In the spring of 2012, I visited an abandoned brickworks. The firm which ran it had already passed out of existence: I strode across tussocks of grass beaten flat by the winter storms, then over a flooded hardstanding which stank of gas oil.
Inside, the brick-making machines had already been dismantled – their gear wheels, guards and bed plates were strewn around inside – but everything else appeared intact. The walls were coated in decades’ worth of shale dust, and the floors were hidden under standing water.
I guess it’s no surprise to discover that an architect is interested in bricks, and grows a wee bit pious and sentimental when a firm whose products he has specified passes from existence. Perhaps bricks don’t mean much to the general public. After all, people overestimate the significance of their own field – this bias is known as the “deformation professionelle” – but the brick is a universal material.
The previous day, I had finished reading a book about Playfair.
The Playfair we’re most familiar with is William, who was born in 1790 and designed classical buildings in the New Town, and Scotland’s Shame on Calton Hill. What I learned about Playfair the architect encouraged me to read about the rest of his family. William came from a talented family, and the uncle after whom he was named was perhaps the most talented. His story goes far beyond the narrow concerns of architecture to touch many aspects of how the modern world works.
The elder William was born in Dundee, the fourth son of the minister of Liff and Benvie, James Playfair. William was a lad o’ pairts, as they say here, and over the course of his life, his flexible mind and good Scots tongue enabled him to become a millwright, engineer, draughtsman, accountant, inventor, silversmith, merchant, investment broker, economist, statistician, pamphleteer, translator, publicist, land speculator, convict, banker, editor, blackmailer and journalist…
Perhaps he never became a brickmaker, but Playfair grew up during the Scottish Enlightenment and after an apprenticeship with Andrew Meikle, the inventor of the threshing machine, at 18 years of age, he became assistant to James Watt. William’s greatest achievement is the so-called Playfair cycle, which presciently looked forward to how capitalism works:
Wealth and power have never been long permanent in any place.
They travel over the face of the earth, something like a caravan of merchants.
On their arrival, every thing is found green and fresh; while they remain all is bustle and abundance, and, when gone, all is left trampled down, barren, and bare.
Playfair summed up the never-ending drive for efficiency, and anticipated the nature of manufacturing. It’s now cheaper to build and equip a new greenfield factory, than to renovate and run an old one. It’s even cheaper to shift the entire operation offshore, which is what has happened to so many multinational companies. Companies are constantly being destroyed, even during the good times. This brick-making firm was one of them.
This brickworks had little romance or nobility – especially in winter, caught between the freezing sheds and roasting heat of the kilns. It offered workers nothing but hard, dirty, back-breaking work. Yet, just like the blast furnaces at Ravenscraig and shipyards of the Upper Clyde, it bred a skilled trade with a long tradition. After the final artic load of Scotch Commons departed, the legacy of the Scottish colliery brickworks was dead. Similarly, the pan mills and the breaker were built by Mitchells of Cambuslang, so the death of the Scottish brick-making industry also killed its brick machinery makers.
Once this capacity has gone, it won’t be replaced – unless a miracle happens, as it did 25 years ago. In 1988, L.A.W. Holdings opened a brand new brick factory at Tannochside, in Uddingston on the south-eastern side of Glasgow. The firm was headed up by opencast mining entrepreneurs Ian Liddell and John Weir and in the best traditions of the Carron Company and NCB, they used coal mining’s by-products for brick manufacture.
A miracle, perhaps. One comment chalked on a door – “We will survive!” and underneath it a reply in a different hand, “No you fuckin won’t.” As I stood on a Lionweld stair overlooking the space where the brickworks’ pan mills once sat, a man around my own age walked in through a hole from which a large door had been knocked off its hinges. Despite the sea of mud around the buildings, he wore a pair of pristine white trainers.
We started talking: he’d worked here until the brickworks closed, and had come back for a last look. He explained that the owners of Scotland’s one remaining brickworks had bought up the equipment and trademarks, perhaps to ensure that no-one could buy the dead company out of administration and start production again.
As I packed my camera away, he took a final look at the devastation then turned to me. His parting words were, “I’m going to get away up the road afore I start cryin…”
Text and photos all copyright Mark Chalmers.
I began writing this in the attic bedroom of a 300 year old farmhouse in the Forest of Dean. After dark, I looked out from a dormer between the oak beams: clouds flitted across the moon and night birds called from the Severn mudflats. It was an idyllic place, although its peace was bought with remoteness.
The farmhouse sits at the end of a long, bumpy track which begins with a BT payphone. The phone box is filled with giant nettles, and the glass is opaque with mould, but at least the handset is still working. The callbox is a reflection of what happens when nationalised industries reach the private sector: the unprofitable bits are pruned or left to wither.
In the hazy distance are pairs of giant pylons which carry power lines in a graceful arc across the Severn – in this rural context, they’re a first hint of the industrialised countryside – and a few miles up the road lies the former Coal Research Establishment. The CRE was the research & development arm of the mighty National Coal Board, which once employed 700,000 men and kept British industry alive.
Perhaps our minds are wired such that we recognise cognate facts and repeating themes, but every few months I come across the work of CRE’s unlikely leader, Jacob Bronowski, in unlikely places. Bronowski came to public attention as one of the surly academics who Newman & Baddiel later satirised in their TV series. “That’s your best idea, that is…” was loosely based on The Brains Trust – a series of televised debates during the 1970’s in which academics battled each others’ rhetoric.
In fact, those debates epitomised the way in which some academics take facts and spin them into whatever argument they want to make. They then spend their working lives arguing with fellow academics over who is right, and who is wrong. Arguably, The Brains Trust did individual reputations a great deal of good, but confirmed that academics in general often pursue a personal rather than a socially useful agenda.
However, Bronowski came from a different tradition. His influence grew from his work during World War Two, and its reinvention in the post-war Socialist world. The wartime work was known as “Operational Research” – which I wrote about previously for Urban Realm in the context of the Glen Fruin Torpedo Tank. His later career was with the Coal Research Establishment, where the National Coal Board developed things like “fluidised bed” combustion, which is now used in power stations across the world.
Another project was a coal-powered motor car… I know that I wasn’t the only one to pass through the village of Stoke Orchard in search of the mythical coal-burning Torano, and now that the CRE has been demolished, I can safely admit that someone within my circle took an adjustable wrench and unbolted several doors – but left no further forward in his search. Presumably it was locked in a shed somewhere.
While the CRE experimented with coal liquefaction, its counterpart in Scotland known as the Westfield Development Centre, developed coal gasification. Using a so-called Lurgi plant, low-grade coal was converted into gas and coke under steam pressure. Like the CRE, Westfield now stands abandoned, a rotting hulk on the road to Cardenden which belies an investment of the hundreds of millions of pounds.
The Brains Trust had long since gone by the time I started architecture school. Instead, we watched Bronowski’s later work, The Ascent of Man, a magisterial series of documentaries about mankind’s evolution. I imagine it was screened in an attempt to make rational humanists of us; I fear that was only a partial success. Our history lecturer – a wry bearded man who gently communicated his disappointment in how thick we were – left us to make our own connections between Bronowski’s broad canvas, and the task at hand.
