Everyone can tell when you have a big project on site, because you start being philosophical about contractors, or Sympathy for the Construction Industry. We have a main contractor from over the North Channel, and a cladding contracts manager who is the spit of Samuel Beckett - with an aquiline face and glasses pushed up into his shock of grey hair.
So we shot the breeze. What conclusion did we reach? Of the many analogies you can draw to illuminate how building contractors operate – a three ring circus; the Muppet Show; or an anarchists’ symposium – the most apt is that of a medieval court.
In reality, whilst they may see themselves as progressive, the Main Board directors of large contractors actually preside over an organisation which is feudal, and at least 500 years out of date. Many construction firms cling to hierarchies, and confrontational ways of working – they think of themselves as a conquering army, and as a result, a passion for the fight overtakes good business sense. Perhaps that explains why their profit margins are so low despite their high turnover and huge amounts of capital employed.
Yet the power of the analogy really lies in what happens on site. I’ve watched several of the big contractors at close quarters – the stock market-listed leviathans – and they strongly resemble each other in how they do what they do. Immediately the contract is let, they arrive on site from elsewhere, much like the medieval court which voyaged around Scotland and set up in the fields around the castle. In this case, the tented camp takes the form of the site establishments: the huts.
Hut City is a diagram of the contractor’s power structure. Although the Lords Temporal aren’t here, room has to be made available in the admin offices for the courtiers, including a Darnley figure in the QS’s room. Visiting statesmen are accommodated in the meeting room, and there’s a retinue of camp followers who are provided with a staff mess to change into their courtly rigger boots. The men-at-arms are given a wee buckie and tabards marked “Security”. Then of course there is the baggage train, who deposit their shipping containers around the standard, just like a stockade.
Everything is painted in the house colours, and that livery even extends to clothing and tool boxes. Whilst that identifies everyone, it also makes it easy for fifth-columnists to merge with the ranks. It is surprisingly easy for a spy in the court to move freely: all it takes is a hat and tabard matching all the others wandering around on site. I know this because I’ve done it, and it proves that “security” on sites is illusory. Why would you climb the stockade of spiky-topped Heras fencing, when you can walk directly over the drawbridge and in through the main gate? That’s called being hidden in plain sight.
When a small, country-based builder takes on a project, he puts a portable bog and a tool store on site, then each day two or three of his vans turn up, filled with time-served tradesmen. By contrast, when the Court of the Crimson King comes to town, the resulting site establishment costs are crippling. By creating Hut City, you create a hiding place for the site management, who are already far removed from the lads on the tools. The site is by now a muddy plain resembling a battlefield, churned up by modern siege engines running on crawler tracks.
Don’t be fooled, archaeologists of the present, by the laser rangefinders, hydraulic piledrivers, and all-terrain dumpers: the early stages of construction are still dirty, crude and primitive. They take as their precedent the work of Dark Ages military engineers (the original “engineers”) who undermined city walls, built massive catapults, and rode in Trojan horses. Modern methods of construction have nothing on this: wall ties lie strewn like crossbow bolts, towers of scaffolding lay siege, and the impression of a mailed fist marks the place where the M&E sub fell out with the ceiling installers.
Construction is bad neighbour activity, much like pitched battles, because of the noise, filth, and the fog of war. At 7.30am sharp, a row of excavators and articulated dumptrucks are started up: the air fills with blue smoke, coarse language and the throbbing of many large capacity diesel engines. All this reassures the contractor that “there’s something gaein on”, even if he’s “jist steerin up the mud.”
So with his warlike attitude, an army of hangers-on, and the paraphenalia of battle, the big contractor needs to take the fight to the enemy. Or rather, he opens a second front. On one hand, the conflict continues with the architect over extras and delays; on the other, the sub-contractors endure a second round of tendering. In this, they are paying tribute a more powerful force. The royal house is building up a war chest, and imposing payment terms on the vassals is a good way of accomplishing that.
Anyhow, the analogy of military misadventure could be spun out for entertainment value, but it can be swiftly routed by noting what came after the Dark Ages … Enlightenment. 250 years ago, architects were called the “Masters of Works”. A client proposed to construct something: the architect liaised with him, then designed, organised and oversaw building work. The Adam Brothers offered a turnkey service, much as an architect-developer with a direct project management arm would do today.
The Victorians, by professionalising design, and splitting it from construction, set us back by several centuries. That lost time has yet to be recovered. Only by re-uniting the folk who draw buildings, with the folk who make them, will we drag the construction industry out of its Dark Ages.
Several decades ago there was an ideal of “Great Britain”. The broad, sunlit uplands of Churchill’s phrase evoke farmland dotted with Southdown sheep (the breed which look like woolly teddy bears) and hedges full of songbirds. The horizon is punctuated with spinneys of elm trees and the spires of parish churches. Did it ever exist in reality?
We released a long, pent-up breath and went in search of somewhere else … Unwittingly, just like Jonathan Meades, we found ourselves abroad in Britain.
During the 1940’s, the image of broad, sunlit uplands was a powerful metaphor; it gained currency during six years of total war. Spitfires roared overhead as the smell of roast beef wafted over a honeysuckle hedge. The ideal was something to yearn for while bogged down in the trenches of the Bulge.
