Two things characterise Scottish industry in the 21st century: the richness of its heritage, and the dismaying speed with which parts have been wound down. This process, often called de-industrialisation, has become a recurrent theme, devastating coal and steel, shipbuilding, truck manufacture and even food production. It has touched every aspect of Scottish life, from our politics, economy, architecture, to our literature – Archie Hind’s “Dear Green Place” features the relict industrial landscape around Clydebridge, and Jeff Torrington’s “The Devil’s Carousel” describes the demise of the Rootes factory at Linwood. Each slash of destruction cuts deeply into our identity, and our sense of ourselves. It also harms the 250 year heritage of industrial buildings which those industries built around them.
Heavy industries from the first wave of the Industrial Revolution were also the first to be devastated. Deep coal mining ended in this country several years ago, and all traces of the last of the fireclay companies disappeared before that. Yet Scotland had some of the largest and most modern pits in Europe, such as Seafield and Longannet; and companies like Glenboig Union Fireclay and Stein Refractories were world-leading enterprises in the 20th century. Almost all traces of them have disappeared, as if their legacy was deliberately erased: but that means the legacy their architecture has also been thrown away. The dramatic concrete winding towers designed by Egon Riss for the National Coal Board have virtually all gone. Giant northlight sheds which once held dozens of tunnel kilns have been levelled. Other industries have been similarly affected. Their loss hits Scotland on every level, and that makes the case for a Scottish industrial museum all the more compelling.
That museum’s role should be to save not only ephemera from these moribund companies (things such as ledgers, letterheads and catalogues which sit easily on the shelves of archives) but also a representative selection of the machinery they used, which is more difficult to accommodate; and also the buildings which housed them, without which it’s almost impossible to appreciate their context. Properly conserving our industrial heritage means looking after them all. In some cases that means retaining buildings intact, in others campaigning to have them listed, or sensitively converted to another use. At the very least, it means photographing the factory, mill or works both inside and out before it is altered or destroyed. The rate of change today means that the window of opportunity is often brief.
RCAHMS has already recorded a range of industrial premises, but these buildings make up a small part of Scotland’s industrial heritage, and the need to conserve extends far beyond them. Our industrial patrimony includes some unique buildings, from the ground-breaking North British Diesel Works at Whiteinch, one of the very first Modern Movement buildings – to Paton’s Mill in Johnstone, claimed to be the world’s first machine factory. Whilst historic complexes like New Lanark and Stanley Mills have been saved for posterity, Paton’s Mill wasn’t so fortunate. After closure, it was allowed to decay irretrievably – and that neglect emphasises how important the work of recording is.
Of course, some sectors of Scotland’s industrial sector have succeeded, and ironically an ongoing record of their achievements is also necessary, because success means unremitting change and development. As much can be lost in a restructuring as a closure, and architecture is often the first thing to disappear, as in the re-construction of shipyards and papermills in the 1960’s and 1970’s. For example, BAE Systems’ two shipyards at Govan and Yarrows are still in business, but building ships in radically different ways to their predecessors 50 years ago. That means the old fabrication halls and sail lofts have gone, replaced by covered building bays which are simple, steel-clad sheds. Similarly, at the Carrongrove papermill at Denny, modern machine houses were constructed over the ruins of the old – although both ancient and modern alike have now been demolished.
So industrial preservation has to cover the spectrum, trying to preserve a disparate range of activities housed in a diverse cross-section of architecture. From the triple-expansion steam engines pioneered by firms like David Rowan, to the armaments of William Beardmores; from Alfred Nobel’s huge dynamite factory in Ayrshire, to the electric motors built by Bruce Peebles of Edinburgh, or Barr & Stroud’s precision optics: each one generated its own peculiar and unique buildings. Sometimes they are monumental stone-built workshops from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, sometimes strange metal-buttressed hills as at Ardeer, where Nobel perfected his explosives. Even though the architectures are radically different, the aims of industrial preservation are the same.
Accordingly, we need to rescue things which would otherwise be destroyed; to preserve unique and important aspects from each industry; to conserve artefacts where they have begun to decay; to interpret those relics so that their purpose is clear; and to spread knowledge about the importance of preservation. The “bricks-and-mortar” museum is important, since it provides a container for what has been saved already, and a springboard for the work of saving what remains.
Hopefully this piece explains some of the motives behind previous blog articles, and will help make sense of the things which follow…
To follow on from an article I wrote elsewhere about community design, I thought it would be worth explaining where some of the ideas behind shared space stem from, since the two concepts seem complementary. Following the logic through also throws up an unexpected conclusion…
“Radburn Crescent” began life as a traditional street, in the sense of a strip of tarmac 5.5 metres wide, with pavements roughly 1.5 metres wide on each side. The transition between the two is a line of precast concrete bullnose kerbing, which is complemented each evening by an unbroken line of parked cars. It’s a piece of traffic engineering. Speeds in Radburn Crescent are high, at up to 30mph, considering it leads nowhere other than past folks’ houses. In some ways the changes needed to make it more like a woonerf, a kerb-less street first introduced in the Netherlands in the 1970s, are slight but significant.
A woonerf is usually residential, and translated literally from the Dutch it means a “living yard”; rather than having separate roadway and pavements, everyone shares one surface. For the woonerf to succeed, speeds have to be low – perhaps even lower than the 20mph speed limit which is gradually being brought in for housing estates across the country. The implicit idea is that if a street is suitable for children to play on, it will be safe enough for adult pedestrians, too.
Most people associate the idea of the shared surface or shared space with Holland, but arguably its roots lie in a report published in Britain by the Ministry of Transport in the early 1960’s. Colin Buchanan, who was an architect as well as a roads engineer, was tasked with investigating what could be done to reduce congestion and acknowledge the impact of the car. Even in the Sixties, there was a burgeoning conflict between cars and towns. Buchanan’s team came up with a technique for rejigging urban road systems by creating zones which they called “urban rooms”.
These rooms would acknowledge issues like noise, pollution, social activity, pedestrian routes and aesthetics. Depending on the prevailing requirements, some would segregate traffic and pedestrians completely, whilst others would allow pedestrians and vehicles to mix in the street. It was a seemingly obvious yet subtly revolutionary – though ironically the “Traffic in Towns” report had a much greater impact in continental Europe than it did in Britain. German and Dutch planners enthusiastically adopted the idea, and many still refer to Buchanan as the father of traffic calming.
A few years later, in 1976, the first Woonerfen were built following a new set of guidelines – “Pedestrians may use the full width of the highway within an area defined as a woonerf; playing on the roadway is also permitted. Drivers within a woonerf may not drive faster than at a walking pace. They must make allowance for the possible presence of pedestrians, including children at play, unmarked objects and irregularities in the road surface, and the alignment of the roadway.”
In due course, the woonerf spread from Holland to Denmark, Sweden, Germany and eventually back to Britain – in this country it’s often called a Homezone, which equates to a Wohnstraße in German-speaking countries. I recently passed through Holland on a road trip, and woonerfen were quite evident in Eindhoven – although on busier roads traffic was still segregated, even to the point where pavements were divided into a cycle lane and a pedestrian lane. Beware of the cycle lanes, though: the Dutch allow folk to ride motor scooters along them, and as we stood admiring an old Philips factory, we were nearly mown down by mini-Mods on a Vespa…
Travelling further back in time to seek the roots of the Woonerf, and of Colin Buchanan’s report, many streets in the north-west of England, around Salford, Wigan and Liverpool were designated as “Play Streets” in the years after the war. No cars were allowed to drive down them between 8am and dusk, hence effectively “traffic calming” them, and without the need for speed humps, either. That posits the question about quality of place: is it just about the lack of cars? In a moment of lucidity, I realised that traffic speeds and volumes ultimately work their way back to the pivotal factor of density.
High density inner cities were the grail of urban designers for many years, and even yet many look to create medium density, low rise cities. They seem very “sustainable”, given the aim of creating walkable neighbourhoods with schools, shops, parks and public transport within a ten minute walk. By that token, the very low density landscape of crofts that you find in rural Angus or Aberdeenshire is desperately unsustainable. After all, it appears you have to drive everywhere – for shops, for school, even for work – because crofts are strung out along valleys, on winding tracks that lead off equally winding B-roads. So far, so what, because the answers for urbanists lie in urban design.
