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/
Once upon a time, Ricardo Bofill created the Palace of Abraxas, a great arc of monumental social housing towers in Marne-la-Vallée which were reputedly recast from an old cement works. Sadly, the idea didn’t catch on across La Manche, despite Charles Jencks’ enthusiasm for the form.
So, rather than Bofill’s post-modern monumentality, here is a vast but more honestly functional works which has been abandoned, rather like the grain elevators which excited Reyner Banham in “A Concrete Atlantis”.
All photos are copyright Mark Chalmers, 2013. Please use the contact form to get in touch if you’d like to use any of them.
The giants of industry crank themselves into gear for the first time in five years. Luffing jibs have appeared on Dundee’s skyline again, this time with brand new names on them. The economic depression turned many titans into an after-dinner burp – but soon there will be new things to design, construct and experience.
In the pits of recession, we needed a little guidance to get us through. So, here are some notes on the most important person you’ll come across in your career - whether in the latter years of architecture school, or early years of practice. I’ll try to explain why the relationship some of us develop early in our career is formative.
A long time ago, I worked with someone who I count as a mentor. He was in middle age then, between thirty and forty-five, a man while I was barely that. His youthfulness had been stripped away to leave intensity, and at his core more determination than in anyone else I’ve met. He was a progressive, a self-described lapsed communist, and he mistrusted academics who did not go out into the field, as he did. He was a practitioner.
Here is my experience.
It’s getting late in the evening. We sat in on a Planning Committee meeting. He wore a dark tartan shirt with a grey woollen tie; as he sat waiting, with his dark hair swept off his forehead, the heel of his hand lay against his cheek, a dog-end fumed between two splayed fingers.
In the chamber, the talk was quiet and trivial, like the voices of sleeping birds. He sat, absorbed, thinking. Inside a timber-lined chamber with its dead green drapes and points of light overhead. Application papers were spread in front of us, a notebook, diary, and ashtray. In the centre of the table – a metal tray with paper lace napkins bearing a water decanter and glasses lined up around it, upturned on their rims.
The talk turned. When the cue came to speak, he suddenly animated himself. He stood tall, looked candidly at the elected members in turn, and spoke in terms that were thoughtful, quiet, detailed. They knew he meant what he said - and there’s the lesson - and so I learned by example one way to deal with committees. His phrases stuck, for their intonation as much as the intent of the words.
He seemed to be willing another kind of architecture into existence, something with timeless value, but most of all architecture as a “discipline”. His dextrous fingers twitched with expression, as if reaching their tips towards a lead-holder.
To a few who hit it off with him, his face opened with candour, and he shared his confidence in you. It isn’t a systemic thing, it’s not something which can be taught, but can be taken in by osmosis and relies on a connection forming between humans, a meeting of minds. A nurturing environment comes down to one thing: finding someone prepared to discuss ideas with you. That’s all. Somebody to contend with and force you to test what you say.
To others he seemed dry and remote, and his insistence on clear-eyed truth was irksome. But I never saw that side of him. Instead, I gradually discovered that we had things in common, the roots and background of our parents were similar, surprisingly so, and I guess that created a level of fellow-feeling. From that grew trust and ultimately a loyalty that wasn't asked for or offered, but was there nonetheless, unspoken.
I owe him a great deal, but it’s an unacknowledged debt. Most of the valuable stuff sank in sub-consciously. Those were chunks of impenetrable rock and uncut diamond which would become character much later. I was reminded of the steel founders William Cook, who made the torso nodes for Heathrow Airport Terminal 5’s roof. Their guiding principles describe the same effort:
“Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.
Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
He demonstrated the role of a mentor - to show a glimpse of what might be possible. In some ways he was the most stimulating of the people I’ve worked with, but of all those, I disagreed with him the most. He might have had communitarian sympathies, but he was an individualist. How's that for contradiction? He took particular pleasure in playing Devil’s advocate with ideas, and was always on-the-one-handing/ on-the-other-handing. Albeit he knew when to balance those views, and come down with a decision.
He was very certain that original thought always pay off, and is recognised. None of what he produced was old, hack, or devoid of consideration. It was all fully thought-out and justifiable. That bore out his rigour, an obsession with integrity, and a bloody-mindedness about following things through.
Who knows which things I truly learned, and in what measure. However, like everyone else’s experience of life, the people who I learned from have become part of me. Those illuminations and examples were a life-saver on many a dark night – including when I found myself at a low-point a couple of years ago. Late one evening, I found myself standing waiting in the winter darkness in a godforsaken part of the country, pursuing something I then realised that I did not believe in. He gave me the mental strength to keep going until I found something more worthwhile.
I hope that if you’ve taken the time to read this, you’ve recognised something from your own life in it. Thanks.
