Type “Brick Shortage” into a search engine and it will return thousands of hits.  TV news editors have despatched their dashing reporters (in brand new wellies) to stand uncomfortably in puddles of clay, while stolid men in boilersuits tell them that business is good.  In fact, business is better than it’s been for at least five years.  Behind them lie huge stacks of russet-coloured facings, wrapped in steel bands.  So where’s the shortage?

Elsewhere, red-faced contractors’ buyers roar down the phone at merchants, frustrated by lengthening lead times and prices which have firmed up in recent months.  Site managers are screaming for another ten thousand as the brickies shrug, heading for an early finish since they have no more bricks to lay.  Perhaps there really is a shortage on some sites - and might we stop specifying bricks as a result?

The downturn of 2008 saw house-building collapse to a level not seen since the Great Depression, and because so many spec houses are clad in brick, its makers suffered.  The industry carried on making bricks for a while, but eventually it was left with a stockpile of 1.2 billion unsold bricks – around half a normal year’s demand.  Accordingly, it began mothballing and closing factories for good - for example, Hanson shut five plants and reduced its workforce by half.  UK brick production fell from almost three billion per year in the first half of the 2000’s, to around half that level.

In Scotland, Errol Brick closed for good in March 2008, and Caradale Traditional Brick closed both their works in September 2011.  As I wrote earlier, that leaves only Raeburn Brick with an active brickworks north of the border – and Jimmy Raeburn noted that his factory can meet about 15% of Scottish demand.  Suddenly, the market is recovering strongly and house-building is leading that.  However, the narrative in the media is that brick shortages are holding back the recovery.  Can the brick manufacturers meet pent-up demand?  Is the Great 2014 Brick Shortage just a newspaper scare story?

From a peak level of around 200 million bricks produced each month in 2007, demand dropped below supply and during a couple of troughs in 2009, fewer than 40 million bricks were delivered to site each month.  However, ignoring the annual cycle of shut-downs (many brickworks close for planned maintenance every December), the trend is upwards from around 100 million a month in 2009, to around 150 million per month this year.

So the evidence is that brick-makers have responded to demand by increasing production.  Hanson, for example, plans to reverse the 2010 closure of a plant at Claughton in Lancashire by the end of the year, and is putting on additional shifts at two other works.  Even during the darkest years of the recession, the larger, well-capitalised brick companies were actually building capacity, in anticipation of the recovery.  Hanson built a new factory at Measham in Leicestershire in 2009 and Ibstock opened a new factory at Chesterton in Staffordshire in 2013.  Between them, they made an investment of £75m which bolsters supply by bringing new more efficient “super brickworks” on line.

On analysis, the problem may actually derive from the demand side.  Much of the panic seems to arise from the low stock levels which brick merchants are carrying at the moment, and the fact that there’s a lead time of several weeks on many types of brick.  Bear in mind, though, the luxurious position which contractors enjoyed three or four years ago, when almost any quantity of bricks could be had “ex stock”, and full artic loads could be called off instantly … provided you had good credit.

How that demand works in practice is that brick production in September 2013 was 14% higher than the year before, but stocks were 34% lower and imports were 34% higher.  Hence production was increasing, but demand outstripped it and was met by a combination of imports and running down stockpiles.  However, the peak in brick consumption may not be a natural result of an open market. 

It’s been reported that some house builders are panic-buying or trying to arrange exclusive access to certain bricks.  If that’s the case, then the Great 2014 Brick Shortage is both a self-fulfilling prophecy – the more people worry about it, the worse their actions make it – and a symptom of the chaotic way the construction industry moves from trough to peak. 

The brick makers could cope with either of those conditions if the market remained steady, but the really tough times come when demand halves or doubles in the space of a year or two.  The lead-in time for a new brickworks isn’t the 18 months it takes to build and equip the brick factory itself, but the five or more years required to battle through Planning inquiries, receive minerals extraction consents then finally open up new clay pits to feed it.

It’s the cyclical nature of the construction industry which is the real problem, acting like a Great British Whale which rises from the ocean depths and spouts out a vast plume of work, before diving into an abyss for the next few years.