The size of settlements usually relates to the provision of services: a series of clusters might be populous enough to support a primary school. Population thresholds for the viability of local services are always under attack – schools, libraries, banks and post offices are still being closed down by an unsympathetic government and its agencies – it seems the natural thing to do is to increase population density until it supports those services. That also pushes up land values, and helps to generate the margin needed to build things.
Turn again, Dick Whittington. The answer might lie instead in rural design. We already have thousands of small communities which are sustainable to an extent because they’ve dealt with the issues of density. Shopping can still be bought thanks to travelling shops, schools are reached using school buses, and work is integrated thanks to many villages being truly “mixed-use” clusters of dwellings and workshops. More importantly for the shared space thesis, there’s no need for any intervention on the single track leading up to a croft house – the narrow roadway is implicitly shared, by tractors, bikes, sheep and children.
Rough metalling, hedges, bends and potholes combine to foster low speeds, so there’s no need to artificially traffic calm them with the much-hated speed humps. Land values may not support the kind of traffic engineering you find in cities – blacktop with drainage, winter gritting, road markings retro-reflective signs, and cats’ eyes are expensive – but perhaps much of that is overkill. If urban streets were de-engineered, simplified and greened, speeds would naturally reduce. They might also have a resonance for hard-pressed city dwellers tired of deterministic design – whether from urbanists or traffic engineers.
Perhaps Colin Buchanan’s urban room and the woonerf’s living yard have a future in the countryside.
When the future looks back on the present, it will see everything and nothing. Thanks to the proliferation of cheap digital cameras and the accessibility of photo-sharing websites, events are recorded and uploaded to the net within hours of taking place. Current affairs is simple, when you have thousands of pictures of Knut the polar bear, or the death of Concorde at Gonesse, within hours of them being taken.
A virtual record of the world has quietly usurped the physical one. In the late 1980’s, “The End of the Book” was gloomily predicted by newspaper columnists. Funnily enough, the book is still with us, as are those Cassandras, but other kinds of printed matter are disappearing. More traditionally-run architects’ offices still have what might be called a “paper library” of product brochures, samples and literature. Some of the material is a few years old, yet although out of date, it still forms a useful record of what was used on previous schemes. But physical catalogues began to be replaced by CD-Rom’s in the mid-1990’s, then websites with downloadable PDF’s by the start of the 2000’s. Although paper-based catalogues are still available, many architects go immediately to the website because it tends to be up-to-date. We have faith in the currency of information on the web.
Yet what happens if you want something which isn’t up to date – say you’re trying to match a radiator installed fifteen years ago in the first phase of a project; or track down vaguely-remembered old product; or perhaps you’re one of those insatiably curious people who research old things in order to write magazine articles about them? The strength of the internet becomes its greatest weakness: if it is instantly up-to-date, the corollary surely is that there is nothing out-of-date to be had there. Even when an old PDF file or screen grab is lurking on your hard drive – can it be dated accurately, and does it have any integrity? After all, everything on the internet is mutable – an image file can be Photoshopped so readily that Uncle Joe Stalin might have written the software himself.
So you are forced to fall back on the old ways, to collect dusty catalogues which too often tumble off shelves into the wastepaper basket. If you have access to a product library that hasn’t been cleared out in a while, there may be some interesting stuff lurking there. This is true particularly when trying to establish the trajectory of a company which has been taken over – the old brochures may give you lots of background on its history, which the new owners have no interest in. Whilst the graphics and production of brochures have changed over time, it’s certain that today’s ephemera will become tomorrow’s collectables, particularly as the current slew of printed matter may be the last we see, before it goes “all digital”.
Specialist book dealers maintain a small but valuable trade in old catalogues and manuals – though predictably they concentrate on those with visual appeal, such as Victorian-era compendia from ironfounders featuring hundreds of engravings of fancy castings; or unusual sales pamphlets bound in silk cord and leather boards. As many have said, the internet takes away the pleasure of holding something in your hands and feeling some connection to the people who made it.
Then, of course, we also maintain a record of our own ideas on paper. The working sketchbook is a home for ideas which would otherwise be homeless. Architects aren’t unique in using sketchbooks or notebooks, but we use them in a different way to artists or writers. I’ve got a line of them on the shelf, 15 years’ worth, which range from smaller than A5 to foolscap. Not nearly so many books as Bruce Chatwin kept – he used little black-covered Moleskine pocket books which he bought in Paris, and went through a dozen in a year; as he recounted in “The Songlines”. Once he discovered that the sole remaining bookbinder was to stop making them, he made a special trip to buy them up in bulk. Nor as many as Lebbeus Woods, who has an inexhaustible supply of notebooks bound in coarse linen and filled with his cryptic sketches: he occasionally scans some pages to put on his blog, which is an inspirational place in itself.
At degree shows, a small pile of dog-eared sketchbooks is a good sign, and the first thing I tend to do is pick them up and leaf through them. If you’re fortunate, you will see the inner workings of a thought process, which culminates in the final sheets tacked to the wall. For others, the sketchbook is a place to jot down disconnected thoughts, in the hope that a pattern will emerge in time: the book is a means rather than an end, it will be carried around and stared at until something jumps out. That method also leads inevitably to the working sketchbook’s typical character, that of expediency. The pages are covered in scorings out, tippex, doodles in many different inks. It’s creative death to treat it as presentation material.
Similarly, it’s irrelevant what the physical book is. If, like Bruce Chatwin, you’re hung up on the book’s appearance, then the vessel has become more important than the cargo. Mine came from countless different places: a local stationer, an art store in a distant town, off the Ebay website, from a bookbinder in the Black Mountains, and via a mail order company which stopped selling them immediately after I bought one and decided it was ideal! One even came as a free sample after the charming rep of a French papermaker took pity on me. Yet what they are when new doesn’t matter: what’s important is what they become. Most are old and battered by the time they’re full … full but never “complete”.
One strength of these working sketchbooks is that you can go back to use them as a quarry. They are a tool for thinking with, returned to at intervals as the thinking develops. Using bound books also saves back-of-envelope sketches from being posted in the bin, accidentally.
Quite different is the holiday sketchbook, in which the privileged record southern France in quavering pencil and insipid watercolour: the drawings, and how they’re made, are self-conscious. They are seen as an end in themselves; because of that, they’re no place for creative experimentation. They’re too precious, which means they are never taken where they might be left on a subway train or dropped in the Med. That’s a great waste of an opportunity, since they should be a means of prompting what Marcel Proust called madeleines – a visual cue that makes you recall a memory or sensation.
In the very last book of “Remembrance of Things Past”, Proust’s protagonist is tired, depressed and sickened by himself as an artist, and his failure to find a way of working. However, something happens to show him that he’s been looking in the wrong places for inspiration: he steps out of his carriage and slips on a cobble. Suddenly, a wonderful happiness comes back to him, as he recalls the same happening to him when he was in Venice. The memory, which he wasn’t able to recall by deliberating, comes flooding back, down to the details: the chill of the night, the sight of St Mark’s, and the smell of the sea. The sketchbook can act in the same way.
So the gradual abandoning of product brochures, and the slow retreat of architects and students from sketching, may not be changes for the better. Their homeless ideas need to be given somewhere to stay.
For several months, they stripped out the Maxwelltown tower blocks. Towards the end, workers with Kango hammers weakened the shear walls on each gable, punching out huge holes at intervals up through its height. The towers were skeletons now, and from Sandeman Street you could see straight through them, towards the snow-blink of the river and the glittering pagoda roofs of St Mary’s Forebank.
At 12.30 on the final day of July, the sirens sounded. With a series of stentorian booms, the towers crumpled. Mad birds took flight, and a roiling mass of disturbed air rose up to meet the falling masonry. For the next quarter of an hour, a fine dust settled over the Maxwelltown. Trees, setts and roofs turned a pale porcelain colour, and a hanselling of tin cans, broken timber, scraps of plastic and pages from the Tele whirled down from the sky. If the blow-down was a volcanic blast, the dust which settled over everything was a finely-graded pumice. Safedem’s giant banners lay, half-hidden, under brickwork and crumpled cladding. Job done.
Safedem are the anti-Gray, they’ve spent the past two decades demolishing many of the buildings which contractors Charles Gray built during the 1960’s and ‘70’s. Charles Gray (Builders) Ltd. are lodged in the folk memory of the city, a locally-owned contractor which became one of the largest in Scotland. I remember several visits to Francis Street with my father during the late 1980’s, when the firm was at its height: Gray’s main offices were a warren, and in those days packed with surveyors pricing up multi-million pound jobs. It was rare for large projects to be built by firms from outside the city.