Last year’s degree show at Duncan of Jordanstone was notable for the work of one student in the Masters Year, Sam Wilson. I ended up writing a review of the show as a whole for the AJ, and an in-depth feature on Sam’s scheme at Brymbo Steelworks for Urban Realm. His striking drawings were printed in both magazines, and here’s hoping he capitalised on the coverage he gained to find himself a job.
This year’s degree show forces the visitor to dig deeper, though.
The walls on Level 6 of the Matthew Building are hung with examples of polite rationalism, and sensitive conservation schemes. Evidently, there are a few Asplund juniors in the Masters year, amongst whom are the authors of an ironically po-faced Cartoon Museum, and a sub-Seagram scheme for Dundee’s main railway station. The restoration work tackles Slains Castle and the fortress at Dunnottar: both schemes are well-mannered but a little tentative.
By contrast, Magnus Popplewell’s drawings outline his idea to create an inhabited bridge spanning the Tay. Rather than dropping another “icon” on Dundee’s central waterfront, he proposes a three kilometre long megastructure. This is the one piece of ambitious architectural thinking on show at Dundee in 2013.
The bridge springs from a northern abutment above Seabraes, with student studios slotted into the frame, then flats for the general run, and retail units, leading to a hotel. By then, we are hundreds of metres out into the Tay and the accommodation thins out. Mid-river, there’s a jetty and – bizarrely – a basilica on an artificial island, founded on the kilometre-long Middle Bank, one of the Tay’s many sandbanks. Further south, there’s a navigation span over the shipping channel, known as the South Deep, before the bridge sweeps onto its southern abutment at Tayfield, between Wormit and Newport.
Popplewell’s clean, simple pen drawings owe something to Frank Ching, but present his concept coherently without any tricks of presentation. Neither is there the baggage of theory, phenomenology or mytho-poetics which often accompanies student schemes. It would have been nice to see a model, though…
Many folk have proposed a modern version of Florence’s Ponte Vecchio or Venice's Rialto Bridge - including Rem Koolhaas’ scheme at Rak Jebel, high in the mountains above the Persian Gulf, and Laurie Chetwood’s proposal for a modern “London Bridge 800”. Unlike previous examples of Living Bridges with huge towers filled with luxury flats, shops and restaurants, Popplewell’s bridge is linear and flat-topped.
The Thames is a small, sluggish river bounded by a city. The Tay is many times wider, and the volume of water which flows down it is greater than the three largest English rivers combined. As a result, the three kilometre long pedestrian deck crosses the Tay in one constant slow arc and evokes Corb’s “Project Obus”. Anything less would be gestural. It works on a variety of scales: the largest of megastructures; the public apparatus of a city; the structural gird; down to the domestic scale of rooms, and their fittings.
It seems ideal territory for a student thesis.
This course of action, choosing a hypothetical brief then allowing it to run to its conclusion, opposes “The Challenge of the Ordinary”, a brief which academics elsewhere have set students. That proposition was apparently brought about by a juror’s remark a propos the 3D Reid Student Prize - "We saw a crematorium, a monastery/ brewery, a "cidery‟ in a tower, a bench, a theatre and an exploration of the caverns of Naples. We did not see a house, an office, a warehouse, a hospital or a supermarket. Where were the schemes pushing everyday architecture down exciting new paths?”
This remark, as rational as it seems, betrays a lack of insight. This is not the intellectually sophisticated line which James Gowan took when he noted drily that, the more complex the brief, the more banal the solution; whereas the more banal the brief, the more sophisticated the solution. Rather than a challenge to think in a more sophisticated way, it sounds like a mere call for novelty. After all, what is “excitement”? Wouldn't resolution, sophistication, or articulation be more fitting?
Paradoxically, students in their final year should pursue unlikely ideas and unusual typologies – the so-called “unbuildable” schemes – whereas they should only tackle “straightforward” things like houses, offices and shops after 15 or 20 years of experience. The subtleties of the latter are learned by doing, whereas opera houses, monasteries and wineries will almost always be one-offs. As a consequence, their design will be informed by the study of precedents, operational research, and brief extension – the very activities in which students are well versed.
Unconvinced? Each modern opera house is a prototype; yet consider trying to design mass housing from scratch, without practical experience and hence without exposure to the norms applied by the firms who help you to realise it. Why not try to impose your own personal module on the ceiling, floor and partition grids of offices – or argue in the face of the British Council for Offices’ (BCO’s) logic about net lettable areas (NLA’s). Perhaps you could subvert social housing by trying something which ignores the prescriptive standards driven by the Housing for Varying Needs (HFVN) guides, and paid for by Housing Association Grants (HAG’s).
