Traditional farm steadings, with their mossy roofs and rubble walls enfolding a sharn-filled yard, are couthy places, inextricable from a life of open fires, sheepdogs and Land Rovers. They look as if they emerged naturally from the landscape. The form developed over hundreds of years, culminating in the development of scientific agriculture, which gave us places like the Coo Palace in Dunecht, and similar model farms on other estates. However, modern “agribusiness” means that thousands of them became surplus to requirements from the 1950’s onwards – which is why the steading conversion became a staple of rural living.
As critics have pointed out, too many people convert steadings badly, destroying their character. Arguably, this is worse than leaving these honestly functional structures alone, to decay with dignity; yet the best conversions reveal their character without resorting to pastiche. Because planning departments oppose the construction of new housing in the countryside, the conversion of old buildings has often been the only option for people who want to live in the country. Far more steadings exist than abandoned mills, kirks or castles – and although many date back only to the nineteenth century, they have an enduring character which suggests the passing of many aeons. Steadings are very much a part of the agricultural hinterland, where folk subscribe to the Scots notion of bield, taking shelter from the climate: the steading is a protective building, throwing off the worst of the weather.
There were two main periods of agricultural prosperity which stimulated the construction of steadings. Firstly came the Age of Improvement, around the time of the Napoleonic wars at the turn of the nineteenth century – although it should be remembered that John Napier, the Scot who invented the decimal point and the first calculating machine, also pioneered the use of common salt to fertilise the soil two hundred years before. Secondly came the High Farming period during the Victorian era, where close scientific study of each element of agriculture optimised the process and improved conditions in order to increase yields. Scots took a major role in pushing things forward: James Meikle invented the threshing machine, Hugh Dalrymple invented the field drain, James Anderson conceived the modern ploughshare, and the reaping machine was perfected separately by two men, James Small and Patrick Bell. Meantime in 1833, John Loudon published his “Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture”, which was effectively a pattern book that encouraged farm buildings to be developed along certain lines.
As the Victorian era progressed, agriculture became increasingly intensive, latterly using artificial fertilisers and pesticides to boost crop yields. By the 1950’s, “agribusiness” was developing, and there was a need for bespoke stores and silos. When coupled with the amalgamation of farms into larger units, this led to redundant buildings. There is a telling contrast between old steadings and modern farm outbuildings: barns with steel portal frames, timber openwork sides and asbestos roofs will not lend themselves to conversion once they eventually lose their usefulness. In fact, since the 1940’s, the number of farms in Scotland has been reduced by a third, to less than 30,000 holdings – and the days of the foreman, tractor hands and “orra loon” have long gone, too, with one farmhand now working an average of 500 acres. He uses a powerful tractor with computerised four wheel-drive, drawing a five or six furrow reversible plough – a far cry from the wee grey Fergie. As a result, not only were many cottar houses vacated as farm labour was cut back, but the combined running of several small farms from one site meant that many smaller steadings were abandoned by agriculture, too.
Typically, a steading incorporated several functions: the barn with its high walls and tall doors; the horse mill or “mill gyne”, which is circular; the long, low cart shed with up to a dozen open ports; and the dark, cobbled byre, and the brighter stable block, complete with hay loft. Each element has a different character but typically, the steading is one-and-a-half or two storeys high, arranged in a “C” from around a court. This was often penned-in to create a cattle reed, where the nowt were kept over the winter, but could spill into the enclosed yard to get fresh air. The great attraction of steadings is that their fabric is robust – although plain, unrefined and unheated – so that it has the ability to be modest and unassuming from the outside, but offers the freedom to carve out living spaces within. Steadings are usually built from locally-quarried stone set in squared rubble, often with the flush or “butter” pointing characteristic of the north-east – where mortar is seemingly smeared over the faces of the stones to the extent that the wall looks more cement than granite or sandstone. Habitually, they have double-lapped slate roofs, with clay ridge tiles and stone parapets, plus ventilators inset into the roof to allow hay or straw to stay dry, and to ventilate the spaces when full of beasts.
Retaining the character of the place is almost always reliant on attention to detail: the choice of a slim window section, the careful re-pointing (or not) of stonework, the fitting of sympathetic rooflights. One virtue of recycling a farm steading is the ability to use the cartshed as a living space – its open bays, which are typically ten feet wide to suit the dimensions of horse-drawn carts, can be glazed in to form generously-scaled windows. If discreetly done in a high-performance system as manufactured by Janssen or Rationel, these transparent screens prove one of the axioms of architecture – to get the best effect, don’t spread all your money equally throughout the building. By concentrating it on two or three key elements, the eye will be drawn to them, and no-one will notice that the rest of the building is less lavish. Upstairs, the smaller windows of the hayloft are suitable for bedrooms, and coombed ceilings aren’t necessarily a problem.
Another important consideration is how to deal with the interface between old and new. The existing rubble walls in old steadings may lean and bulge all over the place, so in order to cope with this and also insulate them and contain services such as electricity and telephone cabling, the flanking walls can be lined with plasterboard or timber. This inner skin straightens and plumbs everything up – you’ll struggle to hang pictures or fix skirting boards to rubble – yet the gable walls can be left exposed to act as a foil to the smoothness of the new lining. An alternative is to create a clean-cut modern structure inside the old, rough-edged one – with a small gap between the two to emphasise that they’re discrete in time and function. The key to a successful conversion, then, is to work with what you’re given – but if its character is unsuitable for a house, then perhaps we shouldn’t force it to become one.
After all, if the end result destroys the building’s character, it completely misses the point, which is to live sympathetically with the farm around you. The steading conversion should subscribe to the Danish concept of hygge – a sense of the cosiness of homely things, such as domestic comfort, and the conviviality of life in small communities. The “fermtoun” was once a little community on its own, and the distinctive form of the cattle court was part of the symbolic landscape, like a tithe barn or oast house in other parts of the country.. It formed part of a larger cluster – the steading plus farmhouse, barns and cottar houses – and was often protected by a windbreak of elm or beech trees. These touns punctuate the countryside, and sit particularly proud in flat areas, like the Howe of the Mearns, or the Buchan plateau.
When it comes to newbuilds, architects are in the habit of designing as much as they can – proscribing, as well as describing – and the process can culminate in trying to create the mythical “total work of art”. There is an apocryphal story about Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who encouraged his clients at Hill House to wear slippers which co-ordinated with the carpet… The steading conversion offers a chance for designers to step back from this mania for total control, to create buildings which leave things to chance, for the inhabitants to decide, to complete later, or not at all. Steadings also relate to the notions of a more recent architectural thinker. Stewart Brand’s “How Buildings Learn” identifies what he calls “low road” buildings, which are the opposite of high design ones. His is a thought-provoking book for non-architects and architects alike, since it goes some way to explaining how a building changes and adapts throughout its life. The “low road” building’s very lack of “designedness” provides opportunities for simple and constant change, as the users chop it about to suit new needs.
The countryside is the next frontier, as large amounts of rural building will be necessary, soon, if we believe what the politicians say. Gordon Brown’s plans for ecotowns will affect the countryside more than the cities. It can be argued that we have a rural housing crisis in Scotland, with young people leaving the countryside in droves because they can't afford housing. Some steadings and cottages will almost certainly be owned by someone in another part of the country (or another country) who rarely visits them, or, worse, by a property speculator. Amongst all the individual houses, there will be the need for bigger buildings, too – doctors’ surgeries, village halls, schools and so on. The steading is one of the few traditional rural forms which works well when subdivided into a number of units, but could also be used to contain a single function. Hence, it is a prototype for several kinds of rural development, and that should provide consistency when set alongside farmhouses, cottar houses and more modern developments of agribusiness.
Ironically, the steading is more in danger from the farmer than the architect these days: a proposed conversion into housing will be scrutinised by a professional planner, then by a Council committee, but buildings embedded in a working farm can be adapted or demolished under the rules of “permitted development”, thus avoiding the normal controls. In fact, it could be said that farmers can drive a coach and horses through the Planning regulations … if no longer through the steading itself.
In the run up to Christmas, several of us contracted a nasty bug. For some it resulted in a snottery nose, for others a prolonged bout of flu’. In my case I was full of the cold and my sinuses ached, so I took a drop of toddy and retreated to bed, exhausted.
I dozed fitfully, but at some point I must have sunk into a deeper sleep which combined with the bacteria, cratur and medicine to make my dreams feverish. My mind seemed to travel out into the wilderness of prehistory, and the dreams’ shadows filled with wild beasts. All the creatures of Scotland from the era before man – bear, lynx, elk – but the closest in every respect was a great grey wolf.