Grays built the Maxwelltown tower blocks – from their sub-contractors McLennans driving overburden off site, and Cementation doing the piling through the winter of 1964-5, through to the scheme’s completion in May 1968 – and a particular story from construction sticks in my mind. One of Gray’s mechanics, Jim Hill of Dundee Plant Co., was at the top of a tower, working on dismantling the mechanism of a builder’s lift. The lift’s safety brake should have held, but something failed, and it plummeted from the very top of one of the towers with him inside. From 23 storeys, 210 feet up. Jim Hill survived, miraculously: the Courier featured his battle for life each day for many weeks, then followed his slow recovery and gradual rehabilitation.
The Maxwelltown multi’s were designed by the architectural practice of Ian Burke and Hugh Martin, another home-grown firm which became one of the largest in Scotland, although by the time the scheme was complete Burke and Martin had split. Burke & Martin designed the whole Maxwelltown CDA (Comprehensive Development Area), which included deck access housing, and a shopping centre on the Hilltown itself. It says something for the city that three of Scotland’s largest architectural practices – Parrs, Baxter Clark & Paul, and Ian Burkes – grew up in Dundee at that time. The city’s post-war building boom boosted them into the big league, and between them they re-shaped the city. Now all these names have gone, respectively subsumed into Archial (Ingenium), JF Stephen, and Manson Architects – and Charles Gray with them.
Like Safedem, it seems the city council is set on destroying much of what Grays built. I am not going to dwell on their policies, because folk who confess to enjoying these blogs never select the political stuff first, even though it seems to get hits. However, I’m surprised the council didn’t work on the basis of what could be done to save the tower blocks, rather than the more exciting (ego-boosting?) job of pressing down the explosive plunger. So instead I’ll consider what the Council have swept away. The directorate in the city council responsible for City Development (environment and planning and transportation and development and so forth) seems determined to reshape Dundee’s skyline – from the perspective of urbanism as well as social improvement. The housing may have been below standard – though it could have been refurbished – but case has still to be made for changing the city’s silhouette.
The “Zeilenbau” slab blocks at Ardler have already gone, despite needing care and maintenance more than dynamite. Menzieshill has also lost a cluster of towers on the slope above Ninewells Hospital. The Bison blocks at Trottick were dismantled, then the two multi-storey courts in Whitfield – which commanded the hillside above Longhaugh Quarry – were blown down despite relating better to the local topography than most others. This destruction of value (many of the tower blocks had yet to be fully paid for) marks a sharp contrast to the approach in Aberdeen – which I wrote about in Leopard magazine.
Another thing to note is that for the most part the Dundee tower blocks were well built – few adopted the compromised plattenbau systems such as the “Anglian” which was implicated in the collapse of Ronan Point. Large panel systems like “Skarne” were certainly used for low-rise deck access blocks in Whitfield, but largely avoided for multi storey building in the city. Early constructional problems with no-fines in-situ concrete in the South Road multi’s were rectified long before they became dangerous. Despite the novelty of buildings over 200 feet high mushrooming throughout Dundee, Grays deployed tower cranes to suit and during the late 1960’s Dundee’s skyline was spiky with jibs and counterweights, as portrayed in Joseph McKenzie’s wonderful photographs of a city in transition.
As tower blocks go, the clusters here are well-considered. Each group on the Hilltown was part of its own CDA (Comprehensive Development Area) set up in the early 1960’s, and they sat as groups which related to each other, and to the landscape. The pattern of four at Dallfield, at the foot of the hill, sits end-on to the Tay and doesn’t break the skyline. The Maxwelltown towers, halfway up the hill, presented their broad faces to the river. Derby Street, above the Hilltown Clock at the top of the hill – the tallest tower blocks on the east coast of Scotland at 240 feet – are of a scale and stature that sit happily relative to the cold volcanic mound of the Law. As a composition, they leant weight to the notion that Dundee is a vertical place, a city built on seven hills which has always stretched upwards, pace Cox’s Stack.
These condemned tower blocks were presented as an architectural failure – but the demolition of Maxwelltown has more to do with politics. Just as the worst of the pre-war slums in Dundee were targeted in the 1950’s because they were “tenements”, so many of the post-war schemes are being cleared because they’re “deck access” or “tower blocks”. When they state a building typology is a failure, what they often mean is that their letting policy was a failure. They installed the wrong sort of tenants, people on short tenancies who didn’t care about their flat, who had their own demons to conquer. Nor did the council look after the building fabric: sometimes they didn’t provide security or a concierge service from the outset, in other cases they didn’t upgrade inadequate heating or insulation.
It isn’t that the city doesn’t need these houses: far from it. Despite an untypically ill-informed comment in a recent issue of Blueprint, Dundee isn’t a shrinking city. Were it not for its gerrymandered boundaries, the city’s population would be stable at 300,000 souls within a 30 minute radius of the centre, and its footprint is increasing. Invergowrie, Auchterhouse, Liff, Kellas, Wellbank and Monifieth are suburbs in everything but council tax receipts. Functionally, they are part of the city and are equivalent to the Michigan tract housing which absorbed the “white flight” from Detroit’s inner city. So it is that the buildings have been condemned – perhaps council policy was worthy of condemnation, too, because the 440 homes in the old Maxwelltown may be replaced by 240 in its regeneration. Will they last any longer? The answer has little to do with architecture but an understanding of the reasons behind it has a great bearing on architects. Live, work, socialise in and research the city! That’s the only way to know it.
That’s why the lazy characterisation and lack of basic research in that article about Dundee is a problem. To render things down to “Dundee threw all its hopes of industrial prosperity into the 3 Js [jute, jam, journalism] and when they depleted, the city was left crushed and helpless,” betrays total ignorance of the city’s industrial history. The J’s were only a fraction of Dundee’s 20th century economy. It was a great shipbuilding city, where Europe’s largest transformer maker grew up, huge foundries like ULRO and TC Keay turned out every kind of machinery, and which developed the cash machine, modern roofing membranes, and radar. As for, “…the city centre continues to be cruelly fragmented by vast empty sites of exclusive territory”, there are no gap sites in the city’s core: Site Six and Yeaman Shore were plugged a decade ago and Allan Street is being built on as we speak. Similarly, “how the brutal North Sea winds have defined the urban grid.” The centre is not built on a grid: Dundee is the only Scots city which retains its haphazardly medieval plan. Neither does this flat contradiction help – “it is a shrinking city, where high density has become the worst nightmare … yet its area is now double as suburbia sprawls into fields.”
The piece is so full of canards that you can hear them quacking as you cross the Tay. Meantime, Dundee has always felt the need for action: think of the mammoth efforts to build both road and rail bridges, the slum clearance in the old Overgate and Wellgate, and even the Timex dispute. On July 31st 2011, doing something meant creating a great spectacle for the folk from the Tap o the Hill. All the local worthies turned out, including an echelon of wee jaikies on BMX’s, and the grumpy old churl who wanders around the Hilltown wearing a dark 1960’s suit with the cuffs turned up, a brown-paper-wrapped bottle of Grouse clutched in his paw. A group of young gallants in kilts en route to a “do” was joined by a phalanx of locals with digital cameras, temporarily evacuated from their homes. When the charges went off, cushie doos poured out from the belfries at St Marys Forebank, a chorus of dogs and car alarms sounded, and old folk shook their heads.
Of course, this was all pre-destined. When the crocodile of deck-access housing which sat around the bases of the Maxwelltown towers was cleared several years ago, it was inevitable the towers themselves would follow. What will follow them? Another set of anodyne flats and townhouses perhaps, like the buildings which crowd the old Delta Capillaries factory across the road, once the Maxwelltown Carpet Works. Just behind them lies a city park with a series of huge tiled arches, seemingly created for the sake of whimsy. Beyond lies Bonar’s Astroturf plant, the retail park at Bowbridge, and the Maxwelltowns’ bigger brothers, the Derby Street multis… 240 feet of solid architecture, which are next in line for the Council’s skyline purge.
My companion piece, about Dundee’s new £27m council offices, will appear in print in the next issue of Urban Realm.
Text and images copyright Mark Chalmers, 2011, all rights reserved.