Do you already have a grasp of the concepts hiding behind those acronyms? If the answer is yes, it will undoubtedly spring from direct experience. A measure of that experience would be hard, although not impossible, to apply in a degree course, because we can’t properly replicate how buildings are born. The interaction of people and firms is just too complex, and both time- and cost-intensive. Crucially, much of the design process comes about as a result of actors offstage, and given that student architects are assessed as individuals, pitching them into a bear pit would not serve any real purpose.
Let’s return to The Challenge of the Ordinary. Since people never set up propositions for no reason at all, this one must spring from a considered attitude towards the world. For example you might take a narrow, vocational view of architectural training, one aim of which is to produce fodder for the big, commercial offices. That implies you should only learn to design what they design, build how they build, and have your ambitions delimited by their experience. Consideration of “everyday architecture” shouldn’t be restricted to certain typologies which the big commercial practices churn out.
An alternative is to consider a broader education which seeks to open peoples’ minds and offers them a fresh perspective on the world. Provide the intellectual tools and you have set them up for life, so that they can follow their curiosity where it leads them, and the more ambitious you are at this stage, the better. I’m with Mark Twain on this one – “Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambition. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
Exploring the caverns under Naples is a perfect example of an opportunity which should be seized with both hands. Imagine being offered the chance to engage with history of the tufa quarries, find out how southern European urbanism works, and live for a while within another culture, society, language and climate. This isn’t just an “academic” point – I can speak from experience, having taken part in an ERASMUS exchange to Athens during my 4th year. In Athens, I learned a few things about architecture, and far more about people. I owe much to that opportunity.
My conclusion is that the course should build intellectual equipment, and broaden cultural horizons, rather than trying to reflect what happens in practice too closely. The vocational part of training an architect will come later, from the experience of practice. Ambitious briefs will help to stretch the mind; unambitious briefs may lead to a bounded imagination.
All that said – at the other end of the school, first year, is Hugh Ebdy’s habitat for an artist, at Kenmore on Loch Tay. One beautifully-composed sheet of pen-line plans and elevations, and a gouache perspective of the habitat, cutaway to show the warm cocoon of the habitat surrounded by the enveloping blue twilight of the mountains. Made from SIP panels, the habitat seems like a good place to be during the Scottish winter, a place to return to after a day’s exploration, to write up notes and fill out sketchbooks.
Between these two students, there are some well-resolved ideas and the promise of more to come. Underlying them, is a lesson about didacticism and how to equip students for practice.
ANOTHER POST? Don't you do anything else with your time? Don't you have a life? Yes, and each year my social diary includes the local degree show – this year, Duncan of Jordanstone is local, a couple of years ago it was ECA, and before that, Scott Sutherland. However, each time I visit a show, I end up ruminating about the whole construct of architectural education, rather than just the drawings on the wall.
The crits are over for another year, and wide-eyed graduates emerge, blinking, into the sunlight. The best of their work remains on the wall for a few days more, before disappearing forever into a portfolio under the bed in their parents’ spare room. In a few years’ time, the CAD files will be unreadable by the current version of Autocad, and the platter of the hard drive they’re stored on will stutter and skip, refusing to be read. If the graduate is lucky, the slightly-dog-eared sheets of Fabriano run through the Designjet will remain as a memento of happier days…
For now, though, those drawings are fresh and the ideas are up for scrutiny.
We have a fascination with the intangible means by which tangible things come into being. We make vain attempts to get closer to the work, and we struggle to externalise what goes on in other folks’ heads. Their work is tangible, but the thoughts preceding it are immaterial, so that in the end we focus on the creator, since we can apprehend the person more easily than the process. It’s easier in the case of architecture students, because the work is unmediated, and students are relieved if anyone takes an interest.
So, what is this architecture thing? Is it just as much about the architect as his or her creation? What do this year’s graduates have to look forward to?
We may visualise Scarpa, Lewerentz or Corbusier as a figure in dark, sober clothes: an old man, peering through glasses, thanks to poor eyesight born of decades spent staring at drawings. He leans forward, engrossed in laying lines onto paper; in front of him, a wall of shelves crammed with books, postcards, architectural models, interesting bits of stone, photographs and boxes of slides.
His nodding head and shoulders adopt the set of the anglepoise lamp clamped to the drawing board. His forearms sit on the cant of the board, along with a clutch pencil, a roll of detail paper and a box of aquarelles. At his elbow is an assistant – perhaps an a trusted associate, more often a recent graduate – someone who is grateful to be there, who may work long hours for little gain, in return for the opportunity to see genius in action.
The space is large, high-ceilinged, with northlight thrown deep into it by tall windows and diffused by raw, whitewashed walls. In the corner shadows are black steel planchests set onto a woodblock floor, and hung on the wall is a giant model consisting of layers of balsa and boxwood built up into buildings and contours. The model represents a whole city block, torn apart and recreated.