He came out of the shadows into a pool of moonlight, sank onto his haunches then raised his muzzle to the sky, leaning towards me as if sensing a change in the weather. I must have turned over in my restless sleep, and the wolf sensed that, too. He looked to the bedside cabinet, casting his eye over the pile of crumpled tissues, the empty Lucozade and Benolyn bottles, and a dog-eared novel by Nelson Algren, called A Walk on the Wild Side.
The wolf sniffed haughtily.
“Once, when I was younger, I wanted to be a novelist.”
“Uh huh, buddy. I was idealistic, fresh to all this. I wrote 400 pages of allegory, and entered it into a competition. I thought the twist was original, after all not even George Orwell gave animal characteristics to his human protagonists.”
-How did you do?
“They commended it, said it was very different to anything else they’d read.”
-So who won?
“A woman with a tight-set mouth and mean beady eyes – Historical Fiction. Same as all the other books that all the other publishers brought out that year.”
-That’s a pity, seeing as you had something original to say. A lone wolf.
“Right. But it’s easier if you’re a sheep. Then it isn’t about doing what you believe, it’s doing what you believe somebody will publish. But a wolf can’t be a sheep – we only try on their clothes for a while.”
At that, the wolf sighed – the artist manqué.
“Once I got over my crushed aspirations, I got interested in architecture.”
“Yep, I developed some sustainable housing, tried out three different external wall constructions – straw bales, recycled timber, unfired bricks.”
-That sounds pretty cutting edge.
“It was – we built one of each for a housing fair up north. But the scheme ran late, over budget … but there were structural issues with the straw house, then the timber kit one. Between you and I, the structural engineer got the wind loading calc’s wrong.”
“Wasn’t good at all, and soon I was struggling to keep the wolf from the door. But I picked up some more work eventually – funnily enough more eco-housing. Years back I did a lot of industrials – woollen mills, sheepskin tanneries, clothing factories and all that – but now it’s just about the sustainable communities.”
The wolf rolled his eyes theatrically.
“So anyway – we were given a site on the Union Canal at Emmanuel – an old brickworks. Usual thing I thought, homezones, SUDS, cram in hundreds of people boxes. Oh no, not good enough at all: sustainable community it is then, provided the sheep keep buying, of course. So off I went to discover what was sustainable about the masterplan, and started asking the client representatives some awkward questions. Damn my inquisitive nature, eh?”
“Funny thing mind, initially they didn’t look like pigs – but they were still worried about somebody blowing their house down.” The wolf chuckled, produced a cigar and in one action unwrapped it, chomped through it and spat out the dog end.
“So I said, you’ve got this sustainable thing round the wrong way, pigs.”
-How d’ya mean, Mr Wolf? asked the first pig, condescendingly.
“You need to create the jobs *before* you build the houses, otherwise you’re just building another dormitory for Edinburgh. That ain’t sustainable. And why are you demolishing all of the brickworks anyway?”
-How d’ya mean, Mr Wolf? asked the second pig, defensively.
“It’s a lot more sustainable to reuse the existing buildings than knock ‘em down – and if you keep them you can have instant starter units for small businesses. Plus you can build your new stuff from recycled bricks – that’s sustainable.
The third pig opened his mouth to say something, but Mr Wolf fixed him with a glare – the pig closed his mouth again, and tapped a trotter nervously on the boardroom table.
“And … you need a railway station here, else all the sheep will just get in their 4x4’s and drive along the motorway to Edinburgh Park.”
There was a long pause. The first pig, more practiced than the others in dealing with uppity consultants, came back at the wolf –
-We brought you in thanks to your straw bale experience – thought you were an expert in the ol’ organic greenwash, Mr Wolf? Why keep the manky old bricks?
The wolf looked at the pigs with a mixture of pity, despair, and lunch eyes –
“Think about it this way – first they found clay at Whitecross – then they built a brickworks here – and finally created a village for the brickworkers. In that order. But you want to build far more houses for people than your new offices and workshops can employ. And you’re chucking away the site’s natural resources, too. It’s one thing to pull the wool over the eyes of sheep, but surely not the wolf.”
At this, he lit up the cigar, pursed his lips, and blew smoke in the direction of the pigs. They grew agitated, grabbed their iPhones, long black coats and attaché cases, then fled the room…
At this point I woke up, with sweat streaming down my back, but I retained a strong impression that the dream had been real. I wrote down as much as I could remember, in the hope that it would make sense once my head cleared. I was left with a fading image in my mind of three pigs stumbling over a smoking wasteland where the largest refractory brick works in Europe once stood.
Happy New Year, Mr Wolf. :-)
Given my preoccupations during 2010 – BP and its crises – books which architects should read instead of “architecture books” – and the resurrection of General Motors – it seems apt to round off the year with a piece which integrates them, and investigates how all three affect us in ways we don’t realise.
The watchful part of me has been aware of the narrowness of architects almost since I began training as one. We learned what the generation before us learned: Mies, Corb and Frank Lloyd Wright; supplemented with Jimmy Stirling and High Tech, before raiding the journals for fashionable deconstructivism. We didn’t learn much about the forces which drive and shape Scottish architecture. When we graduated, we found that design-led practice has its limitations. There’s a strange monomania about it all and ultimately, as greenhorn actors and novelists are drilled – you need to live in the wider world in order to understand it. You need to become a complete, rounded human being, because an architect who knows little outwith architecture, is little use to society.
This has everything to do with the mindset of people who decide to be architects. There is an intellectual narrowness about them, adopting received ideas such as those houses with windows set flush with the skin, and roofs made of the same stuff as the walls. Those are designed by architects for an audience of architects, and have their genesis purely in skimming books of fashionable Swiss architecture. Books written for architects can be the last thing that architects should read, and I was reminded of this again when I tripped over the Archidose blog, one of those long-running American weblogs written by a thoughtful architect who regularly reviews publications. Whilst one week he mentioned City of Quartz, an excellent book about urban sprawl around Los Angeles, he reads very little fiction. That’s a personal choice, yet it means he missed out on an even better book about the nature of Californian urbanism and how people live on the West Coast – “Vineland”, written by Thomas Pynchon.
Out of Pynchon’s six novels, I came to Vineland first – perhaps just as well, since “Mason & Dixon” is a historical doorstop, and “Gravity’s Rainbow” is an American Finnegan’s Wake, the kind of book you sometimes can’t find the intellectual traction to read all the way through. The Great American Novel – Heller, Updike, Bellow – is an East Coast phenomenon, but the country’s economic pulse has long since shifted westwards. I guess Pynchon recognised this, and wrote something about the West Coast which talks about the very fundamentals of society – the economy, culture, individual freedom and the role of the state. It’s just the right length for a novel, has both narrative and characterisation, and offers a window onto a way of life which might be very different to our own, if it didn’t have surprising parallels.
Pynchon’s California of the 1980’s is a by-product of both a booming economy, and the hippy counter-culture. It already has giant windmills spinning on its hilltops, proving that one solution to our energy crisis is a technological rather than a cultural one. The lesson is you generate energy using alternative methods, rather than merely consuming less. His is also a car-based culture – from the kitschy cedar-shingled campervan which Zoyd borrows when the Feds are on his trail, to the custom PanAm which DL roars off in, like something from “Vanishing Point”. In fact, Pynchon has a canny eye for American pop culture, and films from the recent past are a staple of Vineland. It’s a road-trip culture, with one proviso – when muscle cars ruled in other states, California’s legislators led the way in trying to curb the automobile. After all, they insisted 30 years ago that the quaint MGB sports car should be fitted with side impact bars and a catalytic converter: left to their own devices British Leyland might have got around to fitting them sometime in the 22nd century. Where California leads, the rest of the world follows.
Until now, state legislation has concentrated on reducing pollution, such as nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions so that today, the gas emitted by the exhaust is cleaner than the air sucked into the induction manifold. Having got that far, a bigger, trickier beast is now in California’s sights: the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2). It will be much more difficult to eradicate, because carbon lies at the heart of industrial society. Car manufacturers will be forced to make a growing proportion of their cars ZEV’s – zero-emission vehicles – which means battery electric, or hydrogen fuel cell-powered. The ultimate Californian aim is to kill off the internal combustion engine by 2040, though it has yet to address the fact that hydrogen has a lower calorific value than petrol, and electricity often comes from power-generating monsters that guzzle coal or the even dirtier lignite.