It can be difficult to represent someone in words, if you try to balance truth to your subject with a racy narrative. If the subject is still around, they may well take offence at their portrayal. As Thomas Carlyle roared at a portrait painter - "You have turned me into a devious-looking mountebank, full of violence, awkwardness, atrocity and stupidity, without recognisable likeness.”
Two possible solutions are to write only about dead folk, as they can’t object to your libels, or to work on authorised biographies and ghosted autobiographies. That way you avoid causing offence, but also run the risk of missing the colour which makes for a better tale. At the moment I’m researching an article about a Scots architect who was once well known but appears to have been forgotten by subsequent generations. The trick here seems to be to reveal the man through his work, or other aspects of his life, yet the successful architectural biography is a rare bird.
The only full, satisfying biography of a modern architect which I’ve read in the past few years is “Big Jim” by Mark Girouard. Piece by piece, the author builds up Stirling’s character through episodes and asides, until you feel you understand something about how he ticked as a man, as much as an architect. The doorstop which Miles Glendinning wrote about Robert Matthew is a feat of scholarship rather than a ripping yarn, which is a shame, but a book one third the length might have illuminated Matthew’s character more brightly. Deyan Sudjic’s recent book about Norman Foster is overpoweringly un-critical, which suggests that it tells one side of an interesting story. I’m struggling to think of others, so perhaps we should take a step back and ask what the architectural biography is for.
“He wanted the world to see what he did, not who he was,” said Don Warrington in tribute to Leonard Rossiter, the actor who played Rigsby in Rising Damp. Put simply, you can split people into two types – the people who “are”, and the people who “do”. The former are extroverts who rely on personality and charisma – or their face may be their fortune, as folk used to say. Many books about architects are really just a catalogue of their work, with very little consideration of its creator – they are people who “do”. In fact, many are keen to let nothing obscure the work and for them, ego is manifested in what they create. As a result, they are happy to talk about their work, but have little to say about themselves. In this era of celebrity culture, that may be a blessing.
Others are so strangely driven about their vocation that there is little to say about them – husbands, wives, children and hobbies have been ignored, to the extent they aren’t complete people, and a proper biography would only show up that lack. The most impressive people in any sphere, though, are keen to learn about all aspects of the world, and to satisfy their own curiosity through experience. They have many facets, and arguably make better biographical subjects because they have lived life more fully. That’s why Frank Lloyd Wright has proved to be a popular subject within an unpopular genre. Guns, dames and the genius of the self-proclaimed greatest architect who ever lived.
Beyond that, there’s a vain hope that you may stamble across a meta-biography, or in simple terms a book which tells us about architects as a type, or even reveals the fountainhead where ideas come from. Vain, because when you consider it, much of what we do stems from personal experience, and it’s mostly subjective. A fascination with wing-shaped canopies, structural trees, or porthole windows is easy to explain: chances are the subject of the biography spotted one elsewhere and decided they liked the look of it. Yet archetypal forms come from far deeper in the psyche. You are unlikely ever to discover where unconscious doodles, which eventually develop into sketch plans, magic gizmos, or screenprint patterns, actually come from.
So that leaves us with raw description, interpretation and critique when it comes to someone’s work, rather than any true insight into how their mind worked. Similarly, assessment of the subject’s character may come directly from a long and close friendship, but more likely sources are interviews with friends and family, phone conversations about them, and long rambling emails or letters full of anecdotes. From experience, these often tell you more about memory’s power of retention for trivia than the person in question. You need a good cicerone to guide you through the difficult land that lies between recollection and fact.
After all, forming a critical opinion of a person is far removed from writing about a building. The quicksilver personality of some creative people makes them elusive; others compartmentalise their lives and seem to keep separate, unrelated groups of friends in different spheres. Those people, who knew him in different contexts, will take away very different impressions of who their friend was. Not only can the biography give a wrong impression, but sometimes the person portrayed is violent, awkward, atrocious, or stupid – and with luck you may find someone who combines these traits. A barely fictionalised account of one of Dundee’s gangster property developers springs to mind…
The architectural biog. has one advantage over other examples of the form: in getting anything built, there are guaranteed to be fights, fallings out and bitter criticism, as well as more positive emotions. Provided the biographer can tap into the nervous energy, and set it into the context of how it serves the building, then it should help us to understand something about architecture’s means. In that respect, the story of the Sydney Opera House has only been partly told, and the Scottish Parliament was barely uncovered, despite all the newspaper and TV coverage. Maybe one day we’ll be able to read Enric Miralles’ memoirs, or Brian Stewart’s biography?
So, what’s the architectural biography for? A marker for posterity, a valediction, a piece of entertainment … or is it as Carlyle himself thought – “All that mankind has done, thought, gained or been: it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books”.
My next piece for Urban Realm is a review of a new building in Dundee which is 100 years old, and the following one lined up for the blog will toy with the facts…
First published in Leopard magazine five years ago, posted here by request…
In the years between the two world wars, the Modernists believed in the new, at the expense of an old world that was rotten beyond saving. They felt that art and architecture could help to build a better society: design was conceived not as a servant of private gain, but an agent of the public good. The resulting buildings had a lot to live up to – but they finally dragged Scotland out of the Victorian era and into the 20th century.
The typical Aberdeen tenement is granite-built, three or four storeys high, with an attic storey expressed as a mansard, where the roof pitch is very steep – in fact, the slates are hung almost on the vertical, and there is a stair at the back, which a passage connects to a door on the street. Otherwise, it is similar to tenements in other Scottish cities, with back greens and shared WC’s giving onto open platts. Thousands of tenements still exist, but thousands more have since been demolished, partly as a result of the 1917 Royal Commission which found that “the housing accommodation in Scotland was undoubtedly a serious cause for concern.”
Rosemount Square was a social experiment which grew from that concern, an exploration of what a modern tenement could be like – albeit a rethought, rational tenement house rather than the overcrowded slums which were being pulled down in Shiprow, Gallowgate and Kirkgate. It is a granite fortress, an island of socialist influence in douce Aberdeen. The horseshoe of flats is bounded by Leadside Road, South Mount Street, Richmond Street and Kintore Place, and surrounds an inner courtyard, which is a vastly scaled-up version of the traditional tenement back green – but where did the impetus come from?
Legislation, in fact. The 1935 Housing Act forced Scottish burghs to improve their housing stock, so that the process of slum clearance was accelerated. The shock is that it took 18 years for serious progress to be made after the Royal Commission. Once the Act was on the statute books, the Secretary of State instigated a study of housing stock in Europe – he had heard that great things were happening on the Continent. A deputation visited the Spangen and Keifhock schemes in Rotterdam, by Oud, and Karl Marx Hof in Vienna, by Ehn – their names were like epigrams from the future to Scottish architects – and these schemes became models for development, when “Working Class Housing on the Continent” was published later that year. Its authors felt that Ehn’s work was “bold, forceful and perfect”, and this made a great impression on Scottish architects who were keen to create a new kind of housing in a modern image. They just needed their chance.
In July 1937, fire broke out in the former C & E Morton’s provisions works in South Mount Street – although by that time, it was occupied by Alex “Cocky” Hunter, a local worthy who ran a small empire of junk shops. The entire block was gutted, the Council decided to acquire the 2.5 acre site for housing – and Cocky moved his chaotic operations to Castle Terrace. By the start of 1938, the City Architect submitted proposals for a four-storey granite tenement of radical design, to be set around a courtyard and accessed via thirteen stairwells. During the Thirties, and beyond, Aberdeen had one of the most capable City Architect’s Departments in the country, under Alexander Buchanan Gardner, who assembled a team of gifted designers working under him, including Alexander McRobbie (who designed the Bon Accord Baths), and Leo Durnin.
Rosemount Square was largely designed by Durnin, and it is unique in Britain thanks to its marriage of socialist precedent with Aberdeen’s native granite. At the time, the city’s Housing Convenor was the omnipresent and forceful Tom Scott Sutherland, who was responsible for germinating the idea of Rosemount Square. Politically a Conservative, he surely had no sympathy with the agit-prop of Red Vienna, yet the City Architect’s work was well-supported by the convenor and successive Lord Provosts. When Gardner encountered opposition from the elected members at council meetings, he would silence them with a magisterial, “Now gentlemen, who is the City Architect here?” Rosemount Square was approved by the Council in April 1939, and went out to tender: construction began just as the Second World War diverted resources away from civilian work.