Jacob Bronowski clearly understood the dilemma of the Two Cultures, how art and science often conflict, and occasionally come together, as in the case of architecture. Bronowski also fought to escape from the long shadow of Arthur Koestler, whose “The Ghost in the Machine” was one of the post-War world’s most influential books and the bane of other émigré thinkers. He succeeded: Bronowski became a coal-powered philosopher who showed us the limits of history.
History does sometimes change things. Stuff is dug up, secrets are revealed - but the careless reinvention of history is dangerous, because all too often it uses modern thinking and applies it to the same facts in an age when people did not think in a modern way. Some today, for example, argue that the huge post-War expansion of coal mining was mistaken. No-one thought that at the time. That’s the power of post-rationalisation.
In defence of history, we can use it to explain why previous generations pursued aims that we now deem to be wrong … and perhaps it would be wise for us to think more about what we are doing now, and how history might judge that. The past does have lessons for the future. In the case of Bronowski, he applied the wartime methods of Operational Research to the peacetime extraction of coal.
O.R. studied the scientific and economic context of coal production and combustion, but largely ignored the surface traces of coal-getting. As an example, look at what happened to Selby: the largest deep coal mining complex in the world. A vast seam of coal sat under the Vale of York, but locals cried out that the countryside would be “industrialised” if collieries were constructed in it. So the NCB built collieries which were disguised so that they didn’t look like collieries at all.
By the 1950’s, the skeletal frames of colliery headgear which we associate with Victorian collieries had been supplanted by giant concrete shafts. As elements in the landscape, they echo church bell towers and the keeps of medieval castles. The arrangement at Selby was the next step in the winding tower’s evolution, and each steel-framed winder was clad in mellow-coloured brick, in order to sit harmoniously within the rolling farmland of the Vale of York. I suspect the winding towers were designed by the PSA (Property Services Agency).
Mining was controlled by a system called “MINOS”, running on Ferranti computers – its designers pursued the Coal Board’s dream of automated coal mining, which was first tried out in the late 1950’s remotely-operated loading face (ROLF) projects in Nottinghamshire. ROLF was a good example of Operational Research being applied to technical problems; perhaps it should have considered architecture and landscape, too.
The miners of Fife, the Welsh Valleys or South Yorkshire may have scoffed – but fitting a new deep mining complex into a rural setting was a constraint, much the same as geologists struggled with cyclic deformation of the rock strata at Selby, and British Coal’s sales teams fought to win markets for the coal won underground. The visual impact of the Selby Complex, as the cluster of deep coal mines was known, consisted of a number of satellite pit heads which were used to take men, materials and machinery down to the working faces. However, there was only one spoil heap and one coal washery, sited next to the main drifts at Gascoigne Wood. Haulage by rail lessened the destructive impact of heavy lorries on rural roads, and all the sites were screened by berms and planting.
Sylvia Crowe was perhaps the first designer to look critically at how industrial developments could sit happily beyond the urban edge. Crowe looked at building in the context of wilderness, such as Basil Spence’s nuclear power station at Trawsfynnyd in Wales, as well as cultivated landscapes similar to the Vale of York. Half a century later, we recognise that extractive and generating industries must have their place, but a combination of pollution laws, pressure from environmental groups, low prices for coal and a lack of subsidy, plus the politics of the 1980’s mean that deep-mined coal has shrunk to a rump of half a dozen collieries.
Selby was the last great gasp of King Coal: when it closed a decade ago, a couple of billion tons of high grade coal were abandoned underground. Perhaps we’ll go back one day to recover it. A few years later, after a series of visits to coal mines throughout Britain, I had a better appreciation for British Coal’s architecture. I wrote about Longannet, Harworth, Clipstone and Tower on scottisharchitecture.com – although like the miners’ jobs, those pieces have long since disappeared.
Just like the overgrown phonebox at the end of the bumpy track, the coal industry suffered once it left the public sector, after which a promising line of inquiry into how to integrate industrial buildings in the countryside stopped dead. Meantime shale gas comes from a similar geology to Selby’s coal, and its extraction inevitably means building industrial plant in rural areas. The new coal mines of the 1980’s, like the windfarms of the 2000’s and the shale gas operations being planned today for the 2020’s, all have that in common.
Perhaps we need to apply Operational Research to the “problem” of extractive design in the landscape? That we don’t have a solution to the industrialised countryside is Thatcher’s legacy to the formerly Great Britain. But, thanks to Jacob Bronowski, we do have the tools we need, should coal enjoy a renaissance at some point in future…
In the world of espionage, sources are often revealed not by single events, but rather though patterns which emerge over time. This view was reinforced when Chaos Theory emerged in the 1980’s, and popular science seized on the analogy of a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world which causes a hurricane at the antipodes. One of our most predictable patterns of behaviour is the Great Escape, when thousands of cars simultaneously depart the city each summer to head for the sunshine.
Now, bear with me while I put forward a proposition. The pastime of sitting in stationary cars during summertime is frustrating, and while we think we’re acting on our own volition, perhaps we’re actually the subjects of an experiment carried out by social theorists. How ironic, they smile, that in order to escape from the confines of the city we climb into a crocodile of cars and travel along the confines of the motorway. What fun the sociologists will have with that one.
Social learning theory suggests that people learn by observing others, intentionally or otherwise, and that process is known as learning through imitation, or “modelling”. Our choice of a model is influenced by a variety of factors, such as age, gender, status, and similarity to ourselves. The congested motorway is an ideal place to observe what others do, and provides plenty models for us.
The French philosopher René Girard thought along similar lines, and developed a theory called “acquisitive mimesis”. While I’d like to believe that I’m a free agent and that I visit places because I’m inherently interested in them, Girard supposes that I’m heavily influenced by what’s going on around me. He proposes that human behaviour is learned, and learning is based on imitation. Basically, our desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person - the model - for this same object.
Hence he suggests, we’re all sheep, following each other down the motorway towards freedom - and that’s why we all end up trapped in the same traffic jam.
In the new world which emerged after September 11, the efficiency of the plane was reduced by the time and energy wasted in security queues. In fact, you have to travel more than 800 km for flying to become more efficient than high speed trains – the latter travel from city centre to city centre, rather than landing at outlying airports which require a further journey to reach your destination. Plus you can take whatever you like with you, and return without having to worry about baggage allowances.
In theory, the car is not much use after 300 km, because the train will always beat you. Trains also avoid the enormous traffic jams which spring up across the continent during holiday season. The French have an apt description for traffic congestion which keep starting and stopping. The cars, they say, are en accordéon, and anyone who travelled down the Rhone Valley last summer on the celebrated A6 – l'Autoroute du Soleil – on a “red” or “black” day will understand perfectly.
Perhaps you can avoid the jam … if you can recognise the emerging pattern. Whether the source of distraction is a beautiful chateau, a phone call or an accident to gawp at, drivers rarely maintain the same pace. If they slow down, the cars behind them brake, too. As with molecular gas flows, all the particles behind back up and then these compression waves propagate, so you end up with a series of concertina-style traffic jams.
According to Girard’s theory, we’re doomed to sit in that jam, or in the security queue at the airport, or trapped on a train speeding through the Rhone, if that’s what our peer group does. Even the most counter-intuitive thinking will be defeated as we have to battle very hard to overcome our own act of mimesis. In one sense, that’s depressing and constraining, since it suggests that we lack free agency. However, sometimes the mimesis is even more literal.