This raises a couple of points – Pynchon demonstrates how life in California is fundamentally planned around the auto, not only with 12-lane interstates and strip malls on the urban fringe, but also symbolised by the female ninja DL’s alternative suburban existence – “She had by now grown into a relationship with the Plymouth, named her Felicia, bought her a new stereo, was washing her at least twice a workweek plus again on weekends”. Compare this with Rex’s cherry red Porsche 911, similarly washed and tended with loving care. Rex called the car “Bruno”… and it ended up being driven away by a spin-off of the Black Panthers. When DL was whisked away to a Tokyo concubine auction, “Her little car was left alone in its space, sometimes, across miles and years, to call out to her in a puzzled voice, asking why she hadn’t come back.” This works on several levels – the emotional investment we make in the car as an agent of our freedom, the anthropo-psychic life we assign to our possessions, and Pynchon’s magical realism which springs from the work of the philosopher Roland Barthes, who described cars as magical objects which are appreciated by the public in the same way as the great Gothic cathedrals.
So it seems the novel’s protagonists are wedded to their personal transportation, culturally as well as practically, and the American economy agrees, as does General Motors. The General returned a $2bn profit for the last quarter, and started to repay the billions it borrowed from the federal government to stave off bankruptcy. While it’s realistic to encourage us to use the bus, train, tram and bike within cities, it’s essential to make cars cleaner, because GM will keep building them for as long as we keep driving them… Now that oil companies are evolving into energy companies (BP at one point had a strapline on its adverts, “Beyond Petroleum”); the car companies have grabbed their alternative technologies with palpable relief. On the opposite side, environmental charities are looking at the private car’s other problems, such as causing congestion, physical inactivity, and contributing to road accidents. Everyone tacitly acknowledges that private transportation won’t go away any time in the next few decades.
The relevance to our townscape is that a culture steeped in the car finds its cities shaped by the car, and technology is actually working against the multi-modal vision of how cities might work, a la Jan Gehl and Jane Jacobs. At one point, it looked like the automobile would die in the aftermath of peak oil, as an unavoidable consequence of Hubbert’s Law. One extrapolation was that car-focussed planning, such as the Radburn layout, would be supplanted by walkable neighbourhoods. Visionaries proclaimed that a car-free world was coming – but the zero-energy vehicle changed all that. Pynchon’s West Coast techno-utopians believe the solution lies in equipping the car with a fuel cell or lithium ion battery, albeit “zero energy” is a conceit since neither the fuel cell- nor the electrically-powered vehicle is a perpetual motion machine. More energy will always go in than come out the other end – if only to overcome mechanical losses.
Outwith the city, the California of “Vineland” could be Scotland – both are several hundred miles long, with an ocean coastline; a belt of low-density urban sprawl in the middle; its valleys running inland to the desert are similar to glens reaching into the massif of Grampians and Cairngorms. We will need our ZEV’s to reach Bakersfield and Barstow (where the drugs kicked in, according to Hunter Thomson, RIP…), just as we need ZEV’s to get to Braemar and Blairgowrie. You would need to empty the countryside completely, and vastly increase the density of cities, to render the private car obsolete. In reality, the opposite is happening – “some day this would be all part of a Eureka-Crescent City – Vineland megalopolis,” and the huge stands of redwood trees will be felled. Cities are growing, and increases in travel are a symptom rather than a cause of this.
By definition, the shape of cities themselves will develop far more slowly than the technology of vehicles, as the time and money is being spent developing the car itself rather than the city. Progress in urban planning often consists of looking at precedents then trying to create something new, and the biggest jolt to traditional planning was the introduction of the car. It profoundly affected urbanist thinking in the 1920’s, but since then we’ve merely tinkered. Look at diagrams from recent New Urbanist or sustainable community proposals: then compare them to the Essex Design Guide of the early ‘70’s, Gordon Cullen’s “Townscape” from the ‘60’s, or Walter Bor’s work in Liverpool just after the War, which included the creation of “play streets” where cars were banned during the daytime. They all create places where people take priority over cars, which after all is the objective.
The wise have argued that we have been through all this before – many times before – but we have to keep coming back to the start, because we forgot the initial lesson. That doesn’t mean you should, like the New Urbanists of a Leon Krier stripe, simply run a set of James Craig’s plans through the Xerox machine. Now for the crunch… although none of the New Urbanists consider that the Radburn layout is *less* car-friendly than the Georgian New Town in Edinburgh, the latter’s long, straight, wide boulevards – with cars parked against both kerbs and in echelons along the centre – are dominated by the car, whereas the 1960’s New Town like Glenrothes has its cars tucked away in a series of cul-de-sacs. Is Edinburgh’s car-choked George Street, or a SSHA housing scheme like Auchmuty, with cars tucked away in parking courts, the more people-friendly? I hope you can see that current design dogma is no help to us, because Liverpool achieved child-friendly streets decades before the Dutch Woonerf, or indeed Disney’s ersatz town called Celebration appeared.
“No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible,” said Voltaire – but we’re all snowflakes, and the car-planned city is the avalanche. Yet we invented the snow shovel a long time ago, and all we need to do now is grab it when we go into the toolshed.
Thanks for reading this, Happy Christmas, and if you’re currently out of work, I hope you find a job in the New Year.
A few years ago, the Arrol brewery on Whins Road in Alloa, John Tullis & Son’s polymer factory in Tullibody, and the Forth Paper Mills at Kilbagie were part of a working landscape. Today, two out of three have been demolished, and the mills lie silent. This process, often called de-industrialisation, has become a recurrent theme which touches every aspect of Scottish life, from politics, economy, and architecture, to our literature. For example, Archie Hind’s “Dear Green Place” features the relict industrial landscape around Clydebridge steelworks, and Jeff Torrington’s “The Devil’s Carousel” describes the demise of the Rootes factory at Linwood.
Weir's Forth Paper Mills
Industries from the first wave of the Industrial Revolution were the first to be devastated. Deep coal mining ended in this country several years ago, yet Scotland had some of the largest and most modern pits in Europe, such as Seafield, Killoch, and Castlebridge which I wrote about previously here. The cluster of traditional industries around Alloa was particularly interesting, since it gave birth to a series of unique buildings. A handful of miles from the town centre lies the Kilbagie papermill at Kincardine – it began life as a distillery, later converted into an artificial manure factory, and over a century ago into a paper mill. Today its machine halls are silent, although parts are still used by a recycling company. A few miles east in Tullibody lay the Tullis Brothers tannery, and right in the heart of Alloa was the former Arrols brewery. Having looked at the architecture of coal mining, I’d like to look at paper production, leather tanning and brewing buildings in an attempt to learn how Alloa has changed.
Arrol's Alloa Brewery
Since the 1970’s, economists have fondly stated that we live in a global economy (doffing their caps to Milton Friedman). Beer, leather and paper can come from anywhere, and go to anywhere. The only God is the market, where capital will flow to the place it finds best value, ie. the cheapest place to make something, and the most expensive to sell it. Today we know better, as that economic policy has laid waste to parts of Scotland, and it crucially ignores the cost of transport. We’re entering a new age where the cost of generating carbon to transport goods and people is greater than the value of the commodities themselves. 150 years ago, towns aspired to have working economies with a wide range of industries, and the breadth of their economy helped to protect them when the economic going became tough; it also shaped the towns’ architecture.
As you can tell from the preceding paragraphs, Alloa doesn’t have a paper mill, tannery nor a brewery any more; and while it’s predictable to criticise the loss of these industries as short-sighted in terms of employment and investment, the town lost more than jobs and works buildings. It lost vital connectivity between all its industries. Down in the former docklands of Alloa, the United Glass plant on the banks of the Forth is still working, as is the maltings opposite – but the breweries they served have gone. Both the glassworks and maltings were weakened by their closure – they lost connectivity, and their place in the civic life of the town was weakened, too. The effect in Alloa was to destroy a truly “mixed use” town by replacing industry with offices, retail and housing developments – ironic, since mixed use towns are the grail of modern town planning.
Tullis Brothers' Tannery, Tullibody
The instruments which allowed this to happen are the Local Plan and the Strategic Plan, which try to offer a cohesive picture of the towns we’d like to have in five or ten years’ time. While they’re being prepared, there is a series of hearings, at which representations are made by planning consultants on behalf of their clients, in order to influence the future. The consultants broke down the plan into a series of plots labelled by ownership – but arguably the Planners should have produced a connectivity diagram instead. Economic relationships between areas of the town are more inportant than communication lines or conservation areas – because without them, the town will die. In an environment where businesses are failing, preserved buildings are like prisoners of conscience, and once the town loses its economic life, they inevitably die, too.
Tullis Brothers’ Tannery
The tannery at Tullibody, in Tullibody was a four storey brick building, shaped like an “L” with unequal legs. Before its demolition a few years ago, Historic Scotland decided it was the largest and most complete example of a Victorian tannery in the country – but its pigeon-filled shell militated against preservation. The building was constructed around an iron frame, with the two uppermost storeys clad in louvres to encourage the tanning fumes to dissipate. Weatherboarded timber was fitted between steel joist mullions, just as timber floor joists slotted into the webs of the iron beams in the tannery’s composite floors. The tannery’s landmarks were a pair of slender brick water towers, one of which had been “beheaded” years before.
