an alternative? This is the crux, because it exposes a conflict of interest between the client and his hired gun, the architect.
Architects like to build things, because that earns them fees. They don’t mind converting old things, because that can earn them more fees than building new things. Yet what would happen if the feasibility study suggested that the client’s existing building was perfectly suitable – that all he needed to do was re-organise the demountables and the furniture?
Or buy the building next door and move in straight away (perhaps re-painting the front door on the way in)? That would earn the architect nothing, except a token sum and the eternal gratitude of the client, who has saved a small fortune.
Your business banking manager never warned you about this eventuality, nor did the lecturers at architecture school. Yet if you exercised “professionalism” (whatever *that* means in these straitened times), you’d be obliged to offer this option to your client. You can guess just how many consultants have actually done so – and that illustrates why the Victorian concept of the professional person may be obsolete.
As with the architect’s quasi-judicial role when considering a claim for extensions of time (if she allows them, the architect often admits her own guilt in delaying the contractor), this concept of an impartial person of integrity, with no ulterior self-interest, is a fallacy. In reality, the only way to save the client money is to align the professionals’ interests with his own.
Now that fear has taken charge of the financial markets again (24th August 2015 … China Crisis?), as it did on Black Monday in 1987, and during the Wall Street Crash, the grim arithmetic of economic recession has been recalled. The result is an admonitory tale of capitalism’s downside. Ten years ago, the property market took off, detached itself from the real economy like Gulliver’s flying island of “Laputa”, and buildings ended up over-valued by 30 or 40%, or sometimes more. The underlying land doubled or tripled in value.
Things have turned around now, though, and as a result, clients are forced to question the “givens”, such as the maxim that land values will always continue to increase because land is the only thing they aren’t making any more of; rentals will always move northwards … and U-values will always improve.
Since energy conservation had become an over-riding factor in design, it could be made simple. The aims of economics and sustainability coincide, just as they do in Bangernomics. The most sustainable way to develop property for a client is to re-use and adapt the existing, not to build a new building from scratch. If everything else is equal, refurbishment usually works out cheaper than newbuild.
Extending the amortisation period of a building, just like running a car into the ground, saves money by spreading the cost over a longer period. It also maximises the use of its embodied energy. The latter idea may win you sexy eco points; but the client’s accountant will get turned on by the former. Do as little as you need to: save yourself money and energy. In fact, taking this to its logical conclusion, we could talk ourselves out of work.
For example, a few years ago we had a client who took a pragmatic view. The company owns a large 1940’s era range of north-lit workshops. They were built as a wartime munitions factory for making artillery shells – which afterwards was taken on by Consolidated Pneumatic Tools, who made equipment for the quarrying and mining industries.
Under a series of sawtooth roofs, held up by delicate fabricated steel trusses, the spaces have ample natural light and are high enough to house pillar and gantry cranes. When the roof began to leak, the refurbishment costs quoted were epic. A bulldoze-and-rebuild-from-new option was studied, but the price for that turned out to be even steeper.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the building – and a new portal frame shed would be less generous, and far darker, needing artificial light during the daytime. Accordingly, the plan was to apply a magical coating to seal the failed asphalt joints, then make local repairs to the rooflights. Five years on, that seems to have worked fine.
Work with what you find. Re-use it, minimise your outlay. Bangernomics.
Carrying on the theme of Tayside’s shrinking construction industry from my previous article about the demise of Muirfields, I thought it would be worth recording another sector which has virtually disappeared: construction plant manufacturing.
I grew up a mile from Low’s Foundry in Monifieth, a long-established engineering firm which occupied the block between High Street, Reform Street, South Street and Union Street. After at least a century of manufacturing textile machinery, James F Low (Engineers) Ltd sought to benefit from the post-War building boom, so their trajectory changed around 1955, and they diversified into “Rob Roy” construction plant.
Photo courtesy of Plant wiki
The small amount of information published about the firm concentrates on their textile heritage. Monifieth Foundry was established by James Low and Robert Fairweather before 1800, and the firm became internationally known for machinery to prepare and finish coarse textiles such as jute, hemp and flax. At one time Low’s exported to 30 countries and their foundry spread over 15 acres. Until the 1950’s they made machinery for the many jute mills in Tayside, and were eventually taken over by a company on the Indian sub-continent where much of their machinery was latterly sold and from which raw jute is imported.