What the brick firms must hope is that this “shortage” doesn’t turn into a long term re-run of the 1940’s and ‘50’s.  Britain suffered an even greater shortage of bricks in the years after the Second World War when everything was in short supply, and building licences were required before construction could start.  One consequence was the rise of prefabricated metal and timber houses, plus concrete system building.  By the building booms of the 1960’s, the brick industry had vastly increased its capacity, and was able to compete with “modern methods of construction”.  Sounds familiar?

However, the interactions of the market don’t affect bricks in isolation.  In the post-war era, steel was also in short supply and since reinforced concrete uses far less steel (in the form of rebar) than a pure steel-framed building would, then both in-situ framed and precast panel systems gained in popularity.  You could accuse them of opportunism, but in the last few weeks, a well-known Aberdeenshire timber kit firm has begun marketing its frames to house-builders in the south-east of England.

The Great 2014 Brick Shortage headline does little to help, as the industry goes from glut to scarcity and back again in the length of time it takes to plan, build and bring a brick factory into production.  What’s needed is long term stability so that brick can be considered calmly alongside timber kit, steel frame or the various SIP’s and hybrid panel systems coming onto the market.  Perhaps a steady demand will encourage a manufacturer to build a new brick factory in Scotland, as I alluded to here in a previous piece.

After all, the opencast coal industry was recently rescued by Hargreaves after Scottish Coal and ATH Resources folded, and one of coal extraction’s “by products” is vast quantities of fireclay, which would otherwise be ploughed down during land remediation…

By Mark • Albums: ghosts

Why do we read biographies?  It’s a question I’ve asked before and one for which I’m still working out the answer.  Many of us have an idle fascination with other peoples’ lives, which is why so many books of biography are produced.  Most are written about well-known or famous people, and we read about them for different reasons.

Perhaps we’re smitten by them; we want to understand the root of their genius; we hope to learn something about how they came about their fortune, or we simply hope that their lives are more interesting than our own.  It helps if the subject has a complicated past: 18-carat love affairs, bankruptcies, court proceedings, that kind of thing.  Driven or downright strange characters are welcome, provided they have redeeming features.  Those who crop at history’s pivotal events are a biographer’s dream. 

As a result, Winston Churchill’s life is one of the 20th century’s most written-about, and he rarely disappoints.  Perhaps, as a biographer himself, he lived his life with an eye on history’s lens.

Architectural biographies are uncommon, probably in proportion to the number of architects which the reading public can name.  Charles Rennie Mackintosh is universally-known, and Norman Foster springs to mind as the only living architect which non-architects have heard of, thanks to his bouncy bridge as much as the viaduct at Millau or the HSBC bank in Hong Kong.  These biographies can be split into three types, including a recent one about Foster by Deyan Sudjic in which his career was allegedly subject to some Stalinist editing.

Visual biographies which combine life and work into one, usually larger format, book with lots of images of the work.  These are usually published by art book-type publishers on art paper, and are often authorised by the subject.  All carry with them the danger of self-glorification, and because the lesser ones are uncritical they become little more than practice brochures.  Visual biogs tend to be reviewed in the architectural glossies.

Full-blown biographies which concentrate on life and people, to which detailed discussion of the work becomes incidental.  These are often produced by publishers with a respected list of biographies, such as Faber & Faber, and whilst sometimes authorised, often include a whiff of revisionism or scandal.  They are sometimes researched while the subject is living, but are often published after their death – witness Susie Harries’ book about Nikolaus Pevsner.  These full-blown books tend to get serious notices in the broadsheets.

A handful are vanity publications – titled “A Life in Architecture”, or something similar – which are written by architects in their 70’s or 80’s with an eye to posterity.  These are self-published or put out by small presses and rarely get reviews.  The reason for that isn’t that the architect was unexceptional, rather that the book has greater value as a representation of the context or milieu in which they practiced.  In a similar way, Colonel Siefert took the role of a walk-on villain in books such as Oliver Marriott’s “The Property Boom”, which isn’t a biography at all, but includes many pen portraits.