The tannery specialised in heavy leathers for soles and belting – it began life in the late 18th century when the Paterson brothers built a small tannery and boneworks beside the Delph Pond in Tullibody. It was rebuilt in 1880 as the red brick tannery seen in the photos, and became Tullis Brothers in the 1930’s. When the leather market became tougher, the company evolved from John Tullis & Son into Tullis Polymers: after the war, the company made nylon stampings and profiles, plus patented plastic belting. When leather became expensive in the 1950’s, the tannery business began to flag; it was closed in 1962 when it was decided that replacing the obsolete tanning plant would be prohibitively expensive. From then on, the building operated as a plastics factory.
However, the tannery’s layout was unchanged, and most features remained, along with the timber floors steeped in chemicals (and tanning pits which were thought to harbour anthrax, according to the local Press). John Tullis (Plastics), which took over the factory when tanning work ended, was a subsiduary of John Tullis & Son – but although they had adapted to the modern world by producing plastic pressings, and casings for automotive brake cables, the tannery was too large to suit their needs, so Tullis Polymers relocated to another factory elsewhere in the town. Tullis entered administration in 1991 – although the tannery buildings survived for over a decade beyond that.
Arrol’s Skol Brewery
You rock up to Alloa expecting to see a Modernist brewery at its heart, but you meet a superstore instead. Around the back on Whins Road is a big shed housing a distribution centre, with ranks of Heineken’s dark green curtainsiders in the lorry park. This is all that remains of Arrol’s brewery, the most modern (and last survivor) of the eight breweries which once worked in Alloa. It was comparable to McEwan’s Fountain Brewery in Edinburgh, and to the new side of Tennent’s Wellpark Brewery in Glasgow – a post-war beer factory, with a brewhouse which resembled a control tower or BR signal box from the same era.
In fact, the long-established business of Archibald Arrol was independent until 1951, when Ind Coope of Burton on Trent assumed control, and decided only to brew lager here. Three years later, the old Arrols brewery was demolished, and a completely new complex built in its place. It was one of the first breweries built post-war in Britain, and its architecture had hints of the Festival of Britain style about it, which was influenced in turn by Scandinavian Modernist architecture. Fitting, then, that the new Arrols brewery was kitted out using Swedish equipment.
Arrols’ submergence into Ind Coope was the start of a long period of consolidation in the brewing industry which continues today, and may eventually end up with all beer coming from one company, perhaps from a stainless steel mega-brewhouse somewhere in Belgium. I mention that because Ind Coope decided to concentrate Arrols’ production on lagers because lager brewing plant was installed in the old Alloa brewery in the 1920’s, and it went on to make Graham’s Golden Lager, which was very successful and was re-branded as “Skol” in the Fifties, when Arrols was rebuilt. Hence the new building was sometime referred to as the Skol Brewery. Later, with the assistance of the brewers Calders, further business deals took place, and by 1961 Arrols’ Alloa brewery had become part of Allied Breweries, when Tetley, Ansells and Ind Coope merged – then were bought over by Carlsberg, becoming “Carlsberg-Tetley”.
Although over £2m was invested in the brewery during the 1980’s and early 1990’s (including the reintroduction of beer brewing alongside lagers), Carlsberg closed it in 1998. Before it was demolished, the brewhouse tower still bore the ghost of its previous owners: on one face, a large green Heineken sign stained with the weather; on the other, the impression of the illuminated SKOL lettering which had been ripped from the wall several years before. More so than the paper mills or the tannery, the brewery was part of the urban scene in Alloa: it was a landmark which gave scale to the town centre, and took its place on the town’s skyline among the kirk spires and silo of United Glass.
Weir’s Forth Paper Mills
One of the high class Swiss watchmakers fondly points out in its adverts that you don’t own one of their timepieces, you merely look after it on behalf of the next generation. In a sense, the owners of buildings like the Forth Paper Mills are only custodians: they not only look after the fabric of the building, but also carry forward the culture of the firms which operated before them. That’s especially true when their history goes back to the very start of the Industrial Revolution.
From a distance you can see the Edwardian buildings of Weirs’ old paper mill at Kilbagie, their solid brick-and-a-half walls enclosing three and four storey halls held up with girder truss columns and trussed roofs: the pattern of ridges and ventilators is obvious now, but during the mill’s working life, it was usually wreathed in steam. However, deep inside the mills, surrounded by those machine halls that once housed huge Fourdriniers churning out paper 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, are dark, damp buildings with rubble sandstone walls and slated roofs. They once held the largest gin distillery in Britain, which proves the mill has regenerated themselves more than once.
The mills were built alongside Kilbagie House; as with the paperboard mills at Carrongrove, (which were latterly owned then closed down by the same firm, Inveresk Paper – there are some photos of Carrongrove here) the mansion house became the mill’s offices, and was gradually overwhelmed by its ever-expanding neighbour. The buildings swallowed up their water supply, which now runs underground and trickles into a lade on the far side of the mill – then once the papermaking machines were fitted with electric drives, the giant steam engine was made redundant.
Similarly, the Kilncraigs Mill in Alloa itself, which latterly spun wool for Patons & Baldwins, was originally powered by reciprocating steam engines, but from the early years of the 20th century until its closure in 1999, it used three steam turbines to generate electricity for the individual motor drives on the frames. Their waste water efflux was sent through a now-rare timber cooling tower, one of those old-fashioned frustums or truncated pyramids which you see in the Bechers’ books of industrial typologies.
A Working Landscape?
Perched in the paper mill’s water tower, peering through a skylight in the tannery, or high up in the Arrol brewhouse – perhaps the first thing you realise is that they have their brick construction in common. Never much in demand for housing in Scotland until recently, firebrick was mainly used for industrial architecture. Coal is typically found in strata which also include fireclay, so there were a multitude of brickworks alongside the collieries on either side of the Forth. Likewise, the Carron Ironworks across the Forth was a world pioneer, so Scotland was one of the first countries to adopt iron and steel frame construction (the Ca d’Oro in Glasgow being a good example). A third factor is the Functional Tradition in architecture, so-called by the Architectural Review in the early post-war years. The tannery certainly adheres to it – plain, unadorned brickwork with tiers of louvred cladding above it – and similarly, the paper mill grew organically around a working core. Perhaps more so than the fussy stonework of Alloa’s civic buildings, that brick-built tower of Arrol’s brewery translated what the town was about – part of a functional tradition which evolved to suit its native industries.
With thanks to John McArthur of David Mortons for the demolition photos.
Can you hear them, gnashing and wailing again that the barbarians are at the gate? TV and print journalists are uneasy about the rise of the net, and with good reason. Fifteen years ago, only Steve Jobs, Alvin Toffler and William Gibson guessed that old media would roll over and be replaced by a world-wide web of computers. It’s taken a couple of decades for the rest of us to catch up. Mind you, the Mancunian prophet Mark E. Smith had its consequences figured out in 1993, on his album “The Infotainment Scan”…
Andrew Marr’s recent attack on internet commentators betrays his unease, which manifested itself in a criticism of so-called weblogs and “bloggers” – as being “socially inadequate, pimpled, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men” – and the so-called citizen journalism as “the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night.” Bloggers: an ugly term, but one which has stuck. Aside from the hypocrisy of Andrew Marr criticising anyone for their appearance (after all, did he get his break on TV thanks to his matinée idol looks … ?) he appears to miss the point. Writing on the internet sprang up both to embrace an opportunity, and to fill a void. That there is good and bad on the web is a given; as on television, as in life generally.
The point is that in an era of Rupert Murdoch, whose tentacles extend far beyond the wildest dreams of Beaverbrook or William Randolph Hearst, we lack a broad spectrum of commentary on politics. Where are the strong dissenting voices – nationalist, ecological, far right, far left, fundamentalist – in the centrist British media? The context is similar to the arrival of music fanzines in the 1980’s – the advent of cheap xerox machines allowed fans to “do it for themselves” by publishing their own little magazines about the music they liked – music which was often ignored by the mainstream press. Some of the writing in fanzines wasn’t worth reading, but quite a few writers, editors and illustrators later graduated to the glossy magazines or “inkies” (music papers like the late lamented Melody Maker or Sounds). The new outlet for music criticism allowed good, bad and ugly to reach the public. Architecture is similarly under-reported, though for different reasons.
