06/12/21 21:27

The past twenty months have given us time for reflection – too much time. In an attempt to steer clear of the 24 hour social media newsquake which is drowning out architectural discourse, I’ve begun to jot down aspects of practice which have changed in the couple of decades since I graduated.

Some are elements of architectural culture from not so long ago which have been lost along the way during the pandemic. Others were obliterated by practice in the 21st century, which is increasingly taken up by people describing themselves as facilitators, change agents or tactical urbanists…

Reprographics is a good example. At my first summer holiday job I was introduced to a beast of a dyeline printer which reeked of ammonia. I was warned to be careful when operating the UV lamp since it was so easy to blow and very expensive to replace. I treated the lamp with great respect, handling the switch tentatively as someone might approach a religious icon. Fortunately I never had to change the ammonia bottles.

Although the practice I worked for owned its own Ozalid machine, many smaller practices relied on farming out prints to one of several repro firms in the city such as Sime Malloch, Prontaprint, TechArt and Burns & Harris. The latter were a commercial printer, and at the front of their Marketgait Printworks was an architectural repro centre with several giant Océ dyeline machines. As I recall, you had the choice of blueline or blackline paper, copy negs onto plastic film, or a heavier presentation paper with a warmer tone and a reddish-brown line.

Next came large format Xerox plain paper machines, which enabled you to paste up drawings onto A1 sheets, add lettering using Transtext, then make a clean copy onto trace. This “internegative” could either by dyelined, xeroxed again, or just hung against a sheet of coloured backing paper.

Figuring out how to harness these possibilities took experimentation across our first and second years. Then I got more a bit more ambitious. During the summer holidays before fourth year, I stayed with my cousin who lived in Uxbridge at the time. I explored London using the Tube system and began discovering interesting bookshops along the Charing Cross Road, plus the exotic places advertised in the back pages of the AJ.

Sarkpoint was one of those: it was the premier repro firm in London and its premises were in the Euston area, from memory along William Road, a long walk from the nearest Tube station. At that point, the reception was downstairs and the repro equipment lived upstairs, latterly in a room taken over by computer monitors. It seems the wrong way round, given the weight of some of those Océ dyeline machines, top of the range, along with various Xerox and Canon printers and plotters.

The name Sarkpoint, like for example Wintermute or Seventyholds, is a portmanteau word of the kind people use when setting up shell companies without anything literal-sounding in mind, such as Scottish Ashtray Industries Ltd.  It maybe meant something to the person who coined it, but to the rest of us it seems like a poetic-sounding conjunction of two otherwise unrelated things.

In 1997, Sarkpoint was bought over by UDO, their largest competitor in the lucrative London architectural market, and later they relocated next door to Richard Rogers at Rainville Road in Hammersmith. They knew their market well. Around the same time, the Scottish repro firm Sime Malloch was also absorbed. Later all of them were swallowed up by Service Point.

I still have a beautifully-produced brochure from UDO, an oversize folio which illustrates all the different printing techniques they offered. It must have cost a small fortune to produce, and I hung onto it for its own sake since it’s an attractive thing. By then, Sime Malloch’s premises at the far end of Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow had a Canon bubblejet printer, which made full colour flatbed copies up to A1 size, or you could reduce A1 drawings down to A3 for your portfolio.

During the short period when digital was coming in, when we still drew some things by hand, that made everything possible. I joined a queue of students from the Mac with drawings rolled up in telescopic plastic tubes, or the unwieldy A1 portfolio cases which were always on the verge of taking off if you walked up the road in a storm.

A couple of decades later we have wonderful things like inkjet plotters which can print banner-sized drawings at 1200dpi, and the Océ Arizona flatbed printer which will print anything onto pretty much any medium. Even cladding panels. But what you don’t have is the good old/ bad old dyeline machine, reeking of ammonia.

In a fit of nostalgia I tried to find someone who still has a working diazo machine, so that I could run off a print of a favourite drawing for old times’ sake. I still have the tracing paper negative rolled up in a tube in the loft. Some intensive Googling turned up a copy shop in a Manchester suburb with an out-of-date website which still advertised dyeline printing. Sadly, though, I discovered they’d disposed of their dyeline printer a few years ago.

So the dyeline printer has gone the way of the gas streetlamp or the valve-powered radio, and perhaps predictably there’s a name for that. The “Montgomery Burns Effect”, after Homer Simpson’s boss in the TV cartoon series. Mr Burns invested in booming companies when he was a young man, then held on to the shares for decades, so even now he’s a stockholder in Transatlantic Zeppelin, Confederated Slaveholdings and the Baltimore Opera Hat Company.

A point made for comic effect actually reveals a serious insight from the US futurist Ray Amara in the 1960s: “We overestimate the impact of technology in the short term, and underestimate the effect in the long run.” That’s as true of reprographics as it is of air travel, pharmaceuticals and quantum computing.

Perhaps all isn’t lost. Maybe, like film photography and vinyl records, the dyeline machine will be discovered by hipsters and suddenly become fashionable again… just don’t ask me to operate the ultraviolet lamp or change the ammonia bottles…

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