Hold on there son, Genius, did you say?
Kurt Vonnegut's novel “Bluebeard”, posits that three unusual and unlikely types of people are needed are needed for any revolution to be successful. Architecture, I guess, is no different.
“Slazinger claims to have learned from history that most people cannot open their minds to new ideas unless a mind-opening teams with a peculiar membership goes to work on them. Otherwise, life will go on exactly as before, no matter how painful, unrealistic, unjust, ludicrous, or downright dumb that life may be. The team must consist of three sorts of specialists, he says. Otherwise the revolution, whether in politics or the arts or the sciences or whatever, is sure to fail.
“The rarest of these specialists, he says, is an authentic genius – a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation. "A genius working alone," he says, "is invariably ignored as a lunatic."
“The second sort of specialist is a lot easier to find: a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad. "A person like this working alone," says Slazinger, "can only yearn loud for changes, but fail to say what their shapes should be."
“The third sort of specialist is a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people, no matter how stupid or pigheaded they may be. "He will say almost anything in order to be interesting and exciting," says Slazinger. "Working alone, depending solely on his own shallow ideas, he would be regarded as being as full of shit as a Christmas turkey."
“Slazinger, high as a kite, says that every successful revolution, including Abstract Expressionism, the one I took part in, had that cast of characters at the top – Pollock being the genius in our case, Lenin being the one in Russia's, Christ being the one in Christianity's.
He says that if you can't get a cast like that together, you can forget changing anything in a great big way.”
If the keen-eyed and keen-eared graduate is lucky, she may have landed on her feet. She may be in the company of Vonnegut’s first sort, the authentic genius. In which case, she’ll discover that the design studio is as important a creation as the image of the master himself – it is neither drawing office nor artist’s workshop, but a hive where the lights burn all night and in that, it replicates architecture school, where work sometimes continues through the wee hours, fuelled by caffeine and desperation.
However, architecture school still looms large in her mind. She is conflicted. From whom will she learn best: the professor who teaches, or the godhead who builds? She has a deep suspicion that the staff at the architecture school look upon the students as being Vonnegut’s third sort, the kind of people who open their mouth during crits and let their belly rumble. She suspects they view those students as Christmas turkeys.
A young woman – let’s say she’s Danish – pins up the drawings of her final scheme for a crit jury. After several days with little sleep, she is about to experience the serial inquisition which terrorises architecture students. She lays off for fifteen minutes about the concepts behind her design, the influences she has paid homage to.
The prof. sits with smouldering pipe, listening intently, then pronounces – “Aye lass, that’s aa richt and richt enough…” at which point he fixes her with beady eye, and continues with vehement emphasis – “but FAR’S THE LAVVIES?”
This is the knock-out blow, and having worked through the night, her resistance is low and she is quite unprepared for it. She fights back tears as she tries to engage this giant bearded man, with smoke issuing from his head, about “architecture”. He, however, is looking for a different thing entirely, confusingly also called ARCHITECTURE. It’s a practical art: surely you can see that? The crit is not a success.
Yet it is the image of the master, rather than the prof, which is the lasting one which students fix on. Having left architecture school, the acolyte takes her opportunity to get as close as possible to the fountainhead. Most of her time, she exists in a different place, with unstable computers, tins of dead Rotrings, and irate clients who telephone to ask why water is pouring through their light fittings.
Her other time – her “own” time, often late into the evening – is spent hunched over the master’s board, taking a junior role in debate, as sounding board, occasionally devil’s advocate. She may not contribute positively to the creation, but the master uses her to knock out the negatives (in both senses). Thus the scales slowly fall away from her eyes…
For my next post … I may actually get to the point, and do a review of the Duncan of Jordanstone Degree Show. Possibly the Scott Sutherland show, too.
At architecture school, we learned about the canon. Only the great, and a few of the good, made it into the canon. Yet once we win a glimpse inside the decision-making process, we discover that someone has spiked the canon.
We ask ourselves, “Which is best?”
The short answer is, “I like this building.”
The long answer is, “How do you answer a rhetorical question?”
Notions of “best” are based on our immediate responses: subjective, emotional, preconceived. Beyond the gut reaction, choices are made on the basis of taste and discretion, both of which can be learned from publications and teaching. However, the architecture which appears in books and on shortlists for awards represents a mere snapshot, and the decision-making process is rather less objective than it may appear from the outside.
Not only will many folk disagree with the results of the Best Of, but some question why we need it at all. Why do we need a canon?