Peter Kelly, writing in this month’s issue of Blueprint, is more objective than Andrew Marr. He specifically laments the lack of critical writing on architecture on the net. That’s writing with the rigour of formal criticism (writing about ideas) rather than writing which criticises, per se. Of course, the Blueprint article is only following the lead of Martin Pawley, whose collection of journalism (published post-humously) was called “The Strange Death of Architectural Criticism”. So architectural criticism has been given the last rites more than once.
Kelly puts forward print magazines as the champions of architectural criticism, in the same way that Andrew Marr feels broadcast media are the natural home of political commentary. Architecture magazines certainly did carry pieces of in-depth analytical criticism once – well-argued articles that set out to prove or disprove an idea; that challenged what architects said in the face of what they built; that provoked through polemical writing. When Architectural Review (AR) and Zodiac were at the zenith of their powers during the 1950’s and 1960’s, ideas were their currency. What happened to that healthy climate of criticism is a relevant question.
Building Design (BD) prints one piece of analysis per issue, if you’re lucky, and it rarely reviews books about ideas. Architect’s Journal (AJ) concentrates mainly on building studies and technical pieces; Icon is in thrall to the cult of the Big Name, and in the case of Architectural Design (AD) that extends to the Big Name Guest Editor. Blueprint itself, and AR, try to balance icons with ideas; as does Urban Realm. Perhaps all these magazines struggle because architectural culture is increasingly visual, in that books, magazines and websites emphasise photos and CGI renders. Writing is often little more than an extended caption, or valedictory message by a friend of the designer. These days, there are few manifesto writers in architecture.
It’s a pity Kelly chooses the “Bad British Architecture” blog to illustrate his thesis – because that blog certainly is writing which criticises, per se. Ironically, it’s apparently written by a former editor of the AJ called Kieran Long – proving that print and web media do meet somewhere – but its invective, aimed at easy targets, only proves that crap buildings are being designed (we knew that already) and also that he has a bias against Scottish architects, particularly Archial and Keppie. You can't take anyone seriously as a journalist when their considered opinion is, "Dundee has loads of shit new architecture in it".
Another Kelly example, Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLOG never set out to provide criticism, rather it’s a cabinet of futuristic curiosities which occasionally picks up on serious writing like Michael Cook’s musings on the power and water infrastructure under our cities. Equally, though, it’s a platform for Manaugh to get a book publishing deal, although ironically the published book-of-the-website reads like several thematic issues of a magazine bound into one, again proving the bonds between old and new media. Neither of those blogs proves Peter Kelly's point, because neither attempts to give us architectural criticism; more telling would be blogs which fail to deliver what they promise.
In truth, the terrain is slipping under the feet of traditional journalists: the book and magazine “model” of someone commissioning a feature, a writer producing it, then an editor challenging it, has a competitor. The net allows an article to be published immediately (rather than waiting for several weeks inside in a computer, then in a RIP attached to a Heidelberg press, then on a pallet inside a distribution lorry, then finally on John Menzies’ shelf…) The readers can challenge the article’s ideas instantly – an editor may do the writer’s career more good in the long run, but a readership which interacts will do the article’s thesis more good, thanks to the instant call and response of the internet. By the time readers respond through the letters page of a magazine, weeks have passed and the debate has moved on. Perhaps that interaction is more important than a writer giving birth to a perfectly-formed article once a month.
Another truth is that the print media are slowly dying – those 1980’s fanzines presaged the closure of all the music “inkies” bar the NME – and when both Icon and BD went from free circulation to paid-for, we realised their light was dying, too. Larger printer’s bills, smaller advert and subscription revenues bred a vicious circle, where circulation drops as costs go up and content quality declines. In an effort to stem this, extended pieces of criticism appear to have been ditched from many titles, in favour of courting the “stars” and showing high-impact pics of their icons. Perhaps the architecture magazines themselves are to blame for the death of criticism, rather than Andrew Marr’s bald, pimply bloggers.
An anonymous room in a medical institution. A man in a white lab coat ticks off items on his clipboard. A woman in a sweater and culottes beckons the subject to sit down on a moulded plastic chair, and offers a pair of headphones. A rack of electronic equipment, consisting of industrial signal generators and amplifiers, lies behind them. The subject is blindfolded, then a red floodlight is directed at his eyes, and a soundtrack of pure white and pink noise – what we call static, the random spread of frequencies you hear when the TV set isn’t tuned in to a signal – is sent through the headphones.
The experimenters hope the subject will discern a pattern through the noise, perhaps make out the faint trace of human voices. This is perhaps closer to para-psychology than classical psychiatry, but it is one of many techniques tried out in asylums for the insane over many decades during the last century. Their names changed many times, from asylums for the insane, to idiot colonies, then mental hospitals, and psychiatric units: as did their methods. From the more conventional approaches like work therapy and bed rest for nervous exhaustion, to the more extreme, such as the 1960’s practice of dosing patients with powerful drugs like chlorpromazine, seconal and largactil.
Further back in the 1940’s, some patients were hooked up to a Page-Russell machine, which carried out electro-convulsive therapy by applying jolts of electricity to the brain, in order to break up patterns of behaviour which the specialists decided were detrimental to the patient’s wellbeing. ECT had irreversible side-effects, summed up by Ernest Hemingway, who received electro-shock therapy in 1961 – “Well, what is the sense of ruining my head and erasing my memory, which is my capital, and putting me out of business? It was a brilliant cure but we lost the patient.” Even more extreme, and horrific in liberal modern terms, was the leucotomy or lobotomy, which involved surgery on the brain’s frontal lobes. As there is already lurid speculation in the media about ECT and leucotomy procedures, I will leave it there and concentrate instead on the environment of the asylums themselves.
My interest lies in the homogeneous visual and audio environment known as the Ganzfeld, or "total field”, and in the buildings which housed these experiments with peoples’ psyches. To quieten down the "noise" produced by internal bodily tension (the high note of our nerves, the steady pulse of the heart, and perhaps the hiss of tinnitus), the patient was led through a set of relaxation exercises at the beginning of the Ganzfeld period. The aim was also to tune out the background noise of everyday life, because “psi” information can be a very weak signal. Accordingly, it was important that background noise in the asylums was kept down, and that the buildings were a calm environment.
The separation of asylums from the rest of the population is obvious: most lie in rural locations a few miles from the cities they were built to serve. Arguably that provided a peaceful context for the patients, ample room to expand the buildings, and for the patients to exercise in – and possibly some reassurance for the “man and woman in the street” that the disturbed patients posed little risk to their orderly lives. Little do many realise that sanity is not a given, and that the line between sanity and insanity is not black and white, but a fuzzy one across which many of us drift at some point, whether through sorrow, anger or confusion. As with most things in life, you show far more sympathy towards a condition if someone you know has been touched by it.
Some Victorian-era asylums, such as Gartloch outside Glasgow, were imposingly gothic in atmosphere (with a small “g”), and are guaranteed to trigger thoughts of institutional architecture. The dark brooding towers cast the long shadow of The System over both patients and staff, and are inescapable from anywhere on site. However, by the time the Edwardians had developed the asylum, they concluded that the “pavillion” or “colony” plan, which split a single echelon-plan building down into smaller ward blocks, was more sympathetic to the patients. Likewise, the grounds they laid out around the newer asylums, such as Talgarth in the Black Mountains, or St Mary’s outside Newcastle, were on a more humane scale and were not surrounded by high walls.
Today, many of these old institutions have closed, as a result of the “Care in the Community” programme – and I find it telling that the buildings have come to take on their own Ganzfeld characteristics. Like the Surrealists’ hobby of “automatic writing”, the Ganzfeld procedure offers scope to discern faint signals amongst the noise of architectural sub-conscious, perhaps creating something new from a real or imaginary cue. It also harks back to Edison’s attempts to hear the voices of the dead via the radio, his optimistic hope that new technology might reveal hidden worlds. While the buildings stand empty, awaiting redevelopment or demolition, they have lost part of their personality, and become an empty vessel into which we can read different things.
By listening closely, perhaps the developers and architects can sense what to keep, what could be incorporated into the new, and which parts of the troubled past could be jettisoned. It is one thing to convert a T.B. Sanatorium into flats, once you’re convinced that the germ has been sterilised and drugged out of existence; it’s something quite different to break all the associations these asylums have, for their former patients and staff. While they are standing empty, the old asylums are peaceful places, and the best of them are the rural ones like Talgarth or St Mary’s. The untended landscaping has begun to close in on itself, cloistering the buildings in bushes and trees; birds and foxes slip in through the gaps and cracks which have opened up in the walls. They have lost any associations of menace they may once have had.