In the first category are Alan Powers’ books on Albert Richardson or Tayler & Green which pull together both career and life, providing glimpses of how they fitted together.  Rutter Carroll’s biog of Ryder & Yates is also a model of this approach, whereas Miles Glendinning’s long-awaited book on Robert Matthew is definitive but spoiled by its rather dry tone, and the author’s agenda.  Namely, to concentrate on certain aspects of his subject’s career at the expense of others.  There are so many aspects to draw upon: Lorimer, Royal Festival Hall, Turnhouse, work for the Hydro Board, Universities, Power Stations, New Town and conservation work, New Zealand House, and the International and Commonwealth architecture bodies?  Perhaps you can’t fit them all into 624 pages.

The second type of biography includes Bryan Appleyard’s book about Richard Rogers, an authorised biography from 25 years ago, which is one of the best on a Modern architect.  Rogers is sympathetically drawn, his humanity and flaws are illustrated without dwelling on them, and a picture emerges of him, his work, and his view of the world.  Of course, there’s a supreme difficulty in trying to relate someone’s character to the work they produce: for example, was the Pompidou Centre competition really a happy accident, won by a crew of innocents?  If you read these books with the aim of pinning down the essence of the man or woman in order to figure out how they design, and then steal that essence - you’ll set the book down and walk away disappointed.

Appleyard’s tales of James Stirling stealing ashtrays from posh hotels are nothing compared to the indiscretions about “Big Jim” in Mark Girouard’s book of the same name.  The latter was somewhat less authorised than Appleyard’s book about Rogers, and discusses an architect in the past tense.  While everyone cares about their reputation, and descendants leap to their defence once they have passed on, it’s true that you can’t libel the dead.  A bad biography is a poor read, but won’t usually result in legal action.  But Big Jim is another excellent book, which provides a unique insight into the man which his carefully-curated oeuvre displayed in the Black Book and White Book could never do.

Naturally, the best-known architects have had several books written about them.  Modern masters like Aalto are portrayed as universal men.  Corb appears like a Nietzschean force of nature, and Frank Lloyd Wright lived several lives over the course of his lifetime.  Both are huge characters who biographers struggle to contain within one book.  Architects such as Louis Kahn are different.  An air of tragedy surrounded him, and the unrealised projects became even more poignant once you learn more about his life, and the circumstances of his death.  This book achieves an sad, elegiac quality, whereas Nigel Warburton’s book about Erno Goldfinger is pure melodrama.

You get the feeling there were more, even darker and stranger, things which Warburton could have told us about Goldfinger, but was unable to do.  Charismatics are a problem to the biographer, because they tend to be “controlling”, and make efforts to edit their own past.  Goldfinger‘s wartime career was lived like an Alastair Maclean novel.  His practice was a testing place to work and his personality overhung everything it produced.  Towards the end of their life, men and women like Goldfinger make bonfires of their scrapbooks, diaries and photos; perhaps they develop an uncanny sense that someone will come along afterwards and do a hatchet job on them.

In fact, primary sources are everything.  Without the chance to interview the subject, you approach their friends and colleagues.  Once they’re gone (and only if their estate co-operates, back to the authorised approach) you can read through your subject’s personal papers.  If those have been burned, you have to rely on anecdote and speculation, perhaps filled out with snippets from the Press of the day, and photos of the buildings.  This is why some lives are written at article length when you know fine that they deserve an entire book.

Of the third type of biography, I would have loved to see a book on Peter Womersley’s life, although Rutland Press never did get around to publishing it.  Perhaps it will appear yet in another form.  I seem to recall a few minor press biographies cropping up in book dealer’s catalogues, one example from an architect-planner from Edinburgh, whose name eludes me just now… and I once came across a slim book about the life and ideas of a self-taught architect-monk who designed his own monastery with radically-detailed brickwork.  The market for books about self-taught architect-monks must be limited – although I lent it to someone who didn’t return it, so perhaps there is more of an appetite than I give credit for.