Why do we single out certain buildings? Should awards be there to reward excellence, or pour encourager les autres? There are certainly far more competitions around than there used to be: the Scottish Design Awards, Saltire Society diplomas, the RIAS/ Andrew Doolan Prize, the Regeneration of Scotland Award… Perhaps there is a danger that they become self-regarding, even self-congratulatory: it’s certainly true that there is an agenda at work in each case.
Awards are the creation of philanthropists and altruists, as well as architects who want to keep their name alive – and journalists in need of copy.
Some buildings will make every list: St. Peter’s Seminary at Cardross is the prime Scots example of a serial poll-winner. By contrast, there is always another architecture, often over-looked and under-represented – you stumble across these buildings, then try to find out more in books and magazines – only to discover that they are invisible. Who decides whether these latter works should remain outside the canon – and by contrast, who will ensure that the iconoclasts don’t ignore good architecture just because it’s “too obvious?”
Our critical faculties need to be sophisticated enough to distinguish between unfamiliar points of departure and merely bad buildings.
Likewise, it is worth considering why buildings which are regionally as well as nationally significant should be included: a Scottish list which only features architecture from a small part of Scotland would not only be unrepresentative, it would also destroy the listmaker’s credibility. In this regard, Neil Gillespie of Edinburgh architects Reiach & Hall made an acute observation a few years ago: deep in some glen, there is probably work of international importance being produced. In this and the pieces which will follow, I aim to put forward some examples which may counter the idea that much of the architecture in Scotland can’t be good, because it isn’t “canonical”.
That we don’t get to know about it is due to a lack of research on the part of the judging panel, rather than our unwillingness to open up to something new.
Goalposts must be set accordingly, too. The architecture of capitals is not equivalent to that of provincial cities: budgets are different, some ideas can’t be scaled down, and certain types of building are missing. Therefore, how well a building works within its context must be a determining factor – and this is where Scotland can show off its credentials. We have always had local architectures: the Art Nouveau of Langlands & Lamond in Dundee (which David Walker first highlighted in the 1950’s); the expressive Modernism of Peter Womersley in the Borders; the modern vernacular of Baxter Clark & Paul in the North-east.
Finding out about them may not be so simple, but the research will reward you with something fresh to think about.
Scottish architecture has operated in a series of cycles – the emergence of a New Vernacular after the war; the Post Modernism which travelled north with Alan Phillips; and Robert Matthew’s creation of a National Movement of the late ‘50’s, are all cases in point, which lead in turn to reactions and reversals. Awards march to a faster beat. So it is that any considered list should be representative of the whole era in question, even though the cycle has low points as well as highs, since posterity will re-evaluate the work of unfashionable architects.
Awards or publications which consider several years’ worth of buildings have an advantage, whereas annual contests suffer from periodic gluts and droughts. They both serve a less immediate purpose, too: they can chart the progress of our architecture from the fashions of the Fifties and Sixties, to the fashions of the present. In fact, the selection process becomes fraught once you consider recent architecture.
Architects who are still in practice have a personal investment in the results: plaudits and publication are important for your reputation, since winning the bays will ultimately lead to both new commissions and peer recognition. Too much is at stake, and these beauty parades are often just an extension of the practice’s public relations effort. Too bad if you’re a small practice without a marketing tsar, or (imagine!) a designer who feels a blush of shame when promoting herself.
Quite often one set of award judges will be loathe to acknowledge a building already recognised in a separate competition, and the panel may even wander past the display boards, whistling that old Bryan Ferry standard, “The In-Crowd”, as the habitués of the shortlist turn up yet again.
So, what drives the decision making process? It’s worth considering the psychology of how we reach decisions. Sometimes the reasons are less our own than we’d like to think. Firstly there’s the “herd of independent minds” – architects have similar backgrounds, and most have passed through the same architecture schools, so we behave similarly and exhibit similar tastes. As a result, we tend to think alike and often arrive, independently, at the same conclusions. There’s also the heuristic of social proof, which says that folk copy each other, because each believes that the others may know something he doesn’t.
On the other hand, there’s the so-called salience heuristic, which suggests that we suffer from cognitive biases such as wishful thinking, which is often buttressed by the “Lake Woebegon” effect – we believe that we’re smarter than all the other idiots out there. Other factors at work may include our self-serving memory, which remembers success, but forgets failures, and tells everyone else accordingly. The suggestible among us may also suffer from the “Halo” effect: our belief that all good qualities must be connected, magically, by some common factor.
Architectural education also breeds a cult of individuality, which runs from the genius, portrayed in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”, to the bloody-minded individualism which many of us exhibit at some point in our career. Finally, we all suffer to some extent from a love of novelty, and that sometimes means that we value the new over the good. Are you still convinced in the worth of the canon?