Without access to vast numbers of NHS files (which, due to patient confidentiality, the authorities have become very possessive of – rather than the old laissez-faire approach of dumping un-shredded paperwork into skips as allegedly happened years ago) it’s difficult to tell which asylums carried out which therapies – but most used powerful psycho-active drugs, many tried seclusion rooms and padded cells as a restraint for violent patients, and some experimented with ECT. There is little trace remaining of those once the NHS leaves the building; but it’s still easy to close your eyes and experience the Ganzfeld. A deserted asylum is, paradoxically, one of few places where you might find peace – partly because it’s empty, but also because each building is straining to make out the faint signal which will determine its future.
For a more systematic discussion of asylums and their development, have a look at the County Asylums website, and for a beautifully elegiac description of these institutions in their current state, I recommend taking the time to read Mechanised, which is one of the very best of the sites devoted to the subject. Neither website was produced by an architectural writer, and they are all the better for that.
“How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world,” said the Prince of Denmark, and housebuilding executives probably think something similar when they wake each morning. Changes in the planning system, and the scrapping of housebuilding targets by the coalition government, have affected developers by depressing land values – and of course they are still struggling with poor demand for their product.
Now, the value of housebuilders’ land banks, as well as disused buildings prime for conversion, have dropped, which is in effect a double hit. Share prices were already depressed by the firms’ low output, and now the property assets on their balance sheet have been written down. The companies are toiling because they can’t sell houses, and the land they bought is depreciating, too. It’s ironic, then, that the subject of my previous piece, General Motors, offloaded old factories, a New Jersey golf course, and an abandoned church in Indiana, during its latest “fire sale” a couple of weeks ago. I think the old investment mantra goes something along the lines of – “Always sell at the bottom of the market…!”
When the market is working properly, commercial firms often find that their old factories or offices are worth more as a piece of land than a working part of the company. Although it seems crazy, the one-off receipt for the sale of the site is often more attractive than long-term returns from a manufacturing plant or warehouse built on it. Perhaps there’s something in the old adage that land is one of very few things that they’re no longer making, and that finity used to push land values ever higher. No longer. Now most housebuilding firms are struggling to sell anything.
Last week, the Aberdeen developer Cala (aka The City of Aberdeen Land Association) went to the High Court in London to challenge the scrapping of those government housebuilding targets. Cala argues that without primary legislation, the move is unlawful – and anyhow, there are no alternatives in place. Their case is based on a 2000-house scheme in Winchester which has been refused planning approval by the local council. That in itself is unremarkable – but Cala’s position is that it would be futile for it to appeal the decision, as there is no planning policy to judge it against. It may become a test-case for the industry, because the National Housing Federation reckons that another 80,000 houses are caught in the same cleft stick.
How ironic that several seemingly paradoxical things are conspiring against the housing industry, just when the economy desperately needs it to receive a kick-start. We are heading for a housing shortage – yet the government has scrapped building targets. There’s a shortage of loan capital out there, lenders want 30% deposits, and the mortgage market is dead – yet we’ve just seen the first round of quantitative easing for decades. Land is the cheapest it’s been for years – yet demand for it is even lower. Tony Pidgely of Berkeley Homes says he’s even been offered land for nothing… unthinkable in normal times.
What happens next is anyone’s guess, but property analyst Alastair Stewart, of Investec, reckons there is a serious risk of a double-dip in house prices and land values, and he believes that the housing market is grinding to a standstill. Given how many sectors of the construction industry have been devastated by recent government decisions – health spending curtailed by the end of PFI/PPP projects – education in England hit by the curtailment of Building Schools for the Future (BSF) – and defence by the recent spending review which indirectly threatened to close Scotland’s last three big shipyards – housing was one area where we might have hoped for an early recovery. At the moment, the only active housebuilding sites are in east London where supply is enormous, thanks to the forthcoming Olympics.
The market elsewhere seems, to coin a phrase, weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.
My next piece will try to avoid politics, the recession and Shakespeare. ;-)
If … land sold at a fair price, rather than being speculated upon. If … there weren’t bandwagoneers at each stage of the development process, extracting “excess value”. If … capitalism worked as Adam Smith intended. If … we really wanted to, we could solve the recession by turning on the taps. If … only things were as simple as those quotes would have you believe.
Yet it’s true that architecture is beholden to money, because it facilitates construction work. Professional institutions crow about the added value which designers bring to a scheme, but that only serves to obscure the difference between value and worth. You may feel you have got good value from your architect, but perhaps what you need is someone who can increase the worth of what you build. Yet the architect can only go so far down this road before they destroy the essence of their value to the client – and General Motors can suggest why.
A couple of years ago, the company which was the world’s largest car maker, and once the world’s biggest corporation, filed for protection from bankruptcy. General Motors, founded by a guy from Arbroath called Buick, was on its knees. However, the root of GM’s troubles was a shift in the corporation’s emphasis half a century ago. In 1958, GM president Federic Donner spent daily meetings with his divisional heads talking – not about cars, as was the tradition – but about how to drive up the company’s stock price. For Chevy boss Bunkie Knudsen, it was then that he realised that the purpose of GM had changed from making products to making profits. As the influence of designers and engineers declined, the power of the bean-counters grew. Divisions lost autonomy, a Cadillac became a Chevrolet with more chrome, and the competitive internal market that won GM 50% of the American market began to break down. The decline of General Motors began then, half a century ago.
Architectural practices – once they grow to the size of Aukett, RMJM or Archial – begin to suffer from the symptoms which GM experienced. They begin as architects, and their product is design, but as they grow, financial management becomes more important. Once they reach a certain size, they become machines for making money. The ambitious ones list on the stock exchange, although listed architects never seem to make successful investments, and it isn’t clear why they need to raise the large amounts of money which the market offers them the chance to. From working for big business, they gradually become big businesses themselves, and their emphasis changes; rather than existing because the person in charge of the practice enjoys designing buildings, they become a board of directors whose main aim is to keep the shareholders happy.
Earlier this month, Archial went into administration. From reports in the press, this has little to do with the quality of the buildings they designed, the hard work their architects put in, or the awards which the practice won. It has got more to do with the shareholders, who lined up like hungry vultures perched on gateposts. Faced with a deepening recession, many of us wonder what tomorrow will look like. Perhaps there will be fewer mega practices like Archial; or maybe the future lies in larger practices, but working on a different economic model. Perhaps they were unlucky, and the type of work they sought was hit hardest by the recession. Irrespective, it’s difficult to predict how the larger beast called “Architecture” will be shaped in the next few years – but the salutary lesson from history is that many familiar names disappear during an “age of austerity”.
If I can use the car-making analogy again, I will consider the fate of some pre-war marques. During the 1930’s there were many medium-sized firms making interesting cars which pioneered new ideas, and offered alternatives to the mass-market Austins and Morrises. Today’s architects offer a similar alternative to the package deals of serial developers, and standard products of spec. housebuilders. Firms like Delahaye, Essex, Hudson, Railton and Terraplane survived the Great Depression of the Twenties and went on to develop new models – elegant, modern and relatively expensive. Some of them didn’t restart production after WW2, and of those which did, most didn’t survive for long. The austerity of the post-war years did for them – partly because the economy was on its knees, but also because mass opinion has become pessimistic about the future. The advent of peace hadn’t brought about a utopia, but instead the Iron Curtain and the H-bomb. Progress appeared to be dystopian.
Environmental disasters such as Deepwater Horizon, the crash of Air France’s Concorde at Gonesse, and the collapse of Ronan Point, are visions from a dystopia where technology fails. They may provide dramatic images for the television news, but their message is bleak, and sometimes like something from Hobbes’ Leviathan. Leviathan’s war of every man against every man is the ultimate dystopia, although the battle for ultimate self-preservation is one we have managed to avoid for the past 60 years. So we appear to have come a long way, since the Great Depression has almost passed out of living memory, and World War Two is similarly distant … but it is to the consequences of WW2 and its aftermath that politicians suggest we will return. Unwittingly, they allude to life in wartime, even whilst trying to put a brave face on the recession.
The last Labour government planned “pathfinder” projects to renew inner cities – little realising that the first Pathfinders were lone Mosquito bombers which flew deep into enemy territory to drop flares on targets, ahead of the massed Lancasters which followed minutes later to devastate them. The current Tory-Liberal pact has predicted a new age of “austerity” – if that truly comes to pass, they may find themselves pushed from office by an army of angry “consumers” denied the chance to consume. If austerity means giving up luxuries, such as video games, foreign travel and brand new cars, not only will millions feel hard done by, millions more lose their jobs in the service industries which provide them – including architecture.