While giant yellow bulldozers and full-slew excavators grab the attention, small plant is often overlooked. Rob Roy’s range was at the lighter end of the spectrum and included site dumper trucks, forklifts, concrete mixers, concrete pumps and vibrating pokers. Through the post-War years they developed a range along the lines of what the Winget company produces nowadays, and many of their machines were powered by Lister or Petter 2-cylinder diesel engines. The “Rob Roy” of its name has little or nothing to do with Clan MacGregor but is part of the undercurrent of Walter Scotticism which lasts in Scotland, even to this day. I guess its use in this context is intended to suggest the same ruggedness as with Albion Motors’ “Claymore”, “Reiver” and “Clydesdale” lorries.
Speaking to folk who worked in the local construction industry during the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, Rob Roy concrete pumps were prone to break down at the critical moment (“they were buggers of things to choke up”) but otherwise their 4/3 and 5/3 concrete mixers were sturdy and reliable, and their 1/2 yard and 1 yard site dumpers were basic but tough pieces of kit. As I was growing up, I remember the thumpity-thump of a two-stroke Lister diesel as the Rob Roy dumper trundled around a building site.
However, as with the much larger Vickers conglomerate which I wrote about previously, Rob Roy’s construction plant business proved less profitable than hoped. While Vickers retreated back to their natural territory, the defence industry, Rob Roy disappeared around 1984 when James F Low went into liquidation. The site was sold and partly cleared: William Low’s (no relation) built a supermarket on the northern part of the foundry, then a few years later sheltered housing and spec-built villas emerged on the southern side.
With the exception of JCB, which is gradually catching Caterpillar in the battle to become the world’s largest construction plant manufacturer, Britain’s retreat from heavy plant began in the 1980’s and has continued ever since. Somewhere in the wilds of Lanarkshire are warehouses full of obsolete plant parts bearing names such as Liner, Mortimer, Hymac, Whitlock, Priestman and Massey Ferguson – which are now of value to collectors of classic machinery but little use to the men who use and hire out plant to earn a living.
Priestman were bought over by the owners of Acrow and all their clever design innovations, such as the variable-counterbalance excavator, were lost. For over 70 years Benford was a leading manufacturer of dumpers, mixers, rollers and compactor plates; they were taken over by Terex in 1999 and the name was dropped. Ruston Bucyrus became RB Cranes, changed hands, and Langley Holdings eventually closed them down after they succumbed to the 2008 recession. Barford has similarly disappeared in the past few years.
In Scotland, Hydrocon Cranes of Coatbridge were a major manufacturer of off-road mobile cranes.
As their name suggests, they pioneered hydraulic cranes but their former factory is now part of the industrial museum at Summerlee. As another example, while I was researching the brick industry for an article a couple of years ago, I discovered that Mitchell Engineering of Cambuslang were once in the major league of brick-making machinery manufacturers, but they went out of that business as the Scottish brickmaking industry shrank. It continued to shrink, until as it stands today there’s only one active brickworks, and a handful of abandoned sites.
Before you reach for the whisky and raise a toast entitled, “Sympathy for the Construction Industry”, there are some heavy plant success stories in Scotland. McPhee Brothers of Blantyre build concrete truckmixers and Albion Motors still exists too, in the form of Albion Automotive who build lorry transmissions in South Street, Glasgow.
As for Rob Roy, it’s unlikely that any of their machines have been preserved in museums, but some are still to be found lurking in the overgrown yards of small contractors. A rusty Rob Roy 1/2 yard dumper lay, unused and unloved, in the flood plain of the Gowrie Burn until recently, when a small developer began building a clutch of houses on the site. Presumably the dumper went off to the great scrapyard in the sky, perhaps via one of Morris Leslie’s epic autojumble auctions at Errol.
If anyone has any promotional material, brochures, photos or memories of James F Low and Rob Roy, please get in touch.
It’s the battle at the heart of every social science going: the individual against the mass. The distance between “me” and the rest of the world lies at the very core of the human condition. Despite the fact that we are social animals, biologically and psychically we're separate and apart from other creatures. Each of us is essentially alone. We can’t know what another person feels or thinks, nor can they experience our feelings and thoughts.
This separation has powered several of the great novels, like Hunger by Knut Hamsun, Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, and The Outsider by Albert Camus. We can change, we can renounce the things we believed in, but we can never leave the human race – at best, we set ourselves apart from other people and try to live outside their society.