There are parallels in other disciplines.  One in particular was written by a naval architect, the splendidly-named Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt, who was the Admiralty’s Director of Naval Construction, in overall charge of designing the biggest capital ships for the Royal Navy during the spell between the Wars when it was the world’s most powerful.  In it you’ll discover that he treats his career in a humble and self-deprecating way and downplays his achievement in creating the world’s largest and most complex machines for Churchill (there he is again) when the latter was First Sea Lord.

The protagonist never comes across as a “man of destiny”, yet he made the most of his circumstances and a peculiar combination of destiny, personality and luck came good.  So apart from the banal conclusion that great architects didn’t necessarily lead great lives, it’s true that some characters deserve a book about themselves, far more than their contemporaries deserve a book written about their work.

There are many books in print or available second hand about the lives of Winston Churchill, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright.  As for the others I mentioned,

Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life, by Susie Harries; Pimlico, 2013

Norman Foster: A Life in Architecture, by Deyan Sudjic; Phoenix, 2012

Sir Albert Richardson: 1880-1964, by Simon Houfe, Alan Powers, John Wilton-Ely; RIBA Publications, 1999

Ryder and Yates, Rutter Carroll; RIBA Publications, 2009

Modern Architect: the Life and Times of Robert Matthew, by Miles Glendinning; RIBA Publications, 2008

Richard Rogers: A Biography, by Bryan Appleyard; Faber & Faber, 1986

Big Jim: The Life and Work of James Stirling, by Mark Girouard; Chatto & Windus, 1998

Louis I. Kahn: Beyond Time and Style - A Life in Architecture, by Carter Wiseman; W.W. Norton, 2007

Ernő Goldfinger: The Life of an Architect, by Nigel Warburton; Routledge, 2004

Peter Womersley, by Joseph Blackburn and Simon Green; Rutland Press, not published.

Dom Paul Bellot: Architect and Monk and the publication of Propos d'un batisseur du Bon Dieu, by Peter Willis; Elysium Press,1996

A Shipbuilder's Yarn; The Record of a Naval Constructor, Eustace Tennyson d’Eyncourt; Hutchinson, 1948

By Mark • Albums: books

I wrote this when I visited the smouldering remains of the Mac a few weeks ago, although I didn’t get around to posting it until now as we were away in Ireland (trying to avoid the World Cup, in the same manner as Brazil's goalkeeper wishes he could have).

Even now, a week later, the smell of fire hangs in the air. 

Things look normal from Dalhousie Street, but Renfrew Street is filled by a giant mobile crane, its outriggers stretching from pavement to pavement.  Scott Street is barricaded off, and Reigart Demolition are already working on the dampened-down shell of the library.  

Saturday afternoon strollers peer through the Heras fence panels at the crane and a skylift platform parked alongside it.  Tourists take photos on their iPhones as the crane takes down the library tower, one block at a time.  A couple of men hang suspended in the basket of the lift, 100 feet up, slinging the stones and directing the crane driver.

The parapet above the library’s oriel windows, at the western gable end of the building, was badly damaged in the fire.  Each tiny piece of ashlar is lifted from its bed of lime mortar then descends, growing all the time until it becomes a metre-long block of sandstone which is landed gently on a pallet.  One of Reigart’s men notes that none of the blocks weigh more than 200kg – otherwise an even larger crane would have been required.

From my vantage point on top of a wall, I spot a couple of local worthies approaching.  One is like a middle-aged Anthony Burgess, whose features have compressed over the course of a hard life.  He has pouches under his eyes and broad cheeks which have slumped into large jowls.  Despite the sunshine his companion wears a greatcoat, and has a wild beard and sparkling eyes.  They are out for their Saturday constitutional, in between pit stops.

The bearded chap glanced sideways at me -
Ye ken what did it?
I’d heard it was a slide projector which went on fire, after a lump of foam landed on it.
He shook his head.
“A lassie in the toilets - smokin’ a fag - it’ll be in aa the papers!
In the papers?
He looked questioningly at my camera, then me.
“Are you fae the Evening Times?”  Shake of head.  “The Herald?”  Nope. 
I have met Peter Ross, of Daunderlust fame, though, and he notes that Glasgow may be the only European city to have once been home to more than a million people, but to now have fewer than that. 