Last time austerity was visited upon us was the late 1940’s, when the theories of Utopians like Le Corbusier and Tecton collided with the dystopian ruins of wartime Europe. Yet where utopia and dystopia are both predicated on a fast-changing world, austerity lives in an era of stagnancy. Despite a handful of architectural statements such as the Smithsons’ Brutalist school at Hunstanton, and ACP’s rubber factory at Brynmawr, the vast majority of building work was plain, stripped back and sometimes brutally simple, because the government only found cash for essential reconstruction work.
That architecture was based on rationalism which went far beyond the “functional” design of the Bauhaus. These buildings were built in brick, because it was the cheapest cladding available, and where frames were needed, concrete was often used because it required less steel than other alternatives. For the most part, clients did not worry what their buildings looked like: during the War, they had seen the beautiful people of the pre-war world without their mascara, and knew that they were just the same as everyone else. Ironically, that gave the buildings of this era a strength of character lacking today. Pared back, plain and undemonstrative was a rarity in the Nineties and early years of the new millennium, so much so that it would make more of a statement than an “icon” does today.
Fifteen years after the armistice, the post-war expansion of the 1960’s described in Oliver Marriott’s book “The Property Boom” led to the import of utopian architecture from the US – skyscrapers, supermarkets and malls. Austerity had passed, an era of consumption was ushered in (the retail disease as opposed to the bronchial disease…) A building’s image became important again. Society’s values changed, and architecture changed to suit them. Who can say when that will happen, this time around.
Stewartby was once the world's largest brickworks: and like many brick and fireclay companies, it has a strong Scottish connection, despite being located in darkest Bedfordshire.
The story of the London Brick Company begins and ends with the Stewart Family. Alexander Stewart was the archetypal if not cliched "strong, self-disciplined Scotsman" and both his parents came from farming stock, his father from Aberdeenshire, his mother from Perthshire. Predictably, for a lay preacher, he brought up his family to have a strong work ethic and the moral compass so beloved of our man Gordon Brown. Successive generations - his son Halley Stewart, grandson Percy Malcolm Stewart and in turn great-grandson Ronald Stewart - ran the London Brick Company at Stewartby, until it was eventually sold to Hanson Trust. Its roots lay in 1869 when Halley and his brother Ebenezer formed a company called Stewart Brothers and Spenser making cattle cake, which thrived despite a serious fire in 1884 at their mill in Kent. However, plans by a rival to corner the animal feed market encouraged Halley to sell up in 1889, and look for a new home for his capital. Several years later, his attention turned to bricks.
Brickmaking in this part of Bedfordshire was begun by B.J. Forder who gradually expanded into the Oxford clay belt. By 1897, Forder had opened new brickworks at Elstow and Wootton Pillinge, and needed investors to plough money into mechanising the brick-making process. Forder brought in several partners, including Halley Stewart, then a Liberal candidate for Parliament. In due course, Forders became a limited company and Halley became the chairman, with a controlling financial interest. By 1910 Forders was producing 48 milion bricks a year, and meanwhile its rivals, the London Brick Co. bought the company of James Randall in 1900, operating in Wootton Broadmead, followed by 450 acres of land at Wootton Pillinge in 1905.
The Wootton Pillinge Brick Company, founded in 1901, was finally bought out by LBC during the slump of the early 1920s. During this downturn, several brick companies came together in a merger designed to stabilise prices, and in 1923 the two largest companies merged to become “London Brick Company and Forders”. Halley Stewart became the first Chairman of the company for the first year, then in 1924 Perry Malcolm Stewart succeeded his father as Chairman. By 1936 the company was re-named the London Brick Company Ltd.
Halley's “moral capitalism” led him to improve the working and living environment of his brick makers. London Brick Company had its own ambulance and fire crews, a horticultural department and a photographic department, as well as its own swimming pool inside the factory, and ran a number of sports clubs. Together with his son Percy, Halley Stewart planned and developed the model village at Wootton Pillinge, later named Stewartby in his honour. Like Bourneville in Birmingham, and Port Sunlight on Merseyside, Stewartby was a so-called model community complete with a school, sports club, church, a town hall and numerous other amenities, provided by an industrialist who effectively became a philanthropist in his care for his employees. Percy Stewart was brought into the business whilst still young, and eventually become one of Britain's leading industrialists. Like his father, he believed in ploughing profits back into the industry in search of long-term capital growth, rather than seeking the quick return which so many public companies do nowadays.
At its height, Stewartby brickworks was home to the world's biggest kiln and over 2,000 people worked at the plant producing 500 million bricks a year. London Brick's secret weapon was the "Fletton" brick, fired from Gault clay and later to become the standard building material throughout the southern part of England. Geologically-speaking, this Lower Oxford Clay is made up of 5% seaweed and as this organic material burned when the clay was in the kiln, it reduced the need for coal, and also ensured the bricks were evenly-fired. After the war, Ronald Stewart took control of London Brick when Percy retired, and the brick industry continued to consolidate.
At the start of the 1970's, the company acquired its local rivals, Marston Valley Brick Company, and NCB Ancillaries (Whittlesea) Ltd, plus the Fletton brick interests of Redland Brick Limited. London Brick had now cornered the market. A slump in the building industry (these happen with monotonous regularity) led to 250 lay-offs at Stewartby, and three smaller brickworks were shut down completely. However, in 1979 London Brick sought permission to build a fully-automated “new generation” brickworks, following the Stewarts' example of investing for the future using new technology. In 1983 the company stated its long term strategy: "to operate brickworks in the Marston Vale in order to produce 20 million bricks per week", and the kilns at Stewartby were converted to run using methane gas drawn off nearby landfills, which had once been claypits.
London Brick's continuing success prompted an approach at the start of 1984 from the Hanson Trust, who were already involved in the manufacture of facing bricks. London Brick resisted, and published plans for a new £25 million “superworks” they proposed for Stewartby. However, Hanson Trust bid almost £250m, and took control of the company. By then, there were 26 different bricks in the London Brick range, from the sandy-coloured “Hereward Light”, to the dark, wavy-ridged “Rustic”. These, and their cousins, built over five million houses in the UK built with London Brick stock – and every brick has the distinctive frog, or indentation in the face, making them easier to cut and handle. That also explains the tagline which sounds cryptic to anyone outside the building industry: “London: the Brick with the Frog”.
The next step, inevitably, was cost-cutting: in 1985, 400 were paid off at Stewartby, and over the next few years Hanson reportedly adopted a hire and fire strategy, inimical to the way that the Stewarts ran the business. The greatest changes came about due to environmental legislation: old-fashioned brickworks create a good deal of pollution, so work was carried out through the 1990's to clean up Stewartby. At the same time, kilns were shut down and chimneys demolished: for example today only four of the original 23 chimneys remain. The remaining four have been listed by English Heritage, along with two of the "Hoffman" type brick kilns. More than £1 million was spent on Stewartby Brickworks in 2005-7 in an attempt to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions. By then, there were just 230 people employed at the Stewartby brickworks, with only two kilns and three chimneys in use, producing a total of 135 millions bricks a year. The attempt to reduce pollution failed, and the brickworks finally closed in February 2008.
Although the kilns have long since cooled down, the power is still live to many lights and control panels, some parts are stripped out, and some buildings are still intact. The northern side of the site is a battlefield of bulldozers now, as Hanson build a new headquarters just beyond one of the brickmaking buildings; elsewhere neatly-stacked pallets of Stewartby’s final production run sit side-by-side with piles of brick dust, and mountains of scrap iron, the legacy of several generations’ worth of investment in brick. I saw the bulk of the brick production buildings still standing, and walked along the tops of the kilns – sticking to the crowns of the brick vaults, as the blaes elsewhere is shaky. Inside, everything is still coated in brick dust, and inexplicably I managed to fill the back pocket of my trousers with it! I’m happy that I crawled through the No.2 kiln, clambered over the remains of a brickmaking machine, stood under Stewartby’s great chimneys, and paused briefly where a photo of LBC’s brick-laden AEC six-leggers was taken in the 1940’s.
Stewartby’s ultimate fate? Housing, with 1,200 new homes, Hanson’s new offices and a renewable energy facility being planned for the brickworks site, plus a series of boating lakes created in the former brickfields alongside it.
Long long ago, before architecture took up my time, I dabbled in book dealing, buying and selling on a small scale. In the mid-90’s, before the internet caught on, you relied on books to find other books. Various firms published guides to bookshops and bookdealers, locating them and providing a rough idea of their stock. Dog-eared copies of Skoob, Sheppard’s and Drif rumbled around the boot of my car, alongside old banana boxes packed with architecture and design books of various stripes.