Rosemount Square is sometimes compared to Karl Marx Hof, the largest public housing scheme built in Red Vienna – 1382 apartments – and the most famous of the super-block Hofs. Although Rosemount has only 104 flats, there are certainly similarities: the Art Deco decoration (in the form of ceramic sculptures at Karl Marx Hof); the horizontal bands of glazing; the giant arches which lead into the inner court. Beyond that, any comparison with Ehn’s work is a spurious one. When the Social Democrats were elected in 1919, Red Vienna was born and the city instigated a massive housing programme – by 1934, 64,000 apartments had been built. 400 housing blocks were distributed through the city, in which workers’ dwellings were combined with kindergartens, libraries, clinics, theatres and co-op stores. So the scale is vastly greater than Aberdeen: Karl Marx Hof is one kilometre long, with archways on a truly cyclopean scale. For architectural “trainspotters”, Rosemount Square’s horseshoe plan is actually closer to Bruno Taut’s Hufeisenseidlung scheme in Berlin.
Thus architecture in Scotland is not thirled to political cant, but the crucial step is that the public sector, and architects became involved – in the past, tenements were designed and built by in the private sector, by speculative builders. The results were distinctly nippit. However, once the profit motive was removed from construction, mass housing could be built to a higher standard. The ensuing programme of public works also helped the country to build itself out of the Depression. Injecting money into the economy by means of a programme of housing, education or healthcare buildings is a favourite technique for chancellors who want to “pump prime” the economy. Gordon Brown isn’t unaware of that, either.
Rosemount Square was designed to epitomise brightness and cleanliness: sanitation was improved by modern plumbing and the provision of internal WC’s. The horizontal windows with slim steel frames, in contrast to the chunky timber “simplex” sash-and-case windows in old tenements, created light-filled and cross-ventilated apartments. Another shift away from tradition was to move the building entrances off the street frontage, and into the courtyard. In contrast to, say, Golden Square, this building’s public face is on the outside, yet the enclosed “square” is actually hidden on the inside of the block: the four-storey horseshoe surrounds a central landscaped square which allows children to play safely away from traffic. In this, Leo Durnin anticipated the impact of the private car, and also neutralised the bane of pre-Great War tenements, the backlands with their reeking middens.
Rosemount Square’s structure is granite, but with prefabricated details and concrete balconies on the courtyard elevations. The design is simple and monumental – well-suited to the Rubislaw stone which the Council insisted on using, forming sheer walls in rough-axed granite. A high parapet partly obscures the shallow-pitched blue slate roofs and blue brick chimney stacks. This was one of the last such housing schemes, as the costs of working granite increased exponentially, and stone was abandoned in the 1950’s as cheaper alternatives took its market away. The former C&A building on Union Bridge, designed in 1956 by North & Partners as a replacement for the old Palace Hotel, was almost the last building in Aberdeen built in load-bearing granite. After that, the architecture of the steel and concrete skeleton destroyed the “stone culture”, and with it the unity of Aberdeen.
The quality which “lifts” Rosemount Square is how it embodies the modern age, and this extended to the sculptures set above the wide arches. Included in the building cost were three sculptured panels by the head of the sculpture department at Gray’s School of Art, Thomas Huxley-Jones. The allegorical figures were to represent Rain, Wind and Cold, and would have cost £500 in total: as it is, only the bas relief panels of Wind and Rain were completed, in an effort to save money. Huxley-Jones spent his early years in Wales, then won a Rome Scholarship when he was a student – he moved to Aberdeen in the 1930’s to practice and to teach, and he seems like a good example of a Modernist artist who tried to efface his own ego by serving the community.
The figures are youthful, clean-limbed in an Art Deco style, and they are at least partly inspired by Greek myth. “The Spirit of the Winds” on Leadside Road is Aeolos, the Greek custodian of the four winds, and she literally rides like the wind on her charger – although her pointy hairstyle gives her away as a flapper from the Great Gatsby. Rain, on South Mount Street, is treated more literally, and consists of a figure tipping a pail of water over the pend. The sculptures are twelve feet by five, and were executed by the mason John McKay, of Taggart’s Allenvale Granite Works. After several months’ work, they were slotted into the building like jigsaw pieces. Although McKay died in 1947, Huxley-Jones had a long-standing relationship with Taggart’s: thirty years after Rosemount Square, they worked on his sculpture for an Essex branch of NatWest Bank.
Construction at Rosemount Square was delayed by material and labour shortages caused by the war – but it did at least progress slowly, rather than being abandoned for the duration like so many others. In 1944, future Lord Provost Tommy Mitchell (Scott Sutherland’s successor as Housing Convenor) noted that a substantial portion of the scheme had been completed and many of the houses were already occupied. Yet by now, Scots housing was in transition, and the tenemental form had been rejected.
Shortly after Rosemount Square was completed in January 1945, a housing competition at Kincorth was launched. It was to reverse everything Rosemount Square set out to achieve – low density as opposed to folk being concentrated; set on the periphery rather than being at the heart of the city; terraced maisonettes versus flats stacked up several storeys high. One criticism of Rosemount Square which Scott Sutherland had to fend off came from a determined lady who asked how the coalmen could carry their sacks up four flights of stairs. Yet the scheme was commended by the Saltire Society as the best Local Authority housing scheme completed between 1939 and 1947, and is now Grade A listed. Incidentally, it was apparently named “Rosemount Square” by Scott Sutherland himself – exerting that droit de seignur which housing convenors have.
So inner city was rejected in favour of suburb, creating sprawling estates with geometrical road layouts. It took the tower blocks of the 1960’s to change the pattern of housing once more. Rosemount Square marks the last gasp of the tenement form, of the solid granite wall, and of enlightened patronage in housing.
Since all fifty of the articles I wrote for the Lighthouse website have disappeared, in its slow motion takeover by A+DS, I’ve lost a great deal of what folk call “web presence”. Thankfully I have the original files sitting on this Powerbook so from time to time I’ll re-post pieces which are appropriate to current events or what I’m working on now. This one was originally posted in December 2007, and will be followed by some new thoughts in light of the swingeing cuts meted out by the current Tory government…
From the moment of its birth, Scotland was shaped by war. Our country was forged in battle by the great Pictish warrior kings – Onuist, Nechtan, Drosten – and victory over the Northumbrians over 1300 years ago created a Scottish nation with its heart in Strathmore, the Angus valley which separates Highland Scotland from the Lowlands. As a result, our architecture is martial – the characteristic Scots building is the castle.
From prehistoric hill forts such as Dunadd, Bennachie and the Caterthuns; through rock fastnesses like Stirling, Dunottar and Edinburgh, the line continues through Ruthven Barracks which dates from the time of the ‘45, to Fort George, which is still used as a garrison by the Army. Modern Scotland is shot through with our bellicose attitude, and given expression by the massed ranks of the Tartan Army; a national anthem – Flower of Scotland – which taps into the spirit of Bannockburn; through to the stature of Rob Roy, the Wallace and the Bruce in our national pantheon alongside Burns, Hume and Adam Smith. We’re imbued with a warlike character.
Yet this belligerence is not sentimental, nor a thing of the past. Modern Glasgow was shaped by two world wars: Beardmore, Fairfields, John Brown and the many other Clyde shipyards built the most powerful navy the world has ever seen. War also created a legacy of fortifications, and not just at Scapa Flow and the inches in the Forth, but in concrete blockhouses and pillboxes and gun emplacements from the Clyde to Invergordon to Loch Ewe. The world’s largest explosives factory was built outside Annan. In fact, Beardmores were the first integrated arms company in the world, building battleships, submarines, airships, aircraft engines and excelling in many of these disciplines. In fact, the armistice of 1918, with the resulting treaties and “peace dividend” were extremely bad news for them, as their R&D work on new technologies came to an abrupt end.
Today, if we were allowed inside Faslane, Coulport and Glen Douglas, the naval bases on the lochs north of the Clyde, we would find an impressive series of sheds and underground caverns packed with giant conveyors, robotic forklifts, and smart-chipped parts for ships and submarines. Lossiemouth is the RAF’s largest fast jet base, and with its sister stations at Kinloss, Milltown and Tain is effectively a small military city sitting alongside the rapidly-growing town of Inverness. Cape Wrath on the far north-west tip of Scotland is given over to a giant bombing range; and the enormous runway at Machrihanish, once the Master Diversion airfield for transatlantic flights suffering problems, has been used for many secretive test flights.