That should give both of these worthies, the School of Art’s governors, and the City Fathers something else to worry about.  Glasgow’s tax base, how it projects itself, and its future are at stake – think for example of the “Scotland with Style” banner which hung incongruously next to the derelict shell of Gray Dunn’s biscuit factory on the Southside.

The bearded chap isn’t impressed by my analysis.
“What’s your interest then son?” 
I replied that I just wanted to see the devastation for myself.
He scrutinises me.
“Take it easy my man” he declares finally, as the two wander off up Dalhousie Street, arguing about how the Scottish education system should be funded…

Hopefully the restoration is swift and true.  No-one wants to see a burned-out husk where Macintosh’s best work once stood.

By Mark • Albums: independence

How the web flattens out architectural history

Shearer and Annand were an important and long-established Scottish practice, who dissolved in 1994 – the year the World Wide Web was created.  I worked for them when I left school – my first job, during the long summer when Acid House reigned and the Stone Roses ruled the radio.  Shearer & Annand had almost reached the end of the architectural practice lifecycle by then, and worked from an office in Maygate, the old quarter of Dunfermline, along with a branch office in Broughty Ferry. 

I sat there, beside a dormer window overlooking Brook Street on a creaky drafting stool and answered the phone, traced simple details using a drafting machine, and took dyeline prints.  The diazo machine sat in an ammonia-reeking back room lined with old product literature and was literally eye-watering … I can just about remember “linens” (really plastic film) and brown-tinted copy negs.  All the time spent in that office, had a primitive fax machine and a borrowed xerox machine in the foreground, and a background of tomorrow’s music.

Lairg Power Station, Shearer & Annand

During lunchtimes, I worked my way through a large stack of unread AJ’s – from the days when Patrick Hannay’s building reviews alone made it worth reading, and both the strong monochrome photos of urban decay, and vivid colour portraits of new buildings impressed themselves on my receptive mind.  Everything was new to me, and in retrospect I learned far more from my time at Shearer & Annand than I gave credit for at the time: yet I had no idea of Shearer and Annands’ history, or their significance in 1950’s and 1960’s Scottish architecture. 

That came many years later, when I read about James Shearer’s work for the Hydro Board and came to strongly identify with his approach.  Marcus Johnston and Gordon Withers wound up the practice four years after I left, so Shearer & Annand exist now only in a virtual sense; the RCAHMS have preserved their archive, and part of it has been placed on line thanks to the Scottish Architects’ Papers preservation project.  A limited amount of material by them and about them is available on the web – given my connection, I thought it would be worthwhile finding out more.

Aigas Power Station, Shearer & Annand

A few weeks ago, I travelled into a parallel world where the remains of the practice exist in aspic.  In RCAHMS’s archive, there are buff card folders full of cream-coloured bond paper and yellow carbon copies – the letters transcribed onto them are typed in the articulate, exact language which business was conducted in during the 1950’s and ‘60’s.  Not any more.  Also gone is our ability to specify in poetic terms like James Shearer could:
“Facework to be random rubble not exceeding 11” high, and except where pinning is necessary, not less than 4”.  No stone to exceed 180 square inches in area, or to be less than 5” thick on bed.  Stone to be quarry-split, with only a moderate amount of tooling to dress off large projections.  One deep bond stone to every superficial yard of surface; and inbands and outbands to external corners to be brought to courses.  Joints to be raked out 3/4” deep, flush pointed, and wiped with a rubber pad.”

James Shearer tried very hard to make modern buildings which were intrinsically Scottish, and he succeeded in capturing the magical massing and proportions, along with using the right materials for his work’s setting.  He was one of several consultants to the Hydro Board, but after the deaths of Tarbolton and Fairlie (in 1947 and 1953 respectively), he landed a number of large commissions.  In fact, his client Edward MacColl (the chairman of NoSHEB) and he travelled around the Highlands together, looking at exposed concrete and natural stone, to see which weathered best.