A couple of years ago, Girard contributed to a book, Architects and Mimetic Rivalry, which argues that buildings are shaped by imitating architectural forms, and by imitating the identities of their creators. The term “mimetic rivalry,” coined by Girard, suggests that we’re in competition for things which are commonly shared and desired. Although some architects dismiss the idea, Girard argues that their rivalry is not a result of personal or ideological differences, but instead the desire to imitate a master which ultimately becomes the desire to use the same forms, and by association to reach the same status.
That’s a strange and frightening premise. It suggests that if we can’t separate the person from the work, then we’ll pursue a cult of personality in our attempt to re-create our own version of someone else. However, as with other walks of life, you can have supremely gifted people with foul, devious personalities - and sweet, kind people with no talent at all. If you get it wrong, you may end up copying a tyrant’s character traits without isolating his creative spark.
Similarly, there is a real danger that architecture becomes a business of chasing status, rather than creating things. Girard seems to say, question your motives. Why did you decide to train as an architect? Was it something inherent in you, or are you simply copying your fellow travellers?
Girard’s thesis also relies on the splitting down of creative folk into people who “are”, and people who “do”. For example, performing arts folk “are”, in the sense that they have extrovert personalities and want to show them off. Visual artists who “do” can happily live in the shadows, content for others to see their work while learning nothing about its creator. For the rest, perhaps we do behave like sheep some of the time.
In an attempt to avoid accordions, we travelled to Metz overnight at the end of the year. When we got up the next morning, the winter air was clear and still, the chapel bells rang out, and the dead steelworks of Arcelor at Florange and Gandrange stood like ghosts of progress. Once he realised we were Scots, the hotel manager quizzed us about Glasgow’s football teams, and in response we offered a Gallic shrug. Bof… In return, he expressed amazement: no-one comes to Lorraine to take photos of the steel industry, monsieur!
Perhaps we had succeeded, unwittingly, in confounding Girard’s theory. From there it was on up to Geneva, over the impressive fly-overs of Bellegarde and to the Bourg-en-Bresse where, the French will tell you, they rear the best chickens in Europe. >:^)
Meantime, if you see M. Girard stuck in a traffic jam, give him and all his pals a cheery wave…
Concepts like materiality and phenomenology are influential when you’re studying architecture. They tend to have students either tumbling over each other – like bassett hound puppies lolloping after a marrow bone – or alternatively, giving a big Bagpuss yawn before falling asleep.
Both, in their own way, refer to how we experience buildings. The material one suggests that we apprehend a building’s nature through the stuff it’s made from – although “materiality” has become associated with a particular kind of type of architecture. The phenomenal one considers how we experience our whole Lebenswelt, the background to our lives: plenty of scope there for endless debate.
However, student schemes are rarely built, so the discussion is literally academic. Once in practice, materials rather than abstract materiality become crucial, since you can’t build unless you understand what you’re building with. Key to that is technical knowledge, and perhaps surprisingly, getting your head around how building fabric performs becomes easier if you’re into outdoors pursuits.
Back in the day, tweeds were the only choice of clothing for outdoors types. The milled finish of the tweed fabric gave it a close nap which was fairly wind-resistant and surprisingly water-resistant: it was also tough and thorn-proof. However, the cloth was heavy and once you began to sweat, your cotton semmit and shirt would remain damp for hours.
The obvious analogy is with vernacular building. Solid stone walls are built with two faces of rubble masonry and filled with “hearting” attempted to hold the building up, retain heat, and repel moisture all at once. However, they retain dampness, much like sweaty worsted, and are slow to dry out.
By the 1970’s, tweed and dubbined leather were gradually being replaced by new kinds of waterproofs, lightweight boots and windproof fleeces. Each garment aimed towards an economy of means, extracting higher performance from something smaller and lighter than its predecessor. Some old-timers scorn Goretex trousers and fibrepile jackets, far less down-filled sleeping bags and Karrimats, but they represented an entirely new philosophy.
Fibrepile jackets emerged around the same time as mountaineers such as Dougal Haston ventured to the Himalayas. They were one element in a new concept, where climbers dressed in a series of layers each of which did different things, rather than trying to find one material which is simultaneously windproof, rainproof, insulating, breathable and robust. You split your clothes into three, using different next-to-skin, thermal insulation and weather protection fabrics to provide different qualities.
For the waterproof “shell” jacket, W.L. Gore developed breathable fabrics like Goretex which repel water, yet wick perspiration and allow your skin to breathe. Absorbent fabrics soak up water and hold on to it – but wicking fabrics transfer water somewhere else, without absorbing it.
For the insulating mid-layer, Malden Mills developed “Polarfleece” fabric which by the mid-1990’s had become Polarlite and then Polartec fleece. Around the same time, DuPont introduced the first Microfibres. Making use of those advances, “technical” clothing was designed with functionality in mind, so garments might have a hood, windproof panels and gear loops, but lack pockets where a climbing harness would sit.
Just as traditional cloths like tweed had become proprietary – Harris Tweed being the perfect example – high-tech synthetic fabrics were developed which mimicked traditional heavy woollen or oiled cotton textiles, but were lighter, warmer and avoided the sweatiness of traditional clothes. Key to the concept was the knowledge that a climber can take off and put on those lightweight layers at will, with the shell as an outer skin.
Similarly, “Rationalised traditional” construction usually consists of a masonry outer skin. That provides a robust finish which also sheds water, and inside lies a ventilated cavity drains and thermally isolates the external leaf. The timber kit is structural but also contains the bulk of the wall’s insulation. In simple terms, several thin layers separated by air gaps are more thermally efficient than one thick layer, and that principle was developed further in rainscreen cladding systems.
The rainscreen is perhaps the closest architectural analogy to the mountaineer’s layers, and entails splitting the external wall into two zones. The outer leaf sheds the majority of the rain water, while the inner leaf acts as a moisture, air and vapour barrier, provides insulation and is structural. The outer leaf isn’t waterproof – it actually allows a certain amount of moisture to penetrate – but its progress is controlled either by having a drained and back-ventilated cavity, or a pressure-equalised cavity.
As a result, the rainscreen relies on understanding capillary action and how that drives water through joints. Goretex fabric is no different, although it harnesses capillary action rather than aiming to defeat it.
A fascinating book called Invisible on Everest, co-written by Mike Parsons who was formerly the driving force behind Karrimor, explains the difference these developments made in terms of the lives they saved in the mountains. Karrimor was based at Accrington in Lancashire, and before a series of takeovers a few years ago, their clothing and gear were highly regarded. Their fleeces and rucksacks in particular were unkillable and became a staple of hillwalkers, mountaineers and fell runners.
During the mid-1990’s, a typical base layer was the Helly Hansen self-wicking top, a thin synthetic t-shirt which allowed sweat to evaporate. The state-of-the-art mid-layer was the Karrimor “Alpiniste” Elite fleece, made from Polartec 300 fleece: not only was it very insulative, which proved to be really warm under a thin shell, but its close weave meant it was very robust and resistant to wear and tear. The top layer is the waterproof one, a lightweight shell, which can be packed away in the rucksack if the sky is clear.
Nowadays, a technical fleece may use a mixture of fabrics: “Ultrafleece” is more wind resistant than regular fleece on the torso, and panels of stretchy fleece such as “Powerstretch” can improve articulation at elbows and shoulders. Arguably, windproof microfleeces are the state-of-the-art right now: they insulate, block the wind and breathe out and wick sweat, too.