Britain, despite the talk of its being a failing power in world terms, spends more on defence per capita than any other country in the world, except the United States. Several weeks ago, on 27th November, HMS Diamond was launched into the murky waters of the Clyde from BAE Systems’ shipyard at Govan, whose slipways used to belong to the mighty Fairfield Shipbuilders. Diamond is the latest in a fleet of new destroyers, each costing £600m, which are claimed to be the most advanced in the world, and whose destructive capability exceeds that of a WW2 battlecruiser. Aside from the superlatives, it is obvious that this is a new type of ship – the angular planes of its superstructure, and the polyhedral, faceted surfaces of its bridge instantly make it different from everything which went before. There are no cluttered masts antlered with aerials, spinning dishes, revolving radars, Bofors gun barrels poking out… it’s a Stealth ship.
Opposite the toastrack blocks at Glasgow Harbour, the shipbuilders are creating something genuinely new. The buildings have bolted steel frames, and are clad in EPDM-gasketed curtain walling, which are techonologies from the 1890’s and 1950’s respectively. In contrast, BAE’s ships have nothing in common with their predecessors – their powerplant, hullforms, armaments, sensors, structures, materials have all changed beyond recognition. HMS Diamond makes the new buildings opposite look old-fashioned, and makes other ships seem traditional and reactionary. In the first years of this new century, Stealth geometry has taken over from fractal geometry of the 1990’s as a new paradigm. Stealth influences many things – the American F22 Raptor aircraft, the Lamborghini Reventon sports car, and its entree into the construction industry, Plasma Studios’ architecture. Today, Deconstructivist architecture has discovered military aesthetics – and however inappropriate a technology transfer, we use low radar signature shapes for visual effect.
Today, we are living through the onset of digital war: satellite imagery and smart bombs with TV cameras in their noses, and the influence of the military has returned. The nightly news assaults us with terrorism and guerrila warfare, but that is only a part of it. We are returning to the total war, a concept born in WW2 where the whole of society bent itself to a military end, and everything was militarised. With the current round-the-clock coverage of a troubled world, we are more aware than ever of the role of the military. As a result, camouflage, epaulettes and forage caps are back in fashion, and “Stealth” is the modern aesthetic.
The close parallel to the progress of Stealth is the way “streamlining” became fashionable during the Art Deco 1930’s, as a metaphor for speed. Speed was the holy grail in those days of the Mallard locomotive, the Bluebird car and the S6B aircraft. Even today, vehicle designs pick up on steamlining as a design cue, even though that's absent from architecture nowadays. Stealth is a metaphor for how we live now – survivalist, commando-style, terrorist-proof. it is inevitable that our architecture will reflect the rest of society. Already, the unconventional war being fought againist terrorists has affected the detailing of our architecture. There are concrete blockade barriers outside buildings, dragons’ teeth on access roads, and polylaminated glass to resist bullets and bombs. CCTV and PIR systems have become universal on new buildings. Measures to counter ram-raiders in the 1990’s have become the means to defeat car-bombers today.
Alvis Titan bridgelayer
Alongside building the world’s most advanced warships, Britain is the world’s largest maker of armoured vehicles, thanks also to BAE Systems and its Alvis, Vickers, and Hagglunds subsiduaries. The Armstrong Works turns out the Titan bridgelayer, a hugely impressive piece of kinetic sculpture powered by a 1200hp engine, which can build a 26 metre bridge span within two minutes – and can go on to span gaps of 60 metres. The country which invented the tank has developed the tracklaying vehicle to a point where 60 tons of steel and composites can travel cross-country over fields and ditches at up to 50mph. Tanks, just like medieval castles, have glacis – the sloping surfaces which deflect artillery. However, these flat polyhedral shapes – which you would imagine might increase visibility to radar – actually reduce it. Diamond and the other Type 45 destroyers, each displacing alomost 8000 tons, are said to appear li\ke a fishing boat on enemy radar screens.
The military works with a precision and swiftness which puts the construction industry to shame – although military spending is around 2.2% of Gross Domestic Product, whereas the construction industry represents around 6.5% of GDP, depending on which indicator you use. Draw your own conclusions. We publish books like “Why is the Construction Industry so Backward?”, yet the answers are there if we wish to look for them. We can use Vickers as an illustration. The Vickers company used to make ships, bulldozers, steel and cement plant. As time went on, its management saw that more promise lay in ships and steel than bulldozers and cement, because the margins were higher, and each time the construction industry suffered a depression, the factories which made bulldozers and cement plant stood idle. Today, Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering (now part of BAE Systems) operates one of only three or four shipyards in the world capable of building nuclear-powered submarines.
So what? The relevance is the increasing influence of the military sphere on civil society. All through our history – and that of our European peers – war was a regular occurence, as Hobbes, Malthus and many others predicted. From the Boer War, the Great War, WW2, Korea, Suez, the Falklands, Bosnia, to the two Gulf Wars, the last century was shaped by it. Designers admire military design, for its utility, its robustness, and austere functionalism – and because we were exposed to the aesthetics of war for so many years. However, after the founding of CND, followed by the Peace movement in the 1960’s, meant that the military realm was increasingly distanced from civil society. After all, the Peace movement is an anti-War movement, and society was worn out by the all-out militarism of the first half of the twentieth century. The influence of the Ministry of Defence waned, and military programmes like the TSR2 were cut back. When it was axed, the TSR2 was the world’s most advanced warplane, at least five years ahead of any other aircraft.
There’s a commonly held truth that war drives technology forwards. The military-industrial complex which developed electronics, information displays and plastics for aircraft like the TSR2, also indirectly created many of the things with which we define our civilisation– microwave ovens, computers and the internet, G.P.S. systems. They all spun off from what Churchill called “war science” – and although most people feel that we spend too much money on machines for killing people with, we happily accept the progress in civil society which comes only from warlike aims. Swords into ploughshares, we move forwards by adapting war materiel to peaceful ends. Of course, this is one of the finest examples of moral relativism that you’re ever likely to come across… and today we are living through a strange inversion of society, where civilian life is violent and filled with aggression, stemming from terrorism to gang culture and video games; whereas the military take on peacekeeping roles, and sailors can be kidnapped without a shot being fired. But we were aware of everything that happened to the sailors, in real time.
The result of it all is that the military have a far greater grip over the public imagination, and ordinary peoples’ lives, than we acknowledge. As a result, the military’s culture and tropes – like Stealth – are part of a wider currency that we all understand. Since belligerence is part of the human character set, it’s better than we understand that and benefit from it, rather than trying to repress it. Thousands of years of history prove that we can’t.
Mutuality – our ability to help one another – depends on opportunity and altruism, but at its root lies shared values. A willingness to find common ground, whether through education, the quotidian of working alongside someone for years, or friendships struck up through a common interest, is the thing that matters. Maybe that’s why the Big Society is struggling to catch on. It’s an paradoxical notion, this edict from the top down to be “bottom-up”, especially as it comes from the political right who not so long ago declared there was no such thing as society. In fact, if you are prepared to go out into the world and live, show your worth and share what you have, then you will always find people happy to help you in return. Sometimes politicians become blind to the fact that they’re human, too.
Perhaps the epiphany came when I was hundreds of miles from home in a suburb of Manchester, where I’d crashed out on a futon in the spare room of a redbrick terrace. We spent the evening sharing experiences, then pasta for breakfast, sweep the Rizlas from the ashtrays and thanks to our samaritan. Everyone was a little bit richer for having shared the things we held in common, then after the morning showers cleared we thought about hitting the motorway – maybe stopping off en route to have a look at a huge rotting seminary somewhere deep in Lancashire.
Today, the Young Turks coalesce around internet movements, keen to challenge the risk-averse world we live in, to seek out some kind of imagination and adventure in a world which increasingly holds us back. In the 20th century, it was politics that fired people up: Kropotkin’s plans for Mutual Aid; the Red Clydesiders during the Great War, the Jarrow Marchers during the Depression, the French radicals of the late ‘60’s, the UCS Work-In during the 1970’s. Earlier this year, I mentioned the last of these, to mark the passing of Jimmy Reid. Another notable who wasn’t around to see in 2011 is Colin Ward, who was referred to as an “anarchist philosopher” in many obituaries. He may have been seen as such by his obituarists, but most of all, he was the man who put into practice what the Situationists and other radicals of Paris ‘68 talked about, argued about, and chain-smoked Gitanes about in Rive Gauche cafes.