During the flooding earlier this year, the uplands metaphor took on another significance, since the uplands aren’t floodplains. The Somerset Levels and Thames Basin were inundated; in previous years, the Humber at South Ferriby suffered, and before that the River Tay overtopped its embankments at Perth.
The higher land acted as a refuge from the flooding, just as it was a bulwark against the loss of British identity during wartime. That cherished landscape, abundant with trees, wildlife and villages has inspired many pieces of pastoral music, and perhaps you can already hear Vaughan Williams’ “Lark Ascending” playing in the distance…
A biographical article which I’m writing at the moment reminded me of the parallels between place, architecture and music. The visual and auditory cortices in the brain are closely allied: they have rhythm, structure and composition in common and sometimes they come together in a synaesthetic way. As I was writing, I thought about this song, which evokes the broad, sunlit uplands.
Talk Talk’s track, “New Grass” is topographical. The sound picture it draws is an open, rolling landscape; the warm-toned electric organ and lilting guitar achieve a feeling of tranquillity and disquiet. The music seems to capture what the uplands, but also hints at fears for their future. New Grass evokes a folk memory of agrarian Britain, particularly the years immediately before the Great War when radical young men in walking boots explored the countryside.
The Great War poets suggested that Britain’s essence lay in the pastoral, with its traditional and modest values: by contrast, the city was brash and inauthentic. That duality carried into the Modern era with poets such as W.B. Yeats who looked back to Thomas Hardy and forwards to Phillip Larkin. Similarly, it had a relationship with pastoral music where Talk Talk found a place of their own, between mystical Romantics like William Blake and composers such as Delius and Vaughan Williams.
“The Lark Ascending” was written at the start of the Great War when there was an underlying fear of the loss of countryside, culture and ways of life. Similarly, Mark Hollis of Talk Talk completed “New Grass” in the last years of the Thatcher government. The track was released in 1991, by which time much of the Green Belt had been lost, agribusiness had destroyed the hedgerows and joined hands with suburbia. The Idea of the South remained, but the reality had shifted.
That’s just my interpretation, of course, because Mark Hollis retreated from the showbusiness machine many years ago, and doesn’t seek out publicity. Apart from "Chaos" on the UNKLE album Psyence Fiction (the one with Futura’s cone-headed aliens on the cover) he has kept a very low profile. Maybe he decided that the yearning and wistfulness of New Grass said everything he needed to say.
Still, for me, New Grass *is* the South Downs, which roll gently towards the Channel. It’s more than an idealised version of wartime Britain: in that track the ideal, the image and the music are now inextricable with the place.
The South is another country. Where does it begin and end? You keep travelling until you run out of land in Sussex. Brighton seems the most English of towns, but it’s almost as close to Dieppe as to London. Nonetheless, the Great Wen has the same push-pull attraction on Brighton as it does on the rest of the country, and going up to London takes just an hour on the electric train. Perhaps it’s too close…
The North is far enough from London to seem exotic. From the wild moors above Haworth to the sooty gritstone of those dark satanic mills, it was captured in John Bulmer’s photojournalism from the 60’s, a Kestrel for a Knave, to the TV drama Our Friends in the North. For the metropolitan media, The North is Lancashire and Yorkshire; it’s Way Up North when you hit Teeside and Tyneside, and the Far North once you cross the Royal Border Bridge at Berwick.
At architecture school, I discovered how this perception differs according to your starting point. For people living near the south coast, The North would be an escape – but Scotland was like internal exile. Jo from Guildford, Nick from the Isle of Wight, Pat from Southampton: among their reasons for choosing Duncan of Jordanstone, so they claimed, was to get as far from home as possible…
At first, the hard-edged Scots tongue must have seemed abrasive. Those stone-built cities which climb up towards the Campsies, the Pentlands and the Sidlaws come from a different tradition. The clear air, harsh winters and heavy industry bred hard men and socialism. So the place was straightforwardly different, even though people are people across the world; all brothers and sisters under the skin.
As the North is to them, so the South to us.
One day, I escaped from London and explored the town at end of the sunlit uplands … Brighton … a magnet for teenage runaways, love-struck couples and musical dreamers. The hazy sunshine and mild winters are agreeable, and soft accents roll from stucco terraces which go down to the sea. Yet beyond the comfortable politics of reaction, there’s a community of bohemians and anarchists here, radicals on their own terms.
So, join the Little Magnets who tumble off the train like freshly-struck coins, then stroll along the Marine Parade and take in the swirl of hot dogs, candy floss, perfume and cigarettes around the Palace Pier. Leave the attics in bedsitter land and walk out along the front on a quiet midweek afternoon; saunter through the antiques markets and vintage clothing stores, hang out in the coffee shops and catch gigs at the Concorde.
The Brighton scene has pedigree: from Graham Greene and Mods & Rockers, to Quadrophenia and the Zap Club. I remember the cool graphics of club fliers which drew me there: punk was followed by indie music, then the crusties and acid house came along. Brighton also has a full-on graf scene: writers have made their mark in sprawling wildstyle. And it has COTS – the Colossus of the South – a series of vast stormwater chambers which tempt the bravest to explore during dry weather.
But most of all Brighton meant Transvision Vamp. I recall a friend at school, Scott Clark, who was a huge fan of Wendy James, but I can appreciate them for the music they wrote, too.