In fact, one criticism which present day “gear freaks” make about older fibrepiles and fleeces is that the wind blows straight through them and whilst they remain warm, once wet they stay damp for ages. Perhaps perversely, they’ve dispensed with the layering system and are searching for a universal fabric which will do everything. Back to the days of tweed, but using technical textiles?
Similarly, we now use “Brettstapel”, a solid timber construction system fabricated from softwood timber posts connected with timber dowels. It’s a variation on the massivholz system which is used throughout central Europe. Prefabricated wall, floor and roof panels made from laminated timber are secured together, then wood fibre board is attached to improve the panels’ U-value. The timber is structural, it controls humidity by breathing, its fire-resistance is inherent and with a coating of microporous preservative, it became weather-resistant too.
Ideally, timber also becomes an internal and external finish, which keeps the building looking as timbery as possible. Just as the Brutalists of the 1960’s aimed to cast entire buildings from concrete – floors, columns, beams and wall panels – Brettstapel aims to hold the building up, retain heat, and repel moisture all at once. As with the outdoor gear freaks, architects sometimes question the need for all those layers which we spent years developing.
The lesson is that we are still in pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone – that one material to rule them all.
Happy New Year. By all accounts, 2014 will be an important one, so I'd like to mention a few of the issues which will hopefully emerge in the next few months. First off is our architectural identity, which is inextricably tied up with the definition of nationality, and that of course is up for debate.
Nationality means little once you realise that folk are the same the world over. Welsh, Scots, English, Irish – we’re all Jock Tamson’s bairns. By contrast, places are distinct, as are the buildings which emerge from them. Architecture is influenced by local materials, climate, tradition and so on, and we should celebrate the variety that creates.
Perhaps the greatest challenge is to convince ourselves: witness Carol Craig’s recent book, The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence. Some architects feel uneasy about overt Scottishness, perhaps scared to appear parochial, yet previous generations including Mackintosh, Lorimer and Hurd suffered no such hang-ups. Do the detractors fear an outbreak of crowsteps? No danger – because as Richard Murphy said, Scottish architecture is not about a national style.
Instead, it’s an approach. The “stern exterior with a sensual interior” which Carl MacDougall identified in Painting the Forth Bridge, is typically Scots. Likewise, the courtyard form, the re-entrant angle, deep-revealed windows in massive walls, and pitched roofs with skew parapets evolved in response to particular conditions. Individually, few of these are unique to Scotland, but in combination they became characteristic.
The notion of Scottishness applies on a city-wide scale, too: our tenement blocks constructed from stone are quite different to the brick-built terraces typically found south of the border. The pattern of riggs and closes in our medieval towns, and the great set-piece of the New Town, aren’t replicated elsewhere, but are distinctly Scots solutions to the universal brief of laying out cities. Some even date back to the days before 1707…
In fact, there’s solid proof that independence will spur on a distinctive architecture. When the National Movement emerged in the 1920’s, it formed part of a broader Scottish Renaissance. The Saltire Society was created soon after, then Reiach & Hurd wrote Building Scotland, a manifesto for a native Scots modernism. From that grew Robert Matthew’s work in the late 1950’s, including Dundee and Edinburgh universities, and the hydro stations in the Breadalbane range.
Just as importantly, that generation of Scots architects also took a philosophical position. They published articles, put forward manifestos, and defended their work in public debate. Today’s independence campaign could catalyse something similar, and perhaps find a resonance with Robert Matthew’s declaration that the architect’s task is “to lay the foundations not only of a new architecture, but of a new society”.
Independence could be good for the construction industry, too. Already, devolution has enabled work to begin on the new Forth Bridge, the Alloa and Waverley rail lines, and reconstruction of the A9. The rural housing crisis needs a solution, and an independent Scotland will need venues for its new institutions. Building all those could provide a decade’s work.
To rationalise: my conviction is that Scotland can prosper without the Union. After all, why wouldn’t the country which produced so many inventors, gave birth to the Adam brothers, Mackintosh and Geddes, and has copious natural resources, succeed on its own account? Next, I hope to explore this train of thought in more detail, with not a "Cassandra" in sight.
It’s December in Illinois. Fat snowflakes fall from the sky. There is a queue of SUV’s snaking along the interstate, waiting their turn to nose into the Engine Sheriff’s garage for a set of winter tyres. Mr Wolf isn’t particularly warm, because the architect who designed this particular building was in thrall to Mies van der Rohe.
As a result, three walls are fully glazed, floor to ceiling, with 1960’s double glazing units. The glass is uncoated, although it has a grey solar film on the inside. A draught whistles in around the profiles, the seals around the units have shrunk, and there are gaps between the frame and the soffit which should have been siliconed.
A zipped-up metal roof sits above the suspended ceiling, with only a meagre amount of Timber Roll to provide insulation. The heating consists of a hot air blower, which struggles to warm the air around it, far less put heat into the fabric of a building which has negligible thermal mass. Mr Wolf is grateful for his fur collar, but he recalls once more that the glass box wasn’t conceived for northerly latitudes.
Mr Wolf flew into O’Hare yesterday to meet the Shale Barons. He convinced them that a giant Scottish box fabricated from crinkly Rigidal was exactly what they needed. They found his accent quaint, but sat up when he showed them his teeth. The meeting was a success. Moses, Senior VP of Production, took him to a fancy restaurant on Lake Shore Drive afterwards. Despite his fur collar, Mr Wolf felt the biting wind coming off Lake Michigan when he left the cab and crossed the sidewalk.
When Mr Wolf was younger, he heard all about the John Hancock centre and Sears Tower from his father, who was out here in the 1960’s trying to sell Scottish machine tools to the Yankees. These are the ingenious devices that, in war or peace, automatically drill the bores in rifles, stamp the fenders for Cadillacs, and cut the turbine blades for jet engines. They range from small machines, such as workshop lathes that sell for a few hundred dollars, to giant complexities that automatically cut and shape a section of an aircraft’s wing.
Back then, Scotland sold as many of its own brainchildren as it imported other peoples’. Wolf senior was on an equal footing with the industrialists he sold machines to – they recognised that original ideas would always be in demand. You can afford to be magnanimous, even a little humble, when folk beat a path to your door. He wasn’t here looking for business: it had come looking for him.
A decade ago, by contrast, his offspring’s attitude was a curious mixture of sentimentality and hubris. The former he felt for the place where he was educated, a school of architecture named after The World’s Most Famous Scotsman. That was the making of him, he had decided. The latter stemmed from where he was going. He was convinced he would lead a world-famous practice within ten years’ time, “or I’ll eat my Calvins.” Eyebrows were raised in amused scepticism, but his fan club on the internet cheered him on.
Nine years have passed since he boasted that prediction; he no longer believes he is on a Mission from God. He has almost convinced himself that he can make architecture from anything, by transmuting base materials like Kingspan and Alucobond. Others were less than convinced. Nonetheless, the junior wolf had always fancied seeing the windy city for himself. Now here he was, standing in The Loop with an hour to kill before dusk, when he would return to his hotel.
