How the web flattens out architectural history

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

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

Lairg Power Station, Shearer & Annand

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

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

Aigas Power Station, Shearer & Annand

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

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

Achanalt Power Station, Shearer & Annand

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

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

Plas Menai, Bowen Dann Davies

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

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

Conwy Castle Visitor Centre, Bowen Dann Davies

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

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

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