As she said in an interview, “I was a young teenager and the world was opening up for me… My life was beginning, that's how I remember Brighton. The world was full of possibilities, and Nick and I made our own bubble and lived in it, working, working, working towards the day that we would have our music ready for the world.” Freed from other peoples’ expectations, they were able to make themselves up as they went along.
That comes through in the music, along with the trashy aesthetic of Pop Art which chimed with Brighton, the saturated colours of Jamie Read’s posters along the Kings Road, the powerfully-amplified fairground music which encircles the pier and beneath it the onrush of the Channel breaking over the shingle beach.
Transvision Vamp became what Talk Talk began as: a pop band which sprang from punk. For a glorious moment, they achieved what they set out to do. They channelled all the yearning, the pent-up energy, and the self-discovery into three minute pop songs. Who knows what their equivalent is today; it certainly isn’t played on Radio 1.
That’s the first impression, of high-energy kinetic tracks such as “The Only One”. The song reaches its chorus, then… (Clarkson Pause) … the middle eight punches out. On a tinny iPod you pick up how compressed the guitars are, but over a club PA with a decent bass response, it destroys the place. It’s also a good example of eidesis. The lyrics don’t repeat through laziness: they repeat for effect, just like Miesian buildings gain much of their power through the unbroken repetition of the grid. That’s a rhythm thing.
The Gardyne Campus Library in Broughty Ferry was designed by Thoms & Wilkie and opened in autumn 1976 as part of the new Dundee College of Education. It was the last major work by this architectural practice, and arguably the best late-Modern era building in Dundee, set in mature parkland to the east of the city centre.
The new college was planned from around 1969 to replace the Edwardian-era college in Park Place. By 1970, Thoms & Wilkie had established that the building would be a series of “terraces” stepping up the hill, and that was set out in a big polystyrene and balsa model which featured in subsequent press coverage.
Gardyne Road, as the college was known, was built by Charles Gray Builders – one of their largest projects at that time – work began on site in June 1971, and construction was completed in May 1976. With a small palette of materials including beautifully-executed dimensional blockwork and varnished timber, this building is all about proportion and surface, with prismatic glazing growing from the main volume.
According to a contemporary article in The Courier, the college extended to over 300,000 sq.ft., and consisted of 400,000 concrete blocks set into a reinforced concrete frame with 40 foot main spans. The structure consumed 1500 tons of reinforcing steel, plus 40,000 tons of ready-mixed concrete supplied by Dundee Readymix Co.: special French-designed hydraulic formwork tables were used to support the coffered floorslab.
As a teacher-training college it had a working life of only 30 years, as the buildings stood largely empty after Dundee University vacated them in July 2007. At that point the library interior, with fair-faced columns and a coffered "waffle" ceiling, was completely original and intact, and walking amongst its columns, with the coffers high above, felt like crossing the floor of the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak.
I have fond memories of the place: firstly from the end of the 1980’s when I was at school and swimming lessons were held here. I usually made sure I had a cold so that I didn’t have to bother swimming: instead, I joined the reprobates at the side of the pool who shouted abuse at the swimmers and tried to push each other in.
The second era was at the start of the 2000’s, when I discovered that my University library ticket allowed me to borrow books from the Gardyne Campus library. Like the building fabric, the interior fit-out was also perfectly preserved from the late Seventies, with the original fawn-coloured needle-punch carpet, sage green moulded plastic chairs, and timber study carrels.
It was a sanctuary, and the glazed gallery around the edge of the library was reminiscent of both Jim Stirling’s work at St Andrews, Leicester and Cambridge; and the later Burrell Gallery in Glasgow was even closer in execution, its mass offset by similar bevelled patent glazing around the perimeter, hard against the landscaping. The warm, small scale reading spaces perfectly balanced the dark, high-ceilinged stacks which lay further into the plan.
On a weekday afternoon you could sit on the bright edge of the library and flick through books from the 1970’s which had long disappeared from other libraries. The shelves were stocked when the college opened and never really brought up to date: I got into Saul Bellow and Lawrence Durrell, and rediscovered Joseph Heller, thanks to its original librarian’s catholic tastes.
The building was part of the former Dundee College of Education, which became the Northern College in 1987, then part of Dundee University in 2001. Dundee College took the building on after the University left, and by 2009 the books had gone, but the shelves and tables were still there, along with worn patches in the carpet which 30 years’ worth of feet had rubbed.
The waffle soffit carried an Op Art pattern of striplights, staggered at 90 degrees to each other; beyond the library were long corridors with either vinyl tile or terracotta quarry tile flooring, and slatted ceilings of varnished red pine.
Rumours began to circulate that the Gardyne Road campus would be redeveloped, and this would entail demolishing the library. At the time, I felt that would count as cultural vandalism; nevertheless, demolition began at the end of 2009, and over the Christmas holidays the glassless walls let snow drift over the rubble.
The resulting “intervention” looks as grim as anything built in Dundee under the PFI Schools programme and is a dismal result which destroyed one of the best pieces of late Modernism in the city. It also speaks volumes about Dundee College’s disregard for learning environments.
Many of the best-known myths originate in Classical Greece. Prometheus, Midas and Achilles are well known throughout the western world. Scots myths don’t seem to travel well, perhaps because the Laird of Cockpen, or Bruce and the spider, have a certain couthy quality. By contrast, Greek myths are raw and powerful. The rawest is the mythical story of Elektra, related in dramatic form by Euripides, and made into an opera a century ago by Richard Strauss.