Ward’s ideas may not have begat the “The Big Society”, but they had everything to do with mutual aid and cooperative self-help. He believed that social policy should be conceived from the ground up. His interest in housing issues led him to support squatting movements, housing co-ops and self-builders – he promoted practical, grass-roots action over utopian dreams of revolution. “Anarchy, for Colin Ward, is simply any social space in which the techniques of mutuality predominate. It is a social space which people enter and leave freely; relate as equals; and do something creative, to solve a problem, meet a need, or just enjoy creativity for its own sake. And the aim of anarchism is to try to push and shove society in the direction of greater anarchy in this sense. Thus, Ward emphasised that anarchy is, in fact, already very much part of our social world.”
On a recent trip to Bristol, I spotted a housing co-op in practice: a relatively rare thing in the UK, but which makes up for the fierce poverty and dereliction in the city, summed up by the burnt-out concrete shell of the Parcelforce depot which glowers over Temple Meads station. In any other British city, land values for such a prime site would have seen it re-used or cleared long ago. The housing co-operativists took a tract of waste ground with a derelict workshop on it and built their own houses there, with a minimum of state or council interference. They follow a quiet tradition. Immediately after WW2, displaced people squatted recently-vacated military camps, organising their own communal services. Then, in the 1970s, a similar movement erupted across vacant local-authority properties, starting out as inner city squats which evolved into the long-term housing co-operatives which still exist.
Out of all the things I’ve written about for this website, or in print for various magazines, the idea of buildings springing from a “systematic anarchy” is the most deeply-rooted. It was planted some time in the 1990’s, and underlay my Honours dissertation, which saw me set off in search of a sustainable architecture rooted in low-tech salvage and re-use. Arguably it was spawned by the casual recycling which has always gone on in the farms and woodyards of Angus, which is the antithesis of the architect’s dream of the walled city as a self-sufficient environment, a city-state on its own as a cyberpunk setting, dystopian hive city, or an overpopulated arcology.
Years ago I knew an old guy called Jim Murray who lived in one of a row of cottar houses that lie behind Dundee, at Burnside of Duntrune. He made his living by fixing up old bikes – he had several sheds full of them – and the most he would charge for one was a tenner. They weren’t bonny to look at but they were mechanically sound, and affordable for folk on a low wage, or a laddie saving up from his paper round. His culture of salvage and repair is alien to the portrayal of cycling these days – the advertising and editorials in bike magazines shows shiny modern 24-gear bikes with carbon fibre frames and suspension forks. The bikes cost over £1000, and represent the technological, consumerist fix which I’ve discussed before – but there’s no point in encouraging people to cycle if they can’t afford a bike.
The same argument should be applied to buildings. By 2008, British society had reached a point where many people were latched to houses they couldn’t afford, and this affected both home owners and people renting in the private sector, too. The more “systematic” of the anarchists offer an alternative: they follow a tradition of folk who still believe in the notion of society as a two-way process, although I suspect they read mainly Tolkein and Hesse in their youth. Many adhere to a very conventional non-conformism, in Jonathan Meades’ apt phrase – and certainly some of the buildings created by them at Findhorn, and the C.A.T. in Machynlleth, have more than a passing resemblance to hobbit houses – but the underlying principles are sound even if the resulting buildings don’t appeal to architectural sensibilities.
Lucien Kroll is one of few architects to actually build in this way – not only carrying out the social engagement which Ralph Erskine did at Byker, or enabling people to muck in with construction, as in Walter Segal’s schemes – but providing a matrix within which people can change everything about their houses, using whatever materials they have to hand. Kroll’s scheme at Alencon is the opposite side of the sustainability coin to the “bolt-on High Tech” approach based on expensive photo-voltaics, aero-generators and electric cars which our Big Government seems keen on. Lucien Kroll took on the doctrinaire approach of Belgian bureaucrats because he realised that, rather like this Big Society caper, there’s no point in discussing any kind of “society” unless you can provide a roof over heads at a price people can pay.
I’ll carry on this train of thought in a future article…
It’s an ill wind – or as the Dutch say, "De een zijn dood, is de ander zijn brood", the translation of which is "One’s dead, is the other one's bread" meaning that someone’s misery or death is another’s money or pleasure. That’s the common portrayal of demolition: a one-way process with an obvious outcome. However, the story of a building’s demise is more complex than that.
Just like young married people sometimes glance wistfully at strangers, wondering idly what their life might have been like had they chosen differently, we look at the shells of old buildings and speculate how their story might have continued if they hadn’t been earmarked for redevelopment. Architecture falls in and out of use – but its end can come quickly, or be subjected to a long drawn-out knell. Demolition for salvage is a gradual operation, the unlayering of history as a building is gradually un-built, recounting its story on rewind. The demo contractor has to do a risk assessment, then the area has to be securely fenced to prevent folk straying into a machine's swing or the "danger" area where rubble might fall. The hoarding also discourages his equipment from sprouting little legs and wandering off into the night. Asbestos remediation can hold up work for months: outwardly nothing happens, but inside, Wombles in spacesuits work in a polythene tent to remove the white candy-floss wrapped around pipes and boilers.
On the other hand, the grim reaper sometimes wears fluorescent yellow, and instead of a scythe, he wields a 40-ton full-slew with a wrecking arm. In that case, the demo process is swift and unrelenting. Of course, the end to end all ends is explosive demolition. The blowdown is terminal: chimneys and tower blocks are imploded using Dr. Nobel’s chemical linctus, atomising masonry in the process. The techniques go back hundreds of years to the first engineers – military as opposed to civil engineers – who under-mined enemy strongholds and planted gunpowder in their burrowings. Once the charges were set, they ran like the Earl of Hell himself was on their heels, in case the gunpowder fuse burned faster than it should. Today, firms like Safedem and Controlled Demolition use modern plastic explosives, whose performance is a little more predictable.
Very few people appreciate destruction for its own sake: its connotations are almost always negative, but the Dadaists and other art movements knew that there is a special energy released by smashing things up. Wee boys enjoying smashing things up, too, and it gives them pleasure. Yet the habit of destroying stuff is drummed out of them by parents and authority figures: it’s anti-social because it conflicts with the values of the society they’re being trained to live in. If creativity is overseen by sensitive souls in polo-neck jumpers and designer glasses, destruction is orchestrated by chortling demons in top hats. It embodies all the stereotypes we’re taught to vilify: the evil developer destroying our heritage; the slum landlord having his lackey burn down a tenement for the insurance money; the mindless neds venting their frustrations by smashing things up. Empty pubs are occasionally hit by “brewer’s lightning”, a selective bolt from the blue which burns out licensed premises while leaving their neighbours intact.
Nevertheless, the process of destruction can be fascinating, and it can have positive, aesthetic qualities. One of the more thought-provoking books I’ve read is “Memento Mori” by Peter Mitchell, a photographic journal of the slow death of the Quarry Hill estate in Leeds. It was a huge block of council flats built in the 1930’s as an early experiment in concrete prefabrication: by the late 1970’s, it had been condemned, and Mitchell began making trips into the empty buildings with his camera. At first unofficially and then with the demolition company’s sanction, he produced a series of square, medium format photographs with a melancholy beauty to them: most of all they capture an atmosphere. The feeling is that evoked by Joy Division’s song “Decades”, recorded around the same time in a similarly run-down Northern city.
These images of destruction may seem antithetical to creativity, but you need to see both sides, and de-generation is the necessary precursor to re-generation. “And decay proceeds as inevitably as growth,” as Louis Sullivan wrote. “Function is declined, structures disintegrate, differentiation is blurred, the fabric dissolves, life disappears, death appears, time engulfed. The eternal life falls. Out of oblivion into oblivion, so goes the drama of creative things.” Often we’re too close to the subject matter to see that it’s part of a cycle which has been changing our cities for over a thousand years.