He’s surrounded by structural glazing and curtain walling – not far from Alcoa’s and Pittsburgh Corning’s factories which helped to develop this stuff in the first place. Yet something has changed. This isn’t the “New World” any longer, not the place which Bellow and Updike wrote about in their youth – it was the place Bellow wrote about in his dotage, of failed marriages and academic sinecures. Tin sheds and glass boxes were a vision of the future from the 1960’s. The companies his old man sold machine tools to, were sold in turn to the Chinese and Koreans years ago. It was all about salesmanship.
Mr Wolf realised that he had sold the Americans their own game: a refraction of what they already knew. But why was he still sold on the idea of High Modernism, that canon of failed experiments which looked like a million bucks, but were poorly resolved? Things fell off them. They cost a fortune to heat. Their leaky roofs kept Shanghai bucket manufacturers in business. His father’s “future” couldn’t be his. The world had changed.
He had a lot on his mind as he gained the hotel foyer, nodded to the bellhop and took an elevator upstairs.
As Mr Wolf drifted off to sleep, the lucid part of his brain recalled re-runs of American cartoons from the 1960’s. There was a cat called Mr Jinx who had two friend-enemies in the mice, Pixie and Dixie. The cat had an ambivalent attitude to those two mice: he hated them, yet he was defined by them. Their relationship was a good example of symbiosis – just like the critique of Mies van der Rohe’s aesthetic inevitably leads to discussion of detailing failures.
“There are giant glass pavillions in Chicago,” said one mouse, “which rocked the world.”
–”What’s aa this nonsense?” asked the cat, who across fifty years and a broad ocean had developed a Dundonian accent. Mysteries of life.
“They have subtle detailing that makes you think that the structure is less material than it actually is.”
–”Pish! Not so,” replied the cat, “That trickery with planted-on steel beams is a cheat. The lack of materiality is all lies. It’s lies, I tell you – lies!”
“Mies was the grandmaster of infinite space and light,” crowed the other mouse.
–”Haivers,” replied the irritated cat, “Crown Hall was badly-detailed, the roof leaked, the walls were riddled with cold bridges, it used energy like naebody’s business. Who in their right mind would build a glass box in a cold climate?”
“But glass pavilions are abstractions of pure form…” said the first mouse.
–”Come aff it, why would ye ever put a flat roof on a building somewhere that gets both heavy rain and deep snow?”
“But you forget his enormous influence on other architects,” said the other mouse.
–”Architects? More like degenerate copyists,” sniffed the cat. “The Miesians are vermin, just like you. That’s why I hate those Miesians to pieces.” What was that, Mr Jinx?
“I hate those Miesians to pieces,” growled Mr Wolf in his sleep.
Merry Christmas, Mr Wolf. Sleep tight. You might just experience an epiphany on Boxing Day…
"Fit like the day, then?"
-Not bad, I replied, -How's it going here?
"Ach, I’m nae getting on worth a docken. The site agent shook his head. "I'm near certain these drains are chokit up.
We went out into the road, he picked up a crow bar and heaved – but the iron lid didn’t shift.
"Need tae gie it a great yark wi the pinch…
With a big effort, he rived up the manhole cover: the rich smell of fermenting malt hit us immediately.
"At's nae surprise, is it? and he nodded to the pagodas of the distillery malt house behind us. It was gloamin, and their distinctive forms were silhouetted against a pale violet sky.
"We'll need tae pressure jet aa that – he nodded at the open manhole – an the chambers are collapsin, tae. The drenns are connached. You anes'll need tae gies anither Instruction, eh?
As he watched for my reaction, the site agent offered a smile for the first time that day and I began to understand where the expression "pouring money down the drain" originated…
The Song of the Drains is something we take for granted. Rather like the keen hissing of the nerves, and the low note of our pulse, it's a sound which is with us all the time, yet we have to listen carefully in order to hear it. It has deep roots: the song began over 150 years ago. The Victorians were obsessed with sanitation – you could say they were anally-retentive about it – and they were the first to hear this song.
Mucky water sluiced through iron and fireclay conduits at the start of Victoria's reign, and some of our present day infra-structure dates back to then, too. Every building built before the 1950’s has a buried network of fireclay drains under and around it, socketed and spigotted together and all shiny with a rich chestnut-brown salt glaze. There are complex manifolds whose tails fan out to gather in the branches, each laid gently on a bed of pea gravel, carefully back-filled with selected granular material – a work of artistry and loving care that no-one ever sees.
Just like every other component of a building, this is a world apart, with its own vocabulary, conventions, and hundreds of pages of B.S. to guide you. B.S., in this case, being "British Standard" rather than the cow shit which flows down gullies in cattle courts. Water sinks down into the fireclay system with a gurgle, then runs near-silently, with just a faint sussuration each time it flows through a trap. Alongside the drains, you have the steady hum of electricity cables, the evil hiss of gas mains, and the enigmatic silence of fibre optics. The only clue to the existence of this Underworld are the iron covers with cryptic messages cast into their lids.
The fireclay industry began to decline in the Fifties as drainage pipes became plastic, roof tiles were cast in concrete, and stainless steel flues were introduced. When the closely-related refractory industry crashed in the 1970’s, it took with it many of the remaining architectural fireclay manufacturers. Until then, Scotland led the world. Companies thrived in the coalfields of Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and Fife for one hundred and fifty years: since the coal measures harnessed to fire the kilns are often underlain by seams of fireclay, there was a happy synergy between raw material and the means of its transformation.
The mantle passed successively from the Garnkirk Fireclay Co. to J&M Craig of Kilmarnock, and finally the Glenboig Union Fireclay Co., which was the world’s largest fireclay producer for many decades. From sinks and baths and lavvies made by Shanks of Barrhead, the fireclay pipes run under the building, through the scarcements of the external wall. Often, they’re trapped under great drifts of rubble and sour earth.
Once they escape from those confines, the pipes meet up with other effluents from tanks and rectifiers and gullies, then make their way gently downhill – the pipes grow in diameter, gathering momentum until they reach the Disconnecting Manhole. At that point, Private drainage (and if ever you wanted to keep something to yourself, it’s this), becomes Public drainage.
Drains represent the inner world, and in contrast to the outer concerns that architecture usually has, great sums are spent in order to keep it out of sight. Designing a building with its gizzards on display would be no different from leaving the lavvy with an Andrex tail hanging from one's strides. Authenticity of appearance and truth to materials never stretched this far. There are so many things to hide: like the Buchan Trap, for instance.
This ill-natured switchback, designed to prevent bad air venting through the system, is also an impediment to good drainage. The Buchan Trap is the cause of so many blockages that the "Hot Rod" companies suspect it first when the water backs up. In the old days, the Victorians flushed through the system regularly … we don't, so the Buchan Trap chokes up. Mr Buchan's name has been taken in vain many times. In fact, you could say that his name is dirt.
The Buchan Trap lives underground with other things bearing wonderfully evocative names, like the “Ames Crosta Gully Pot”. I knew nothing about that until I happened to visit the Clay Cross foundry in Derbyshire. Just like the nearby Stanton and Staveley, Clay Cross was the descendant of an ancient iron founding company which latterly made castings for hydraulic engineering, from simple drain covers to complex valves. In the usual manner of these things, the Ames Crosta company had been successively swallowed up by larger and larger rivals like Babcock until the pike at the head of the water treatment foodchain, Biwater, bought it.