As it did in January 1909 when it was first performed in Dresden, Elektra still has the ability to propel you from your normal, reasoned existence into a place where savage, uncontrollable emotion wells up inside. The myth is part of the classical saga of the House of Agamemnon, a study of pathological hatred, sexual repression, and a parable of how violence begets violence.
Euripides shows that hatred kills the hater: Elektra is caught up in an act of vengeance against her mother, who murdered her father. In the opera, Strauss comes close to raw expressionism as he tries to represent the title character’s insanity. As a result, Elektra’s terrifying intensity has few parallels elsewhere in art. It is difficult enough to translate these feelings and experiences into literature or drama; transferring them into architecture seems almost an impossibility.
The experience of opera may be heightened by an element of fantasy: whether the dark, glamorous diva who sweeps across the foyer with her spray of black orchids, or that mysterious gent who is about to pull a silenced Browning Hi-Power from his cummerbund, and aim it at the foreign diplomat… The background to this may be baroque, rococco or merely a parametric architecture with an expensive polish.
Most environments we design are intended to be calm and rational: in fact, the Classical orders of architecture set out to achieve exactly that. It’s rare that anyone would wish to design somewhere at the opposite extreme, but such places do exist. Likewise the un-designed places which may have evolved over time – as in the case when you walk into the darkness of an abandoned railway tunnel, or a cave system. The complete absence of daylight, plus the strange acoustic of these places, suggests the Labyrinth, of Minotaur fame, and under the surface you certainly feel quite different to the world under the sun.
The senses are heightened, blood pulses in your ears, and your nerves are at a high key – despite depriving the senses of stimuli. Just make sure you take a torch, and a spare; plus a spare battery, and a spare for the spare … otherwise your mind will play tricks. The darkness does strange things to space – it grows and shrinks beyond the edge of the torch beam, and imaginary forms flit across the twilight beyond the torch beam. Fear can become an overwhelming emotion, if your imagination is left to its own devices.
Another example which springs to mind is the Rhubarb House. With its dank brick vaults hidden behind heavy wooden doors, rhubarb plants were “forced” in its darkness. The rhubarb was brought on when it was out of season, when it couldn’t grow outside due to the cold and darkness. Inside is absolute stillness, with moist air hanging at the back of the vaults and a soft carpet of humus and strawy manure which absorbs everything. When the rhubarb crowns are growing, set three feet apart and sprouting like triffids, their pale stalks and monstrous leaves dominate the space. Once they’ve been lifted, the hollow sheds are a void.
I’ve walked through them – tucked away in the Angus countryside, known by only by a handful of local people. There is a feeling of suppression and sensory deprivation in the vaults, and just like an anechoic chamber or a drainage culvert, they offer their own particular experience once you get used to the idea of being where you are. Claustrophobia is one symptom, or perhaps a vague unease about those cold, organic things with names like Timperley, Hawkes Champagne, or The Sutton.
The other extreme is a place of over-stimulation, which for these purposes we will call the Hazard Room. It does exist, somewhere south of the Pentlands – a place with yellow and black striped walls, floor and ceiling; strobing lights and revolving mirrors; sirens sounding at random; blasts of dry heat and freezing fog. Blood pressure and physiological stress levels are greatly increased: you are set on edge, and the space quickly becomes unendurable for anything more than short periods.
The loudness, exaltation, bizarre perspectives and confusing visual cues owe something to surrealism, and something more to Jungian psychology. No-one really knows why the Hazard Room was created, although its context suggests it was dreamed up by psychiatrists, or perhaps installation artists. It is not a comfortable place to be – but that’s the idea. It was designed to over-power with raw emotion to represent, or perhaps trigger, insanity.
The godfather of the study of these sensations is Edmund Burke, who attempted to theorise the sublime in his Philosophical Treatise of 1756. Burke was the first philosopher to scrutinise our sense of awe: what stimulates it, how it acts upon us, and why the triggers exist in our mind in the first place. He listed attributes such as obscurity, power, darkness, vastness, and magnitude. “To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”
Perhaps we need to feel, in a metaphysical sense, that there is something greater than us out there – whether through an understanding of religion, animism or aestheticism. Perhaps it does no harm to be jolted into a state of agitation by these extreme stimuli? This was the thesis of the Lettrist International, when they conceived their Formulary for a New Urbanism in the early 1950’s – that group of amateur revolutionaries later evolved onto the Situationists, who fomented the student rising in Paris in 1968. The Lettrists put forward a city which works directly on the passions and emotions, and they offered us a new conception of space:
“They are to be found in the magical spots of fairy stories and in some surrealist art: castles, great walls that cannot be climbed, small bars run to seed, caverns with a mammoth frozen in the ice, the mirror behind the pool table. Even as images as dated as these will have some power as a catalyst. Not that they could actually be used in a building a new symbolic town without being completely transformed, without being given a completely new sense. Our minds, ridden by key images from the past, have fallen far behind the sophistication of our machinery. The few attempts made to fuse modern science into a new myth that proved abortive. As a result, all contemporary art has been forced to become abstract – contemporary architecture being the worst example of all. Pure plastic art, telling no story and making no movement, cold and soothing to the eye …” - Gilles Ivain
The Situationists crystallised the impulses of their predecessors, such as the Lettrists’ “Formulary”, and Constant Nieuwenhuys went on to develop a radical proposal for an architecture in which all traces of conventional buildings and social institutions would be abandoned. Everyone would drift around in vast, labyrinthine interiors, which would be continuously reconstructed to meet their needs. Any desire could be satisfied, so the theory went, and new desires could be stimulated, along with new modes of behaviour – all through an architecture forever in flux. The underlying aim was to create an environment in which we experienced a far wider range of sensations than today.