Many of us go through a phase of teenage rebellion, but the truest sense of splitting apart from the mass of humanity only comes later in your 20’s or 30’s, once you have experienced many years’ worth of what Anthony Burgess described as the formicating crowds of big cities. You begin to feel dissociated from the milling strangers, and grow tired of the social codes we live by. You become disenfranchised by them, and wish for something else.
Some people – artists, poets, novelists – are able to use this experience to feed their work; others disengage completely and withdraw from the world. What the French call anomie, the feeling of being tired with and unsatisfied by life, may either cause you to chuck it all in … or grow more determined to find your own way in the world. Architects try to serve society, so they aim for the latter.
Respect and big props are due to those who plough their own furrow – in this context, the architects who neither teach, lecture or write articles. Reading the story of the Barbican development in London, I was struck by the fact that Chamberlin, Powell & Bon kept their own counsel – not through lack of self-confidence in their approach or opinions, but perhaps through a recognition of the ugly truth, that a good deal of architectural journalism is blatantly self-promotional, yet pretends to critical objectivity.
If you take articles written by “big name” designers, they invariably flesh out their thesis using their own work I guess that it takes a large measure of humility not to do that. There is also the suspicion that the “big names” seek a column in a journal, or a publishing deal, as an outlet for their ego. Given that, you could argue that Outside is the safest place to be, since you are forced to think for yourself and evaluate places and situations.
This piece isn’t intended to be didactic or preaching, but I think this lesson is widely applicable – it ranges from the need to question critical theories in architecture books, to the screaming necessity of avoiding trouble in life. Why does anyone study architecture? Not because they foresee that one day they’ll work for Practice X, producing window schedules by rote. Instead, they have their own hopes and aspirations to pursue. They want to fulfil their own destiny. In that, architects differ from most other walks of professional life.
Setting up your own practice is not only about making more money, or having your name above the door – it’s the ability to build your own designs rather than someone else’s. The Outsiders are just a more extreme version of this imperative.
I’ve talked in previous pieces about practices such as Shearer and Annand, and Bowen Dann Davies, who didn’t court publicity – but the second type of outsiders are those whose work falls entirely outwith the canon, rather than those who simply adopt a low key approach to practice. Designers such as Rudolph Steiner (Goetheaneum); Constant (New Babylon), and Frederick Kiesler (Endless House) produced work which falls outwith any critical category. These are rare examples of architecture which is “ab initio” – thought out from first principles, and without reference to anything else.
Some of these designers were propagandists, who put forward their own manifestoes – Constant was part of the Situationist International for a time, and his designs were part of a greater scheme to reshape the whole world, changing the way we’re governed, as well as the way we build. Rudolph Steiner developed educational theories into which he tied in an approach to architecture. You could call this move to the outside a manifesto in itself, or perhaps an escape from manifesto-waving activists.
Regardless of the “position” they choose to take, it’s a pleasure to be offered a fresh view of the world by these designers – and it contrasts with the conventional histories of modern architecture, where you read about the same buildings and the same architects time and time again. Those books are really just the products of an intellectual conspiracy, since their authors are academic rivals, who compete with each other, yet quote each others’ work in their own footnotes.
They are the true insiders, and they work a little like a mutual back-scratching society. If someone comes along with a completely different set of reference points, then that threatens the world view of their academic gang … and they don’t like it up them, as the saying goes. For the outsiders, these petty intrigues are irrelevant, because they choose not to play the game.
As Dieter Rams wrote, “A designer … does not need to give impressive lectures about it. He does not need to formulate explicit theories. After all, he is a designer and not a sociologist, psychologist, historian or philosopher.” Alvar Aalto backs him up, “The Creator created paper for drawing on. Everything else is, at least for my part, to misuse paper.” Perhaps that has something to do with Aalto’s early life – just before starting his architectural studies, Aalto was a trainee in Toivo Salervo’s office. Said Salervo to Aalto – “You’ll never be an architect, but aim for a career in journalism”. Maybe that created a lifelong aversion to written communication …
Chamberlin, Powell & Bon neither lectured, tutored nor wrote articles in the specialist press: that made them appear enigmatic, perhaps, but they were interested in practice and saw that the best way to win work was to get on with it. New commissions arose from existing ones, and they were able to largely side-step the critical debate about the Barbican which ran in magazines of the time.
Of course, the flip-side of keeping your own counsel is that others may talk on your behalf – but a waspish review in a magazine will be forgotten within the year, whereas the building will stand for a couple of generations. In these media-obsessed times, that’s worth remembering.