If you needed an entertaining but unreliable Cicerone, you picked up Drif. Occasionally, you come across the kind of book you know will cause trouble: Drif’s Guide to and For the Secondhand Bookshops of Britain was described by one reviewer, the joyless Simon Heffer, as “a scabrous collection of insults, jokes, prejudices and abuses about bookshops and their owners.” The fact that it was self-published was the key to its existence: a publisher would never release a title which offended so many folk, or a book which revelled in anti-promotion. Speaking of bookshops, Drif noted – “They are dreadful, you are wasting your money buying this guide. It will only tell you how dreadful they are in more detail.” Only someone who loved books as much as Drif could say that.
No-one knew his first name. His given name was always Drif. The books were called Drif Field Guides, suggesting that bookshops could be tracked down and ticked off in the field like rare birds, or wild flowers. The first edition was published in 1984 – In Quest of the Perfect Book: The Antiquarian Bookshop Catalogue & Directory, and its author was already honing his no-holds-barred vitriolic skills. Mr Driffield achieved notoriety thanks to his Guide. It is – provided you can find a copy – probably the least objective book you are every likely to read. Drif badly needed an editor, and the D.I.Y. cut-and-paste graphics improved only a little with each edition. There are occasional insights into the machinery of the second-hand booktrade, which would be hard-won if you had to figure them all out for yourself: the guides discuss the shibboleths of pricing (calibration, as Drif calls it), condition, haggling, and accurate description. Yet these are not instructional books for greenhorns; they are as much aimed at the trade as the casual reader.
Drif characterised his fellow dealers using an enormous stock of pejoratives, including the immortal put-down, “a person who thinks sex is what the Scots carry coal in”. By turns he is scathing and nostalgic, yet his guides are always shot through with dry wit and variable grammar. As the years went on, the format of the books changed, and they became more autobiographical – for instance, he recounted his adventures on trains – British Frail – with evident glee. On one visit to Scotland, he detrained several miles from his destination, retrieved his bike from the guard’s van, then cycled into town. He turned up just as the bookshop opened, wearing his habitual Aran sweater and tweed plus fours, then parked his transport against the shopfront. That famous bike featured on one of the book covers, and became his trademark, almost as much as his personal style – a suedehead haircut and bovver boots on one hand, and three-piece suit in green tweed on the other.
Drif marched purposefully into the shop and straight up to the desk – dealers are never tentative when they enter bookshops, unlike casual browsers, who open and close the door gingerly – then he asked dolefully, “Do you have anything about DEATH?” Whether or not he had a client who was keen to acquire books about mortality, this opening shot was designed to throw the unsuspecting bookshop owner. Tales like this gave Drif a disconcerting quality which fed his reputation for eccentricity and bloody-mindedness. He could be an absolute scourge: albeit the Tyneside dealer who Drif named “the rudest in Britain” found that business boomed after that recommendation.
Scotland fared better, perhaps because Drif enjoyed feeling he was abroad, and he returned time and again with optimism. From his 1992 book – “Aberdeen is such a different city to anywhere else in Britain; the books are not too great, but it does contain hope. Hope is the one quality that a secondhand bookshop cannot do without. It is more important than the actual books. What you need to visit a bookshop is the belief that there is a possibility that the bookshop may have what you are looking for. That is why it is that all unvisited bookshops are so tempting; you have not been disappointed by them yet.”
Aberdeen got off lightly, considering that he characterised Glasgow as Gotham City with leprosy; that it smelt like catfood diluted with vintage urine, and sounded like Billy Graham being sodomised. In fact, he had a weakness for the Far North simply because cheap books were to be had – “bargains known.” The serious point of the guides was to document all of the secondhand bookshops in Britain, pass comment on them, and perhaps recommend a few where bargains could be had, or where a speciality lay. As part of his dealing activities, he travelled the length of the country several times a year, so he spoke from experience – and the six editions of the Guide, from 1984 to 1995, chronicled the slow decline of the bookshop.
In 1991, he recounted the story of how he roused the owner of Winrams Bookshop in Rosemount at 10pm on a Sunday evening, and got her to open up the shop for him there and then. As a non-driver, he was accompanied on that buying trip by a former Israeli tank commander (or so he would have us believe), who drove him through Aberdeen’s streets at 60mph for a couple of hours before they spotted the shop. This chauffeur – always referred to as Raymond Carver – acted as his Greek chorus throughout the book, “What a toad, have you noticed how he is always keenest on middle-aged females?” Or the “League of Lady Booksellers”, as Drif fondly referred to them. By the fourth edition, Drif had mastered the form of the Guidebook and was playing around with Post-modernism.
How the story was told was just as important as the narrative, and that had long ago overtaken the substantive content of the guides. Drif’s usual style was to employ failed poets as drivers – although the exception was Iain Sinclair who has published several novels about London, and wrote Drif into the first, White Chappell Scarlet Tracings, as a disgruntled fixture of the book trade. Sinclair noted that as Drif began to believe his own hype, the guides became more anecdotal – which inevitably with Drif means autobiographical – until he came to the notice of the media. He appeared on Radio 4, discussing the death of the bookshop; later, his manuscript for a novel (described by Sinclair as “strange and driven”) came close to being published. Although Drif believed the media was interested because he was an example of the Great British Eccentric – he always characterised himself as an outsider – in fact he was an insider, deep in the London booktrade.
One example of that carefully-cultivated eccentricity was the reason why he showed up at Winrams late in the evening – his vegetarian diet. En route to Aberdeen, he stopped in Perth and attempted in several places to find a “veggie menu” – but only managed to get something to eat when he found a chip shop and ordered “everything vegetarian” from the menu. Thus he feasted on baked apple, followed by mushy peas with battered mushrooms and onion rings, with a banana fritter as dessert… Yet read past these amusing asides, and over the course of six books you can see Drif’s heart slowly being broken as the book trade atrophied, destroying the certainties of three decades of dealing.
Drif attributed the decline in bookshops’ quality to the fecklessness of their owners: the decline in bookshop numbers was due, he believed, to the rise of bookfairs, charity shops and the internet. All three are beneficial for bookhunters, since you don’t need to rely on expensive “booksearch” services (in fact, all they did was to put small wanted ad’s into Bookdealer magazine, and wait for their colleagues to report back with any copies they might have). Today, you can cut out the middleman, so the arrival of the internet was bad news for Drif. His main occupation – operating as an arbitrageur in the book trade, spotting bargain first editions in one shop, then punting them elsewhere at a higher price – no longer makes you a living.
He also believed that most bookshop proprietors do not treat book dealing as a business, more as a hobby with cachet. He was therefore dismayed, but not unsurprised, that the tally of shops run by professional dealers reduced each time he published a new edition of his guide. He went to war, metaphorically, on the “bookfairies” – dealers who only showed stock at bookfairs, but had no shops; and also the legions of charity shops which have sprung up in the last twenty years. In fact, Aberdeen was the winner of Drif’s contest in 1995 to find the British town with the most charity shops. Drif particularly disliked one shop in Rosemount Viaduct – “Oxfam’s Worst Bookshop: you can hear the dogs barking from the railway station” – dogs in this case being books considered unsaleable by the trade.
The internet helped to kill Drif’s Guides, just as it has helped to kill bookshops. By offering easy access to all the world’s books, the net has deprived us of the joy of browsing. Amazon is great if you know exactly what you’re looking for, but hopeless if you enjoy accidentally coming across books whose existence you knew nothing about. Similarly, the net is full of “bloggers” who voice their opinions about things, without having established their credentials first. The kind of person who “reviews” bookshops online falls into either of Drif’s first two categories of people who visit bookshops – a Reader or Collector, but never a Dealer. R and C are amateurs, but it takes a D to provide true insight. Fifteen years ago, Drif saw what was happening to the trade, and now both Aberdeen and Dundee only have a couple of bookshops. Even a decade ago, the former had Winram’s in Rosemount; King’s Quair, and the Old Clock Repair Shop in King Street; Bon Accord Books, and the Old Aberdeen Bookshop in Spital, and the Adelphi Bookshop, all selling secondhand stock; plus Bissets in Schoolhill, Dillons, and Waterstones in Union Street, selling new books. Similarly, ten years ago there was a shop in Perth specialising in secondhand architecture books – today no-one in Scotland fulfils that role.
After publishing the 1995 edition, Drif went AWOL. One report had him moving to Poland and going native; another dealer I spoke to believed he had gone to ground in North London, and was now fixing computers for a living in Crouch End. That struck me as strange, considering how he enjoyed being a Luddite, taking the train rather than learning to drive, and calling in favours in order to get someone to type the Guide for him…
Touchingly, the introduction to the 1995 Guide ends with a lament about how transient our place in history is, yet – “It will be through a book that I will survive.” That is as good an epigram, or perhaps epitaph, as you’ll ever read.