Similarly, one of Constant’s Situationist colleagues, the Scots writer Alex Trocchi, developed a radical new kind of university (in a loose sense) called the Sigma Project. As the name suggests, it was intended as a summation of the many strands of human experience and knowledge, and owed something to the Black Mountain School of the 1950’s. Raw emotion might be harnessed alongside rational analysis – so that “Primal Scream” therapy and psychotropics might play their part in a curriculum that extended self-discovery across a wide range of arts, sciences and humanities.
More recently, Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin could be construed as an architecture of raw emotion: the harsh surfaces, disorientating floor planes and jagged forms are designed to challenge, and make you feel unsettled. It’s the embodiment of unheimlich, a German word which is slightly tricky to translate. It describes the uneasy feeling which raises the birse on the back of your neck; the edginess you feel when you know something’s out of place.
Unheimlich is what countless horror film-makers have attempted to capture: it’s the noises off in pictures like “Silent Hill” which create a clautrophobic atmosphere and account for their creepiness. These cues touch primitive parts of our brains, where the gut instincts live, and which fight the rational thoughts that tell us nothing is amiss.
Why do we need these stimuli? Firstly, at the very core of our humanity is a need to explore the world around us, and our inner selves. We seem to lose a certain degree of curiosity as we grow older, but it remains at the heart of some peoples’ lives. They need to feel challenged, to see and experience new things, and they aren’t satisfied with simply ignoring those parts of the city that the authorities have proscribed.
Secondly, we live in a heavily moderated and constrained world. A good Health & Safety culture on building sites is essential, because they are dangerous places – but it has extended into the safest parts of everyday life, arguably making us too risk averse. Because of this, we no longer live a complete existence, we do not experience life fully, nor by extension do we experience the fullest range of sensations and human emotions. After all, a dangerous world is an interesting place to be, and it will teach you to trust your own judgement, to understand your limits, and crucially it will teach self-reliance.
Meanwhile, what about Richard Strauss? It’s been suggested that because he and his librettist, Hofmannstahl, worked in fin-de-siecle Europe, consequently their operatic works were Art Nouveau. However, not everyone working at a given time uses the same aesthetic, and in fact artists often react against a prevailing trend. Edward Munch (who painted “The Scream”) is one of few artists to approach the metaphysical savagery of Strauss’s Elektra, whilst his contemporaries such as Gustav Klimt followed a very different path.
Similarly, none of the Art Nouveau architects, such as Horta, Mackintosh or Hoffman tried to cast those emotions into stone: in fact, the harmonious forms and flowing lines of their buildings seem to embody calmness and control, the very antithesis of raw emotion.
Elektra, then, is out on her own.
Smell is an under-rated sense and one we rarely deploy when thinking about architecture. We’re trained to think visually, with some understanding of tactile things, too. Form, scale, mass, light and shade are understood and described in a sophisticated and nuanced way, because we deal with them constantly.
Nevertheless, smell is inescapable. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”, growled Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. That association may never leave American soldiers who served in Vietnam. Similarly, architecture goes well beyond the visual.
When the exhibition "Beauty and Waste in the Architecture of Herzog & De Meuron" was staged at the Netherlands Architecture Institute in 2005, the architects created a limited edition perfume called Rotterdam, which listed Rhine water, dog, hashish, algae, vin chaud, fur and tangerine amongst its components. “Since architecture itself cannot be exhibited,” said Jacques Herzog, “we are forever compelled to find substitutes." So they collaborated with a perfumer to fill that void.
Peter Zumthor also touched on the notion of architecture being broader than that in his RIBA Gold Medal address in 2013. “Architecture is not about form, it is about many other things,” he said. “The light and the use, and the structure, and the shadow, the smell and so on.” Yet most smells are by-products of something else. They just happen, rather than being designed.
That’s one difference between buildings and people: people make a conscious decision to smell a particular way. They design themselves, when it comes to aftershave or perfume. Today the desire to own a few drops of liquid sophistication is what supports a £15-billion-a-year fragrance industry. Its results are tangible - often overpowering - yet rather subjective. Smells aren’t easy to define, beyond a concentration of parts per million (ppm) of many different chemicals in the air.
Sound, temperature and humidity in the air are measured in a scientific way; but smell itself is fugitive and the palette, or perhaps palate, required to describe it requires discrimination. It’s defined using a series of words: the whisky nose, the wine buff, the perfume connoisseur each have their exclusive vocabulary.
Perhaps it should be simpler; after all, smell is universal. Whether the scents which take you back to childhood such the cedarwood of a sharpened pencil, or deep in a forest after the rain with wet moss, pine needles and lots of oxygen released into the air, smell is about analogy, and perfumers design scents to evoke these and many other different things.