Set against this personal vision of decay, and mourning over the loss of our memories as buildings disappear, are the demo men. They have less regard for aesthetics – instead, they have an especial kind of gallows humour. They’re easy to spot: in plaid shirts, clorty jeans and rigger boots, their hard hats decorated with JCB stickers, they make their way to Greasy Shiela’s mobile death van for their midser. A chip roll, or a fried egg trapped between two Aberdeen butteries, both liberally spread with bacon dripping. Health food! I can hear their furry arteries screaming from here. In time they return to giant Tonka toys, climb into the caged cabs, fire up V8 turbo-diesels – and as the hydraulic pumps whine into action, they cross-hair their target. The joystick is tipped forwards, 500 horsepower roars at 2500rpm, and a giant steel arm slices through a leaf of brickwork – spilling copings, windposts and mortar dust onto a smoking heap.
This is the experience which architectural critics – noted for their Italian suits and lily-white hands – scrupulously avoid. They have not experienced the sensation of scrambling up a mound of demolition arisings – or put on a harness and climbed on top of a crane cab for a better view. As a result, they miss the essence of what a building is. They miss out on the asbestos survey; the metal salvagers with beat-up Sherpa vans and flame cutters; the hydraulic peckers and breakers moving across the landscape like prehistoric predators; and the mobile crusher which renders architectural history into dust.
The effort is worthwhile, as the endnotes of a building’s history reveal things which everyone, including the building’s architects, forgot long ago.
The photos portray the last days of an industrial foundry in the English Midlands which I recorded prior to its demolition. They will hopefully form the basis of a longer article about the foundry’s history, and the building’s parallel evolution.
A blustery autumn day in 2035 – two figures walk along the sea wall at Marine Parade. Dead leaves whirl around their feet, and a sere wind whips the dark Tay. The giant blocks of stone are encrusted with barnacles and reid tangles. In the distance, the old Victoria & Albert museum stands derelict, jutting into the river like something from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.
As they approach a rusting barrier in front of the building, the pair stop and both look up at the building, which is shaped like an old-fashioned spaceship, something from 50 years ago. The man is in his fifties, wearing a thick black overcoat; a few steps away is a young woman, less than half his age, with a parka pulled up tightly around her chin. They carry on walking across a pontoon, into the shadow of the building, and up to a boarded-up set of doors which are covered in graffiti. A demolition company’s signboard is nailed across their stiles.
The windswept space on the landward side of the building is empty, and a chip wrapper scoots along the ground, then suddenly rears into the air driven by a gust of wind.
–Bit of a waste, this place?
It’s jist a white elephant, no wonder they’re pullin it down.
–But it must have been futuristic at the time it was built?
“From what I mind, they were jist lookin for something that looked flash”
–That’s pretty superficial.
“Why else would ye build it like this, pokin out into the river? Plenty solid ground out Riverside Drive.”
“They had a carry on about which design to choose. Didnae matter in the end. They all end up the same. Rubble.”
The long white tiles which clad the hull of the spaceship stream with dirt, and seagull crap is piled up on the building’s many ledges. Hundreds of birds roost on its seaward face, which to them must seem like a sea cliff.
“I mind when it was announced. The news was full o it at the time. Aa very positive. But you have to mind that in those days, there was still work in Dundee. DC Thomson was still in business. Well I think they’d shut down their West Ward Works, but they were still printin papers and magazines on the Kingsway. An ye ken what eventually happened to them – went the same way as NCR and ABB afore them. Mibbe thae names won’t mean much now.”
“The politicians seemed to think aa the factories could be shut doon, and museums and galleries or whitever would tak their place. I mean, when I wis your age, there were still industries here – they just let them go. There wis a high tech firm aff the Perth Road makin transformers, they shut doon the same month the V&A was announced. Nae support, nae offer o assistance. Things were bad, that was the year aa the computer games companies shut doon, Aberdeen Cooncil wis declared bankrupt, an even Dundee Fitba Club went bust. Scotland took a hammerin. Funny thing though, the politicos jumped at the chance tae build this.”
As they walked further around the spaceship’s hull, the walkways were littered with broken white tiles. They walked around the hull, its strips of glazing caked with salt spray and the metalwork below rusting.
“Well ye see what the Victoria and Albert in London didna let on was that they’d only gie it money for ten years. After that, cheerio lads, see tae yersels.”
–They must’ve said something?
He gave a dry laugh, “Aye maybe someplace in the sma print, Kay.”
–Come on Dad, you’re an old cynic.
“I mind when it was first in the papers, a photo wi the committee folk lookin well pleased wi themselves, pleased tae see the city gettin gentrified.”
–At the time they probably thought they were doing the right thing
“Mibbe, but you’ll mind hearing about Martin Pawley or Reyner Banham from your theory lectures?
She shook her head. –I don’t remember the names?
“Hmmh, the architecture course at Dundee isna what it was, when I was there.” He laughed, “Well I did tell ye no to repeat my mistake and study architecture. But ye would have yr own way…”
–What did Pawley and Banham say?
“Different things most o the time, but they both reckoned events would overtake these buildings. Icons, so-called. There wouldna be a need for them. Right enough, now we’ve got hologram projectors, ye can see any artwork in yer ain house, walk right around it, rather than stuck ahind a sheet o glass in a museum. They kennt things would change, it’s just that the change took a while longer than they imagined.
“When I wis a teenager, they said printed books were on their way oot, but it’s only a few years ago that really happened, eh?”
–I’ve still got books, Dad.
“Aye but ye don’t read them, though. Ye just use the net.”
Kay poked her finger at the white tile, cracked and crazed and crumbling away. They walked on.
Whit about your history lectures – they’ll have told you what was here aforehand?
Kay pondered, –The Royal Arch?
“Lang ago, when I wis your age, afore this thing was here, they had a railway station, the cooncil offices, swimming baths, and a hotel here, aa linked together with walkways.”
–Why did they get rid of them? Sounds like a good idea, putting all the civic buildings together.
“Dundee’s got a great record of knockin things doon. This place is jist the latest. Of course, there were also the Customs House and Mathers Hotel as well.”
–I’ve never heard of them?
“Aye, architecture lecturers, still useless… they dinna tell you anything about the city you’re living in.”
“They took all the listed buildings and sold them. Dismantled them, rebuilt elsewhere. The city was broke and needed the cash.
“See – decades ago lads like James Caird and Ron Bonar, they gave millions to the city – but they’d *made* the money first, that’s the difference. They were rich men, they could afford tae gie something back. this idea that the Cooncil builds places like this - when there’s nae work in the city – there’s nae money in the city. Ye see whit happened though when the city wasn’t makin money – the jute museum at Verdant Works, that wis made intae flats. Barrack Street Museum wis made into a nightclub. This thing here – V&A on Tay – is standin empty.
Kay peered through the narrow slot of glass at waist height – it was filthy, and inside was too dark to make out anything worthwhile.
–Anyway I suppose the Telford Society folk will be pleased
“Aye well, I guess they will. It’s sic a shame that Dundee jist relies on tourists an heritage these days.
Kay looked at her father with a “oh here we go again Dad” expression.
“When I was young, India and China were poor countries. Now they’re rich, an we canna afford to buy what they mak. Of course, they pay themsels too much, they’re mair interested in long holidays and fancy cars than workin. They spend billions o rupees on art collections and the museums tae house them – but the difference is they can afford them.
–A hundred years ago it was the other way round.
“Quite so, an why do ye think the fields in Strathmore are blue nowadays?”
“Flax plants – we used tae import man-made cloth fae Asia, but it costs too much to dae that the day.”
–Anyway there’s no oil to make plastics with, and I thought the flax plants were down to the environmentalists, organic farmers, that kind of thing?
“Nah, no really. It’s need, we need cloth and that’s the cheapest way to get the fibres. One day, some of thae flax firms will get big enough tae tak on the Indians. I mean we buy their fancy Indian machinery, but we could probably mak it cheaper oursels.
–They have the technology though.
“Aye. But the smart lads here should be lookin to see how it’s done, learn aa they can from the subcontinent, then undercut their prices. I mean, imported cloth isnae cheap, no once ye pay a huge carbon tarriff to ship it halfway round the world.”
They walked on, across a footbridge spanning the trackbed of the old East Coast rail line – a few years ago, it was shut north of Edinburgh to save money.
–I can remember being in the V&A
“So can I.
–So what happens now?
“Mair work for the demolition firms – and ye ken, while they were building this place, they knocked down a dozen tower blocks in Dundee, that hadna even been paid for? There’s a moral in there someplace, eh?
–No shit, Kay replied, rolling her eyes.