In the end, reaching decisions through open debate is likely to improve the rigour of a short leet, and that’s exactly how we should consider any “Best Of”. After all, only when your arguments are robust enough to present, debate and defend in public, can you really justify them, and that’s one thing the canon lacks, writ large as it is on tablets of stone.
For several years, I contributed to The Lighthouse’s website, and those contributions began in 2006 with an article about Donald Trump’s plans for the Menie Estate. Given how much interest those plans attracted, The Lighthouse was keen for me to write more articles along those lines, and fewer about the obscure things I’m usually drawn to…
Pieces on Trump appear to fall into two camps: hatchet jobs by his opponents, or PR influenced by George Sorial, the Trump Organization’s spokesman. However, I believe it’s more productive to illustrate examples of good practice, than to pick off the things we don’t like. Keen students of human nature know that we’re more motivated to attack bad things than to support good ones, but while sneering may entertain you, over the years, skepticism becomes cynicism, and all is lost.
The ongoing melodrama at Menie, with the “Best Golf Course in the World” completed, but Trump’s hotel ambitions thwarted for now by an outbreak of wind turbines, masks the struggle to find an appropriate architecture for tourists visiting Scotland. Better to offer a well-designed Scottish coastal resort which Mr Trump could use as a model: yet once again the focus has turned to Trump himself, this time with the perceived bonus of Alec Salmond as an adversary.
Trump the man is easy to dismiss with glibness and ad hominems: Barack Obama called him a “carnival barker”. Discussion turns quickly to his appearance, his personal taste, his style of business, and his grand pronouncements. Decades of property development have made him thick-skinned, but like other self-made men, he probably feels he is misunderstood and puts that down in large part to the envy and jealousy of his detractors.
Journalists have been using a standard script over the past eight years, so we know exactly what newspaper copy will say: it’s been well rehearsed. A typical piece on Trump is unlikely to head off in an unexpected direction like, say, Eddie Mair’s softly-spoken interview which spelled death for Boris Johnson’s political ambitions. Mair had the benefit of an element of surprise, plus the combination of an acute, well-researched journalist, with an ill-prepared interviewee who likes to play the buffoon.
Trump is more media savvy. He is outspoken but eminently quotable. He takes up the cudgels on his own behalf. He turns the tables by publishing his own propaganda.
Witness his 1980’s book, “The Art of the Deal”. I picked up a copy in an Aberdeen charity shop, and it did exactly what it promised, by demonstrating how capitalism works. You may not make money if you buy his book, but Donald Trump will make money if you buy his book... unless of course you part with 99p to your local Oxfam. Having digested the book’s simple thesis, I realised that Acanthus Architects DF’s (Douglas Forrest’s) recent design for a golf hotel at Menie is the real matter at hand.
If you study the history of holiday resorts in the North East, you discover several notable failures. The outdoor lido at Tarlair lies derelict. The Carnoustie Golf Hotel has reportedly struggled to fill its rooms. Another ambitious developer tried and failed on the same stretch of coast as Menie, at Cruden Bay. The Great North of Scotland Railway (GNSR)’s prospectus was even more ambitious than Donald Trump’s, because they hoped to create a tourism industry from a standing start.
In 1899, the coastal haar cleared to reveal a piece of High Victorian whimsy. The GNSR had created a five-storey high, 94 bedroom hotel in pink Peterhead granite. Crowsteps, pepperpots, Scots Baronial ... everything which the railway company imagined would attract visitors from South Britain to this northerly airt of North Britain. It was an over-scaled pile, an urban form transplanted to a rural location where its dominance made it seem like a town hall or bank head office stranded in a wilderness of dunes.
If you’re trying to find a prototype for Scottishness in architecture, I would argue that you can rule out golfing hotels, because they are inevitably bombastic. The others I’ve come across are overdone and over-large, too. It seems there is a strong preconception about what a golf resort should look like, and architects appear not to challenge their clients on that fundamental point.
Another American plutocrat, Herb Kohler, is redeveloping the Hamilton Halls overlooking the Old Course in St Andrews. It was the first hotel in Europe to have a lift, and the first to have indoor plumbing within the rooms … Now called the Hamilton Grand, Kohler bought the building after its previous owner tried and failed to turn it back into a hotel. Its key characteristic is scale: Thomas Hamilton built it immediately after his application for membership had been rejected by the R&A. It’s a monster in Locharbriggs stone, at least two storeys too high for its site, but achieving dominance was probably the idea.
Further inland in Perthshire, Gleneagles is a grim-looking railway hotel, and no amount of sparkling wristwatch concessions can make up for its lack of elegance as you approach. Its lumpen mass has been extended several times – and now it seems more like an airport Marriott, with endless corridors linking its spa, arcade, restaurants and ranks of bedrooms. Like Menie, and the Hamilton Grand, its selling point is overpowering size and its proximity to golf, rather than any inherent Scottishness in its architecture.