In fact, scent is literally a chemical analogue of a real thing. Sea salt and ozone are evoked using calzone, the strong scent of the bitter orange is represented by petitgrain, and the muskiness of a furry creature crawling from its den comes from castoreum or civet. There are also the manly smells which work their way into cologne: the aromatics and aldehydes in whisky; or the leathery smell of upholstery and farriers’ shops which inspired “cuir de russie”.
Buildings might also be designed to smell a particular way - if you lined a room with cedarwood panels or floored it with linoleum for the express purpose of spreading the material’s scent. We’re drawn to organic smells, which are wired into our ancestral memory. We feel an affinity towards timber smells - oak tannin, pinewood, cedar - and earth smells such as terracotta, stucco and concrete. Perhaps there’s a receptor in our brain which recalls the smells of medieval houses, the huts before them, then way back to prehistoric caves and forest shelters.
Although we consider that an unoccupied space is empty – aside from its furniture and fittings, the mass of air inside the building picks up aroma because when you sense a smell, you’re actually breathing in molecules of the building material themselves. You may even savour the smell of new buildings. Outside, the smell of wet subsoil and the acrid exhaust of a heavy plant, plus sharp bursts of burning powder from the Hilti gun.
Inside, freshly-ripped softwood gives you the crisp smell of pine as the resin oozes from its sap, then there’s the sharp, limey, bitter smell of new concrete as it cures, and the complex formaldehydes of carpet tiles as they off-gas. Once occupied, the building’s materials settle into the background, providing what perfumers call a “base note” - while a shrill mixture of furniture polish, toilet cleaner and air freshener hits you when you come through the door.
Those are the scents of individual buildings, which combine into a city-wide smell. That can be just as distinctive and as someone else said, Paris is the capital of smell. Balzac, perhaps: “Tout parfum est une combinaison d’air et de lumiere.” Many of the worlds’ great perfume houses grew up there, in grand townhouses off Hausmann’s boulevardes. From the giants of perfumery owned by LVMH, to the niche firms such as Creed or Diptyque, to the candlemakers, Cire Trudon. Given the Parisian sensibility, it’s no surprise that Parisians are stimulated by the noxious as well as the sweet.
One of the most unflattering descriptions was La Morandière’s description of the Palace of Versailles - “The cesspool that adjoins the palace, the park, the gardens, even the castle catches one’s breath with its stinking odours. The paths, the courtyards, the wings of the buildings, the hallways are filled with urine and fecal matter even at the very feet of the ministerial wing, a butcher bleeds and grills his pork every morning, the St. Cloud Avenue is covered with sewer water and dead cats.″
Yet you can combat the latter quite easily. During the Middle Ages, herbs such as chamomile, meadowsweet and lavender were strewn on the ground to give off a sweet smell when trampled, which grew into the Corpus Domini ritual of the flower-carpeted street. Sweet woodruff was hung from kirk rafters, rosemary was burned in hospitals to purify the air, and fires of juniper and laurel branches were lit in city squares during epidemics.
Trees such as cedar, juniper, thuya and laurel are fragrant thanks to their essential oils, which also repel insects and offer some measure of rot-resistance. Using them, plus the first man-made olfactories which we synthesised in Victorian times, we attempted to sanitise the city. Centuries later, we’ve got rid of the smells of horse manure, industrial effluent and latterly vehicle exhaust: yet if you walk through Glasgow, Manchester, Dublin or any other large city today, the impression you still gain is one of rancid piss, unemptied bins and sour drains.
The voiceover man in a recent documentary about Glasgow’s Duke Street, which is Britain’s longest pointed out, “Dirt, filth, stench everywhere - and believe me, there are back courts just as bad as this throughout Glasgow.” When we used fragrant plants to mask those bad smells, that was a reductive use of scent. By contrast, modern cities bombard us with additive smells.
Supermarkets smell a particular way for carefully calculated reasons. Just as they fine-tune the colour temperature of lighting over the fruit displays, and control the volume and tempo of music (Mahler works better than Metallica if you want wine buyers to linger in the Reisling aisle), then the yeasty pastry smell which meets you at the door of Waitrose was designed that way. Similarly, Starbucks, Walt Disney and Dunkin Donuts are reputed to carry out environmental conditioning to “enhance the visitor experience”, ie. using smells to sell more stuff.
This enhancement by scent in buildings isn’t a new idea … in fact, we rarely come across genuinely new ideas – and when we do, we dismiss them too readily because they strike us as sorts with the way we already understand the world. For example, where I grew up there were lots of invisible boundaries. One was the postcode boundary between suburb and countryside, another the catchment line which separated neighbouring primary schools. A subtler one was the Clean Air Act line: houses on one side were built in the 1960’s and had at least one chimney. On the other side, nae lums.
Before central heating banished smoke from our houses, wood fires scented the house and folk with fireplaces, who ignore them throughout the rest of the year, often make up a fire at Christmas time with pine logs. Pine smoke is a welcoming, festive smell… which is now so unfamiliar in the city that we have to visit the grandparents to enjoy the sweet smell of kindling and the acrid smell of bituminous coal banked up in the grate.
Perhaps the Clean Air Act was a turning point, during some otherwise unremarkable year in the 1960’s when the city smelt a little more sterile, ironically just as the perfume houses released all those potent musk colognes and patchouli perfumes which our parents began wearing. Simultaneously, the 1950’s world of coal gas and soot, bleach and carbolic, Woodbines and Izal receded into memory.