Achanalt Power Station, Shearer & Annand

David Walker, the architectural historian, characterised James Shearer as an Edwardian character, a slim man who wore a brown suit, high-laced boots and a broad-brimmed felt hat.  Hence Shearer & Annand – their work and the men themselves – have been portrayed by architectural historians, rather than by Shearer and Annand.  That may not matter, yet it does if we have any doubt about how accurately the web portrays them.  Had they stayed in business as a practice, there’s no doubt that a website would have been commissioned at some point, although it may only have featured their recent work.  Architects’ websites are promotional tools rather than archival documents, and this often gives them the taint of public relations; more noticeably, they are often myopic.  With only a few exceptions, a practice’s more recent works take precedence, and history is flattened out.

There are many firms in Scotland with antecedents stretching back half a century, but the current protagonists have a bias towards recent memory.  The past is a foreign country, and all that … if you look at RMJM’s or Reiach & Hall’s websites.  This selective view of practice hangs in the ether, picking up links and perhaps even gaining credibility.  From there, context is rapidly lost, and we head towards a place where posterity is served by a top ranking on Google.  The website’s potential to act as an ongoing recording device, capturing architecture as it happens and holding it there for the future, remains untapped.  Provided with a suitable bit of software which serves the web pages in a suitable format – the web is moving from HTML towards XML – the information could sit on a secure server and remain accessible for as long as the web is.

Plas Menai, Bowen Dann Davies

Equally telling is what happens if you have no profile at all.  A while ago, I became interested in a Welsh practice called Bowen Dann Davies, after coming across a passing reference to them.  By coincidence, their architecture has similarities to Shearer and Annand’s: pitched roof, stone facings, and accretive massing.  As I knew very little about recent architecture in Wales, I turned to the internet for information, particularly on their National Watersports Centre, Plas Menai. 

Web searches and queries turned up next to nothing about the practice itself, until eventually a link tucked away in an obscure part of a large database brought me to the architects’ homepage.  They’re now called Bowen Dann Knox, and their presence on the web means little if it is so well hidden that people can’t find it.  I guess they haven’t submitted it to search engines, although their work deserves to be better known.  The website can’t act as a promotional tool, far less a documentary source, if no one can find it.

Conwy Castle Visitor Centre, Bowen Dann Davies

Today, the internet presents a cavalcade of history: Beethoven bops with Blondie, Robert the Bruce batters Francis Begbie, Felix the Cat smokes Snoop Dogg – and if you look closely enough, all of human life is here.  If that’s the perception, it’s a misconception.  In fact, plenty of architects still don’t have a website – for instance, the Adam Brothers never got around to uploading theirs – and many of those who do, haven’t asked the most important question.  “What’s this for?”

As before, all photos were taken by Mark Chalmers, and all are copyright.

By Mark • Albums: independence

The fire at Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s gesamtkunstwerk on Renfrew Street on 23rd May 2014 was quite unlike the everyday disasters we see on television.  Those usually afflict people in other countries, wrecking their lives through the action of cyclones, tsunami, or a hail of bullets.  On Friday the western end of the School of Art, including its beautiful library, was gutted by fire.

Thankfully no-one was injured, but the building and its contents were seriously damaged – by the flames then the thousands of gallons of water which quickly followed.  It’s especially bad luck, since the School of Art was due to fit the building with a fire suppression system in the next few months.  Also, with the degree show approaching, many students had brought all their work in for assessment.  The timing couldn’t have been worse.

Mackintosh’s biographers have portrayed the man as being unlucky.  By the late 20th century, he was held to be a prophet without honour in Scotland, who firstly went into exile in Suffolk, then latterly to the south of France.  But for ill fortune and circumstances, Mackintosh could have been a prolific genius in the Wright or Corb mould.  That’s an assertion which people have argued about for decades.

However, there’s no disputing the fact that Mackintosh’s buildings have suffered even worse fortune. 

The Hill House had to be rescued from dereliction in the early 1980’s, with a helping hand from the RIAS.  Queen’s Cross Church was converted into a visitor centre after it was abandoned as a kirk.  The House for an Art Lover was stillborn, although it was eventually built on a different site to serve a different role.  The Tenement House was rescued from motorway bulldozers and transplanted into William Whitfield’s Hunterian Museum.  Now Glasgow School of Art has suffered a catastrophe.