While the initial lure of Clay Cross was the rumour of several old XJS Jaguars lying abandoned inside, I discovered huge fab halls and iron foundries which had been abandoned when Saint Gobain bought Biwater over and closed Clay Cross down. The dark, grimy sheds were too interesting to ignore, and I photographed everything from timber casting patterns to an ancient furnace bank incorporated into modern buildings. On a later trip through the area, I discovered that the site had been completely cleared, and a white sales cabin spoke directly about what would come next.
Similarly, gully gratings come in many designs, but two of the most common in Scotland are the Grahamston pattern and Bo’ness pattern: both named after big industrial foundries in the Falkirk area. They are still available from McLuckie of Dalry, who have developed a theft-proof gully to foil the metal thieves who steal anything they can weigh in at the local scrappie – even if that meant leaving a gaping hole in the middle of the road.
Then you have the mysteries of life. I recall a Shone sewage ejector which lived in a deep shaft down by the river. Every now and then it would give a deep hiss and thump, leading the surprised visitor to ask "Just what do you keep down there?” It would have been no surprise at all if we’d replied that it was one of Tolkein’s balrogs.
Darkness proper had fallen at the distillery, so I turned my back on that sweet, rich scent of malting grain, leaving the labourers up to their knees digging out the sodden barley draff. They toiled for a whole week. And so the project's Contingencies were flushed away, and the Completion date went down the pan. Oh, let that be an end to the puns. Let's keep walking.
As in the Classical myth, Orpheus must not look back when he leaves the underworld – otherwise the site agent will catch him and demand yet another Architect's Instruction, to rebuild yet more collapsing manholes...
The aftermath of the recession is beginning to tell on the quality of new work in the northern half of Britain. However, earlier in the year, I had a chance to visit somewhere worth writing about in an unqualified way. High up on the edge of the moors in County Durham, on the site of a former steelworks, is the most powerful piece of public art in Britain.
A former steelworks: but what a contrast to the former Brymbo Steelworks which I wrote about in 2012. Tony Cragg’s work, Terris Novalis, is protean. While I was still at architecture school, a huge remediation project was coming to an end high up on the skirt of the Pennines at Consett. One of the first acts of Thatcher’s government had been to shut Consett steelworks: in the 1960s it made some of the highest technology steel in the world, but in September 1980, the steelworks was shut down, ending 150 years of iron and steel-making in the Derwent Valley.
Visiting Consett today, it’s tough to find anything which stands as a memorial to the Consett Iron Company. There’s little trace of the huge integrated iron and steel works which once stood on the edge of town. By the early 1990’s, the site had been cleared and a cycle path built alongside the course of the Stanhope and Tyne Railway Line – the earliest commercial railway in Britain – by Sustrans, who have developed a national network of routes along the line of abandoned trackbeds.
Part of this railway remained to be the last working railway serving the steel town of Consett but when the works were closed, the line had little future and it too was closed in 1985. The route was substantially completed as a cycling and walking route by 1990 with the artworks being added between 1988 and 1998.
Many of Sustrans’ projects incorporated artwork, and at Consett a sculptor was commissioned to create a lasting memorial to the ironworkers of County Durham. When Tony Cragg visited the site, there was nothing left of the steelworks, so he decided to call the project Terris Novalis – literally “new made land”. Once the sculpture was complete, a photo of it was printed in the Press & Journal, and after I’d marvelled at its originality, I clipped it from the page to keep in my shoebox of interesting things.
Cragg made maquettes of the Terris Novalis sculpture in 1992, cast in mild steel: but for the commission in Consett, he blew them up from two metres high to over seven metres high, and cast using stainless steel. They were installed in 1996, with the help of a massive crane. Fifteen years later, coincidentally producing design work for Sustrans myself, I recalled the giant instruments marching across County Durham on their strange feet. When you see it, in the flesh, Terris Novalis is a phenomenal piece of work.
It operates on many levels, from reflecting the craft of the steelworkers who built it which echoes generations of iron and steel production on the site, to the Brobdingnagian scale of a theodolite and an engineer's level which are 20 times the scale of the originals. They hint at the vast size of the former steelworks, and allude to the instruments which surveyors used both to construct the works, and to clear the site afterwards.
The sculpture’s instrumentality as a symbol of regeneration, is as striking as the mythology which Cragg applied to the armorial supporters – the many birds and animals whose feet support these huge chunks of stainless steel. It suggests a medieval bestiary: Terris Novalis’ closest relatives are the griffons and yales which filled the dreams of William Burges. That is fitting, because TN is an ark, carrying its strange cargo of beasts together with the sum of one and a half centuries of human endeavour in semlting coal, coke, ore and lime together to create iron.
I’ve trailed across Europe looking at lots of post–industrial sites, from Saarland and Volklingen; Zollverein in the Ruhr; the Ghent-Terneuzen corridor in Belgium; to the stalking cranes of Clydeside, and I recognise that each time a derelict iron dinosaur is regenerated, some public art is left to refract what went before. Each regeneration uses the civilising influence of public art in order to demonstrate how enlightened its patrons are. But none have the impact of Terris Novalis.
Not even the “Angel of the North”, which was commissioned a few years later and a few miles up the road, but adopted exactly the opposite approach. Terris Novalis plays games with hierarchies of scale, and keeps on resolving more and more detail the closer you get, whereas the Angel is simply big, in order to be taken in at a glance from the motorway.
Anthony Gormley’s work has become postcard-famous as the symbol of Gateshead, and in so doing he has become one of the best known artists in Britain. Tony Cragg, who works in Germany, has slipped from public notice since his Turner Prize win in 1988. Perhaps that suits the slightly mysterious character of Terris Novalis: there is no plaque, sign or interpretation board to explain what it is, or why it landed in Templetown on the outskirts of Consett.
Terris Novalis tells a complex tale of the relationship between nature, man and technology whereas the Angel merely abstracts the plane which lies above mankind. TN is made from stainless steel, a magical material which resists time, whereas the Angel (as much as I love CorTen steel) is dissolving back into oxides. As a result, TN could be seen to represent man’s mastery over metals through the very processes which went on at Consett.
The Angel was conceived as an icon for the area, and public funds were poured into it, whereas it was brave of Sustrans to commission something so ambitious, given that their main purpose was building bike routes. They had commissioned sculptures before, such as the little runnels of “concrete poetry” on the Tarka Trail in the South-west of England, and cast iron quotation discs inset into the bike paths which criss-cross Bristol.
However, the striding beast of Terris Novalis was the largest and by far the most ambitious artwork they’d tackled. Cast from solid stainless steel, from originals carved by Tony Cragg, the sculpture can be seen from miles away. At the time, it was contentious, because Cragg works in Wuppertal, Germany, so the stainless steel was cast in Düsseldorf – ironic, really, when it found itself landing on the site of a British steelworks.
Nonetheless, Tony Cragg was the right sculptor for the job, as he has an instinctive sympathy for the processes of iron founding and steel casting. As he noted in a lecture he gave in 1990 at UCLA in Los Angeles about his early career, “For one year I did a general course [at the art college], and at the end of that course I had a job working in a foundry near Bristol which made parts for electric motors, casting parts, and this was a really fantastic experience for me because the factory we worked in was a very, very long hall.