The more strongly individuals smell, the more architecture collectively fades into the background. Perhaps that’s another difference between buildings and people.
I’ll return to this again in future, as I’m interested in what the future looks like, and smells like…
A while ago, I wrote about the Beech Starship, a business aircraft which looks like an artefact from a future civilisation. By contrast, the DH103 Hornet fighter appears hopelessly old-fashioned – yet it reached almost 500mph in level flight, which made it the fastest piston-engined aircraft of its day. It could cruise at the speed of many today’s airliners, and outran the first jet-powered fighters.
In many senses, the Hornet was the piston-engined aircraft perfected.
A few weeks ago, the BBC showed a documentary about Eric “Winkle” Brown, the Scots-born test pilot. As a naval aviator, he set a record for the number of landings on aircraft carriers which has never been beaten, and when in his unassuming way Brown describes the Hornet as the favourite from all the different aircraft he flew, that means something. Captain Brown has flown more types of aircraft than anyone else in history.
Eric Brown is a top candidate for the Most Interesting Man in the World. As a schoolboy, he attended the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and met a WW1 flying ace. During WW2, he escaped from the wreckage of a torpedoed ship, helped to liberate Belsen and took 2,000 enemy prisoners armed only with a pistol – not to mention a few close calls where he had to abort and promptly GTFO using a parachute. After the War ended, he interrogated leading Nazis including Hermann Goering, aircraft manufacturer Ernst Heinkel and designer Willie Messerschmitt. Brown was the first man to fly a jet on and off an aircraft carrier, and he set aviation records that will almost certainly never be broken.
The de Havilland Hornet was his favourite, "For the simple reason it was over-powered. This is an unusual feature in an aircraft, you could do anything on one engine, almost, that you could do on two. It was a 'hot rod Mosquito' really, I always described it as like flying a Ferrari in the sky." The Hornet was the fastest twin piston-engined operational combat aircraft in the world while in service, and the first aircraft to demonstrate a cartwheel manoeuvre.
At the root of any aircraft’s design is the equation which resolves power, weight, lift, drag and trim into performance. In simplistic terms, power makes an aircraft climb whereas attitude varies its speed. The Hornet’s high rate of climb came thanks to the Rolls-Royce Merlin, arguably the engine of the 20th Century, which in this case developed more than 2000hp from 27 litres of swept volume. Just like the Mosquito, the Hornet had a pair of Merlins but in this case they were faired into streamlined “power eggs”.
The Hornet’s top speed is partly the function of a low co-efficient of drag arising from a sleek fuselage and a laminar flow wing; this thin wing was made possible by new materials. The Hornet’s long range came thanks to its light weight; both strength and light weight derived from de Havilland’s early mastery of composite construction.
During the 1930’s, aircraft structures evolved from doped fabric stretched across an ash frame, to the geodesic spaceframe of steel tubes which Barnes Wallis used in the Wellington bomber, and eventually to all-metal stressed skin structures. De Havillands went their own way, searching for a different method of achieving strength and lightness. They settled on timber, but rather than a load-bearing timber frame (like a Morgan car or a timber kit house) they developed the first composite monocoque.
Unlike the Beech Starship, a revolutionary aircraft which used carbon composites, the Hornet wasn’t a great leap into the unknown; it’s an evolutionary aircraft, albeit one at the very apex of its line of evolution. De Havillands had been working on composites for a decade before the first Hornet took flight - although their initial objective was to build stronger, lighter propellers.
In order to cope with more powerful engines, propellers had grown in diameter, gained more blades, and their tip speeds were approaching the sound barrier. As a result, the centrifugal forces at the propeller hub had increased to the point where there were many catastrophic failures. De Havilland Propellers worked with Aero Research at Duxford to overcome the drawbacks of laminated timber props, successfully using phenol-formaldehyde resin in the manufacture of propellers. The attraction of this material was that, with a density of around half that of aluminium alloy, centrifugal forces at the root were greatly reduced.
De Havillands was a rare aircraft company which made everything for itself. Piston engines were built at Stag Lane in Edgware, then jet engines and later rocket motors plus of course complete aircraft at Hatfield, Leavesden and later Hawarden. As a result, it was able to cross-fertilise materials research between propellors, wings and fuselage design.
The work on propellers “spun off” into fuselage and wing structures for the (almost) all-timber Mosquito, which the wartime Press christened the Wooden Wonder. The Mosquito was built from sandwich panels consisting of thin skins of plywood veneer bonded to a core of end-grain balsa wood. The core functions just like the web of an I-beam while the plywood skins function as the flanges. The sandwich panel's bending stiffness is proportional to the core thickness, in the same way that an I-beam becomes stiffer as the web deepens. Doubling the core thickness yields a panel roughly six times stronger and 12 times stiffer.
At a time when other WW2 combatants were desperately trying to smelt cobalt, vanadium and other rare metals into exotic alloys, it seems bizarre that de Havillands were in the market for balsa wood. You can only assume that German spies put this down to British eccentricity, if they even remarked on it at all, yet Baltek’s sawmills in America struggled to keep up with demand. Today the technology seems so accessible; hobbyists and model-makers have access to the same plywood veneers, balsa wood and epoxy glues that de Havillands used.