Heartbreaking as it is, the fire proves several things.  In a moment, it rendered insignificant Steven Holl’s new Reid Building across the street.  No-one cares how good that might be, when faced with the destruction of Mackintosh’s original.  The new building would always be in the older building’s shadow, now it will become a home for the fire’s refugees, rather than a building in its own right.

Mackintosh achieved the seeming impossible, by creating a modern architecture which was intrinsically Scottish – without pastiche, caricature or the kind of ersatz baronialism which consigned attempts from Abbotsford to the Scandic Crown Hotel to the dustbin of history.  No-one since Mackintosh has built a convincingly modern Scottish building.  James Shearer, Robert Hurd, Page & Park and Crichton Wood have tried; Robert Matthew came closest.

At the same time, Mackintosh was a romantic renegade, to use Tony Dugdale’s phrase.  His was a synthesising intellect and he was a creative individual, rather than a design committee in the modern fashion.  His exile came at the height of his creative powers, and the parabolic curve of his career – from *that* portrait with louche moustache and floppy cravat, to an early death – combined to mythologise him.  It also granted him immortality, as it did for Lord Byron and Jim Morrison.

Mackintosh had to manage a difficult site on a steep slope, a restricted budget and an ambitious client.  The School of Art surmounted those problems, and became an integral part of the neighbourhood.  The fringes and skater shoes of the art students flow into a rolling sea of neds with IrnBru cans on Sauchiehall Street, genteel waves of patrons for the CCA and Cooper Hay, (Scotland’s poshest book dealer), plus the ebb tide of Blythswood with its dubious night-time economy.

Few architects understand how light works, particularly the watery light of Clydeside, as well as Mackintosh.  The impact of the sequence of rooms in the Hill House – the grand reveal as you enter the Tenement House – and especially the sequence which leads you into Glasgow School of Art’s library – demonstrates Mackintosh’s mastery of it.   When you walk into one of those spaces, the birse on the back of your neck stands up, you get goose-bumps and you stand silently, trying to figure out how Mackintosh did it.

He may have spawned a CRM repro industry, but unlike the “Mockintosh” designers who stole his clothes during the 80’s, it seems Mackintosh built well.  It’s little surprise that the fire caught quickly then raged for hours: the building was lined with old dry wood, and the students’ turps, canvas and paper fed a fire which reached high temperatures.  We’re told that 90% of the building fabric can be saved – despite the crimson flames which leapt from the windows and through the roof of the library. 

It’s certain that the School of Art will be rebuilt swiftly and faithfully; Mackintosh’s stature and its A-Listing guarantees that.  The less imaginative will speak about a phoenix on Renfrew Street, but it will never be the same; even the most faithful rebuilding is still a reproduction job.  The masonry can probably be salvaged; the windows probably can’t be.  Timber will need to be matched up, and the decorative work will need painstaking restoration.

Technically speaking, perhaps the timber can be treated with “Aquafire” or “HR Prof” to fire-proof it; a VESDA system could be installed to provide early warning of a future fire; and the School of Art could be plumbed for sprinklers, as had been intended later this year.  Eventually, it will be reopened and the new work will gradually tone down towards what remains of Mackintosh’s original.

Why is it worth all this effort?

Standing on the sidelines of an Andy & Isi crit in the Bourdon Building during the late 1990’s, I reflected on why we train architects in ugly, dismal and poorly-articulated buildings.  By contrast, the Mackintosh building is the best teaching tool an architecture student or tutor could have on their blonde sandstone doorstep.  Hopefully the restoration of the School of Art will reveal the anatomy of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s genius to a new generation.

Meantime, the first task for Simpson & Brown, or whoever gets the job of restoring Glasgow School of Art, will be to order up a large tanker of good luck for 167 Renfrew Street.

By Mark • Albums: independence

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.

By Mark • Albums: ghosts

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…

By Mark • Albums: independence

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.  We headed south to Belfort and 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…

By Mark • Albums: memory palace

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.

By Mark • Albums: memory palace

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.

By Mark • Albums: independence