Modern architects have done no better: the Old Course Hotel is a piece of 1960’s Travelodge modernism which crouches on the edge of the fairway like a giant toad. Scotland is the “Home of Golf”, an epithet which the Royal & Ancient jealously protects and would dearly like to copyright: yet they have no influence over the buildings which surround their skiting grounds. Like the Melville Grand, the Old Course Hotel is owned by Herb Kohler: Trump’s peer, his golf resort-building rival, and according to Forbes Magazine, a man with exactly the same amount of cash in the bank.
Yet money is no help, as there are seemingly no good demonstrations of an appropriate style – or better still, a pertinent approach – for Menie. The extent of Donald J. Trump’s ambitions for the estate became clear in 2010 when he renamed Menie Dunes as “The Great Dunes of Scotland”. This proved to be a publicity stunt, to keep interest going while plans were drawn up for a hotel on the coast at Balmedie. It would surely be grand in a superlative manner, but would it be fitting?
In terms of topography, Lawrence Halprin’s Sea Ranch springs to mind as a building responsive to its site: it lies on the foggy western seaboard of the US overlooking the ocean, and its organic plan fits into the contours of the site. The grassland sloping down the Pacific isn’t dissimilar to the Aberdeenshire coast. The dunes at Menie would be well suited to low-lying, enwrapping courtyards, shelter belts of pine trees, clusters of buildings. Perhaps better suited than the bluff six-storey front of Trump’s original Disney-style proposal, or Douglas Forrest’s current three storey scheme, of which a couple of images have been released.
They reveal a very long, rather flat facade in grey granite (or perhaps Fyfestone), with little modelling, and nothing to deflect the North Sea storms. Based on the CGI impressions, there is an Aberdeenshire motif in the detailing of the cross-gable roofs, which reflects the nearby Menie House. However, there’s no sense of the hierarchy needed to handle a facade of this scale, nor to relieve its overwhelming flatness. Maybe a fake castle would be better?
Perhaps not. In the wake of the Scandic Crown Hotel in Edinburgh, expectations are low. Each successive revival of the Baronial Revival proves to be tacky and superficial. Its motifs - tartan carpeting, fielded timber panels, more bloody corbels and crowsteps - are expected to evoke Brigadoon. They copy details from ancient buildings, but never evoke the grandeur which lies in the mind of a stranger to Scotland who has formed an image of the country based on the romance of its history and the atmosphere of its ancient places.
The Romantic image of Scotland is well known but poorly understood: the scholar-architects who restored the Old Town have long since passed away, Walter Scott’s novels are deeply unfashionable (still), James Macpherson’s Ossian cycle is sneered at, and Hamish McCunn, who wrote “Land of the Mountain and the Flood”, is long forgotten.
McCunn’s deeply romantic view of Scotland, moving and symphonic, is a natural extension of Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides Overture”, but was last heard before I was born, as theme to a similarly long-forgotten television programme called “Sutherland’s Law”. Mike Scott tried to recapture that spirit in the 1980’s when he created the “Big Music”, although much of it is Celtic-Irish rather than uniquely Scottish. Some songs make the birse on the back of your neck stand up, though, and like McCunn he creates atmosphere rather than just applying motifs.
Arguably, we need to re-evaluate the Romantic tradition in Scotland before we attempt yet another Scots Baronial revival building. Done properly, it could celebrate a side of our culture which has been given up to sentimentalists and postcard publishers. Perhaps it even has the power to redeem golf. Done badly, it will be another self-parody to join the rank of kitsch spanning from Harry Lauder through Russ Abbott to “Brave”.
I’ll return to this subject again in future, but meantime if you’re interested in the troubled history of Scottishness, try to get hold of a copy of Murray & Barbara Grigor’s “Scotch Myths”, which is the best source for where all this stuff originates. Or perhaps if you’re planning a golf hotel, it’s time to consult another book, “Powerhouse Principles”, sub-titled “The Ultimate Blueprint for Real Estate Success in an Ever-Changing Market”, written by Donald J. Trump…
History doesn’t repeat itself, said Mark Twain, but it does rhyme. Even to the extent that I’ve used that quote at least once before... and spoken about Donald Trump’s plans for Balmedie, too. As an introduction to the Menie Links, I thought it would be worth re-posting this article which was originally published on scottisharchitecture.com in 2006.
So Donald Trump hopes to build a golf course on the Menie estate at Balmedie, just north of Aberdeen. The boy from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn will face obstacles… and perhaps some will prove to be intractable. After all, the scheme has already stalled once.