Plywood was a relatively new material, and also a composite, with plies of different thicknesses and orientations providing degrees of strength and stiffness. As well as de Havilland themselves, the Mosquito was built by Roe, Gloster, Phillips & Powis and even Venesta –the forerunner of Venesta Cubicles which is still in business today. In 1937 their "Venesta" plywood and "Plymax" metal-faced plywood made them an ideal choice as fabricators of ply composite aircraft such as the Mosquito.
The DH103 Hornet evolved from the DH98 Mosquito - and as is the way of things, it became lighter, faster, more powerful and stronger. Once step forward was the way de Havilland built the Hornet’s wing spars, and another was the wing surfaces themselves.
Mosquito wing spars have all-wooden tension and compression booms, but this would have been impossible for the Hornet, because of the large cross-section of wood necessary for the more highly-loaded wing. The problem was overcome by making the tension booms from aluminium extrusions, and using wood for the spar webs and compression booms. A layer of veneer was bonded to the aluminium parts then everything was assembled to form a spar of remarkably low weight and high strength.
The Hornet’s wings comprised an aerofoil with a composite wood and metal internal structure, with a stressed birch-ply double upper skin and an under surface of reinforced “Alclad”. This was the first time that aluminium had been bonded to timber in a structural fashion. Lift acting on the Hornet’s wing meant that the metal skin on the underside of the wing went into tension, and the ply-balsa composite went into compression – so the materials’ inherent qualities were used to best advantage.
The idea of combining skins of ply and aluminium with a lightweight core was a conceptual leap born of on a new generation of synthetic adhesives. De Havillands’ composite structures relied upon a new epoxy resin developed by Aero Research. This glue, “Redux 775”, was developed in 1941 as the first modern, synthetic structural adhesive for metals - and it was first used in the Hornet Mk1 which was built at Hatfield.
In 1948, de Havillands acquired an aircraft factory at Hawarden Airfield near Chester: it was used to build and assemble the Hornet Mk3, while other parts were manufactured at the firm’s factory in nearby Lostock. The Hornet’s fuselage was built in two halves which joined together on the centreline, so called “egg carton” construction using cold moulding to form the curves.
This monocoque structure gave the fuselage a high degree of redundancy which meant that the aircraft could sustain terrible damage yet keep flying. Many Mosquitos returned home missing large chunks of wings, fins and control surfaces, shot away by enemy cannon fire. Timber composites also avoided the hidden dangers of metal fatigue, which de Havilland fell foul of with their Comet airliner during the 1950’s.
Without the work of Aero Research and de Havilland Aircraft in the 1930’s and 1940’s, it’s arguable that there would be no plywood composites or structural adhesives, hence the SIP panel and the JJI joist wouldn’t exist, either. It’s also worth noting that the Beech Starship, which was hailed as revolutionary in form and construction, isn’t as original as I implied. The Starship was also built in two halves, and epoxy resins were also used to bond its composites together.
Although it marked the apex of de Havilland’s piston engine development, there’s no sense in which de Havillands developed a Pygmalion-like relationship with the Hornet. Even as it first flew in 1944, the firm was already building jet-propelled aircraft, so the Hornet’s career was cut short. Nonetheless, its gift to us all is composite construction, which the designers of racing cars, airliners, yachts, buildings and even fridge freezers take for granted.
The late Martin Pawley was fascinated by these technology transfers, and the crossovers between architecture and other fields. As a columnist in the AJ, BD and so forth he wrote about the design of tube trains, cars and aircraft – seeing them as complementary to architecture. He recognised the truisms that racing improves the breed, and war pushes technology forwards faster than peace. While this bandwagon was passing, I thought I'd jump onto it…
Pawley was in tune with the spirit prevailing during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, when Richard Horden built a series of houses using off-the-shelf components from racing yachts, then Rogers and Foster completed a series of buildings which borrowed from the automotive and aerospace industries, such as neoprene gaskets and super-formed metals. This climate gave birth to a thousand architectural dissertations about Lotus sports cars, Slingsby sailplanes and McLaren F1.
Unwittingly, they echoed a pattern from 50 years before, when wartime firms desperately hunted around for peacetime outlets once hostilities ended. De Havilland were fortunate, as their focus shifted readily from military to civilian aircraft. Venesta gave up flying and came to specialise in toilet cubicles and IPS systems. Others were not so lucky.
What about the legacy of Ronald Bishop, who designed the Hornet? He should be remembered for helping to win the War using pioneering materials: but today it seems that War means rousing musicals, martial style (smart uniforms never go out of fashion) and the cult of the Great Man. Our superficial treatment of that era ignores Bishop and his counterparts Barnes Wallis, RJ Mitchell and Roy Chadwick who were responsible for the Wellington, Spitfire and Lancaster respectively.
They were complete designers, in the sense that they harnessed materials science, structures, aerodynamics, manufacturing techniques as well as considering damage tolerance and repairability. They also had a sense of purpose which is difficult for us to grasp now: they were part of Churchill’s enormous enterprise which stretched from shadow factories making widgets to the invention of operational research.
The sadness is that no Hornets survive at all today, although there are rumours that an entire squadron was dismantled and buried under an airfield in Malaysia when they became surplus to requirements. It seems unlikely that anyone will disinter them, but you never know…
Images courtesy of the Hornet Project website, which has temporarily disappeared from the web.
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…
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
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.
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.