“It was about 200-300 metres long, very high and very black. We worked for 10 hours through the night, it was a nightshift job. I remember the way the moulds were prepared in sand and the metal was poured in the moulds, then the moulds were very slowly moved up the hallway, cooling down, and at some point they went over a shaker and the moulds would fall into the ground.
“The red glowing machines came out of the ground on the one side, and the sand came out of the ground on the other, and there was a huge ever-growing cone of black sand. It was a job that I very much liked doing, a very physical job with a lot of excitement about it, somehow, just the process with the materials which I found incredibly exciting.”
The nature of the sculpture’s coming into being reveals the unalloyed truth about what we lost when Consett Works closed.
All photos are copyright Mark Chalmers: please contact me if you’d like to use them.
I’ve written about architectural photography before - and unusually, a few folk made the effort to comment, although presumably many others went “meh”. Having spoken about technique, this time I’d like to consider approach. Specifically, how photography and architecture are moving in opposite directions.
Soon, there will be fewer folk training to become architects. In other parts of Britain, the universities charge fees. You have to work for at least two years after leaving university before you can sit your Part III exam, which means architecture is effectively an eight year course (3 + 1 + 2 + 2).
There are many more people taking an interest in buildings; but fewer of them know about the buildings themselves. Despite the rise of TV programmes along the lines of *Half the Dream Home for Double the Money*, the techniques we use to put buildings together are less and less accessible to the lay person. Back in the day, anyone could have a go at knocking together timber kits, but no private individual could ever erect unitised curtain walling.
By contrast, back in the same day many had a point and click camera, some had a 35mm SLR, but only the serious-minded few had roll-film cameras capable of taking the quality of photo which is required for publication. Fewer still would see their shots reproduced in the “mass media”. The advent of the web changed that, irrevocably.
Today, everyone is a photographer. The combination of camera phones with decent quality optics, such as the Iphone, and photo sharing websites such as Tumblr and Flickr, allows us all to propagate our work. Photography is becoming easier, and exposure to photos is increasing; but architecture is becoming more exclusive, and understanding its technicalities more involved.
Now to earn my stripes as a contrarian.
Despite the democratisation of images, there is still a discernible gap between how the enthusiast and the professional work. The previous print edition of Urban Realm features a set of photos I took in a deactivated power station. They were shot using a digital back and processed using Capture One software. This is a serious combination, which you’d only use if you needed to publish the results.
The next print edition of Urban Realm will features a set of photos I took somewhere derelict. They, by contrast, were shot on transparency film. I suppose processing transparency films was hard work, before machines did it for you: taking the shots is the creative part, and as such it’s enjoyable. Processing hundreds of digital shots against a deadline is gruelling and unpleasant - taking them was neither of those things.
Partly as a result of that workflow, I still use film for my personal projects. It’s entirely characteristic of the arse-for-elbow way things are, that I became interested again in film at the point when it began to disappear. At some point along the road, maybe 2005, I decided it would be apt to make photos of derelict buildings using a technology which was similarly coming to the end of its life.
An architectural photographer once told me that smaller formats, like 120 or 35mm were useless for serious architectural photography, as they lacked sharpness. Fine, I like a challenge, although when the lab scans 35mm film at 18MB (around 3000 pixels across) I can barely see grain on “pro” transparency film, and likewise with 120 film at 80MB (around 5000 pixels across).
I’m well aware of the race for pixels amongst the readers of Amateur Photographer magazine and its ilk – but it’s never been an issue in anything I’ve shot for publication. Likewise, I think the 35mm/ 120 comment stemmed from a certain froideur toward lesser photographers who didn’t use 5x4 technical cameras. Go figure.
Comme d’habitude, I knew that things would become increasingly difficult as film stocks and processing labs reduce in number, so naturally I wanted to try it … and to master E6 film’s unforgiving latitude. I started using Agfachrome RSX around 2005 … and Agfa stopped making it in December 2004.
More recently, Kodak has stopped making acetate base, the stuff which “film” physically consists of, and onto which light-sensitive chemicals are coated. Fuji is killing off its emulsions one by one – Velvia 50, Astia and Provia 400 were recently chopped.
Nonetheless, if you look hard enough: after Agfa’s factory in Leverkeusen shut and was subsequently demolished, Fotoimpex in Berlin built a small film-coating plant using pieces of equipment from the former Agfa research dept. Almost a pilot plant, it produced a fraction of what Efke did in Croatia, which in turn was a fraction of Agfa’s production… SImilarly, some film is still manufactured at Mortsel in Belgium, and repackaged as Rollei.
Film is undergoing a "craft" revival at the moment, aided by the Lomo movement. However, it's never going to be mainstream again, and that's the problem; Agfa were geared up for the mass market, while smaller manufacturers like Efke or Rollei never expected to be more than niche players. The archipelago of factories which Agfa relied on made economy difficult to achieve, so Agfachrome RSX in 50 and 100 ISO will never return.
However, it became a touchstone for me, because RSX renders colours in an authentic way. Not overly vivid, nor warm or cool: the greys are neutral, because its sensitivity isn't biased in any direction - yet other colours have a richness. The film is also lower in contrast than other makes, and its inherent crystallinity provides a nice balance between grain, acutance and fuzziness.
Agfa somehow has a more European aesthetic than other films: Kodak’s are warm and Disney-like, and the colours of Fuji’s are super-saturated, and high in contrast. The result is that some shots I took with Agfachrome captured similar tones to Vermeer’s paintings, with rich shadows which still manage to reveal detail. Perhaps Agfa shares Vermeer’s Low Countries sensibility?
In the same way that artists favour a particular palette, Ernst Haas favoured Agfachrome - he was one of the “Magnum” photographers who first mastered colour photography. Robert Farber made some wonderful images using the grain of Agfachrome 1000 as an aesthetic tool. Late in her career, Fay Godwin moved away from the monochromatic landscapes which made her name, and I believe she used Agfa RSX to portray nature morte arrangements of frozen and flooded foliage.
The choice of stock helps to define an atmosphere, although RAW converters like Capture can also do that. However, more important than the particulars of any brand of film, is the fundamental difference between film and digital which few think about, an aesthetic sensibility which is lost with all the talk about digital sharpness, noise and resolution.
Once you decide which chrome to use, you choose how to view the world. It’s all down to taste in the end - transparency film, with its non-linear characteristics has different properties to digital, such as a gentler roll-off, meaning it blows out highlights in a less marked way. Its narrow latitude means you have to nail the metering, there is no recovery if you over-expose.
However, film is not better than digital. It's just different.
A story about photography, but with no images? Are you mad? If you want to see how Agfachrome RSXII-50 renders light and colour, take a look at my “Cement” post.
The Torre de David in Caracas is a symbol of the worldwide housing shortage. The 45-storey tower was once part of an urban renewal scheme in Caracas. Today, it’s a concrete armature, half-filled with an army of squatters who claimed it as their own after the country’s financial system collapsed. It could only have happened in the Venezuela of Hugo Chávez…
Photo: Daniel Schwartz/U-TT & ETH
Across the world, planners argue about ways to provide large-scale housing. In Western Europe, housing is either left to the free market, or provided by the state. In the unrepentantly socialist Venezuela, the Chávista government had a permissive attitude towards land invasions, so squatting became a realistic option. As a result, Torre de David became “the tallest squat in the world”.