Part of the area is a nature reserve: Balmedie is close to the Ythan estuary, which is of world importance for migratory birds. The area also gets a world record amount of haar. It's on the wrong (north) side of Aberdeen - have you ever tried to get from the city centre, through the Brig o’ Don then up past Blackdog, during the rush hour? Trump’s director of golf, Ashley Cooper, calls Balmedie a “beachhead” in Europe. That’s a poorly-chosen metaphor, since many ships have foundered along this stretch of coast.
"The £300 million project - his first golfing venture in a cool climate - will feature a five-star Victorian-style hotel," said an early press release. You can imagine that a mock baronial clubhouse will take shape on the windswept coast, with its dreich grey granite houses and wind-blasted trees, although Mr Trump’s aspirations may stretch to something grander. He already has a string of holding companies which own casinos, restaurants, a university, and of course other golf clubs. The Trump website boasts of Los Angeles, Bedminster, Westchester, West Palm Beach and Canouan Island– but Trump International Golf Links will be his first course outside continental America.
By November 2006, the Menie scheme’s value had increased to £1 billion, and it was being touted as a saviour for this dead quarter of Aberdeenshire, which the Oil Rush had passed by. However, recent arguments about the effectiveness of Scottish Enterprise's policy of "inward investment" raise doubts about Trump’s claims, and there is also the spectre of the political clout of inward investment will might Planning permissions to be bought, in the interests of injecting cash into the local economy. So much for democracy, and due process.
Although Trump’s supporters may compare the two figures, Trump isn't a latter day Andrew Carnegie, so may not be welcomed like Carnegie was at Skibo. Despite his claims to Scots blood on his mother’s side, he isn’t a native like Carnegie was. He may have money, but he’s far far short of being the richest man in the world. It’s more likely that Trump will be regarded like the Texas oilmen were in Bill Forsyth’s film, “Local Hero”, of which film-maker Bill Forsyth said–
“I saw it along the lines of a Scottish Beverly Hillbillies– what would happen to a small community when it suddenly becomes very rich - that was the germ of the idea, and the story built itself from there. It seemed to contain a similar theme to Brigadoon, which also involved some Americans coming to Scotland, becoming part of a small community, being changed by the experience and affecting the place in their own way.”
Architecturally, the images released so far depict a 450-bedroom hotel and palatial golf clubhouse which are rather like a diluted Disneyfied version of Cape Cod, with timber verandahs, shingled towers and festive bunting. Trump’s architects haven’t taken the obvious source - Scots Baronial - and built a rugged castle from granite and slate. After all, Slains Castle is nearby, but perhaps Trump’s American architects haven’t yet been affected by the place yet: maybe it will grow on them, as Ferness did in Local Hero.
A more serious question is whether we need yet another golf course? Didn't the National Golf Centre at Drumoig (outside St Andrews) go bust just a couple of years ago? Isn’t the future of the Carnoustie Golf Hotel - brainchild of developer Michael Johnston - currently in jeopardy? Mr Trump should also remember that just up the coast from Balmedie there was a Victorian golf resort at Cruden Bay, built by the GNSR railway company as a resort: but it disappeared, hotel gone, tramway taken up. As the Trump website says, “Up to the Second World War, Cruden Bay was a favoured holiday destination of the wealthy from the south, journeying up by train to a luxury hotel near the course which has since been demolished.”
Looking through the archives, the same claims made by Cruden Bay’s backers are being repeated by the Trump Organisation. Investment, jobs, a catalyst for development, improving the area’s profile, better transport links et cetera… in the end, it was a case of Boosterism. The hotel lost enormous amounts of money during the Great Depression, and it was forced to close in 1932. During WW2 it was used by the Army to billet soldiers in, and by the end of the 1940’s it lay in disrepair, and was later sold for demolition. The golf course remains and today the Cruden Bay Golf Club’s website boasts it is the “61st BEST COURSE IN THE WORLD”. Only sixty places behind Menie Links, in fact.
Beyond that, there is concern about Scotland’s coastline becoming a monoculture. Golf, even links golf courses, are an un-natural land use. They are man-made. The ecology of sand dunes is a shifting one, and dunes wander inland, choking grass and killing it. That won’t be popular with the green-keepers. Just like industrial farming, golf curtails diversity by controlling which species are allowed to grow, and controlling access to the land itself. While bents and fescues may continue to grow in the rough, the varieties of grass on the fairways of golf links tend not to be native to the area.
At the moment, Trump’s plans are in for planning permission, and everything seems to be going fine: yet the protagonists of Local Hero discovered that the rights to the beach belong to an old beachcomber (played by Fulton Mackay, the prisoner governor in “Porridge”), who is determined not to sell them. His tumbledown beach hut became the stumbling block which forced the American investors to think again.