Until recently, la Torre de David wasn’t well known beyond Caracas, but the BBC ran an feature about it, then the New York Times picked up on it, and Domus magazine later covered it too. All were equally fascinated by its appearance, which carries hints of William Gibson’s or JG Ballard’s dystopian novels, and the notion of the tower being a “vertical slum”.
However, it was only when an installation by the Urban-Think Tank at ETH Zurich won the Golden Lion at last year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice, that the Torre in its current state was considered as a piece of urbanism. It was conceived as the Centro Financiero Confinanzas: a concrete-framed, curtain-walled tower block designed by the Venezuelan architect Enrique Gómez. The masterplan included a cluster of buildings around the tower’s podium, with luxury flats, a helipad, and a hotel.
Photo: Iwan Baan
Construction began in 1990, propelled by David Brillembourg's financial group, called Grupo Confinanzas. It was almost complete when work stopped following his death, in 1993. With the collapse of the Venezuelan economy a year later, the tower was abandoned. All of Brillembourg's assets were liquidated by the collapse, and the Venezuelan government's insurance body FOGADE acquired the unfinished tower. However, the lower storeys lacked flooring, drainage, second fix joinery. M&E services were incomplete. Large slabs of marble, intended for a luxury hotel on the lowest six storeys, lay shrink-wrapped in plastic.
High rise stasis isn’t unprecedented: after the Empire State Building in New York was completed, many storeys remained as unlet shells until well after WW2. Similarly, after Siefert’s Centre Point in London was finished, some floors lay empty for decades. Like both, La Torre de David is a building born of speculation. It was the lynchpin of a plan to transform this area of Caracas into a financial district: it was one of many planned along a so-called Avenue of Banks.
The tower was also symbolic of the new money which emerged during the boom years of the 1980’s, quite distinct in its attitudes and approach from the “amos del valle”, or old families of Caracas. With new wealth came risk-taking, speculation, loss of control and eventually, total collapse… It seems that once the acquistive half of the human brain overcomes from the ethical half, a Financial Crash is the result.
Photo: Daniel Schwartz/U-TT & ETH
First squatted in 2007, today around 750 families live in the tower, in conditions which some writers have described as a vertical slum. It’s the eighth tallest building in Latin America and squatters live on 28 of the building’s 45 storeys. “It doesn’t look good, but it has the seed of a very interesting dream of how to organize life,” suggests Alfredo Brillembourg, an architect and namesake of the building’s original developer.
La Torre de David is a good example of how people organise a society for themselves, when the larger super-structure of government, law and civic life around them breaks down. Although the building still lacks lifts, mains water, balcony railings and so forth, in a societal sense it works. The tower’s new residents hooked up electricity and created a rudimentary drainage system. Space is granted to new squatters for free, but they pay a monthly fee of around 150 Bolívar fuerte (£13) towards health services, recreation and security.
Its human worth is arrived at using a different calculus. Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, thinks the building has great potential: "What interests me more about Torre de David is its emergent ecology with small businesses, jerry-rigged services; it makes it an obvious candidate for a 'green skyscraper' experiment."
Photo: Iwan Baan
Regardless of what many press articles say, la Torre is definitely not abandoned, nor post-apocalyptic, and arguably it’s not a slum, either. There are many practical examples throughout history of how expropriation works. It offends the established system of land ownership and capital markets, yet offers high density urban development where the “system” has patently failed to. It happens in direct response to a defined need.
La Torre’s closest relatives are Kowloon’s Walled City, bulldozed many years ago but recorded in an excellent book published by Watermark a few years ago; Lucien Kroll’s experiments in Belgium which provided a structural frame into which residents could adapt their own homes; and the Kabouters, the epitome of squatters who created self-sustaining communities during the 1970’s in the Netherlands.
The tower confounds many received ideas. It’s been compared to J.G. Ballard's novel, "High Rise", yet Ballard thought of the archetypal tower as a diagram of hierarchy. The rich and powerful live upstairs in the rarified air, while the poor stay close to the traffic fumes at ground level. Torre de David disproves Ballard’s vertical stratification: in Caracas there is a distinctly horizontal separation between towers for the rich and towers for the poor.
Photo: Daniel Schwartz/U-TT & ETH
Rather than Wall Street’s financial monoliths, which it sought to imitate, the Torre de David became a vertical favela - and of course Kenneth Frampton posited that the favelas are ”Italian hill towns”. This is a helpful model, and at one time the Italian hill town was on the syllabus of every school of architecture’s first year course.
It became an archetype – perhaps the best archetype of all – as it tumbles down the slope in higgeldy-piggeldy fashion. It’s more than picturesque: it’s a diagram of kinships and social ties; it responds to the lie of the land; over time it evolves, organically. Much beloved of cosmopolitan architects, the type who contribute articles on “my architectural travels” to the learned journals, the Italian hill town is an example of architecture without architects.
There were several outcomes in Scotland. One was the sprawling megastructure of Cumbernauld town centre; another was the way in which the suburbs nearby, like Seafar, ran up and down the contours to create a serrated roofscape. Today folk can’t see past the buildings’ bleak context, harsh microclimate and lack of maintenance. Nonetheless, the Planners’ original vision for Cumbernauld comes from the same root as those well-organised folk who live in la Torre.
Photo: Iwan Baan
Similarly, it was a dream of the socialist governments of the 1960’s to place Scottish social housing tenants in tower blocks. Had they been built on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, or Park Avenue in New York, the flats would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each. But in a Scottish housing scheme, their value is low. In Caracas, Brillembourg set out to create floorspace with a high rental value, but in its incomplete state with hundreds of sitting squatters, the tower’s capital value is even less.
Is there a lesson in Caracas for the Scots? Why didn’t we take over the Royal Bank of Scotland headquarters at Gogarburn for bedsits, when Fred Badloss sank the bank? Perhaps because RBS was nationalised, hurriedly, to maintain the credibility of the financial system, and to shore up the distant government in Westminster which would have gone down with the banks. By contrast, the Torre’s backers were allowed to fail by the Chávistas.
That much is different, yet both countries have a housing shortage which hasn’t been diminished by their respective politicians. Now RBS is quietly handing back and selling off offices and branches as it contracts. Lloyds TSB is about to be split into two, in the so-called Verde scheme, and HBOS is similarly shrinking. It seems unlikely that any of their former property will end up housing those thrown out of their social housing for having “too many bedrooms” – although we can only hope.
Photo: Iwan Baan
So, could it only have happened in the Venezuela of Hugo Chávez? Thanks to our squatting laws, it seems very unlikely that a phenomenon like la Torre could happen here. Yet there are things we could learn from it. The Urban-Think Tank at ETH Zurich have studied ways to improve “informal settlements” around the world, using la Torre de David as a case study. Interestingly, they’re keen to explore Giancarlo di Carlo’s notion that the person and architecture should function as one. A simple lesson, perhaps, but how does it work in practice?
Well, di Carlo’s ideal social structure was none other than the Italian hill town…
Photos courtesy of architectural photographer Iwan Baan; and of Daniel Schwartz of the Urban-Think Tank at ETH Zurich.
Here is a link to the full set of Iwan’s photos - http://iwan.com/photo_Venice_Biennale_2012_UTT-Iwan_Baan_Torre_David.php
Here is a link to the full set of Daniel’s photos - http://dschwaz.com/2012/10/19/torre-david/